John Preus (rhymes with choice) (b.1971) (MFA-University of Chicago. BA-Gustavus Adolphus College) is a Chicago-based trans-disciplinary artist, designer and furniture-maker. Preus founded Dilettante Studios in 2010, co-founded SHoP with Laura Shaeffer (2011), and Material Exchange with Sara Black (2005), and was the creative director of the Rebuild Foundation shop until 2012, and project lead for Theaster Gates' 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, at Documenta 13. Preus will be a Kaplan resident at Northwestern University in 2016. Preus was the 2013-2014 Jackman-Goldwasser resident at the Hyde Park Art Center, a 2015 Propeller Fund recipient, a 2014 Efroymson Fellow in sculpture and installation, 2014's first place winner of the Maker grant and a 2013 finalist, a finalist for the 2015 Artadia Award and the 2014 Creative Capital grant, and a 2014 DCASE artist grant recipient. He also received the Propeller Fund award as a founder of SHoP. Upcoming solo exhibitions include the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago on Feb. 26, and the Montserat Art Academy in Beverly, MA. Past solo shows include, the Heilbronn Kunstverein in Germany, The Hyde Park Art Center, The Audible Gallery at the Experimental Sound Studio, and in collaboration with Sara Black at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Threewalls Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR, and The Iceberg Gallery in Portland, OR. Group exhibitions include, Miami/Basel represented by Rhona Hoffman, EXPO Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, The Elmhurst Biennial, the Hyde Park Art Center, The Huguenot House in Kassel, Germany, The Devos Art Museum in Michigan.
There are a variety of ways to articulate what it is that one is doing as an artist. From a material standpoint, I generally work with artifacts of contemporary consumer culture, found, salvaged, orphaned, broken, marginalized, and cast-off materials, approached through making, writing, furniture-making, design, architecture, and sound. Each object manifests and exhibits a set of sociopolitical and economic conditions. Every bit of waste that enters the landfill represents a surrender. Buried under the soil, and scattered throughout the alleyways of our great city, are the artifacts of a staggeringly complex biological morphology, one that the current matrix of value sees fit to ignore. Beginning with the conviction that the role of the artist is to articulate an inter-temporal moral vision, the detritus of an economy gone awry appears as the most relevant repository of collective psychic material available to us. It is true enough that reconfiguring a broken chair into a table, sculpture, instrument, or installation is a temporary "delay," to use Duchamp's term, within its epic morphology. But the delay, is understood as a moment of attention or appearance. Rather than discuss these reconfigurations as "redemptive," or "sustainable," I prefer to imagine them in light of Schroedinger's Cat, as sleeping resources both dead and alive, free radicals, floating signifiers, a multiverse of potentiality awaiting an investment of narrative attention.
In terms of craft, it’s not so easy to argue against the concern that the time spent making something beautiful or labored, could be better spent in civic service of some kind—a worry that animates the work of some Social-Practitioners. The SOPRAs among us might have difficulty looking at something crafted without thinking that it represents a failure of social concern, a withdrawal dressed up as an act of service, a form of passive nihilism or retrenchment masquerading as spiritual evolution. At the risk of sounding metaphysical, the transference and immanence of love is maybe the central dilemma of late capitalist democracy. Materialism in our time is the systemized fetishization of love, wildly exaggerating its romantic character, and the degree to which it can be contained in physical form, while underplaying the active dimension of love that might require cleaning kid vomit off of a suede pillow after a sleepless night, or taking care of your parents even when they call you Phyllis and treat you like a predator, or actively resisting the normalization of homelessness, mass incarceration, empire-building, the military-industrial complex … There's a religious, even sacramental dimension to our fascination with things, and what they can do for us, and how they hold and transfer value. Craft is often imagined as the return of a more authentic form of care, one that is embedded within a simpler and more ethical moment in history. I strongly resist that characterization and treat craft as a thing constantly in motion, embodied knowledge engaged with tradition. Craft is finally a sort of dysfunctional marriage with the material world, a long sacramental ceremony fueled by misunderstandings, botched reflections, masochistic assertions, and failed frameworks for harmony. But nature is performative, and humanity builds the foggy reflection through which consciousness, whatever the hell that is, reveals itself.
Engagement with broken things is undoubtedly a conversation with mortality. Schroedinger's famous thought experiment in which a cat in a box is both alive and dead at the moment immediately prior to the box being opened, stands as a meditation on mortality and ontology. All of the detail on a broken chair could be seen as bravado once a leg is broken, like a perfectly manicured corpse. Or it can be seen as a register of both human and biological labor, now freed from its functional condition. A landfill is the collective unconscious, a vast totality of surrendered commitments. And reframing history, performing brokenness, relates to love, to the capacities of care and commitment, to the possibilities of personal and political relationships. What evokes the capacity to care about people that you don’t know, or a planet that has been rendered abstract, to squander your precious and limited time working to alleviate anonymous suffering, for instance? I would venture to say that it emerges either from disappointment (Simon Critchley) or fulfillment, sublimation or surplus. One either serves the community in the absence of an imminently fulfilling love object, (sublimation) or in finding fulfillment, the boundaries of the self are eviscerated and we spill into each other and into the natural world (surplus).
My work is not an attempt to deny death, or entropy, but to revisit history through the objects we use, as a way to reframe the present. On a meta-level, I aspire to reduce the State to an entirely bureaucratic and demilitarized shadow of itself that leaves all of the important decisions to small communities. I aspire to articulate an economy that embraces and reflects the complex interdependencies of a global ecology, and attempts to account for the full effects of our activities. I aspire to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship. I aspire to make objects, installations and moments that distill and amplify the brighter collective aspirations of the anthropocene, through installations that propose alternative systemic frames. But aspiration is fraught. One's career is successful to the degree that one engages in conversations that have traction in the right circles, and one is willing to capitalize on them. And this is where I begin to shudder, and the work begins to look like a typical means to an end, a feedback loop, and people begin to appear as a kind of scourge or pimple on the face of the cosmos, and are no longer an end in themselves. My cynicism and despair starts to overwhelm me, and I start to say disparaging things about rich people, and the face that hovers in my consciousness asking for money on the roadside, or languishing in some invisible factory beyond the reach of civil protection, servicing the comfort of the first world becomes a ghoulish apparition. Ambition and aspiration cannot but bear this in mind, our true audience that imposes a sense of infinite responsibility, even ethical masochism upon each of us, without which we are all tyrants in the making. Art can devolve into a niche market for people with a taste for the avant-garde, or it can aspire to articulate the moral vision of our condition. But it remains one of few zones of activity which has the foundational ethos of re-invention and novelty, and that informs the basis of my practice.