The works of the series “Equivocal Void” deals with images of personal vice through commercial graphics and pornographic imagery. These graphics are taken directly from the source, and in the case of the pornographic image taken and specifically cropped to remove any existing distinguishable markings so the initial photographic image becomes removed and thus untraceable back to it’s origin image. Further removal from the origin image/form through simplifying the image/graphic down to a black image printed on black surface, which at times does not allow the viewer to see the forbidden content. Visual Editor Noah Post interviews artist Charles Lutz on his views of brand piracy and mass production.
Noah Post: It is exciting seeing these new sculptures – powder-coated stainless steel renditions of beer cases. Most of which are, more specifically, the boxes from 40 oz. beer bottles. It’s been a long while since I thought about a case of Old English. How did the concept for this series develop? What led you to choose these specific brands of Beer?
Charles Lutz: Thanks, Noah. The concept behind these beer box sculptures was that I was trying to get to a low and common shared experience, while looking at these as a last record of our generation (hence the form they take as “black boxes”) in both a literal and figurative translation. I was also looking at the Kaaba at Mecca from a religious aspect as well as box sculptures before mine, like Warhol’s Brillo Box and Charles Ray’s Ink Box. There is a dialog between those works and these works of mine that form somewhat of a synthesis, which I feel is a constant throughout my work. The different brands chosen largely are those that you’d find on the lowest shelf at any given bodega in 40 oz. size. When you start looking at the graphics of the packaging, you quickly notice commonalities between branding identity at this level. It’s a very simple font and graphic without any heavy ornamentation. It’s simply communicating that this is the stuff that will get you drunk cheap and quick, which I like because it is reflective of its consumer for good or for bad.
NP: These are sleek, dark, streamlined versions of something that has been originally designed to get us drunk – fast and cheap. For me, seeing these objects brings back some lost memories… (some funny, some dark). You and I are close in age. Perhaps a 40 oz. bottle would be a good candidate for our generation’s time capsule. What do you think? What else would you add to the capsule? And where should we bury it?
CL: I would agree. The 40 oz. bottle is so iconic in form and I’m sure a part of most of our lives at one point or another. If you think about it, we were the last generation to really use cassette tapes and we saw the beginning and end of VHS, so I’d have to say those should go in. Now all media can be transmitted in digital format, so in a way all information has been equalized.
NP: I know that you are from a town outside of Pittsburgh, PA, and I know that you worked for Jeff Koons. Did these two factors help push you towards working with steel and/or enamel paints?
CL: It’s funny that you mentioned that connection to Pittsburgh with these works. The color chart paintings came out of my experience growing up near PPG auto paint testing fields outside of Pittsburgh, PA. My school bus drove past these fields of color (the paint test panels) every day, twice a day. As you can imagine, it left an impression. It wasn’t until later that I learned it was auto paint testing outside for durability. There was also a VW plant a few miles away from my home, so that industry kind of surrounded me. This series was mining my personal iconography to dialog in an art historical context. I chose to work with stainless steel primarily for its permanence. In theory I could have made the boxes out of any kind of less expensive metal since the sculptures are powder coated, but I wanted there to be no question of the sculpture’s integrity, and mirror a construction quality of that of a true “black box”. I guess in a way that’s similar to Jeff’s idea that if you make these works out of materials of permanence and value, they will last. I really like that quality of his work especially that of the sculptures. You know that the work has a strong chance of lasting through time.
NP: When I saw your show at Hionas Gallery wall pieces like “Chief” and “White Forms” really stuck with me. They are strong abstractions that slightly resemble Franz Kline compositions, but at a closer look you are cropping into a pornographic photo and printing it with black enamel (on a black background, of course). How did this idea of combining abstraction with appropriation develop?
CL: My work has always been very “regimented” in its production. When people hear me say that, some are surprised to hear an artist talk like that. In actuality I think most good artists are on some level working within their own set of rules. For these paintings I started looking at the formal qualities of Kline’s Black and White paintings. A lot of people think all of the Ab Ex’ers were working out of a purely visceral technique, while in actuality Kline was at times projecting drawings and existing images and finding the abstractions as he put paint to canvas. I wanted to, in a way, re-deconstruct those paintings. So using once again a very low and common image source (internet pornography) I traced the line back to its origin point, but in this case it was a fictitious origin. I also liked the idea of the works being gloss on matte black, so they were difficult to read outside of seeing them in person, tying it back into painting while still having all hands removed.
NP: When we first met, our conversation about “Appropriation” inspired me to include you in this “Piracy” issue of Glasschord. Quite a few artists and art-writers have concluded that “Good artists steal, and bad artists Borrow”. This can be translated in many different contexts. Have you had the experience of “a good steal” in your art-making process?
CL: In 2006, I started a series of work called Warhol Denied where I duplicated 12 versions of Warhol’s Self Portrait from 1964. Those works were sent to the Board to go through the formal process of being evaluated and then stamped “DENIED”. The act of the Board denying the work’s authenticity as a genuine Warhol, completed the work. Their negating of value and originality was conceptually transformed into a system that also completed an original concept thus “creating” real value. The “DENIED” stamp was then replicated and used to stamp other works, further skewing the lines of originality and pushing the boundaries of the concept of replication. Art is a record not an invention, so any perceived originality is only fractional if at all.
NP: What artists or movements have inspired you to indulge in the art of appropriation?
CL: I’ve always liked Jasper Johns’ sculpture of the Ballantine cans as well as most all of his early work. He really captured that moment more concisely than even Warhol did after him in the early 60’s. Obviously, Koons was always an influence, even before working for him. I had seen him speak a few times, and had even talked with him once at the Guggenheim while I was a student at Pratt. A lot of people tend to hide their having worked for other artists, but within the context of my work, it would be quite odd for me to do this as I do see there being a very real lineage.
NP: You keep a well-organized studio. I imagine that you have to spend a decent amount of time planning/sketching/designing your work before you execute. Do you enjoy this preparation, or are you more eager to get your hands dirty?
CL: I enjoy both aspects of the working process. I would say 90% of the work starts as a traditional rough concept drawing, then elements are worked out in Photoshop or Illustrator. All of that is great because what would have taken days or weeks to do a study for now takes minutes or hours. I really like constructing things. Currently I’m working on theses really complex panels, where 80% of the work itself is just panel construction. I think we have to utilize technology to allow us the time to do the physical acts of art-making that we want.
NP: In the past few years you are having some great success with your work. The gallery sold almost all of your pieces in the Hionas Show, and you have worked on projects for the New Museum and Surface Magazine to name a few. Looking ahead, what project/artworks are you most excited about? And anxious about?
CL: I’m doing a large installation at the Carnegie Museum and working with the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh this fall which should be exciting. There are a lot of things that are in the planning stages that I can’t talk about just yet, but needless to say I’ll be busy.
NP: Do you like going to your own shows/openings?
CL: More than I like going to most others…
NP: Have you enjoyed seeing your pieces outside of your studio?
CL: I do like seeing the work outside the studio. It’s interesting to see works installed in private homes to see how the collector curates. I often wonder what people see in the work that draws them to it, and usually this is a good gauge of their reasoning.
NP: What bothers you the most about your work?
CL: That’s one of those trick questions isn’t it… When I’m finished with a piece, nothing bothers me about it. The process of getting the work to that finished point is where there is a bit of a battle. I’ve always been very particular about the surface quality of the work, be it sculpture or painting and I’m not satisfied until things are perfect, within reason.