By Jonathan Santoro and Meredith Sellers
In conjunction with Vox Populi’s September shows, we conducted interviews with the four exhibiting members to learn more about their respective practices and the driving forces in their work. Exhibitions this month include solo shows by Will Haughery, Maria Dumlao, and Jay Muhlin, and a group show of printed matter curated by Beth Heinly. There is also an exhibit at Fourth Wall, the film and video space at Vox Populi, by Joan Oh, Tutorial up through September 27.
Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), 2014. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery
Jonathan Santoro and Meredith Sellers: With membership dues and the once-a-year exhibition cycle at Vox, it’s a generous act to curate others into one’s exhibitions. You’ve utilized a curatorial strategy in many of your past shows –why is it important for you to include other artists in Reading Room, as in your past projects?
Beth Heinly: A large part of my artistic practice is curating. I get the same thrill (ego trip) from placing artists together in an exhibit as an artist might installing their own work. I actually do not feel like I am being generous, although it does warm my heart when I introduce an artist’s work to someone. I’m more focused on putting on the best exhibit in my own way. With Supernatural, my previous exhibit at Vox Populi, I was inspired by the TV show Supernatural’s fan base, whose props were better crafted and in-depth than my own, in terms of context to the characters on the show, so I was thrilled to have their artwork. Similar with Reading Room. I’m not a ceramist, but I would buy Peter Morgan’s ceramic birds if I had the money and a mansion. I am expressing what I want to get across with other artists’ work in a way that I alone cannot. What’s exciting about exhibiting at Vox Populi is that I am able to experiment with the artist-as-curator model by being able to place my own artworks within my curations and curate in a way that is a personal expression. Considering I am not a well-known artist, I cannot imagine another gallery with Vox Populi’s national reputation giving me that opportunity, like exhibitions by Virgil Marti at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Robert Gober at the Whitney.
I get more out of being a member at Vox than an art exhibit. I curate events at the performance space, I learn how to write cordial email exchanges, I get to work alongside some of the best artists working in Philadelphia, I have access to a broader community, which helps me to accomplish more ambitious projects and make connections to a larger audience. It’s a lot of work; every member, solo show or not, puts in a lot of hours. Worth every penny, cheaper than a studio.
JS/MS: Reading Room splices the visual vocabulary of educational rooms matched with allusions to murderabilia and its art market, a quilted depiction of Columbine High school, and promotional plushies from companies distributing psychotropics and anti-depressants. Do you see these interventions as reinforcing or recontextualizing the content of the printed matter presented?
BH: Both kinda. Reading and looking at art are inherently personal experiences for me, but I also make art intuitively, so curating an exhibit from that standpoint inevitably recontextualizes the work. For instance, I’m re-reading Stephen King’s It at the moment and cannot help but see the character Georgie Denbrough when I look at the black-and-white found portrait I have neatly pressed to the wall on one end of the gallery. Peter Morgan’s Cormorant sculpture, which I originally found humorous, now seems leeringly like It itself. Maybe the book was distantly inspirational to placing those objects, and after install I decided to read It again? That is perhaps the difference of the artist-curator model versus the curator: I’m taking liberties with the installation that most curators might not. I am attempting to reinforce the content. The means to the end is about tying the reading room together with layered context that references the genres found within the texts and, in that way, reinforce the content. Using promotional stuffed animals relates to the written works where they reference Internet culture. With the promotional stuffed animals I’m in part recalling post-internet works of art through their use of consumer products and their bright photographable colors. These stuffed animals are subversive though, not Monster Energy drinks. Where the inflatable couches are a surfable image of ‘90s nostalgia you might find on someone’s tumblr, there you would also find a bright primary colored stuffed animal tagged #kidcore. So, the primary function of the stuffed animals is aesthetic and their secondary function is to creep you out, because I think that the drug companies who produced them are generally off-putting.
One example this relates to within the printed matter in the exhibition is Old Ground #1 by Noel Freibert, about two dead children in a derelict graveyard who become friends. You never see the ghosts as they begin conversing, trapped underground in their graves. Like the stuffed animals it’s both playful and creepy, mixing humour with darkness. In Darby Photos’s quilt depicting Columbine High School, there is a direct relation to Bunny Rogers’s publication, Columbine Library, reinforcing the content that also relates to the murderabilia directly across the room, a replica of John Wayne Gacy Self-Portrait as Clown.
as Clown Replica, 2015. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery
Darby Photos, Columbine High School, 2015. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery
JS/MS: Your work and many of the works present in Reading Room respond to internet culture. What do you feel is the place of tangible objects like books in online culture? Do the books present in the exhibition function in a way that is inherently different from the printed out PDFs?
BH: Overall, I believe we are in an interesting point of time for both mediums, where neither is denying the other, but slowly evolving, like Holly Child’s Danklands, which is so thoroughly versed like the Internet but printed like a novel. Steve Roggenbuck is a poet who is read primarily online and whose way of creating is inspired by the internet itself. But as a poet, he is also an incredible performer; to hear him read in person adds to the written work as a unique, visceral experience.
Hannah Black & Elliot Spence, Whit Taylor, Annette Monnier, Jayson Musson,
Gabby Bess, Steve Roggenbuck, Grace Miceli, Maren Karlson, Jesse Darling, and Brandon Joyce
JS/MS: You describe the artists here as being influences. Can you talk about how one of these specific works has influenced your practice as a comic artist, curator and/or performer?
BH: Um, pick one? Whit Taylor’s Madtown High comics relate most to my comics, as I too write from my personal experiences. Also, reading the Madtown High series I feel like Whit and I would have been friends in high school. Like me today I’m sure people have told her that her comics are relatable. Margaret V Haines’s zine Love with Stranger x Coco directly influenced a performance I did at Space 1026 last November as Marjorie Cameron. Margaret writes in detail about Cameron, who was prevalent in the Los Angeles occult and art scene around the 1960s. Marjorie Cameron is one of many personas Margaret uses to define female identity, which is similarly what I am interested in, as my performance sometimes morphs into cosplay. The book on exhibit is like a study guide for her 2014 film Coco. The film is beautifully photographic, interlaced with an online aesthetic following a young girl, Coco, into her forties. The film closely captures the awkwardness of puberty with the unrelenting passage of time unique to the female experience. Lastly, curator Grace Miceli closely relates to the artist-curator model I discussed. Her work is wide-ranging: writing, drawing, painting, blogging, making fresh works of art that again relate to the feminine identity aligned within Internet culture. She also runs an online gallery artbabygallery.com, where she curates a roster of artists’ work. She currently has an exhibit up at Alt Space Brooklyn, Girls at Night on the Internet featuring her and other artists from her online gallery. Grace has introduced me to so much art that influences me, in addition to her own.
JS/MS: Your press release for the show states that “major themes include adolescence, death and sex.” Some of the work here explicitly deals with an uncomfortable mixing of the two, such as your reproduction of a self-portrait by notorious pedophile killer John Wayne Gacy, or Bunny Roger’s Columbine Library, which lovingly anthropomorphizes the chairs in the school library where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed suicide after their murder spree. At what point do you think art is exploitative?
BH: I think all art is exploitative.
Jonathan Santoro is an artist working in multifaceted sculptural approaches. Born in Providence, RI in 1983 and currently living and working in Philadelphia, his work has been exhibited at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, Woodmere Art Museum, Vox Populi, The Icebox Project Space, Bodega, Little Berlin, and Secret Project Robot. jonathansantoro.tumblr.com
Meredith Sellers is an artist, educator, and arts writer currently living and working in Philadelphia. Born in Baltimore, MD in 1988, she earned her BFA in Painting with a minor in Art History from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2010 and moved to Philadelphia to pursue her MFA in Interdisciplinary Fine Arts in 2012 at the University of Pennsylvania. She works somewhere between painting, video, and installation. meredithsellers.tumblr.com