Interview: Jay Muhlin

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.

 

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Selection from Guilty Pleasures. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery

 

Jonathan Santoro and Meredith Sellers: Guilty Pleasures was initially exhibited as part of your thesis work from graduate school in 2012. Why is it important for you to revisit now? In what ways has your practice progressed since you initially started the series?

Jay Muhlin: I have many projects going on all the time, and how they get prioritized depends a lot on time, funding, my personal interests, opportunities to show, etc. I’m not revisiting Guilty Pleasures as much as finishing the project how I envisioned it—as an editioned artist book. I don’t see my art practice as defined by sectionable periods of time; if anything this project is more about allowing for creative regression. This project shows me embracing my most naive, genuine voice, not letting my academic training bully my instincts. Guilty Pleasures is my second book published on this scale. Half Life: a Portrait of Lauren took me eight years to complete, so Guilty Pleasures taking four is great! I do have to stress funding here—it’s near impossible to publish a photo book without a lot of cash, and contracts with photo book publishers in particular can be brutal. A widely distributed publisher offered me a deal for this project last year, but I couldn’t afford to do it. I was lucky enough to have a successful Kickstarter campaign, which covered most costs for me to personally produce an edition. Grad school (when I started this project) was blissful, but now being out of that bubble, I really have to beg, borrow, and steal my time and project money.
 

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Selection from Guilty Pleasures. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery

 

JS/MS: Guilty Pleasures is at once a self-reflexive installation and also an advertisement for your 83-page book of the same name that sits on a pedestal in the gallery. Where do you draw the line between commercial interests and fine art exhibition?

JM: I don’t draw any line between “commercial interest” and “fine art.” The two endlessly overlap, and I don’t question whether any of my work is art. The debate over commercial work, high art, low art, etc., is a worthless conversation. I’m interested in the image itself, and I take issue with the idea that for an artwork to be deemed “fine” it must be one-of-a-kind. The exhibit runs parallel to and in support of the book. There is a lot in the exhibit—a constellation of framed images that reference the book and its layout, a computer with a custom keyboard to navigate twenty books of footnotes, a Tarot card reading area with a fully conceived deck employing the images from Guilty Pleasures, and the book itself. I am first and foremost a maker of photographs, photo books and multiples, so all my projects will always be in support of the publication.

Jay_Muhlin_2_500pxInstallation view, Guilty Pleasures and Guilty Pleasures Photobook, 2015. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery

 

JS/MS: You discuss Guilty Pleasures as documenting the collective seasonal depression of your classmates at Syracuse University during an enduring winter, yet many of these photographs are staged or absent of a figure. How does the personification of objects play into this body of work?

JM: Nothing about the book or project is literal, and none of the images are staged, as in set up or rehearsed. I’m speaking metaphorically through my images.

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Installation view, Guilty Pleasures, 2015. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery

 

JS/MS: These photographs are effectively slice-of-life found still lives and portraits. Sharing our personal lives on Instagram and other social media platforms has become a ubiquitous act. How do you feel Instagram is affecting this type of vernacular photography in gallery settings?

JM: Guilty Pleasures is an artist’s book that employes vernacular and snapshot-style photography. The gallery has become less relevant for images since social media has become a daily digest for consuming imagery—the gallery’s value is in occupying physical location and time, and actual in-person social experience and connectivity.

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Selection from Guilty Pleasures. Courtesy Vox Populi Gallery

 

JS/MS: You raised over $12,000 to release the book that is the center of your exhibition via a successful Kickstarter campaign. Was this fundraising effort worth it? Do you think crowdsourcing is a sustainable model for artists to create work?
JM: I am so grateful and humbled by how many people contributed to my project. Yes, it was very worth it! Every dollar counted so much, and I truly hope my supporters feel honored when they receive their gifts. I don’t make enough money working a full time job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and adjunct teaching a full load at three major colleges on top of that—to support my art, or even life. It’s a fucking sad, daily reality that thankfully everyone is talking about. Crowdsourcing isn’t sustainable in any way; a lot goes to credit card companies and Kickstarter itself. Having a product drives down contributions and increases focus on fulfillment. It’s also uncomfortable to pimp yourself out to people day and night, “Please help me, please I’m broke, but my art matters!” And it’s pretty much one and done—you can’t run a campaign every year. I don’t know how artists can fund their work in an ongoing way. You don’t learn it in college, grants are highly political, and there are so many talented artists out there in need to compete with. I’m interested in new funding ideas, like co-ops.
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