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Chicago
Interview with Tony Tasset
by Abraham Ritchie


Chicago, Aug. 2010 -- Tony Tasset is receiving a kind of city-wide, mini-retrospective currently in Chicago.  The Museum of Contemporary Art is showing a significant number of his artworks from the 1980s (more), held in their permanent collection.  Kavi Gupta Gallery has had a survey of Tasset's early work on view all summer (more).  Tasset also has a work included in the Art Institute of Chicago's exhibition "Contemporary Collecting: Selected Works from the Donna and Howard Stone Collection."  And speaking of selections, Tasset was selected for two commissions in Chicago Downtown Loop area.  All along Chicago's busy State Street are Tasset's Cardinal banners showing the titular bird in flight, but the piece that has people buzzing is Eye, a thirty-foot tall fiberglass and steel construction of a very realistic eyeball.

As crews welded Tasset's newest sculpture together under his watchful eye, we had a quick chat about the work, Free Masons, rock and roll and Pop Conceptualism.

Tony Tasset, Eye (installation view), 2010, Painted fiberglass; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago


Abraham Ritchie: The eye can be a neutral or threatening object.  I’ve written on how I think it’s a bit Big Brother-ish. I’m sure you were responding to that ambiguity with this piece [Eye, 2010]?

Tony Tasset: An image of an eye is one of those archetypal images that is used over and over, from the Egyptian eye of Horus that had certain powers, to the Masonic eye that’s on the dollar bill, which is supposed to be god or an all-seeing eye, then there’s the third eye, the eye of wisdom. Then there are associations with Big Brother—it’s just one of those images that means a lot of different things.

To me it’s about how all of these associations are part of being human.  To me the eye is a symbol of consciousness, a window to the soul.  But I don’t want to pin it down, it’s also goofy, and rock and roll, it’s a big eyeball.

AR: Yeah now that you mention it, it reminds me of the Rick Griffin Hendrix poster, I don’t know if you’ve seen that?

TT: Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely.  Then there’s The Residents, the band that had the eyeballs with top hats as their covers.  I don’t want to narrow it down, it’s an image intended for people to project onto.  It’s also loosely based on my eye, on a particular photo of my eye.  That seems important, the intersection of a kind of thumbprint, since the eye is unique in a similar way, with something that has such universal meaning.

AR: Yes, there is the unique and common united in an eye.  But I don’t know if I would have made the rock and roll connection first.

TT: It’s a little bit like a Black Sabbath background or something. [Laughs] I keep thinking I would love to have a heavy metal band play a set on top of it.

AR: Sounds like a Spinal Tap kind of thing.

[Laughter]

TT: Exactly, it’s got a little of that in it.

AR: Yeah, I was a little heavy on my art history interpretation to begin with.

TT: I don’t want to downplay that side of it; I could go on with that aspect.

AR: No, I like the rock thing too, it might have been a while to get there, until I looked through my Art of the Fillmore book.

TT: You know, the bloody eyeballs or eyeballs with wings.  Those are classic.

Tony Tasset, Cardinal (installation view), 2010, 156 vinyl banners; Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago \


AR:  So how did you get hooked up with this space? Did you plan this piece for this particular space?  It seems like the eye is a theme you’re developing, you had the photo of the eye, which you mentioned, that was up in the Made in Chicago show at the Cultural Center.

TT: That was actually a photograph of my son’s eye, so yes, the eye is a theme that I’ve worked with a couple of times.  I’ve made a smaller eyeball sculpture like this too, and of course I make other work too, but I like the eye for the reasons we’ve already talked about.  And this isn’t the only piece out here, there are the banners called Cardinal.  I actually figured the banners out first, then CLA, the Chicago Loop Alliance, mentioned they had this other space and it’s just, like, how do you do something in Chicago and make an impact with something that’s not decorative?  I mean some people are going to hate the Eye, I’m sure, but they’re not going to just pass it by.  I hope it does something.

AR:  They’ll at least get the feeling of being watched as they go by.

TT: Yeah this is just good old-fashioned screwing with scale.

AR:  I want to ask about, for lack of a better term, the Neo-Conceptual approach to sculpture that you are taking.  This is an object that you had fabricated; people may not associate it with sculpture in the classic kind of sense, the realist, Rodin kind of sculpture.  The work isn’t based off of clay, there’s no sign of your hand.  What would you say to people who only see sculpture in those terms?

TT:  [Fabrication] is something I’ve been doing for a while; even in grad school I was hiring people to make me things.  I’ve been exploring fabrication for a long time.  To me it’s not a big deal, there are so many artists who work this way.  It is conceptual I guess, but I think my work is Pop Conceptual, since the classic ‘70s Conceptual art is only idea.  I embrace the object.  My pieces are very well-made, which is very much part of the object.  But, you can look at Rubens and he had a factory going, Warhol had a factory going.  It’s just a way of working that’s more about the artist’s vision and idea than the artist’s hand.

AR:  You mentioned that people walking by will not be able to ignore this piece. I wanted to get your take on art that does engage the public because I am sure that some people may feel this isn’t autonomous enough.  How should art engage the public? Or should it?

TT: I think there’s a lot of bad public art out there, frankly, for a lot of reasons.  I blame the artists and the administrative mechanisms that put it out there.  There’s a lot of watered down minimalism; there’s a lot of watered down modernism.  This is not my only public piece and I’m interested in trying to bridge that gap between speaking to a big public audience and speaking to the art crowd.  It’s so strange; I think that people are so afraid of art in a way.  People come up to me and ask, “What does it mean?” And I’m like, C’mon it’s a big eyeball!

If you let people know that the ideas they have about the piece are real and valid, that there’s no hidden agenda, then you don’t have to be didactic.  I think it’s funny that people even ask questions like that, as if I’m trying to pull something over on them.  I’m not—it is what it is.  It’s a test.  It’s a very accessible piece presented to a big audience.  I don’t know how to answer that question other then to say, 'that’s what I’m trying to do, make public art that I think is good art but that also means something to the public.'


ArtSlant would like to thank Tony Tasset for his assistance in making this interview possible.

--Abraham Ritchie





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