New York-based artists Conor McGrady and Roberto Visani are currently exhibiting in a two-person show at Carol Jazzar Contemporary Art. The refined garage space seems an appropriate place for the artists' "home-grown" brand of politically charged work. McGrady's large-scale gouache drawings are rendered strictly black and white, while Visani's sculptural DIY "gun kits" are assembled from an array of household items. Both access in very contrasting ways – McGrady is clean and sanitized, Visani expressive and roughhewn – a global psyche steeped in the crossfires of authoritarianism, oppression, economic subjugation, and blunt force.
Trong Gia Nguyen: Who came up with the title Full Spectrum Dominance?
Roberto Visani : I believe the title came from Carol. She asked me for suggestions, but what I suggested wasn't chosen.
TGN: Conor, most of your recent drawings and paintings have been characterized by their limited gray-scale palette. How does your work – this rainbow of black, white, and gray – connect to "full spectrum dominance"?
Conor McGrady: I've always been interested in the power of graphic imagery, from Goya's "Disasters of War" and Dix's "Der Krieg" etchings, to the stark simplicity of political posters or the graphic qualities associated with the aesthetics of early punk and industrial music for example. Ultimately, the desire to make the use of white more apparent in the work was the determining factor, in that I wanted the work to talk about ideas of removal, sanitation, purification, forced absence -- and the processes by which states consolidate their power. I was inspired from a quote by Allen Feldman in his book "Formations of Violence", where he discusses white as “the color of total and exhaustive exposure in which nothing can be hidden or disguised, in which there are no recesses or depths, only the self reduced to a figure against a ground." The stripping away of color accentuates the iconic qualities of the figures in the work, in that they are operating within carefully constructed ideological frameworks that ultimately reduce the world to limited sets of polarities. This ties in with the title of the exhibition, in that it refers to the US military doctrine of complete control of all the aspects of battlespace, including land, air, sea, etc. With the advent of the war on terror, this space currently has no boundaries or limitations.
TGN: Your large works in the show have this panoramic, silent cinematic still quality to them, minus the old film grain. Do you relate these images to the movies at all?
CM: Absolutely. The scale of the works is directly inspired by cinema, alongside the scale of epic history painting. I want the large works to have a somewhat bombastic or propagandistic feel, as if they were stills from an epic, totalizing ideological narrative that remains ambiguous, in that it could refer to systems of control from any point in recent history. While I produce drawings and paintings, I've always been drawn to cinema as the defining art form of the last hundred years. Painting, or drawing, operates in a different space, one that requires silent contemplation of a single image or object, but in dealing with the language of images, the ideological power of cinema, or of the moving image in general, has largely been unsurpassed. I'm interested in tapping into this language as one of a number of influences that inform the work.
TGN: How do your works play off one another in the show?
RV: Both Conor and I are interested in ideas of "empire" and how global political economic forces affect indigenous / native cultures and people without access to resources... Conor's work in my opinion has a top-down approach. His work takes on the perspective of the oppressor. My work is a bottom-up manifestation. I work with found objects. They are improvised, fragile, multiplied and crude -- their construction is direct, frenetic and with no specific plan. His approach is ordered, simiplified and sanitized. These extremes are meant to symbolize the schism between notions of have and have not. As was written in another article about our work: "...the mechanisms of power, the controlling of bodies."
Conor McGrady, The Nation Builders (2010), gouache on paper. Courtesy Carol Jazzar Contemporary Art.
TGN: How have the recent global Occupy and Spring movements affected your work?
RV: I like that the weapons of revolution continue to evolve. New media has played a huge role in this respect. Depending on the context diffrent strategies may be more appropriate than others. In the context of the Occupy movement the weapon of mass protest and information sharing have been effective. Physical violence I think would be counter productive. In general I think that extremes of violence (guns, explosives, assasinations) tend to be overly destructive and drown out the message. However, sometimes violence, which I am not advocating, is a necessary means to force change. At least in a more immediate way. We have seen several examples of this in the Spring movements. It really has alot to do with what people are fighting for and against. Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military theorist, said, "War is the continuation of Politics by other means." In that sense, weapons and combat take on a very broad meaning. In all cases, domination over the "other" is what is at stake. I guess that is the primary concern that Conor and I reflect in our work.
CM: The movements have not affected the work directly as yet, in that my work has always been influenced by state violence and ideological conflict. That said, the question of how a studio practice relates to social movements on this scale is one that I've been thinking about quite a bit. What is important in the discussions thrown up by OWS in particular is the social function of art, and a critical analysis of who art ultimately serves. In the past I've worked with a number of artists' collectives, including the Culture & Conflict Group, to directly engage the relationship between art and politics or art and activism, and to question perceptions of artistic neutrality. I think that participating in discussions and actions as an artist is important in the current climate, though I'm unsure if this will have any impact on the work produced in the studio as yet.
TGN: Does any of your weaponry actually work, Roberto?
RV: People ask often if my guns work. Of course they do – every single one of them. They fire ideas. We know reality to be a malleable thing, so why wouldn't they work. After all, ideas are far more powerful than bullets.
TGN: Ideas, like guns, have the ability to control through the instillation of fear. Both your works embrace an aspect of "menace" that ultimately, in an art context safely stowed away from actual conflict (inside a gallery), isn't operating on the battle front. Do you picture the possibility of an alternative, more politically charged setting for these works, or variations of them? Should OWS'ers be assembling Idea Gun kits, dressed in only black and white while marching in circles around St. Patrick's cathedral and the Apple Store?
CM: I'd really like to see the work operate outside the safe confines of the gallery. I'm actually working with another collective at the moment, NSK New York, which is a decentralized ancillary to Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) which emerged in Slovenia in the 1980's. NSK formed their own virtual State in Time, which is characterized by the incorporation of both utopian desire and authoritarianism within its framework. Through the auspices of NSK NY ideas are currently in play about bringing the sense of menace or disquiet associated with quasi-uniformed personnel into activities associated with OWS. As this dovetails with my own aesthetic approach I'm interested in pursuing these ideas, though as I'm unsure as to how the movement will develop, these plans are currently in the very early stages. Ultimately though, I'd like the work to keep raising questions about the nature of power, and hopefully beyond the neutralizing confines of the gallery in whatever form it may eventually take.
RV: I do agree that the gallery context is like an invisible space, separated from our day-to-day environment and removed from places where the general public and the powers that be engage one another. However, I would actually argue that gallery and museum spaces also operate as a battlefront -- from the standpoint of being a forum to engage an audience with a very diverse background and set of opinions (the very wealthy and the working class, international, provincial, old and young, ethnically diverse, etc). In a way, isolating my gun sculptures in this very sterile atmosphere can amplify their "dirtyness/agression" and other kinds of formal and decorative strategies that I employ to deliver the content of the work. After all, the art world is fairly well behaved so these things that are confrontational tend to stick out. Regarding a physical interaction the work may have with the public, I have used my guns as props in photo shoots. I ask people to hold them -- not to pose, but to interact with the object and/or go about their business of having a conversation, reading a book whatever. I have never really thought of the photos as finished works that I would exhibit until recently, and as a result have been taking more of them. As for taking my sculptures to the Apple Store -- based on what happened to Amadou Diallo, I dont think that would be wise.
TGN: Thanks gentlemen!
Roberto Visani, installation view. Courtesy Carol Jazzar Contemporary Art.
–Trong Gia Nguyen
(Image at top right: Conor McGrady, Roberto Visani, © Courtesy of carol jazzar contemporary art.)