By SAMANTHA PARKER, March 2020
Stephen Wozniak is a conceptual artist who, after early creation and exhibition of work in New York City in his twenties, first found success as an actor in Hollywood. His visual art and the depth of his on-camera characters have some surprising similarities, but the ways they differ have allowed Wozniak two complementary and comprehensive bodies of work. His years as a visual artist have produced a refined collection of conceptual and minimalist pieces that derive some influence from his work as a performer. His current fine art output explores the idea of the intimate spaces we inhabit as we create our identity. What memories invoke that kind of introspection? Wozniak asks this question by using materials that fill our psyche with connotations that only storage cabinets, kitchen countertops and ceiling stucco can help create. Though I wouldn’t consider these materials inherently “retro” or “vintage,” they are maybe a decade or two behind current home interior design trends. This kind of distance is a conscious decision made to disconnect the viewer from the initial cultural importance of the materials and send them back to their own space, a space both historical and psychological. Consider the curve of a circle that defines the perimeter of popcorn stucco placed upon meticulously treated cabinet wood. It’s the perfect balance and placement of sculptural elements, rendering its own symbology and even imparting a sense of Zen or a clearing of the mind’s palette.
I asked Wozniak if his vantage point in conceptual art is meant to disrupt hierarchy. He referenced the era in which conceptualism and minimalism redefined the art world.
Stephen Wozniak: You know, it's funny. Some conceptual artwork was created to help artists and audiences identify and break down any ostensible hierarchy in art, as much as to reveal the pragmatic and practical creation of art objects in real space. I think it was also important for those conceptual artists to get in touch with the materials - often not traditional fine art materials - and create works that viewers might relate to in a very “here and now" kind of way. That includes artists like Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, Yayoi Kusama, Donald Judd and other minimal and conceptual artists from the 1960s. I’m really interested in that sort of real-time, present tense relationship with viewers. I would say that I hope my work does some of that now in 2020. There are great issues to be addressed in this world that concern me. I'd rather focus on my personal experience or a viewer's more intimate experience in life and how that may or may not help them draft their identity and figure out their way in the big picture of things outside of hot-button issues.
Wozniak is interested in work that creates a level of intimacy with viewers, work that introduces, but is not a narrative. Even something as undesirable and avoidable as acoustic ceiling foam has a story to tell and takes on a different aesthetic in his care. To step into an art gallery or museum and view Wozniak’s work is indeed a real-time relationship between his art and the viewer. The materials he chooses often engage a memory or change a point of view in newfound ways. Paring back art to its essential elements seen from different perspectives is as classically early modern as it is postmodern. The big difference is the era that we live in and the systems and symbols we reexamine. In a few works, Wozinak transposes elements of sound and visual language, using items from the interior construction that forms many of our homes, but indicates distinct suburban neighborhoods, class structures and related lifestyles. It is a far-reaching engagement through a minimalist execution.
SW: I'm interested in taking one salient element or issue and looking at it in my work. I've got one piece called Progeny Clutch. It was sort of inspired by Nadja Suleman, the “Octomom,” who utilized assisted reproductive technology to bear a gaggle of eight kids in one pregnancy and delivery. It's a big horizontal piece, and it looks like a long cabinet door turned on its side. But it features 35 chrome wire pull handles, the kind you'd see on a kitchen cabinet door to pull it open, and these pulls overlap to create this long straight zipper element you can't quite grab. Yet there are 35 of them available. You have access to what looks like a giant door that can take you to any place, and yet it's stuck on a wall in an unexpected orientation. It's not hinged. There's no food in the cupboard behind the cabinet. There's nothing back there, yet it's sort of like an exit in concept only. I'm fascinated by the sort of excess culture that especially makes up America, but now other parts of the West - and beyond. A piece like that alludes to that excess and inaccessibility. There's so much available and yet Western people sort of don't know what to do with it. You know, I think that is such a common occurrence in America. It's fascinating and problematic to me.
Wozniak’s philosophy is that an artist has only a few opportunities to engage the viewer with any one piece of work on display: the piece itself, but also its title and the wall label describing the work’s materials. He makes a conscious decision not to use materials that would be associated with a luxury lifestyle, such as expensive and rare woods or glitzy hardware, which could alienate a viewer. He finely crafts and finishes pressed cabinet woods and wood veneers. His work titles figure as prominently as the wall placement of his art. The wide horizontal format he uses for some of his pieces provides a way for the viewer to feel grounded – not unlike a traditional figure and ground relationship found in classic figure painting – but this time, the viewer is the figure in front of the ground or landscape-oriented sculptural piece.
SW: If audiences are able to perceive the construction and reorientation of materials in my work a little bit differently than how they are commonly found in architecture or interior design, then perhaps they're able to access a few memories of a certain lifestyle or aesthetic that either includes them - or maybe even marginalizes them - then I think that I've done part of my job. You know, my job is to help change perspectives and to get people to look inward.
A project concept Wozniak is considering focuses on building large format wall art in the 16:9 aspect ratio format in which we watch television, movies and even videos on our cell phones. It may again provide a grounded moment because it creates a landscape point of view that engages the full periphery of the viewer. This universal viewing field, applied to his nearly three dimensional work, he hopes, will encourage us to disengage from the instant two dimensional plane we have elected to live in through our phones and on the Internet. Rather than share an intimate space with technology, he wants us to share it with art made of wood and fixtures, a tactile reality, which alludes to place, space and home. His work is often beautiful and largely symmetric. He is interested in the balance between precision and tolerance; a focus inspired by his father, a kind man with high tolerance and a top aeronautical engineer who created precise flying machines at John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
Wozniak graduated as a visual artist with a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. After college in the 90s, he moved to New York City and started working in the art scene right away. He remembers becoming disenchanted by the solitary world of an artist, spending time alone as a twenty-something, creating art during one of New York’s coldest winters. He was attracted to the collaborative interaction of the performing arts, so he left New York to perform professional theater in Baltimore and Washington D.C. and eventually made the move to Los Angeles to enter the film and television industry.
Samantha Parker: How did you make the transition between these two worlds? Did you start taking acting classes or had you already been involved?
Stephen Wozniak: I did start taking acting classes, but prior to that I'd taken performance art classes with a couple of well known performance artists at MICA. Richard Elovitch, who was an ActUp AIDS activist, was one. I really liked his first person, intimate mode of storytelling. His subject mater was important to him and it showed, and I liked him as an artist. Very personal stuff. Then I got to work with Ntozake Shange who wrote the Obie Award-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. She was a great teacher. She gave me permission to act, to let go. I sort of hate it when actors say that - it's like nobody truly “gives” you permission to perform at the end of the day. But, she gave me permission to act without thinking, and she's an incredible poetic writer whose words sets actors’ brains on fire. She came up with a lot of these great exercises that we used at MICA, which really enabled us to be free and act freely. She set up really simple goals for students to express in maybe a couple of actions. In her classes, I didn’t memorize scenes or worry about another performer. By the time we did collaborative work, it was so much easier to connect with people. She sort of really freed it up. After that, I performed in a number professional theatre plays.
SP: How do you compare your time as an actor and as a visual artist?
SW: Well, I play fringe dwellers, killers, stalkers, priests, rock and rollers, savior figures - you name it. That's what I've played. I played an erratic drug lord on NCIS: Los Angeles a few times. I played an alien on the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series. I played Jesus Christ in a TV special called Time Machine: Beyond The DaVinci Code that earned a couple of Emmy nominations even. We were really proud of that. I play characters that I see as having gone through some form hell and back. I know I haven't played any lawyers or dads yet, so I think there's a pattern. Survivors and underdogs. These people aren’t even trying to claw their way to the top, they're trying to claw their way to the middle. They just want to eke out a place in life. I'm sympathetic to that. And I think that's an interesting thing to talk about. They're not always right, but I'm interested in the circumstances that got them there and interested in their expressions and experiences. My acting work is certainly more expressionistic and more dramatic than my quite minimal and conceptual fine art. My time as an actor is filled with the study of other people’s work, engaging in my work, lots of auditions and, finally, a little bit of creation on set when I book a role. My time as an artist is private, creative time. Like a retreat. Just me, my ideas and a lot of wood, tools and polyurethane.
SP: Is creating your fine art a place of Zen for you?
SW: Yeah, it is. It is. And my hope is that it provides a place like that for viewers.
SP: How did you come back to work in the visual arts?
SW: I think it took some guts – whatever you want to call it – to get involved in the film and television world. And it hurt. Rejection hurts. It happens a lot when you're in that world, and it also happens in the fine art world, of course. But after that experience in motion pictures, I thought, “I can do anything.” I could go back and make this art again. And I don't give two shits about making any kind of mistake, you know, because I did all this other stuff on camera - and I felt good about it. I felt and still feel good about doing motion picture media work and working with some remarkable people who, to this day, I’m still like, “Oh my God, they let me work with that person? Like what?” That's cool. So, yeah, it's really cool to enter back in to the fine art world at this stage in my life and to make work that I'm happy with and that I want to make more of. It’s a genuinely nice thing.
Wozinak hopes his art can provide a moment of introspection for its viewers, a place to examine their own thoughts and feelings or to even release their own thoughts and feelings. His series of uniform symmetrical art objects create a place of peace for that audience. Ultimately, his goal is to pinpoint the universal, exposing its wide, shared scope through the most specific and personal work he can create.
SW: I was married to a life coach who is a really wonderful person. She is still one of my best friends. We talk about the Deepak Chopras, Eckhart Tolles, and Wayne Dyers of the world a lot. In a few ways, some of my work is an iteration of their themes: to be as present as possible in as close proximity as possible. The closer you get, the closer you are to what's happening around: regionally, locally, in your family, with your friends. Maybe we can make a bigger impact that will ripple and spread a little bit from our close proximity engagements. Maybe not. Maybe not to Istanbul or to Antarctica, but a little bit. I think that if all of those things are done universally, then we'll be fine. Yes. I like that word a lot. I’m a “yes.” WM
New Stephen Wozniak works are now on view in the exhibitions L.A. Stories at Leo Castelli Gallery in the John S. Burd Center for the Performing Arts, Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, February 13-May 7 and Authentic Marks’ 3rd International Miniature Printmaking Exhibition, Dubai Design District, Building 3, R06, in Dubai, UAE, March 15-March 22. Recent group exhibitions include Delta National Small Prints Exhibition at Bradbury Art Museum and Illumination at Cameron Art Museum. WWW.STEPHENWOZNIAKART.COM
Samantha Parker is a freelance writer living in Pasadena, CA.view all articles from this author