Chicago - Nicolas Lampert is an artist who works across a variety of media, a practice that is mirrored in the multiple roles that he also plays in addition to artist: curator, writer, teacher, organizer and activist. Living and working in both Chicago and Milwaukee, Lampert most recently organized and curated the exhibit "Seeing Green" and its related events in Milwaukee and recently showed here in Chicago at the now (unfortunately) closed Gescheidle. Lampert's art is often politically and environmentally motivated and perhaps can be linked to other artists across the nation currently making art with those concerns. His art can be collage-based as in his "Meatscapes" and "Machine-Animals" series, or sculptural/installation/performance like his "Attention Chicken," a ten-foot high sculpture of an uncooked chicken that he quietly inserts around America. ArtSlant's Chicago City Editor, Abraham Ritchie, and Nicolas Lampert conducted this interview over e-mail.
Abraham Ritchie: As an artist you have worked on both coasts of the United States, and lived in California while completing your Master’s degree. Why do you choose to live in the Midwest, splitting your time between Chicago and Milwaukee?
Nicolas Lampert: I am drawn to the Midwest largely because of the cities. Chicago, Milwaukee and other Midwest cities are very viable locations for artists to start their own gallery spaces, art collectives and find relatively cheap studio spaces. This allows artists to create work that does not rely solely on a commercial art market. Chicago optimizes this spirit. To me the most exciting projects taking place in the city are the art collectives and spaces like Mess Hall, the Experimental Station, Version Fest and the publications Lumpen, Proximity, and AREA Chicago. No other city in the U.S. compares to Chicago in terms of the number of art collectives and spaces that are tied to radical politics, D.I.Y. culture and content driven work. If you want to be a gallery art star -- you're better off in New York and Los Angeles, but in terms of creating work that is not tied to the art market, Chicago is an ideal place to be.
Delicate Wheel Insect, Wheel Bug; Courtesy Nicolas Lampert
AR: It also seems to me that the Midwest is not as tied into certain trends in art-making, which can be positive and negative. What are the graphic influences on your art-making? Why collage and why realism? Some of the machine-animal collages have abstract qualities but are still firmly realist, if fantastic. What does realism have that abstraction does not?
NL: Well, first and foremost I am attracted to photographic images. I enjoy searching for images and re-contextualizing them into something new. A photographic image already has an implied meaning and creating a new image allows people to question its past association, along with its new connotation. Also, I like my collages to act as staged images, staged photographs or scenes, so it made sense to use realistic images. This allows me to easily communicate to a broad audience and reach people from all walks of life. I would never want my art to only be understood by people with a background in studying and producing art. For me, art should never be a conversation simply for insiders. Abstract art can be labeled as more exclusive, but at the same time abstract art can and has reached a large public audience, so my decision was less about realism versus abstraction and more about content and where the work is placed.
Like Hamhocks Passing in the Night; Courtesy Nicolas Lampert
AR: Joseph Campbell once said: “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” With this statement in mind, how do you see your role as artist?
NL: For my work, I hope to create a dialog and to inspire people to think critically. Art communicates on two levels: first to the artist who created the work and then to the audience. The process of making art has a lot to do with transforming the individual -- to gain a better understanding of themselves and the world we live in. Second, art communicates to the public and in this case, artists play a vital role in creating and transforming culture. Everything in the world is a battle for ideas. My intention with my art is to present new ideas, to hopefully inspire, and to present dissident images and content that reflects opposition to powerful institutions and conventions.
AR: A lot of your work expresses concern about the conditions of modern life, from politics to food supply as we’ll discuss in a bit. As an artist do you feel compelled to address these topics in some way, does the artist have a responsibility to these issues?
NL: Yes and no. Artists should always demand the right to follow their own path and have the freedom to do as they wish. The range of artistic approaches, mediums, and content is what makes art so interesting. Regarding my own work, I dedicated a large percentage of my efforts to addressing social and environmental issues, but I also diverge from that path at times and create work that is less serious. However, I usually gravitate back to the work that seems to be larger than the artist, the work that truly impacts people and the world that we live in. A good example of work that I admire is Architecture for Humanity. Their focus is not to design buildings for a wealthy clientele or to one-up the trends in modern architecture. Instead they design incredibly ingenious buildings and shelters for relief efforts around the world -- responding to famine, wars, political turmoil and environmental catastrophes. They have a book that is titled Design Like You Give a Damn and that to me sums up their work and the direction that I would hope to see my own graphic art serve in some capacity.
AR: A lot of artists are interested in using spectacle as a prime component of their work. Whether it’s hanging a working locomotive from a crane, suspending cars in the Guggenheim rotunda, or diamonds on a skull, spectacle plays a key role. How does the idea of spectacle play into your work, and how is it different from the way other artists are using it?
NL: Spectacle is a great term because spectacles are a subversive form of entertainment. They are often unusual, humorous and disturbing and they force people to pay attention and to come to terms with the content. One piece in particular that I created “Attention Chicken” – a nine-foot tall realistic sculpture of a rotisserie chicken (uncooked of course) operates in the realm of spectacle when it is placed unannounced in the city. It doesn’t work in a galley context, but outside in the public, it plays the part of being subversive, humorous and is most certainly an unusual site for people to see. As far as how my art differs from others, it is difficult to say, because every artist has their own unique intentions.
view of Attention Chicken! at Bradford Beach, Milwaukee; Courtesy of the artist
AR: Fair enough, let’s talk just a little bit more about the chicken. You want people to enjoy the humorous part, but there is also a deeper, unsettling mood to the chicken. World food prices are rapidly rising, there are still concerns about a pandemic bird-flu for which chickens are a vector, what do you want people to ponder after the laughter has engaged them with the work?
NL: The humorous part of the piece is the hook line to get people to engage. After that, the hope is that people will consider the content. Part of the reason for creating the piece was to address the general disconnect that many people have in not knowing where their food comes from -- the notion of being either an informed or a passive consumer. Secondly, I wanted to address in a subtle, yet bombastic fashion, the environmental impact of large-scale industrial farming practices, especially the resources and energy that it takes to raise cattle, poultry, and fish. So in that regard, the work is meant to discuss issues of food production, security, and imbalances in regards to its relationship with corporate agriculture and the global economy. Yet, another aspect of the work was to create a very unusual object to place within the public sphere. Something that people could all relate to but something in its scale and its placement, outside of the grocery store, would catch people completely off guard. To me, this intervention was about challenging people to confront their own assumptions of what is and what is not allowed to take place in public space. For instance, why is it normal to see a city covered in high-rises, freeways and billboards, whereas a giant sculpture of a chicken is so shocking? These are some of the things that I wanted to engage, to spark a reaction, to see if a giant chicken could make people think about the larger issues. Perhaps it is a desperate measure, but it always seems worth it in the end. Plus, how often does one get the chance to cause a ruckus and make people laugh at the same time.
ArtSlant would like to thank Nicolas Lampert for his assistance in making this interview possible.
-- Abraham Ritchie