No Intention to Fail: Sean Landers

by Beatrix Ruf


Writing and painting interwine in the work of Sean Landers, each becoming the “color” – clearly not in the chromatic sense of the term – of the other. But writing also forms the basis of a true novel by the artist, [sic], featured in several readings. Beatrix Ruf meets Landers to talk about the various approaches in his practice, from painting to sculpture, and the motives behind them.


BEATRIX RUF: A book has just been published on your work from 1990 to 1995. That’s only five years of artistic output, but the book is almost 400 pages and tells about the basis of what you do now. Tell me about the years leading up to 1990.

SEAN LANDERS: In 1986, I graduated from Yale School of Art. I knew many of the painters – Richard Phillips, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage – but I was a sculpture major making giant sculptures. I used the walls of my studio as a sketchbook and diary. I would write honest and funny things about myself, and paint, draw, and cartoon amid the writing. When people would come to my studio they usually had their backs to the sculpture and just read my walls.

BR: Have you always been writing?

SL: My mother and grandmother were oil painters, so I painted throughout my youth, but once puberty hit, I started writing. I’d write poems on my bedsheets with ballpoint pen as I lay in bed, then eventually I got a pad of paper.

BR: Ha!

SL: Right! Before long, there was no clothing left in my dresser drawers, just poems. I was a prolific writer, but it was always my guilty thing that I tried to hide until graduate school. It felt liberating to expose this stuff. I was hooking people voyeuristically with my writing. There was always honesty in what I wrote, but I also began to perform as a character within the writing to entertain people. Later when I began to exhibit writing-based works, I’d exaggerate extremes, make myself seem more pathetic, and embellish the ego highs. People thought, “This guy is a crazed egomaniac!”. It was evident that many early critics didn’t get the degree to which I was performing. When I saw the magnetism of the writing, it became a material with which I could work. These text paintings will be something I hope calibrates my entire life, like On Kawara’s date paintings.

BR: Did you ever consider becoming strictly a writer?

SL: Only in moments of delusion. Even though I might live an entire life defined by what I write, I will probably never be a writer in the traditional sense. I’ve created a way to work as an artist that fits my writing, and I’m very comfortable with it.

BR: I find very interesting what you have been saying about exposing the sculptures, surrounding them with the texts. There’s always this self-exposure, and also self-accusation, in your work.

SL: I think when people read things they can tell what’s genuine and what’s not. I can only perform to a certain degree before it becomes phony. Through exposing or writing my inner thoughts for many years, I’ve found that most people are very much like me. What makes someone voyeuristic is that they want to learn about themselves. Staring into someone else’s window or someone else’s head, they’re really trying to find out, “Am I normal? Am I like someone else?”

BR: You don’t only write as Sean Landers. You’ve developed figures, characters.

SL: There’s the Sean Landers who you’re talking to today, and then there’s the Sean Landers character. The Sean Landers character is 90% the same as me. Ha! We all perform in public, and we’re different than when we perform within our own minds. All artists, when they pick up a brush or start sculpting or whatever the medium is, inhabit a slightly different version of themselves. I’m doing the same thing. When I talk about performing through the character in my writing, that’s what I mean. There are ways I’ve learned to behave in my writing that are more true to an earlier version of myself. For instance, before I was regularly exhibiting, I was far more insecure than I am now. And to this day, echoes of that insecurity will show up in my writing almost as habit. Maybe it’s less genuine than it was 20 years ago, but it’s also part of my character.

BR: How did the studio wall texts become work to be exhibited?

SL: Moving to New York in 1986, Richard Phillips, a few others and I found a loft building on Ludlow and Stanton before that area became hip. Richard and I figured we could continue our art school dialogue and keep each other company while we learned how to be New Yorkers. Soon after that, John Currin moved across the street, and Lisa Yuskavage moved to the Lower East Side with her future husband, Matvey Levenstein. Carl Ostendarp lived in the neighborhood. One could make something and get an intelligent reaction to it that same day. It was a good, fertile time – and a good, fertile place – for artistic experimentation. The first day I wrote on a legal pad and taped it to my wall as work, it got an immediate reaction. John Currin came by, and I could tell a light bulb went off in his head: This is not writing, it’s certainly not painting. It’s something weird and in-between and maybe it tries to make its own space. Some early writing used “Chris Hamson” rather than myself as the main character. Chris Hamson was taken from the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, specifically his book Hunger, a story of a young artist living in Oslo, trying to make it as a writer. No one is paying attention to him. He’s on the outside, hungry, going mad, in love, and heartbroken. I wanted to use the archetype of that story to write my story on the Lower East Side in 1989. I wanted to tell the story of an outsider trying to get into the art world. The main character in Knut Hamsun’s book didn’t have a name, so I named mine Hamson and Chris, after my childhood best friend.

BR: Tell me about the first works you showed that incorporated text.

SL: In 1990 I showed an entire body of work at Postmasters Gallery. I laid nine sculptures out in a certain pattern. Later that year, I did another show there in the same exact configuration, referring to the earlier show, but I wrapped the sculptures in trash bags and attributed them to Chris Hamson. The confessional writings by Chris Hamson were taped to the wall. Basically, I wanted a redo. It was a far more conceptual show.

BR: Then you immediately started to make videos of yourself performing.

SL: Video became the logical next step. If a yellow legal pad page was a segment of time to be filled, then 30 minutes or an hour on videotape was a segment of time to be filled. Similarly, writing on huge pieces of photo-backdrop paper was a segment of time in which one could have a window into my life.

BR: Are all your videos about the artist in his studio performing for the camera? I think they’re fabulous! Can you talk about the Set of Twelve?

SL: Set of Twelve, shown recently at Petzel in 2008, was originally shown in 1990 at Andrea Rosen Gallery. Each day I’d show one hour of video recorded the day before in my studio. The idea was to let viewers into my studio, as an extension of my head, to be with me as I was making stuff. In this process, even dancing with an umbrella became “making stuff.”

BR: There’s all sorts of dancing and singing! And references to art history.

SL: And when I put the glasses on, I’m performing as Chris Hamson.

BR: Chris Hamson’s classics. Tell me about Singerie.

SL: In 1995, I hired a chimpanzee to portray me. I’d made many videos and was acting like an ass, embarrassing myself in most of them. I wanted a little relief, so I hired a chimp to be me. There’s a long tradition of chimps and monkeys depicting artists, particularly sculptors. It’s titled Singerie, because that’s the French term for it.

BR: So the chimpanzee is in your studio and actually painting.

SL: Yes, he did everything I did. I skateboard in my studio when I’m killing time, and he did too. He drank a beer, ate some snacks with me. He picked up a graphite stick and started scratching on Looking for Mr. Godbar.

BR: One of your few collaborative works!

SL: He did another one, C.O.S.. I gave him a blank canvas and he made two big scribbles that look very much like Cy Twombly’s. I painted text and a bunch of portraits of the chimp around them.

BR: There’s another recurring character, the clown.

SL: Yes, the chimp and the clown emerged at the same time, in a 1994 show in Los Angeles at Regen Projects. Wherever I was exhibiting, I would bring wet clay and an armature and sculpt on site. At that show I sculpted two clowns and one chimp.

BR: You would sculpt in the gallery, and the clay was kept wet, yes?

SL: Right, the sculptures needed to be misted to be kept alive. They were cast in bronze only if they were purchased. It’s like, if you love me you’ll keep me, which is a nice analogy for art itself.

BR: It also goes back to the show you spoke about earlier, with the wrapped sculptures.

SL: Yes, it’s exactly the same. I like to sculpt and still do today. It’s a throwback, modeling in clay. Especially in 1990, writing poetry and making clay sculptures were in stark contrast to highly produced work.

BR: There’s another sculpture, Candles in the Wind, which exists as a candle that burns down during an exhibition, and also as a bronze edition.

SL: So they contradict each other, don’t they? The original idea was to have a sculpture that burns down, obviously analogous to the fleeting nature of life.

BR: Besides the artist in his studio, also recurring in your work are references to the big heroes of art history. For instance, your student sculptures based on Goya and the great audio recording of you talking to Picasso.

SL: I was raised Catholic. When you’ve learned to pray as a young person, that way of thinking spiritually always exists in your brain. In the audio piece I’m talking to Picasso in a very direct way, almost like speaking to God or a dead relative. I painted all the Surrealists as ghosts or clowns. Portraying someone as a clown is to put them in my pantheon. It’s not an insult. Painting them as a ghost is similar. I was communicating with Ernst, and Picabia, but there was another level, too. What I like about the Surrealists is that they would sit in front of a blank canvas and allow their stream of consciousness to fill the emptiness, which is exactly what I am doing when I fill a giant empty white canvas with text. I wanted to speak to them in that strange Catholic-y way, but I also wanted to acknowledge that I do what they do in a different way.

BR: Tell me your thoughts on Picasso, since you have referenced him many times in your work.

SL: Basically the 20th century in art was an argument between what was possible via Picasso and what was possible via Duchamp. Almost everybody wants to be on Duchamp’s team, because who’s going to roll up their sleeves, show their biceps, and say, “I’m a painter”? I did a whole series focused on Picasso and it culminated with a “Picasso, I want to be like you” letter. Why do this at all? Even though most artists I’ve ever known want to practice in Duchamp’s legacy more than Picasso’s, I think the big gorilla in the room is always Picasso because there’s this idea of an indisputable art genius that is in the back of every artist’s mind. As an artist, to contemplate Picasso is to stare at your own mortality and wonder if your work will survive time. It’s the Picasso question: “Do I matter?”

BR: Obviously you’re attracted to figurative painting, as in the Hogarth series.

SL: At Yale’s Center for British Art there’s a great Hogarth painting titled A Midnight Modern Conversation, depicting the late-night drunken shenanigans of a bunch of men. I wanted to retell that story through pictures at a time when I was telling the story of my life through video and text. In reality, I was getting engaged to Michelle and the culture that I described on Ludlow Street was coming to its logical end. We were all getting a little bit more adult and staying at home at night. In the series, one character is separating himself out. It’s told crudely through cartoons, but that’s what it was. That work was such a non sequitur. It was 1996 and from the perspective of a careerist, I was on a superhighway; all I had to do was to go straight ahead. But as an artist, I was afraid of being forced into being one thing when I felt I had a lot more to give. I figured if I wanted to widen the breadth of what’s possible for me as an artist, it was time to break this thing down. So I did a crazy show and broke it.

BR: To create rupture seems inherent in your work. You talk about failure, you talk about self-ridicule. So maybe it’s more interesting to see the Hogarth series in the context of that moment, in relation to other artists. It was probably really important.

SL: Failure is a common denominator. Everyone knows rejection so it’s a great way to communicate when used as a subject. But you know me: I have no intention of being a failure!

BR: It’s a proposal of a different reading of the same thing. It’s a high expectation to have people look at something that is essentially the same but has a different code.

SL: Exactly. That high expectation is key. I’m imagining Mastroianni in 8 ½, where he can’t endure the press conference anymore and gets under the table and crawls away. I think what Fellini was trying to get at was the deep inner fear at the core of Mastroianni’s character that, like many artists, he’s not worthy of the attention, he’s a fraud, people are looking at him, and he needs to get out of there. At that time, I didn’t want close inspection anymore, so I tore it all down with the Hogarth show. I wanted to be a life-long artist who always has something new to add.

BR: Tell me about the reading of [sic] in New York.

SL: Matthew Higgs had the idea of 20 people including myself reading [sic] all the way through. I will never do that again! It’s only interesting because of what it exposes. Sometimes when making a video I’d go too far, and think, “I can just erase it, so just go ahead and do it!” Inevitably I’d leave the tape on the shelf, come back to it later in a different mood and think, “OK, I see the value in exposing that.” After exhibition I would feel all the shame and humiliation you’d imagine any normal person would feel when private things are exposed.

[sic] was written in a similar way. I was to fill a thousand pages with stream-of-consciousness writing, like I fill an hour of time on videotape, like I fill a giant canvas with little writing. Though in book form, it’s not writing; you’re going through time with me, including idle moments. In 1993, while Michelle and I were breaking up, I went to “Aperto” and fell into an affair. I thought: “I could keep writing about this, or I could shut up.” Then I thought, “Just keep writing about it, and you never have to show it.” Later, in a different mood, I could see that this had value. Michelle and the other woman are the most vulnerable people in the book—they were both in on the decision to publish it. But still, Michelle’s question to me in the new book is “Do you have any regrets?” I will always regret [sic]. It’s a really embarrassing book. Genuinely.

BR: But it’s a different version of regret, I assume. It’s not regret over having done it?

SL: It’s regret mixed with pride, which is the weirdest thing. I’m glad it exists, but it’s unbearable to be in the same room while it’s being read. I can’t take it.

BR: Did you ever sing Non, je ne regrette rien?

SL: No! Is that a Jacques Brel song?

BR: Édith Piaf.

SL: If I’ve learned to sing one song in French, I learned to sing Ne me quitte pas. I should be able to sing that one.


Originally published on Mousse 31 (December 2011–January 2012)


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