The Pier Conversation: Walead Beshty and Olivier Mosset

Walead Beshty and Olivier Mosset in Conversation


If you think Malibu is just a film set for surfing contests and devastating fires, think again. It is also the ideal place for some of the best conceptual conversations about the pitfalls of public art, geo-political limbos, the constellations of dust created by the smog of Los Angeles, and the monochromes capable of making the wise guys shut their traps. We checked it out with Walead Beshty and Oliver Mosset…


WALEAD BESHTY: I think of your work as confounding certain Modernist orthodoxies; there’s a strong materialist sense of painting that brings up figures like Malevich or Rodchenko, but there is also an equally strong, but subtler, relationship to the readymade and appropriation. And this seems to extend to the way the work is produced, where you maintain a studio-centric “traditional” painting practice, but also work with anonymous or generic mark-making and collectivist production. From early on, you seemed to be working between these orthodoxies, negotiating the area between them, like hand-painting a generic form over and over again, or trading styles. So, I wonder if you see your work as reconciling some of these positions.

OLIVIER MOSSET: Firstly, I don’t see those traditions as separate: Duchamp, Malevich, Mondrian, they invented modern art, and these different options—the found object, radical abstraction—are all really part of the same discourse. There is a traditional orthodoxy of doing painting as painting, and this is usually where I begin, but then I am forced to question that premise. But in the end, I believe that a painting has to work as a painting.

WB: That idea, “painting that is just painting” makes me think of something Thierry de Duve wrote about Duchamp’s readymade, he described the readymade as a work that was distilled to its name alone, its contextual frame, and what I take from this is that the readymade really consists of the social agreement to have a conversation about something as a work of art. In a sense, the readymade puts this social agreement required for any work of art on display, and in the end, it forces a reflection on how a culture values and defines an art object, and this becomes the experience of the work, not something inherent to the object, but what surrounds the object, its history, its value.

OM: That’s interesting because the original readymades were lost, and people criticized Duchamp when he editioned them with Schwartz, but this was really smart because it emphasized what had happened to the readymade, that it had become objectified, and doing it reflected his understanding of this transformation, and he incorporated that understanding into the work. In the painting tradition, somebody like Ryman had a similar awareness of context. He makes the monochrome a painting, he makes you notice the surface. But that wasn’t all: he extended this sensitivity to its hanging. He makes it clear that display is part of painting, and that painting is an object. When you look at a painting, it’s always art. Unlike the readymade, you don’t have to resort to wordplay to make it art. That’s what painting is—even if it’s no good, it’s art. A painting doesn’t have to say it’s art. There is a kind of silence to it, which is interesting to me.

WB: But that brings up the peculiar problem that confronts art objects when the context is ambiguous, like in the public sphere.

OM: But maybe you should discuss that. Wasn’t the billboard at LAXART the first time you did something public?

WB: It was. I had always avoided anything public. Public space is very tricky, mostly because people haven’t agreed to engage in an art experience just by walking down the street. Public art is something of an ambush.

OM: Yes, yes, that’s the problem. When you work in galleries or in non-public spaces, people have a choice.

WB: Well, there’s a tacit agreement when they enter the door of a gallery or museum, and the character of that agreement drives much of my thinking. For me, public art is like playing a game with someone who doesn’t know they’re playing. It’s like throwing a football at the back of someone’s head and saying “catch.” I don’t think that sort of aggressive shock is a useful way to engage an audience.

OM: [laughs] It’s also true that one is attacked by billboards constantly.

WB: Yeah, and I don’t want to participate in that sort of address. I really struggled with how one could use a public site without replicating the problematic mode of address they tend to be built upon. In other words, the challenge is to work in public without impersonating or blindly accepting its implicit hierarchies. For me, what it boils down to is not a matter of the message, but the mode of address. That’s where generosity or transparency is important, and that’s where the difficult political questions lie. Broadcasting some didactic assertion regardless of its content just reinforces the problem.

OM: You’re right. And in fact, that’s exactly the question I asked myself while looking at your billboard. You have an opportunity to project a message, and you could just put up a clear-cut political statement. But this would just be playing the game that billboards usually do. So, is it just an image of dust?

WB: It’s a scan of a piece of glass I left on my windowsill for a year, so most of it is car exhaust. In a way it’s a portrait of the city over time, an image of the invisible floating matter that mediates everything in L.A., the iconic orangey haze of the city.

OM: When you see it you don’t even know exactly what it is. It could be the Milky Way, and your work always has this dimension, a political aspect that is only explicit or clear on second look, or after finding out more. You may feel it when you see the work itself without even knowing about it, but when it becomes explicit, the works changes.

WB: But hopefully it doesn’t stop there. I think of it as calling up the tensions between where something comes from, how it was made, and how it appears. That’s why I tend to create situations where the form of the work is dictated by something that is functioning on its own, outside of my purposes, like settling dust, or X-ray machines, or FedEx. I think this allows the work to spill into questions beyond representation, which is where most discussions of art and politics dead-end. But speaking of context, and in terms of your work with the Radical Painting Group, I wonder what made the monochrome viable as painting for you again. Was it the American context?

OM: When I started to paint in France, the monochrome was defined by the work of Yves Klein. It was unavoidable, so if you did a one-color painting, it was a monochrome, and it was Yves Klein. At the time, we knew about Malevich, but we didn’t know about Rodchenko, and his “last painting.” So monochrome painting was Yves Klein and the new realist movement, and for me Klein was not even painting, it was more like a gesture. The circle was going against the idea of a monochrome, and from there, I did stripe paintings and these white stripes on white and red stripes on red. This made me consider just putting paint on a canvas. But you’re right, when I came to the States, there were people working with one-colour paintings but coming at it in a different way, and it seemed possible to work with it and not fall into these past problems. It was a welcome change. When I came to New York around 1977, the dominant discourse was the return to the figure, the return to Expressionism, with people like Schnabel or Salle and the Germans and Italians, so the monochrome was a reaction to that as well.

WB: The way you deal with the radical history of the monochrome negotiates how this can be understood in a contemporary context. It’s hard to know exactly where those paintings stand in relation to that history, if that history is appropriated, if it’s an earnest materialist argument about painting. This is how I understand your acceptance of found materials, like using Thomas Lawson’s discarded paints, or the tondo stretchers that Steven Parrino gave you. On the one hand, it contradicts a strict orthodoxy about how painting is made, that the paint, or its scale, is a specific synthetic decision by the artist. It allows these choices to have a social element, makes them contingent, open. But on the other hand, it’s strictly materialist, and in these choices, there’s another type of history that operates on a personal and social level. So there are large historical arguments, but also these micro-contexts of when and where something was made. In a way, they’re all treated as stories. And what I find is that these “stories” point out that no one on its own really explains the object in front of you—or any object for that matter—that the work has an almost infinite number of stories that surround it, making the paintings specific center points, not the narratives told about them.

OM: I totally agree with that, but in your case, do you feel that mixing photographs, and sculpture or projections, is an equivalent to a multiplicity of stories? Do you feel it makes the specific context of the work more clear?

WB: I don’t know. The individual works are important, but their exhibition is equally important.

OM: This was true at your LAXART show. When you sit down and look at the slides, it extends and complicates the whole show. WB: I want to acknowledge the history of art that I am working from, but the same time, I don’t want that history, those conventions, to obscure the work.

OM: I think it’s a process that many artists confront. Artists come into confrontation with whatever is the dominant ideology or discourse that their work is responding to and people use this as a way to neutralize works. Some do this by just buying it [laughs]

WB: Viewers will find the easiest way through a situation, use the most readily available script to deal with what’s in front of them. That’s why there needs to be something that creates a friction with those assumptions, slows things down. I think the slide show work was part of slowing things down, creating a work of duration in a show that was very much about being immediately present in the space.

OM: Exactly. And I think there’s always something interesting about a work that you don’t really understand. If you know where it comes from right away, it looses a kind of quality. This is what’s interesting about these more radical types of works in contemporary art: a viewer will try to reduce it to something and the work tries to escape that. This is the quality of the work, that back and forth. That’s what I try to do with painting. If I can do a painting that says simply “shut up,” I’ll be happy. The new material I use has this kind of quality.

WB: I was thinking about that when looking at the tondo paintings. There’s this surface texture to them that’s impossible to reproduce, and it’s not gestural, but you get involved with it in a similar way, so it both is and isn’t a conventional type of mark-making. And at the same time the looking it invites produces an awareness of how the work was made, its authorship. But what’s funny is that the touch present on the surface is an industrial touch, and it’s seductive in the same way as a brush stroke. To me, it makes the case that industrial application isn’t a generic or uniform thing. These works have a strong connection to where they were made, at an auto body shop in Tucson, right? You showed the works at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, right?

OM: Exactly. In that show you had the photos of the embassy and the FedEx boxes?

WB: Yeah, the Travel Pictures—they were images of the abandoned Iraqi Embassy to the DDR. That work was a major turning point for me. When I made them in 2005, I felt like there were very few options for photographs, so I was really figuring out another way that I could still make them, without slipping into what I thought were old assumptions about the medium.

OM: They had the foggy colors?

WB: The fog is from the X-ray machines the film went through while in transit. And the embassy is just an old office building really, but its larger circumstance was what was compelling to me, that it existed in a gap in international law, because of the way the Vienna Convention was written. It was essentially a tract of land that was in geo-political limbo, a sovereignty-free zone. And this is why the X-rays made sense to me, they were both a way the film saw the act of travel, and they were a mark of international borders, the same international laws that put the embassy in such an odd situation.

OM: I’m sure that you feel it when you look at the work, but it’s hard for me to say because when you know, you know. Your vision changes when these conditions become apparent.

WB: I hadn’t thought about that, but yes, it changes, or really, the viewer changes. I feel like I see it both ways: with and without the story. You don’t have to have the story, but sometimes people think it’s problematic that they have a formally seductive side, that they can operate as just that. But this is a dull problem for me; it’s more than just whether or not it looks good, it’s about the ability, anyone’s ability, to use repressive, or expansive structures to one’s own ends. For me, that’s what the work invites, that possibility.

OM: Even the broken mirrored floor works with this same tension.

WB: The traffic of visitors, that the piece extends from the exhibition space into the offices, and hallways, is important. Its appearance can’t be isolated from its circumstance, they reflect one another, both literally and figuratively.

OM: And of course a mirror is a Baudrillardian way to look at things—that art is a type of illusion—and here, it totally is. But you know it’s just a mirror, so it’s materially specific too.

WB: It’s just what it is, a mirror. I wouldn’t want to claim more than that. Someone asked me what the political statement of the piece was. But the way that politics usually enters art is often very unproductive, people calling each other out as hypocrites, exaggerating the role of the market, making it this expansive exotic thing, not just a group of people communicating via exchange. The idea of the museum being a repressive structure is not really a productive line of thinking for me. To say this in general terms means nothing, it makes everything moot by making it general. Everything is negotiation, everything is compromised, each instance of exchange needs to be examined in specific terms. They aren’t all the same, there’s positive and negative things that come out of all situations.

OM: I always thought that even though the museum has guards, it’s not a concentration camp. And we also have to remember that we’re privileged as artists and the kind of life we live. There’s a lot of people who can’t think about art, because they have other problems.


Originally published on Mousse 19 (Summer 2009)


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