New York: Ten Questions for Nick De Pirro by Keith Miller
Courtesy of the artist
Keith Miller: Your artistic practice often seems more industrial than a standard artist’s studio, yet I don’t think of you as a sculptor. From videos and installations, to objects (that are sculptures), to performance or ‘data-mining’… How do you classify what you do and how do you place it in relation to current practices, artistic, industrial or otherwise?
Nick De Pirro: I classify my self as a sculptor because the things I make are three-dimensional. The term, artist, is probably better because my best work usually involves performance or a bit of multi-media. I am not a fan of the installation artist designation, but I basically make installations all the time.
KM: While it has long been in style to work outside convention, your work seems to fit within the canon but then goes a long way to screw around with it. How much of what you do is a response to history?
NDP: The only way to screw with conventions is to participate in them and at the same time recognize their limits. In general, my work operates in that in-between area where it seems conventional, but hopefully is not.
I use art historical references in my work often not simply because I want to fit myself in somewhere. I do try to intellectually emulate some features of historical movements, such as minimalism’s control of space or Italian mannerism’s meta-critique of painting. When taking a long view, history is a cycle of innovations and failures that don’t seem to lead to equality or peace, and with each new discovery we can better damage ourselves. Maybe this is what art should always be doing - looking to history for some guidance because market driven entertainment is totally static and has no conscience.
KM: Do you think this historicism is your intent to locate your work within a tradition that it also rejects?
NDP: Sure, at some level at least. For me, minimalism is one of the most profound traditions in modern sculpture. However, I have no problem using it as a prop in an installation that hangs it out to dry. What might make me different is that I respect it and produce objects that are accurately manufactured and possess a material truth that is very real. The usual scenario is a nearly perfectly machined object that appears to be some sort of industrial component staged in an installation where some other object or situation renders it ineffective or breaks it down.
KM: Irony and humor play a central part in much of your work. Do you think the recourse to humor is a way of avoiding “serious” issues or do you tackle issues like politics or inner struggle through humor? Or do those kinds of issues not interest you?
NDP: Truthfully, I am a profoundly political person but I don’t often let it enter my work in an overt way. My politics influence what I do each day and thereby influence what I do in the studio. I don’t have too much work that is political in the plain sense of the word, but I have done a few. I use humor to pull the rug out from under established standards. It is just the most effective way that I have figured out. My sense of humor can be pretty dry so the work isn’t always funny but it is usually humorous.
KM: In that light, what are some central themes that run through your work?
NPD: Dissonance is the most important feature in my work. I try very hard to get the details right, but presenting conflict is what it’s all about. Barnett Newman represented this conflict in his color field paintings. The zip in the painting is like a fault line where two pretty landscapes run into one another. If you study the seam you can see that your pretty landscape is not exactly what it seems. The ground that seems solid is not, and it might kill you if you are not careful. Ideally, I want to achieve this type of structure by making things that cause a point of friction. With Circumambulator this was the performance of a model car race set against a sculpture installed in an art space. In some other pieces, it is a simple roadside arrow sign pointing at a strictly executed minimal object. Probably the best example was an installation that had some big solid machined and welded steel objects that I had X-rayed at the General Dynamics Army Tank Plant in Lima, Ohio. You got to experience the objects, and then got to cheat and see their insides. It was a two-step process where the sculpture turned to an un-sculpture and the viewer gets to construct the zip themselves. It is something like when Penn and Teller show you the trap door but the magic trick somehow still works.
KM: You often work with things that come from a boyhood past (yours or otherwise, I don’t know), like model trains and motorized toy cars (Circumambulator, FlashCrash, Intermodal model railroad, etc). How much of this realtes to ideas of machismo, boyhood and play?
NDP: I work with materials that I know well and mix them with new things that are unfamiliar. I see hobbies and other non-fine arts modes as fertile ground for the exploration of the same ideas that I explore when using more traditional materials. These are things from my boyhood, but they continue to shape how I think about things. Only an adult with an art education can manage to recognize the composition of Burial at Ornans in a Spielberg movie that they watched as a kid. It’s not my fault, it just happens.
The use of real non-art items with a sculpture in a gallery space provides a clash between the traditional object and the non-art modifier element that is the site, or real subject of the work. In the case of Flash Crash, which was the original work which Ian Williams and I produced involving a hobby system, the traditional form was an indoor earthwork contained in what amounted to a large box, not unlike the boxed earth materials of Robert Smithson. The cars became a way to undermine tradition and simultaneously reinvigorate it. Many aspects of the cars themselves are compelling: their speed, technical aspects, their proto-telepresent control system, and their competitive purpose. The competitive RC hobby is accessible, and at the same time, it is a very complex system. The goal is to produce something new via a mash-up of two independent systems that barely work together at any level. I see this as different than just using a material that is unusual for a desired effect.
KM: While your work seems to confront the viewer with humor and aggression (Big Ball of Ouch, e.g.), it is often loaded with and seems to address manifestations of militarism. (i.e. Nazi Crate: replica prop with white fedora (from Raiders of the Lost Ark), Rapid Deployment Minimalist Sculpture in the style of the Mujahedin, etc.) Can you discuss that?
NDP: To clarify, the Rapid Deployment Sculpture and the Big Ball of Ouch are two pieces that are direct responses to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. They are military sculptures that have a very specific political agenda. Nazi Crate fits your observation of childhood explorations more than it shows my political tendencies. Raiders of The Lost Ark is a film that a certain age demographic identifies with in a very specific way, and it is definitely one of my favorite films. I agree with your observation that humor is balanced with aggression in these sculptures. Humor is the turning point when you consider the other side of the work. All of my work is based on presentation and a shift that changes the meaning. Nazi Crate is a perfect replica of the movie prop, but it contains a totally unique object that alters the entire situation providing a two-stage read of the meaning. I don’t intend the viewer to simply get the joke.
KM: Do you have a hierarchy of your work; i.e., is the installation the real work and the sculpture part of that and the web work just for fun? Or is it all just work? Why?
NDP: I am a brand. Admittedly, a completely unknown brand, but a brand nonetheless. This is the way we think in contemporary culture. If I am a brand, then everything I do is given weight with respect to the brand. An individual sculpture can stand on its own, or it may be part of a larger installation. In context, that sculpture has a role, so it is the context that is at the top of the hierarchy. The real work is the idea that is presented. I say that I am a sculptor, but sculpture is just a means to an end.
KM: Who are the artists whose work has most affected you and how?
NDP: After moving back to the east coast and setting up a new studio, I have come to realize that economics is a very real force that has to be considered. I have had many conversations with other artists about how their own economic situation causes them to make the work they do. I am very unromantic about it. Some of the artists that I most respect began quite modestly but were able to achieve economies of scale as their work matured. Richard Serra’s retrospective at MOMA is the perfect example of this. The art brand begins with simple materials that are moderately priced such as leather and rubber. As the work grows so does the studio’s economy, and by the time the forty-year retrospective is installed the sculpture is so out of reach that no individual could reproduce it. And, it is still good and interesting work. To a lesser extent, Matthew Barney has also achieved this upscaling of his art practice, and his work is still fantastic. His use of performance and sculpture together is very motivating.
KM: Can you describe your reaction to seeing Robert Rauschenberg getting the Wexner Center Award?
NDP: Now that is a good question, but that was a long time ago. The Wexner Center is a contemporary art museum in Ohio that gives a yearly award to a young artist, designer, or architect who has made a significant contribution to the field. Bob Rauschenberg was not exactly a young artist when he made the trip out to Columbus to accept the award, so many of us were pretty disappointed with the choice. When Egyptian pharaoh Nebmaatre Amenhotep III decided that it was time to allow his son to assume the throne, he declared himself dead and moved his residence west of the Nile in order to allow his son to usher in a time of radical cultural and artistic change. Historically, the facts are a bit foggy, but it is clear that the old king knew that the change was coming, and the act of removing one’s self from an active role is a really profound act. Why not adapt this model and come to a realization that you can only be an agent of change for so long? I support this idea not out of a desire that the art world make room for me, but that it make room for us.
ArtSlant would like to thank Nick De Pirro for his assistance in making this interview possible.