Post 1612 with Adam Turl

Project 1612: Can you give us a brief overview of your work.

Adam: My work is shamanistic in nature; by this I mean it is a negotiation between the collective mythology and the individual subjective person. Instead of going to the “spirit world,” as with classical shamanism, I pretend to be a fictional artist for a project, and make their work (although it is really my work). That work is about valorizing the narratives of working-class people. I am navigating the dual social and spiritual functions of art. So I use found objects, sculptural objects as well as paintings. Each painting is a portrait and an anthropomorphic object—a stand-in for a person. The paintings combine, like a mob, in a carnivelesque manner.

Project 1612: What brought you to Project 1612, why did you decide to apply? 

Adam: My parents grew up near Peoria—in Canton, Illinois. I wanted to do a story about Peoria, set in the future, about the adult-children of laid-off Caterpillar workers. Once upon a time working-class people (or at least white male working-class people) could get a decent paying union job—and expect to hold onto it. All that ended with the bipartisan rise of neoliberalism under Ronald Reagan and then Bill Clinton. Factories shut down. Things got hard. They got even harder for working-class women and people of color. The people whose lives were ruined by those policies didn’t stop being unique people with their own dreams. They didn’t just disappear into the ether. 

So I came up with a character named Margaret Hoagland—the daughter of laid-off Cat workers. She dreams of people like her fighting back, but filtered through the lens of art and myth. So she imagines kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil (the prognosticating groundhog made famous in the movie Groundhog Day) in order to stop global warming. She imagines a woman named Judith in East Peoria slaying a corrupt policeman. She imagines that she herself was St. George slaying a dragon that was tormenting her hometown.

Project 1612: Once you were accepted, how did you initially plan to utilize the space? Did you run into any challenges?

Adam: I was excited about the art space being a converted garage. In the story I made up for Mary Hoagland she lives and works in her brother’s garage. She was forced to move there, move back home, after getting in a car accident in Chicago. She had gone to the “big city” to be an artist. I wanted a failed Horatio Alger story. 

The biggest challenge is getting the materials needed to pull off a total installation—recreating a believable space. You have to compromise (in terms of those materials) and listen to what the space will allow you to do. You work with the space, see what it will allow, what it won’t allow, what it demands you do. At a certain point, it is both aesthetically and politically better to go with “poor” materials because it is more honest. I am very fond of the 1960s Italian art movement Arte Povera (“poor art”), the DIY posters of early punk, and 1970s graffiti writers.

Project 1612: You have made installations similar to the Kick the Cat installation at 1612. How did you make this work unique to the space and/or the city of Peoria?

Adam: The entire thing depended on exhibiting the installation in Peoria. Peoria is where Caterpillar is headquartered. It is a beautiful city, but the metropolitan area had already been hit by the deindustrialization that began in the 1970s, halving the industrial workforce and exacerbating other problems. The International Harvester plant closed down in my parents’ hometown in 1983. And right now, where I grew up in Carbondale, Illinois, the university is sending lay-off notices to dozens of people. Students are planning a strike there on May 2nd

I want my art to valorize the stories of working-people that are hurt by these kinds of economic decisions. My previous series, 13 Baristas, centered on a group of fictional coffee shop workers who were also artists. They lived in Chicago. That installation/series was also set in the future—after a series of political confrontations and economic crises. Those artists made paintings about their co-workers. They also imagined fantastic stories—trying to imagine a way out of low wage jobs and frustrated dreams. They painted crosses on coffee cups (as a sort of ritual). I recreated that installation in Las Vegas. Unfortunately I didn’t have the knowledge of Las Vegas to come up with a site-specific piece for that city at the time. Now that I’ve spent several weeks there (at the Brett Wesley Gallery) I want to do another site-specific work. And I want to bring 13 Baristas to Chicago. 

I am currently working on an installation/series, Red Mars, about a working-class artist living in Southern Illinois. He thinks he can see an ongoing revolution on Mars through a telescope in his backyard. It is very important to me that I get a chance to do that installation in Southern Illinois. I’ve sent a proposal to a non-profit art gallery in Carbondale.

Project 1612: Around your time at 1612, Caterpillar had just announced mass layoffs and began the first round of cutbacks. Do you think this news affected your work? 

Adam: I came up with the idea before Caterpillar announced those layoffs. Kick the Cat was a “spin-off” of 13 Baristas. Like the earlier installation/series, it takes place in the near future. Mary Hoagland, before her car accident in Chicago, had briefly worked with the other artists of the “13 Baristas Art Collective.” She left Peoria, her hometown, because there were no jobs and no prospects. She only returned home after she became disabled and could no longer work. 

So the announcement just made me angrier. No one should live in poverty. And people should not be thrown away. That might explain the placement of the angriest image alongside the most whimsical image (the woman holding a gun next to the image of the groundhog). We don’t make art simply for didactic political reasons. But if art is, in part, an indexical record of the temporal human performance, it must include such things, be shaped by them.

Project 1612: Coffee has been a reoccurring material in your works, you used coffee at 1612 and especially in the 13 Baristas installation at Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas. Can you talk a little about the importance of coffee in your work?

Adam: I believe in the poetics of material. I take this from the artist Joseph Beuys (among others). Beuys focused on the spiritual aspects of material—and while I believe those are there, they need to be in conversation with other—more crude—meanings. If you work with a substance, day after day, it can begin to feel like an oppressive and alien force—the way fat and oil seems to seep into your sinuses when you are a fry cook. 

Coffee is this magic thing. Most of us drink it every morning. It is the drug of working. It animates your body when your body does not want to be animated. But it is not phantasmagorical. It is harvested by farmers who often make very little money, processed by factory workers who make very little, and then brewed for us in coffee shops by folks who barely make the minimum wage. 

In Kick the Cat and 13 Baristas I poured coffee out over mattresses as if the body had failed and its blood, viscera, feces and urine were replaced with coffee and coffee grounds. The paintings have a coffee patina. There are coffee cups everywhere, each with a little cross, a funerary mark of the working day (as a critic described them in Las Vegas). I took fryer baskets and placed handcuffs on their handles.

Project 1612: Writing is also a crucial aspect in your work, you write for Red Wedge Magazine and November. How does your writing inform your studio practice, or do you consider them two separate avenues of exploration? 

Adam: I basically write for two audiences. I write for the “art world” audience to argue against a post-modern version of formalism; what has been called “zombie formalism.” I think this way of approaching art tends to minimize its social aspects—how art is related to things like economic inequality, racism, war, and so on. As a socialist I write for a left-wing audience often arguing that art is not just communication—not just propaganda. Art is spiritual and has its own laws. The playwright Bertolt Brecht, in his polemics with the theorist George Lukács argued:

Even those writers who are conscious of the fact that capitalism impoverishes, dehumanizes, mechanizes human beings, and who fight against it, seem to be part of the same process of impoverishment: for they too, in their writing, appear to be less concerned with elevating man, they rush him through events, treat his inner life as quantité negligeable and so on...

Every person is a unique world unto himself or herself. But we can’t pretend that we are all free to do as we please (as some of the post-modernists argue). What matters to me are the constraints on the subject—the ropes that tie down Prometheus (punished for stealing fire from the gods) or the constraints that hold back working-class people.

Brecht called his approach “Epic Theater.” He primed belief and disbelief in his art—employing the traditional snares of theater to enrapture the audience, but also exposing how those devices worked. He showed how individual people reacted to their social conditions. They were neither simple archetypes nor fully free people. In my writing I argue for a particular approach to art because I believe in the unique value of every person as well as the need for a militant social movement to transform society.

I also try to create Brechtian contradictions in the work itself—exposing the stretched canvas, or highlighting how, even when its political, art cannot escape its status as a commodity to be bought and sold. I am displaying several pieces from Red Mars salon style in an upcoming show. Accompanying them will be a printed “comic” that will tell their story but also act as a crude catalog showing the prices of the work in bold typeface. As the Wu Tang Clan said, “cash moves everything around me.”

Red Wedge Magazine is dedicated to being a clearinghouse for radical artists to share their ideas and work—some of which will contradict my own ideas. That is a good thing. We (Red Wedge) want a left-wing cultural renaissance—by definition that will include all sorts of debates and differences of opinion. November is an informal network of anti-capitalist visual artists (anarchists and socialists). It is a very preliminary attempt to discuss our work and our ideas directly.

Project 1612: In what ways has your work developed since your residency at Project 1612? How did this experience influence your practice? 

Adam: First of all I want to say how grateful I am to everyone at Project 1612, and everyone who came to see my work. I also want to say alternative DIY spaces like Project 1612 offer a potential way forward for artists. In the 1970s it was possible to show up in New York City and get a job, make art, and participate in the art world. Gentrification has made that more or less impossible for artists from poor, working-class and even middle-class backgrounds. We have to make our own spaces and possibly our own art economy (in as much as that is possible). Chintia Kirana, an artist who also edits Expose Art Magazine, is planning to start a similar sort of space in Alabama. You have the Kitchen Space in Chicago. I am about to finish graduate school, and I am planning (once I know where I am going to be living and working) to help set up a similar project—inspired in large part by 1612. 

At the same time I don’t think we should make these sorts of spaces another version of the hermetically and hermeneutically sealed art world. We need a broader working-class audience—in part to reinvigorate our art. I think we should take a page from the punk rock houses (the informal music houses that started in the 1970s and 1980s). We should aim to form an organic connection with our communities—but one that is somewhat hostile to the status quo. Of course these spaces were often problematic—particularly around gender. This also raises questions about how we price our work, how we interact with “popular” concerns (paying the rent, police brutality, voter disenfranchisement, rising tuition costs, rape culture, etc.), collaborating with other kinds of local artists (musicians, writers, etc.), and developing connections with grassroots activists in our areas.

In terms of my own practice, I am more and more committed to the idea of the art space as a theatrical space. In that space paintings act as discreet art objects but also as elements of a larger narrative. The paintings themselves, as auric art objects (I refer here to Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), engender a sort of belief. A painting is unique—unlike a digital photograph. It is a fetish. But for the painting to actualize that meaning it needs to be juxtaposed with the secular objects of the digital age. Brecht argued that art must find itself in conflict with the “bad new things”—war, fascism, etc. I think massaging disbelief and belief is a way to return art to its ancient spiritual and social purposes—that contemporary art has been evicted from both Heaven and Earth. I hope that my art practice, in a modest way, clamors at the gates of both.

 

For more of Adam's work visit his website at http://www.adamturl.org