This interview occurred on the eve of Cristóbal Lehyt’s exhibition Eat Your Emblem at Vogt Gallery in Chelsea. Running from March 9 through April 21, 2012.
Cristóbal Lehyt has been living in NYC for 17 years. He shows his work in the US and internationally, including Kunstlerhaus Stuttgart, Fundación Telefonica Chile, Or gallery, Kunsthaus Dresden, Artists Space, The Shanghai Biennale, The Mercosul Biennial, The Whitney Museum of American Art and Queens Museum among others. Prior to this interview he supplied a pdf of a wonderful catalog Drama Projection published by JRP/Ringier in 2008 on the occasion of his exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany. Available at D.A.P., 155 Sixth Ave. 2nd fl. NY, NY, it includes writing by Sabeth Buchmann, Javier Tellez, and Julia Bryan Wilson. Drama Projection provides a thorough and complex overview of Lehyt’s making and thinking and a starting place for this conversation.
Thomas Butter: For this show of yours coming up in Chelsea, I am thinking about the way you employ notion of “Center”. NYC certainly is a center, I would guess this would have an importance for you.
Cristóbal Lehyt: No, not so much. The show in New York is important because I live in New York, but it’s as important as anything else. The audience that is going to the show is not more informed than an audience in Sao Paulo Brazil, it’s maybe a question of being differently informed. So the “center-periphery” thing is operational in many ways in society, but I don’t think necessarily in the art world. All audiences know certain things, and don’t know other things. Maybe that is why I am not using “center-periphery”. Maybe it is implied with the money the institutions have, or the means they have to make the pieces, but it’s not in the way the audience relates to the works. Everywhere is a center in a way. Hopefully…and vice versa.
Butter: But you were talking about whether the language of the center is usable or available to you.
Lehyt: Oh yes, there are certain languages that are only understood in specific areas because they come from that area, or they have been viewed so many times in those areas. Yeah of course. I still think that painting is a European and American thing. Even though there is painting everywhere else, the codes that are used are the ones from the center, yeah, in that sense, absolutely.
Butter: So that is what I am wondering about in terms of you showing here, at the “Center”.
Lehyt: Yes, you are right, maybe I am taking the questions a bit differently. Yes, there are paintings there for example, they are kind-of in-between, becoming, they are not quite “painting” painting. They are trying to become…they are painted on Belgian linen, for example. They are supposed to look beautiful, but they don’t actually look beautiful, they look kind of strange, and they’re just going to be tacked onto the wall, instead of stretched. So they are just going to look like these in-between things…I think I am always doing that. They are pretty small paintings, oil on canvas, tacked to the wall. They are very elegant, but they also look un-elegant, trying to be crappy.
Butter: Are they done the way you draw?
Lehyt: Similarly, but I changed the way I work a bit, I want them to work in a specific way. You know you work so you find something out…
Lehyt: I was trying to figure something out with those paintings. I like them a lot because they are not resolved, they are uncomfortable. They are more present, but less visible. I look at them and then can’t stop looking at them. I like that.
Butter: Do they have something to do with the way you were making the drawings in Stuttgart? I don’t like the word the interviewer used- “trance” but do you use the same strategies you used there, kind of getting in a state that is “in-between”?
Lehyt: Yes. I do like the word trance, because it reminds people of a state, but it is not a trance. I say it is a semi-trance, or close to a trance. I don’t say it is a trance, it’s not. But the logic of them is that I am thinking of fictional characters from a novel, dramatic figures. And I am doing that consciously. Because when I paint I can’t be too automatic.
Butter: So they are literary then!
Lehyt: Yes, absolutely, they are characters or actors. I think the paintings mostly come out of the writer Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. I was reading that book, listening while I was doing them, and then I read the book to make sure it made sense in some way…which was unnecessary! I think I read the book just to make sure it was not only that I had heard it (laughs).
Butter: Do the titles correspond to characters? Is it one-to-one?
Lehyt: No, not at all. They are more like the feeling I think these characters have, and then they are mutated. They are floating. In the show, there is a wall of 7 really big C-prints, The Anarchists, that are beautiful, but they are from these really tiny paintings on paper, done with crayons. Then they are blown up and they look like paintings but they are actually just these tiny little crayon drawings. They are mounted and framed, with Plexiglas covering them, so it looks official, like it is asking for its importance, but if you trace back how it is made you see that it actually comes from another place. The Anarchists, the C-prints, are based on one specific novel: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K.Chesterton. The characters are the days of the week…specifically. According to me. They are not transcriptions of the way they are described, it is more the way I see them through painting. They are tiny, and made with crayons. Fancy Swiss crayons that permit very many effects. Not Crayola. But now that I think of it, maybe it would be cool to use those kind! But these have scribbles and things and when they are blown up they have a scale that I really like. It is a very funny book, I dreamt about it actually, that’s why I did it. I had a dream about characters who had names from days of the week. They were in a strange, weird plot, something strange was happening. Then I researched it, found out there was a book The Man Who Was Thursday and then read it, and realized, oh, this is what I dreamt!
Lehyt: But I must have seen an adaptation somewhere and it came to mind, and then I found out I actually had the book, in Spanish, in my library! But I had never read it, I just had it. Which is funny…
Butter: So it entered your dream through the object.
Lehyt: I think so! The book is wonderful, it is like a dream. Really beautiful. These characters are all supposed to be anarchists, but then at the end, they are (almost) all undercover policemen. So it is a complete conspiracy, with police all pretending to be anarchists!
Butter: And they don’t know each other!
Lehyt: No. They all realize, oh no, you’re a cop, and you’re a cop too! And then eventually, the last anarchist, we don’t know who he is. He is a weird, ambiguous figure nobody knows and we don’t either. It is a super funny book, and very British. Since my works called Drama Projections represent ideas related to the unconscious I thought it would be cool to do representations of characters from a novel that has no grounding, it just explodes somewhere. They are very dramatic, they look like characters in a play, they are very baroque. I like that. They are very strange and seductive and I don’t know what they are doing…as prints they are very beautiful…they look like serious art, even though they come from a strange place.
Butter: What are the other elements of the show?
Lehyt: There is a third element, which are the Drama Projections. There are going to be two Drama Projections of New York. These are the drawings done in the kind of trance/non-trance we spoke about before, in this case made of people in NY. These have color, and are different from the ones in Germany, or Brazil, or Chile. There will be two of these, ink-jet prints pinned to the wall, and then a smaller, original drawing, over towards the office, I have never shown an original drawing in a show before, it is framed. So four elements: the Anarchists the Drama Projections ink jet prints, the paintings, and the original drawing. They are all figures floating, these weird sexualized/asexual figures floating. They look mostly like men, but could be women, or in-between. The medium determines how they are -- I really couldn’t do a “painting” painting. I am using the materials of painting, but they are not completely “satisfied” as paintings. They are in-between. And the other ones, the C-prints, are trying to be paintings, but they aren’t quite either.
Butter: So is the “in-betweeness” of the work shown also suspending us between media?
Lehyt: They are each part of a discrete series. They are talking to each other, and maybe that will happen. I hadn’t thought about it at all. In general these pieces seem to be more finished works, because that’s what we think galleries want you to do, as opposed to what another kind of cultural institution might want. These are based on rules I think of in my head, based on having seen so many shows here in Chelsea. You can do a weird installation in a Kunsthalle for example that is about something. In a gallery for some reason I don’t think you can, unless you have already established some sort of body of work that is recognizable. You can’t just do an installation that nobody gets! So what do you do? You mimic what art in galleries looks like. That’s what I am doing. Mimicking painting…
Butter: Do you want us to know this directly?
Lehyt: I think you will. That is the thing that is cynical. They are trying to be paintings but they are photographs. And the paintings are paintings but they are pinned or stuck to the wall. They are not doing what they should be doing. They try but they don’t reach it, or they go overboard, by being works that use “painting” and still behave like paintings. I hope that happens. It sounds complicated but it’s actually just how I paint, not believing completely yet doing it, trying to show that process,
Butter: Now I don’t feel I am projecting without reason. I like that I haven’t seen it all, that you only sent me a piece of it. It makes it more contingent. (laughter)
Lehyt: That makes it interesting to me, but I don’t know how it will work. I like when things aren’t behaving how they should. I like when you think about it for 2 seconds and then they turn into something else. That’s great!
Butter: You are the most philosophical artist I have interviewed…that means to me that you are thinking about thinking. That is not necessarily better, it just means that is your subject. I am fascinated the way you “travel”, not only from Chile to here or Germany but that you are always shifting the context. But because of you, I started thinking what it has meant to grow up as an adult here in the center, New York.
Lehyt: One could say that you had a safe ground. You could trust in having a sense of identity that could relate to whatever was happening in New York, or LA or Chicago. If you are from somewhere else, you know you don’t have a safe ground, and you distrust your judgment. You are kind of fucked. But then you want to learn about the other judgments. And you see that they are also very lost, but they think that they are not.
Butter: Having safe ground is not necessarily safe! Because you don’t have to look at everything. You take a lot for granted.
Lehyt: Exactly. So in that way it is a privileged position to be in between. But there is envy, absolutely, and a sense of longing for a tradition that is very stable, and “good and amazing”. What has happened in New York is amazing.
Butter: You quote a writer who embodies “in-betweeness” –Homi Bhabha.
Lehyt: Yes. He talks about camouflage and what it means. The idea comes from Lacan, that camouflage is the effect of mimicry, not being like the thing you are matching, but just looking like it -- matching it, not harmonizing -- so that you are safe. The biggest thing I know that is different from someone who grew up here as a limitation is that if you are far away you copy what is happening in the Center -- which could be here or Europe supposedly, China at this point. The Center moves. You copy the way it looks, but you don’t know why it came to look that way. There are so many people who copied Eva Hesse, for example, but she comes from somewhere. If you understand the tradition of Eva Hesse, you will not make an Eva Hesse. You will make your own work. Differently. But if you are from really far away, you just make an Eva Hesse. It is a great privilege to know the logic by having been at the Center.
Butter: I understand. I remember in my 20’s and looking at a Mondrian and finally realizing how it was painted matter, it changed everything. In art books you can’t see how it is painted. But there is an assumption that by just being at the Center, you understand. But there is a blindness at the Center, often nothing is examined closely, there are a lot of assumptions.
Lehyt: But those assumptions make you feel safer, it makes you more self-assured. You can do whatever you want.
Butter: You may be able to do what you want, but you aren’t necessarily informed, because you haven’t had to struggle with anything!
Lehyt: The reason New York is a good city is that it is an open city. As someone who grew up here, you have the chance to think about these issues because of all the people who come here are from elsewhere and have so many different experiences.
Lehyt: Even though it can be provincial. All cities are provincial! But the least provincial is New York. But in art, I don’t think you need to be so informed necessarily. When I was a kid, I read all the time, I imported books, I was obsessed with sculpture when I was 14 or 15. I copied Picasso’s, I read Foucault, I loved Brancusi…
Butter: Can you compare this upcoming show to others of yours?
Lehyt: Well my previous works were responses to the circumstance, to the context and to the site. These works are as well. They are done after I got married, and once I realized I wanted to do a show in a gallery in Chelsea. These works are equally site specific, it is just that the site-specificity of a gallery is more undefined, you know? Undefined in a way that is not so easily conceptualized, the audience is more random or more specific at the same time. It is not only cultural event, it is a commercial event as well. I think I am still in control in the same way. But the place makes it stranger- the white, supposedly neutral place, makes it stranger. So both the location and the changes in my life are determining what I am making. Now I don’t think I need to be so clear about what the work should be doing. I’m older that way, it isn’t as necessary. In those interviews you read, I am making it very clear I wanted to have certain things happen…
Butter: The works are also very autobiographical. They are very much about your thought and activities in the present. For example: in Stuttgart what you are taking in and putting out is very much about you. But again, you are not a native there. How long have you lived here?
Lehyt: 17 years.
Butter: So this is home.
Lehyt: Yes. Absolutely. But it is always autobiographical though, it is about the choices you make based on the situation you are in…if you are invited to do a show in Germany or Brazil or Mexico, I would like to know, what are the circumstances of the show? What is the budget, how much time do I have to figure this out? But if the show is in New York in a gallery that is 5 blocks away from my house then I know what is going on in a way that maybe determines the work, and makes it even more open, potentially. I don’t need to target it so much, the framework is my framework. I think this is a good thing to do. The only thing I am thankful for, is that knowing when you are being normal, you are being normal only because of a certain set of circumstances. And actually some people who live outside of those circumstances have to make an effort to be in those circumstances. People in NY think it is so normal, that this is the way you make contemporary art. There are so many people all over the world making work with other parameters, parameters not visible in the States. They are not using the codes of Chelsea or of MoMA, or of Berlin, or of London. Knowing that makes a difference.
Butter: And that’s how you are using the word normal, “normal” would be knowing that?
Lehyt: Normal for both the people in New York and the people outside of New York. There are different “normals”. There are different logics and different ambitions. You were here for the whole problem of multi-culturalism and post-colonial art. People from other places showing contemporary art in New York don’t necessarily know how the work is going to be read, and they are being used in many cases. But if you live here, you know the codes that are going to be used to read your work. If you know that, then you can play with it. I think I am doing that by doing the paintings, but still thinking of being somewhere outside too. Hopefully. But I am more relaxed about it. I don’t think it is such a big deal, because everything gets absorbed anyway. Having a militant attitude gets absorbed too! (laughs)
Butter: Yes you spoke about having a subversive quality, and how that can get absorbed very quickly. It is hard to maintain.
Lehyt: Yes a few people do it. I mentioned Yvonne Rainer, she is very interesting because she has managed to sustain that resistance.
Butter: And Cage you mentioned too.
Lehyt: Yes. Cage is extraordinary, because he is in the middle of it, and he is out of it. He is such an interesting artist. Rainer and Cage are very good examples. But the mediums I am using don’t lend themselves to that. They lend themselves to certain layers of reading, of misinterpretations, misrecognitions, which I like a lot. I think that is part of more advanced work in the mediums that I use, using their limitations. But we have had discussions about this. Sometimes you think one is being cynical. But the examples we have used have been about people being cynical. I accept the potential of using that cynicism, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care about what I am doing, it is a strategic position you can have.
Butter: In the interview you said that the information presented, all the facts, could be seen as cynical, but the presence of the work, its physical presence and the way it involves the viewer, you never thought as being cynical.
CL: Yes. Absolutely. They are there, looking at something you have done. It could be a lie, in the sense that what is presented is not important. In the catalog I talk about the McGuffin, which is super-interesting in Hitchcock.
Butter: Which is what you call the information, the equivalent.
Lehyt: It is the thing that advances the plot, but is not the point. Which is fine. In the States this is very advanced. Some artists do that very, very well. I like using that, it is part of the tools to use. But, yes, I do respect the fact that someone is staring at something I have done. Or being in the space of something you could be wasting their time with, something you have done…so you have to make it worth their while somehow.
Butter: The word that was used in an essay -- “dissociation”-- doesn’t seem like the right word here. Even if you were in an altered state for the paintings it doesn’t seem like a word I would attach to this show…
Lehyt: In this case, actually yes I would say it is operational. Dissociation as Julia Bryan-Wilson uses it is, in one sense, about saying something and then dissociating yourself from what you said -- depersonalizing and fragmenting. And that becoming part of the reading of the work. It is sort of maybe a Latin-American thing, maybe a European thing, maybe a Mediterranean thing. You do what you have to do to get things done. It could involve lying, which is very different from the American perspective, which is if you lie, then the whole thing becomes corrupt. If the whole system is corrupt, then lying is just being aware of how things are functioning, and simply using it for your goals. And if our goals are similar, then it works.
Butter: This is part of the notion of fatalism which you were very eloquent about in the interviews. Since things aren’t going to work, then the present has to be more sensual.
Lehyt: Yes, the idea of achieving something is very suspect. If it is suspect, then what is really attainable? It may be that moment in which a person is really staring at the work.
Butter: So does the present need to be heightened?
Lehyt: I’m not sure it needs to be heightened, if you are aware of it, that is enough. That is why Yvonne Rainer and John Cage are so great, because they talk about, and use, presentness. Not in the Michael Fried way, but more knowing where you are and what you are perceiving. Latin American art does have this thing about fatalism in this sense: the structure that is giving you the information is corrupt, yet the moment of reading it is to be protected and taken care of, and experienced.
Butter: It seems to give a heightened urgency to that.
Lehyt: Yes definitely. It is more vital. It is vital that this moment means something to us, that we are here together talking about something. Because there is nothing after it. I believe that, I do think this is true. I just came from a class. When the class is good, it doesn’t matter what we said, we all experienced it differently, but we all figured out something. And that’s great! But there is this belief in the States, that when you do things right, and you keep doing them right, things will happen. There is a progression, and a belief there is an advancement of things.
Lehyt: Progress, right. And this does operate, because if enough people believe in it, then it is happening! It’s true. If you have a really good show, or you do a really good piece, people will take you seriously and talk with you about it. In Chile or Brazil, say, it is relative. Some people will, some people won’t, but for completely random reasons not tied to what you did.
Lehyt: People don’t believe in things working that way. It is funny, it may come down to commitment. You either believe in things progressing, or you commit to things being important only in that moment. For some reason it might be an either/or thing, which is bizarre.
At least the way I have experienced it in the States. Maybe in Germany as well. I have always liked the way Germans look at art. They do get “lost in the moment”, and they do believe things have to go forward. I have always found this surprising, because they are very intense and then they want to know: “What do we do now?” In the States it is more: “Next”.
Butter: A bit of irony in our field is that there is no progress in art in some basic way. Everything is repeated. I agree with your the notion of progress in the States, and I think it stems from technological progress and the cult of physical mastery, in all forms, including sports.
Lehyt: But art has moved forward! Don’t you think it has?
Butter: It is really interesting. If you want progress, that makes the critical agenda particular.
Lehyt: We would have to define what that progress is. The biggest jump for me, now that I teach art, is teaching Roland Barthes. The idea that the author has died. It is from the ‘60’s but it is great to teach.
Butter: It is one of the strands of post-modernism, I think.
Lehyt: Yes, definitely. It is still operational in the sense that if you have a good reader, then things do progress, because they use it for their lives. The onus is no longer on the hierarchical figure, but on the person who is receiving/reading the thing. I think that is amazing. That is beautiful. It means it should be a rigorous reading, meaning somebody is committed to what is going on, as opposed to consuming it. A big difference.
Lehyt: But there have been big leaps. Everybody talks about Duchamp all the time. It was a big leap, he opened things up completely. And many things that happened in the States were pretty amazing, like Rainer or Cage, or Kaprow or Ryman. Right now, it is horrible what you see in the galleries, it is very lame and facile, it is just about creating products. But sometimes you see good shows.
Lehyt: Once a month you can see a good show!
Lehyt: That is progress, no? (laughs)
Butter: There is this idea that there is a given historical moment that demands a particular kind of response, and that the response is keyed to the moment. There is technological progress. But in terms of human development, I don’t see progress. In the biggest sense, the art reflects that.
Lehyt: Oh, ok. I was talking about languages of art and viewer participation.
Butter: But even with art through time. You have the writer addressing the reader directly very early in literature. Or onstage, the actor addressing the audience. Very sophisticated layers reflecting each other. I am more and more suspicious of the notion of progress in art.
Lehyt: It is interesting. In the larger scheme, yes I don’t think there is progress. When I was a kid and we were studying Plato in school, if you read Plato, and you read it attentively, it can be as satisfying or as amazing as anything you could ever think! It is completely current. But I do think, that within art there is progress, but not in relation to the human, but in relation to the field. But this brings it back to the idea of the context. Things have to change in order to keep thinking about the things that really matter. It has to change, it doesn’t mean that is progress, it is just keeping up with what is going on…then the thing would be to figure out which things are urgent.
Butter: What about the idea of the melancholic?
Lehyt: My current work seems to be referring to painting or to drawing or the idea of contemplation. We think we associate contemplation with art, but it is not really operational. It doesn’t really happen anymore. As theorized by Jonathan Crary, it changed from contemplation to concentration. I think it works like that. Which is crazy. It is melancholic in that sense. When I refer to Chesterton or other historical authors the characters are romantic figures who are tragic, they are caught in a comic drama. There is a sense of “miss-encounter” that is melancholic, which is reflected in the medium I am using. They are drawings, paintings, and photographs which refer to something…
Lehyt: Well it’s not quite there. When you are looking at it, it is not quite “what it is”. Like when you have lost somebody and you are looking at a picture of them.
Butter: It used to be there, or it is coming?
Lehyt: No, it used to be there. It is not coming. We think it used to be there, but we don’t know, exactly. It is not exactly where we want it to be. That could be melancholic depending on your disposition.
Butter: You are looking backward.
Lehyt: Yes. Something happened and you are not sure what is happening. But then by the act of looking at it again, it becomes active. But I don’t know how abstract that is. That is the language of painting, though, it is very interesting. It has presence, absence and memory. References and connections. In those interviews you were referring to before, that was very specific. I was making portraits of people in Stuttgart, and they could say those things to me about my relation to the things in front of me. But now I am making portraits of characters in a novel, and it has been filtered so much, how do I relate to this image? I relate to it aesthetically, but it has a story, so what do I do with the story? There is a sense of displacement there. The images are romantic because they are dramatic and melancholic, but I don’t know if the viewer will feel like that.
Butter: There is something lost in the image.
Lehyt: I think so. I hope so. What do you think? You have seen them.
Butter: I am interested in the way you are handling heads. Also true for the drawings in Stuttgart. Heads are developed as a source for, and the result of, a character. There is something here about consciousness that is your subject.
Lehyt: In the way that they are like portraits, in the sense that you can see the character’s face?
Butter: Yes you start to project the character’s nature on them. Which is one of the ideas you have for the work: it is made for us to project upon. This is explicit.
Lehyt: Yes that may be why they are melancholic. If you look at them and you engage with these characters, and then you see they are just characters, they fall apart, partially because of the process by which they are made. We can’t trace them back to any specific dramatic engagement. It is more: a reading, of a reading, of a reading, of a painting that has been scanned. You are engaging with a ghost of some sort. That is a melancholic feeling: connecting to something that is not there anymore. So the heads are important in the sense that they have to be very particular characters.
Buttrt: I haven’t seen the paintings, but I am starting to think that hanging them in the same show with the C-prints is quite provocative. Is that a split in the work you are creating for this show?
Lehyt: The figures are somewhat similar in the sense that they have very defined faces, but they are embedded in the linen. They are more ghostly. They are apparitions. I didn’t prepare the linen, all the pigments have sunk into the fabric itself.
We are talking about Raphael Rubenstein’s article “Provisional Painting Part 2:To Rest Lightly On Earth” in Art in America February 2, 2012
Lehyt: He is trying to clarify something that is very complex. It is a very good attempt I think. I gave it to my students. I have been trying to explain to them about paintings that don’t quite work. I ask them: “Do you know why they are done that way? You don’t have to necessarily have to do a good painting.” I talk with them about a work that shows that it is giving up. It can be as successful as a work that is trumping itself. It is interesting. Many of the artists Rubenstein mentions are really good. There is a really interesting text by Jim Lewis, in one of the Christopher Wool books, where he refers to a Nabokov story about a tiger. Lewis is talking about Christopher Wool. He said everybody thought the tiger was painting its stripes, when actually it was painting the bars of the cell. That’s why Wool’s paintings are so annoying. They are showing the problem, representing the problem and they do it in a scale and a way that makes sense to me.
Butter: This is a question of values, deciding what is important in life. And the way this is resolved is by living, by doing this, or that. Based on action. But painting for example is all symbolic, none of it is what it is, it is all symbolic. Painting is not the same kind of symbol system as writing is…you can look up a word…but in art, everyone reinvents the system of communication in their work. Your notion of Christopher Wool re-representing the problem, or depicting the problem is a very particular philosophical position. It is using gestural brushstrokes but not for the purpose one might assume, which would be expression.
Lehyt: Yes. But the brushstroke has been so codified. My favorite brushstrokes are Lichtenstein’s. They are insane, they are so funny. They show that there is no expression, he doesn’t believe in direct expression.
Butter: But how about using a brushstroke as a moment of direct action in the world?
Lehyt: It is displaced expression. I seriously don’t believe in direct expression in that way. In the same way as when Cy Twombly makes a scribble, it is a contextualized scribble, it isn’t necessarily his moment of passion- of say lust or despair. He wants to make a scribble in relation to this other scribble so that they start doing something together. And maybe some of them he did drunk, or with the opposite hand, or an awkward stick, but it doesn’t matter, then they work in some other way. They are not in themselves expressive, they are so only in relation to other things…
TB: There are different purposes, and some are not self-referential. A painting is always self-referential, but that is not necessarily its end point. But if you are making art about thinking, then there is an end-point that is self-referential. You mentioned last week that you thought Duchamp opened this; that his art is about thinking in a different way than art that is about the world.
Lehyt: He made it explicit. You could say it was already happening with Courbet, Manet, or Velasquez. But you know, DaVinci said it is a mental thing. Duchamp just made it evident in the form, in opposition or as an alternative to painting.
Butter: But I want to say, on the continuum, if you take Manet, it is his thinking, but it is applied to the visual world. The world as represented reflects his thinking. Cezanne is an even better example- the cliché is that it is about doubt, which is a thought. But even with that, there is a mountain there. With Duchamp there is no world in the work, there is his mind, and his mind is the world. The piece of his, Paris Air, is nameable, but I wouldn't say the work is “about” the air in Paris.
Butter: But you could say Cezanne’s painting is partially about the mountain.
Lehyt: Yes. You could say Duchamp makes things general and abstracts them in a conceptual way. They are not specifically about the world. But I don’t think that is the only thing they do. It can start that way, it can be about the mind but then, if you keep going, it goes back to the world in another way. It is about the world, but doesn’t present that in the beginning of the reading or in the initial experience of the work. It goes back to the world because it activates you. The piece can be about logic, or about breaking with something or displacing context, or thinking about art in general. The piece where he sends instructions to his sister as a wedding gift: to put a geometry book, it’s supposed to be put it on her terrace, leave it open, let it get wet, let the wind blow through it, the sun bleach it. It is initially a piece criticizing rationality and our relation to nature and knowledge. It is very thought out. It has been interpreted as this moment where he wants to break with his sister. The piece itself is too obviously about how rational ways of describing the world are not enough. It is beautiful, it is about the world. It is super-conceptual, just an instruction sent to her while he was in Buenos Aires. It is an operation, a poetic and somewhat obvious meaning, and a break with tradition -- it is all those things, and more than about us understanding that multiplicity as a proposal for us to question our reality.
Butter: You attribute this thought to him as a thinker, not as a maker. The air in Paris Air is from Paris, it’s in there, but not the point, quite. The acuteness of his thought represented in material. Material is always contingent with Duchamp.
Butter: In our case, my feeling is that you are more of this type of artist, and part of what you are doing is camouflaging this for your show, you are putting on a mask. Rubenstein talks about “major art masquerading as minor art”. You put this on for certain reasons of your own. They are
Lehyt: I would disagree. Not getting inside of my head, but getting inside of the head of the piece. The piece is not my head, it is a set of relationships I let go of, and I hope they function enough for you to want to get into. That is where I wanted to talk about content. I think it is important they are figures that are floating but that they have to do with characters in fiction. They show that they are displaced already. I’m not painting…in these paintings the most obvious reference is Sherrie Levine for example because she copies art: for example she takes pictures of Walker Evans. But I create the original, then I copy the original, and then I change it around, and then I change it around once more. So the original is, maybe, I don’t know, connected to what you are saying about Cezanne -- there is a connection to reality somewhere. There is the intent of expression. I’m not canceling that at all. I do believe there is a moment where the brushstroke can be expressive, but it can only be expressive if you go through this super annoying -- (it is annoying to me too!) -- acknowledgment of the filters and distances we have in order to connect to something, so hopefully it destabilizes that automatic desire to want to connect to something. It is an obvious reference to what I grew up with -- Post-Modernism -- the subject has been so alienated from any specific connection to reality that we have to deal with the codes and things in between, how important they are and how real they can be. Some of the codes and things I have that are in between have to do with what we talked about: I come from somewhere else, and Post-Modern theory was very important and so on, they are givens. Being from far away it makes you see things differently; the works are not necessarily so different from things that were done in New York already, like the “Pictures” generation. They are different only because of the things I care about, that I am using. I am not talking about American Pop culture, I’m talking about figures in literature, like Chesterton, or talking about anarchists. How do you show an anarchist? I couldn’t do a portrait of an anarchist, but I can talk about anarchists through this whole thing, which hopefully, when you see the work, because of that whole thing you can relate to it in another way, as opposed to just absorbing it simply as a piece of art immediately. Hopefully. It is a gamble! That is why one of my favorite artists is Marcel Broodthaers for example. He delays your sense of presentness until you have read all these horrible series of signs, but sometimes you just get it, it is the same as looking at a Manet, but you have to go through language to get to that point. Which is what you are saying about coming through the mind. That is how I see art. Even Cy Twombly -- I can’t just look at a painting -- I have to understand why he did it before I can relate to it. I can’t visually relate to a Cy Twombly unless I understand his whole context and his historical situation. The silly facts: that he was at Black Mountain College, friends with Rauschenberg, moved to Rome. All those things are part of it. Understanding what the scribble is, for example, a misreading of Pollock possibly. All those things give me the freedom to eventually relate to the painting in a way that I wouldn’t have before. I need all that information to relate to it. That is how I think. It is not philosophical, it is acknowledging all the obstacles. Putting them there, seeing them, and then moving around them. Using them to your advantage. Transforming them. I don’t think I’m that clever, I think that I get stuck and still try to keep going being aware that being stuck is part of the meaning. What I am doing is pretty basic, it looks or sounds complicated. Maybe I am acknowledging reading art is complicated, as opposed to thinking I could immediately make a piece that people could relate to. I don’t believe in that.
Butter: For anyone?
Lehyt: No, for me. I trust that people can do that, of course. But that is why Richter and Polke are so important when I was growing up. They acknowledged their social situation and all the limits of representation. Polke is amazing that way, because he shows how much crap there is to get to the point where everything falls apart. That is amazing. He loved mushrooms, he loved bright colors, he loved space, he loved taking drugs, he loved celebrating all of it. You can see this in the paintings, you feel they are vital, in a way that other artists aren’t. Even though he is acknowledging how alienated he is from things.
Butter: Is there one step more with Kippenberger? Is that a fair statement?
Lehyt: Yeah it is a different position. Because Kippenberger is from the 80’s and Polke is from the 70’s.
Butter: But it isn’t just time…it is part of what interested Rubenstein…Kippenberger is a precursor to this phenomenon he is interested in…
Lehyt: But I think the ultimate precursor is Picabia. He is the one who figured out painting could be just crappy and still be a painting. What I meant by 70’s and 80’s is about the historical framework. Polke is from the 70’s during the time of hardcore conceptualism and he is doing his paintings. And Kippenberger being semi-absorbed by the Neo-expressionist wave, or the Neo-conceptualists. He was showing partly with Bazelitz and partly with Jeff Koons. That’s how he was framed in the beginning. And then later with Robert Gober! Which is funny! It is important because he saw himself in those contexts. there is an interview where he talks about Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Andrea Fraser and how interesting he finds them. But I still think Polke is more interesting than Kippenberger because it is more unresolved. I have a deep attachment to him.
I thought about other things as well. We talked about context and place, but that is possibly the superstructure of the work. But the specificity is that I am doing portraits of anarchists, I’m showing an image that is sort of sexualized and strange, the show is called Eat Your Emblem which is sort of incorrect English. There is a weird resistance somewhere. I was at a lecture of Josephine Pryde a few years ago, and she was talking about “pre-recuperation”. Recuperation is where the system absorbs whatever it is you are doing, it can be from the Situationists. You do something really revolutionary and then it is recuperated by the system and then it becomes fashion, or whatever. But pre-recuperation is where you do it yourself. Before they even get their hands on it. You package it yourself, so that it can resist. The whole operation is a way of protecting something. This is the idea of resistance, even though these works of mine mimic “nice” objects, they are strange, they look strange and they do operate strangely. They look like they shouldn’t be strange, but they are. That is something I am trying to do. I don’t know if it is going to work. I hope so…
When I saw the prints, I thought, "ok, it works: they look like paintings but they’re scans of small paintings." That makes them annoying, even though they are very luscious, and pretty. But I don’t know how they are going to look in the gallery. But they do that. This idea of pre-recuperation is interesting to me. It relates to a Chilean thing, an old thing, something I grew up with: works should be read only by the people who you want them to be read by. The other people will misinterpret them, misread them. That is ingrained in the logic of the work. This idea is very formative for all contemporary Chilean artists. It is called the “zone of resistance”. It started mostly in the visual arts -- it happened because of the dictatorship. The idea was that they didn’t want the military or the police to know what they were talking about, but you wanted other people who shared your values/commitments to know what you were talking about. Because if the people in power understood, they would put you away. That is the basis of conceptualism in Chile from the 70’s. Late conceptualism. I am still showing something I am interested in but it has been disguised.
Butter: That would be the mask I’m talking about.
Butter: So in addition to the uncovering there is the notion that only certain people will be able to uncover it.
CL: But in New York it is different; I can switch it to, “anybody can think anything they want” without really meaning it completely. I think in previous works, in Chile and other places, it was more focused and specific, but in this case I am using the art world (it is Chelsea after all!) and “art reading” conventions. Everybody could access it but maybe some people who I do not agree with will not agree with the work. But they will still like it because they will misread it. It is interesting to me because it is not a real person I am anticipating, more of a mythical idea of resisting a structure. If you do all these operations, somehow you are trying to resist. Not quite completely because they are framed pretty prints. Like old-fashioned resistance would mean to not make commercial work. So what is the alternative to not making commercial work? Maybe it can be making commercial work that acts out its contradictions.
Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others. firstname.lastname@example.org website: www.tombutter.com
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