The following is the second in a series of articles profiling the eight distinguished artists chosen as 2017 McKnight Fellows, a grant program for mid-career artists that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. (You can read the first in this series here.) These two artists will take part in the McKnight Discussion Series on March 15th, talking publicly about their work with Eric Crosby, curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Russ White caught up with each of them in their garage studios to get a preview of their work and their worldviews.
Photo by Rik Sferra.
I want you to picture your childhood bedroom. What size was it? What color were the walls? Were there any windows? Think about the furniture: was there a twin bed, maybe bunk beds? Did you share the room with anyone — siblings, parents? Was there a desk, a chair, a side table? Now think about all your stuff: the toys on the floor, the posters on the wall. Did you have Legos or Transformers or My Little Ponys? Maybe a kitschy trashcan or trophies on a shelf? Where did all those things, all that stuff, end up? And what meaning do they still have for you, if any?
For Andy DuCett, the clutter of childhood isn’t just nostalgia; it’s the foundation of his entire practice. His mixed media drawings and found object installations are studies in controlled chaos: objects and images of all descriptions — lamps, phones, tables, horses, stormtroopers, ashtrays, radiators — packed tightly into singular compositions, crammed together in a surrealist feng shui, nothing making any sense yet nothing out of balance. It’s like if Wesley Willis drew Where’s Waldo books: the work is dense, cartoonish, warm, and welcoming, but also pretty bonkers.
Top: This is all for now – more will be added as time goes on. So – (detail), installation of drawings and found objects, Kolman + Pryor Gallery, 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist. Bottom: the artist points out a detail in a drawing he's been working on since 2007. Photo by Russ White.
This practice of creative recontextualization goes all the way back to DuCett’s own childhood bedroom. “When I was seven years old,” he says, “my parents put a limit on how many times I was allowed to rearrange my bedroom in a month. I would rearrange everything like three or four times a week.”
“I did it for the moment that I woke up in the morning. Those first couple of seconds, similar to waking up in a hotel room, where everything was new even though it was old. I saw all of my stuff in an unfamiliar arrangement from an unfamiliar vantage point.” This is the story of a kid who could see gratification a full day in advance and work studiously towards that goal — and an artist for whom work and play are not too far removed.
This playfulness runs through his entire practice, from the minute details in his black and white drawings to the thrift store dadaism of his found object tableaux to the good-natured absurdity of his participatory installations. He has installed these immersive pieces at venues like the Walker, Mia, the Soap Factory, and the Eaux Claires music festival, inviting viewers to sharpen a stack of number 2 pencils, go record shopping for 25¢ an album, relax in an open air living room in the woods of Wisconsin, play bubble hockey with a fully-padded goalie, talk to actual middle-aged mothers at one of the artist’s Mom Booths, enjoy a live tuba solo in a public bathroom, or even get a free haircut at a museum.
Top: The Mom Booth, part of More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong, Mia, 2013. Bottom: Bubble hockey against live goalie, another installation in the same exhibition. Photos courtesy of the artist.
While these performative pieces use a lot of actors and volunteers, DuCett's drawings and sculptures don’t feature very many people at all; they’re populated almost entirely with inanimate objects. He’s like a happy-go-lucky René Magritte: the subjects are abstracted not in their rendering but in their context. Just like his ever-changing bedroom, DuCett wants us to see the furniture of our own lives with a fresh sense of wonder every time. And for all the control the artist exerts in choosing his source material, meticulously drawing each object, doodling notes in the margins, and constructing these intricate compositions, he leaves a great deal up to us. Each drawing is a choose-your-own-adventure map, our eyes bouncing from one detail to another: a cowboy statue holding an invisible muffler, a cordless drill with a giant battery, oil derricks, smart phones, ironing boards, lamps (there’s a shitload of lamps), a tiny cartoon Sean Spicer behind a White House podium, a staircase banister, and on and on. Each drawing has its own particular architecture, like the open wings of a dollhouse, placid madness spilling out of every room.
“I like core samples rather than curations,” he tells me at one point. Collecting and composing these objects is not about making pronouncements or delivering sermons. It’s about presenting these objects and inviting engagement. In the same way that a random smell can transport you back in time to a memory long-forgotten, all of these items are little lightning rods waiting to be struck. “I like the openness of having somebody else tell me what they find.”
Sitting in the office loft of his garage studio — orderly little drawings tacked in grids all over the walls, records and action figures lining the shelves, books by cartoonists like Bill Watterson and Edward Gorey stacked on the floor — I suspect that we’re actually in a version of his childhood bedroom right now. But this isn’t a case of arrested development, I don’t think. This is a person who’s been working on the same problem, fiddling with the same Rubik’s Cube, for a lifetime. There’s something in the stuff of our lives that he’s still puzzling out. Or maybe that’s just where he finds the magic. "My favorite spaces have always been workshops and craft rooms," he says, talking about his love of well-organized tools. "I like how it’s an open invitation rather than something that’s being utilized at the time. The coiling of the spring is sometimes more exciting than the bounce for me.”
He likens his career as an artist to running a marathon, and being awarded the McKnight is like being handed a cup of water along the way, encouraging him to keep going. It's an important milestone, to be sure, but also a signal of the miles yet to go. On his drawing table sits a piece he’s been working on in fits and starts for over twelve years. It has been out the entire time, ready to be worked on, and he says he’ll sit down and add to it every once in a while. “This is my white whale,” he concedes. It’s a moment where you can see the frustration that bedevils any studio practice. But I don't think it's got him down.
Again, we return to the importance of play. “Academics and the art world tend to be very suspicious of play. It’s gut, not brain… I always ask the grad students I work with, What’s the R&D section of your practice? You don’t have one? Then you need to go to the lab RIGHT NOW: blow shit up, do things that don’t fit, do things that you can’t name or understand, because those are the things that are going to be the kindling when you need to make a fire.”
Before I go, I ask him how often he rearranges his studio. He just chuckles and says “not often enough.”
Photo by Rik Sferra.
If they hold a yard sale in the final days of Western civilization, it will probably look something like a Bruce Tapola painting. Perfectly ordered piles of junk stretching for miles into the distance of a landfill landscape— some stuff priceless, some stuff worthless, but God, so much of it — a vast coral reef of boxy shapes and totemic items, each placed with care for your consideration.
On the other side of town, in another painting, life has found a way: walls, pipes, boxes, and books are lashed together into some kind of post-Chernobyl mobile home, a makeshift hermit shell for the slack-jawed blowfish at its center. Further into the woods, on yet another canvas, a slapdash settlement of sticks, poles, chairs, and luggage lies abandoned among a Seussian forest of barren, branchless trees. A hand-painted banner slung across a laundry line reads, in tall red letters, NOW.
Top: Crossroad, oil on canvas, 2017. Bottom: Blowfish, oil on canvas, 2017. Photos courtesy of the artist.
These are the stories Tapola likes to tell: no beginnings, no endings, just strange snapshots from the middle; dark farces in bright colors. The paintings are vibrant, dense, and illustrative, the product of someone who clearly enjoys the simple pleasure of rendering shapes and surfaces in oil paint. The artist himself is funny and quick to laugh, earnest and self-deprecating. But I get the sense that painting is not just a passion for him; it’s a dead serious endeavor. And death comes up more than once over the course of our conversation out in his garage. Now in his sixties, Tapola overhauled his studio practice five years ago, abandoning his more contemporary vocabulary of installation work in favor of simply painting from the heart. His previous work included a wide range of painting styles, some loose and airy, others dark and thick. He says he loved the idea of mounting a solo show that looked like a group show, each piece stylistically different, but eventually that approach just ran out of gas.
“I felt like I was just fooling around with art language,” he says. “This is one of the first times in my life that I have a room full of stuff that all looks like it goes together.” Now he works in his studio unencumbered by outside expectations or deadlines, no longer interested in career ambitions. “I just need to knuckle down and make my shit, you know what I mean? The clock’s ticking. There is a last batch, there is a last painting,” he laughs. “I don’t even feel morbid about it; I feel liberated by it. I better just zero in and find my own aesthetic as best I can.”
What has emerged are these surrealist narratives filled with strange symbols and even stranger characters. One large, nearly finished painting stares us down throughout the whole conversation. It’s another forest scene with the same tall, leafless trees in the background. A campfire made of burning books rages in the foreground, roasting a hot dog for a man standing ankle-deep in a forest stream, playing a cigar box guitar with a middle finger raised to a passing butterfly and a pair of tighty-whities on his head. All around this fellow are portentous elements with specific symbolic meaning — a brick, a six-pack of Old Style, a golden trophy full of cigarette butts, Magritte’s pipe, Serrano’s Piss Christ, and the Venus of Willendorf holding a protest sign, presumably for the last 27,000 years. “I kind of wanted to make the world’s most symbolic painting,” he jokes.
Work in progress (detail), oil on canvas. 2018-2019. Photo by Russ White.
It’s not quite a self portrait, not quite a political cartoon. It’s more like a fever dream. “These all just start as a day of goobering paint around,” he says. “There is no plan. It’s mostly about what I think that I like, and I don’t ask a lot of questions about that anymore. If that’s what I do, that’s what I do.”
As nonchalant as he sounds, there’s still a deep reverence here for the history of Western painting. The work shares stylistic sensibilities with Eric Fischl’s scenes of suburban depravity, Philip Guston’s bulbous degenerates, and de Chirico’s epic mastery of depth. Well-worn books about Titian and the frescoes of Raphael sit out on a table nearby. And of course there are the surrealists. “Someone said a while ago,” Tapola says, laughing, “that my work was a cross between Yves Tanguy and the Garbage Pail Kids. And you know what, that’s not terribly far off.”
He’s also reverent to the trajectory of Art itself, worried that market forces are prioritizing high-polish pablum over meaningful creativity. “I’m nervous about sounding like an angry asshole here,” he says. “Personally I feel like I’m generally pretty positive. I’m just fighting for something I feel is being a little besmirched… The idea of how art might be useful to us humans, how it has been throughout the ages. Whatever that use is, I don’t quite know. I think it’s helped me be a better person, given me some form in my life.”
“It’s probably super corny, but I call it the spirit of art: this human desire to create something, whether it has a functional value or not. In my case, not so much; cave painters, not so much. And then being part of that band of artists all through time is very pleasing to me. I feel proud of that.”
Supermodelcitizens, mixed media, 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.
That camaraderie extends to living artists as well: Tapola is one of about twenty artists that make up Paintallica, a collective that gets together one week a year for around-the-clock collaborative art-making in the same scuzzy vein as the Hairy Who and Ed Roth’s “Rat Fink.” That looseness and gruffness has informed Tapola's sculptural practice, creating grotesque 3-D cartoon characters with penises and pustules, each its own art world satire or pop culture provocation. He calls them Supermodelcitizens and plans on creating some new ones for a show at Sadie Halie (another garage) in May.
Wrapping up our discussion about lineage and mortality, I ask what success means to him at this point in his career. Surprisingly, for a man so happy to paint his own thoughts at his own pace in his own space, Tapola's answer is to have a couple of pieces in a museum for the public to enjoy. “I’d like to be that guy in the future where you’re walking past all these awesome paintings by people that you know, and you go ‘who the fuck made that thing?’ That would be so satisfying to me, that my painting just sits there and that someone gets pleasure or interest from it in the future. I’d love to be that weirdo painting, that one-off in the museum, the B-teamer that nobody knows.”
There’s a humility and a generosity of spirit in that answer that’s downright endearing, and a self-awareness, I suspect, from decades spent making things. Sooner or later the stuff of our lives will get sorted, maybe to the permanent collection, maybe to the landfill, maybe to the yard sale. Either way, everything must go.
The conversation between these two amazing artists and visiting curator Eric Crosby will take place Friday, March 15th, at 6:30pm in the Pillsbury Auditorium at Mia. For more info and to reserve tickets for this free event, visit their event page.
More information on upcoming McKnight Discussion Series events can be found at mcad.edu.