Los Angeles, Feb. 2014: We begin with color, the composite of visual reality, refracted through a camera lens, a computer screen; its possibilities seem almost limitless in what it can capture, manipulate, reveal. But not its colors. The combinations are limited, it can be coded. And John Houck has. The combinatorics, a four square of color possibilities reiterated in grids, make for a string of chromatic hieroglyphs, a novel of what’s possible, titled Digital Guides for Conceptual Photography (2010). Though coded in the language of computers, the initial concept resolutely followed roots in Lewitt’s sentences and paragraphs on Conceptual art. But technology, made by humans, is as human as we are, fugitive, prone to drift, break, bend. To fold and interrupt modernism’s legacy is to make something else, to humanize the algorithm, to add an element of the personal, individual human who handles them. With each new body of work, Houck moves beyond. The images not just adulterated by human chance, they are adulterated by his own personal history, a collection of objects gifted to him by his parents, connected with the artist’s own interior mining in psychoanalysis and re-photographed and shown from many angles in the same image. Though his work emerges from and maintains investigations into the material of photography and its limitations, Houck’s territory has moved from the physical to the metaphysical, how the stories behind objects and materials affect reality, the self, art.
John Houck, Digital Guide to Photography, Series of books generated with custom written software; Courtesy of the artist.
Andrew Berardini: A work that I feel is an excellent place to begin in thinking about your work is Digital Guide. A pivotal moment, a way of folding many complex lives into a single action. I was wondering if we could start by talking about that series and the various places it drew from?
John Houck: That is a good place to begin. The Digital Guides are a momentous shift in my work. I started that project when I was in the Whitney Independent Study program. Each year at the ISP, Benjamin Buchloh leads a seminar on the history of photography. For me, this sparked an interest in thinking through the materiality of contemporary images. Ontologically, what is a contemporary picture? What does it mean now that most images are, under the surface, linguistically formed by code? The Digital Guides were a way to explore that materiality and the language that now undergirds digital images.
On a more personal level, the ISP was the first time in my artistic life where I began to integrate my varied backgrounds. I've had many jobs over the years, everything from dishwasher to housing framer to assembly line work at an HP scanner factory to software engineer at Sun Microsystems. Before getting my MFA, I studied architecture and computer science. I remember in graduate school and at Skowhegan hiding those non-art experiences, keeping them at bay in an attempt to maintain some ideal form of an artist that I had in my head—an overly academic one that only referenced other art. How misguided and dead that form is. The ISP was different. The program is more focused on political and social issues and this of course involves the personal. I was encouraged to turn toward my own experience. In addition, when I moved to NY I started seeing a psychoanalyst. This certainly helped continue the integration of my disparate experiences into my work and gave me a more integrated sense of self.
John Houck, Untitled #78, 50,624 combinations of a 2×2 grid, 15 colors, 2012 (from Aggregates series), Creased archival pigment print (unique), 30 by 24 inches (framed); Courtesy of the artist.
AB: From that work, it feels a natural evolution into the Aggregates (2013) that took the computational/conceptual formula of the Digital Guide and went beyond; I was curious if you could describe that evolution?
JH: I made a handful of Digital Guide books and then one day I printed out all the combinations of a Digital Guide, into a single index print. The print was only twelve by seventeen inches and it was a three by three grid with two colors. This created a single photograph with over sixty thousand combinations. The index print had an intense optical quality. After having it up in the studio a few days, I decided to corrupt the rational grid by creasing the paper. This was compelling, so I photographed it, and printed out a test print. The printed out version of the fold had an uncanny quality and so I started to repeat the process of creasing the paper, lighting it, photographing it, and printing it out. This iterative process has been the foundation of my work over the last four years. I'm looking at the way desire interrupts repetitive drives.
AB: A more recent work has come to fascinate me more and more since I first saw it. Not the least of which because I’ve been developing a very similar project in my own writing. I was wondering if you could discuss the series of objects/relics drawn from your life and re-processed/re-imagined in photographs?
JH: This last year and a half I started to push the iterative process of "re-photography" I honed with Aggregates into a more depictive and personal realm. For my solo show in NY last Fall at On Stellar Rays, I showed a new body of work entitled A History of Graph Paper (2013). Like the Aggregates, these are photos of photos. They speak the language of photoshop and look digitally altered, but are in every case straight photographs. A few years ago, when I entered into psychoanalysis, my parents, perhaps not coincidentally, started giving me objects from my childhood. Each time I saw them, they would bring me something: the stamp collection I started when I was nine or a piece of beadwork from the reservation I was born on in South Dakota. I was moved by these gestures and struck with an ambivalent feeling. These gifts seem to say “get this shit out of our house,” and also “don't forget that you were once our child.” They came to represent one facet of the process of growing up and becoming psychically free of one’s parents.
I lay out these objects as still lives, photograph them, print out the photo, then rearrange the objects onto a photo of themselves. Sometimes it's one step, other times I repeat this three or four times, often changing the angle of the camera and the lights each step of the way. I’ve always been jealous of painters and the facility they have to make a picture with multiple wonky perspectives. The way I work allows me to break with the monocular regime of the camera and the rephotographing creates a puzzling photograph. Hopefully the photos necessitate something performative in the act of looking that is not unlike an analytic process. Their puzzling quality is like remembering a prescient detail in analysis that spawns a process of recollection and imagination.
AB: One of the things that’s been haunting me about that work and my own writing is how objects define identity, from the humble scraps and mementoes cherished by us singly but also as that notion expands out to all other areas, from art objects we make and keep to how all consumer capitalism is predicated on objects defining one’s difference to others. I was curious how you felt in your investigations and how it contained or metastasized for you as you worked through these emotionally potent things.
JH: I didn't want the photos to be over-identified with me, but I still wanted them to be personal. That is perhaps a contradiction, but one worth shining a light on. Were it not for the uncanny quality that the re-photographing creates, pictures of objects from my childhood could have easily collapsed into sentimentality. On the other hand, there is a lot of still-life photography at the moment that is highly impersonal. It was important that these objects say something beyond their strange but familiar quality and expand a personal narrative.
AB: I often think about you as a part of a group of photographers who, though you all make very different work, are often engaging each other individually in things I can’t help but think were wrought in numerous conversations. I was curious if you could talk about some of your peers and your influences on each other.
JH: Living in both NY and Los Angeles over the last five years has been tremendous. I have met a wealth of artists. It's tough to not go on for pages about all those influences, so I'll just mention one. I met Lucas Blalock the last week of the ISP in New York. That post-school malaise was setting in and starting a conversation about photography with Lucas saw me through that bumpy transition from school to being a working artist. That conversation takes many forms: studio visits, dinners, and going to see shows.
My current studio in LA is a dream. There are seven artists in the building all at a similar point in their careers, but approaching their work in very different ways. I couldn't ask for more than to work in that context. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, "Self-development is a social process. Self-sufficiency is an impossible fantasy."
John Houck, A Pointing Device, 2013, Archival pigment print, 46-1/2 x 33-1/2 inches; Courtesy of the artist.
AB: And though this may seem like a facile conclusion, what’s next, both functionally in terms of shows and projects but also intellectually and artistically?
JH: This is at an early stage, but I'm working on a video for an online art journal. I haven't ever shown video, but I currently teach a foundation class at UCLA that includes video techniques, so it's time to put it into practice. I'm continuing with the History of Graph Paper series while also venturing forth into new areas. I'm excited about some new silkscreen pieces that are taking shape. My strongest desire is to produce work that is vulnerable and messy. They say in yoga, like a mantra, to return to your breath, and in my new work I want to see what it would mean to continually return to feeling and affect.
ArtSlant would like to thank John Houck for his assistance in making this interview possible.