Having been longtime fans of one another's work, Michelle Blade and I thought it would be interesting to talk about our ideas, inspirations and work processes as well as our concurrent solo exhibitions at KRETS, in Sweden and Carter & Citizen in Los Angeles. The conversation, passed back and forth between email over a week, took place as follows... -Alexis Mackenzie
Blade: Okay, to get the ball rolling I think I should start with a basic, but crucial, question: I've always been curious, where do you find your gorgeous source material?
Mackenzie: It all comes from used books; here in SF I mostly buy them at Green Apple Books or Adobe Books ~ so sad they are having to close! I also have a friend who is a book reseller; he keeps an eye out for books for me, and has found me some really amazing things. Most of the books I use are topical; vintage books about botany, rocks & minerals, fashion, and anatomy mostly. Lately I've been looking more for photographic source material that includes objects, such as decorative art ~ vases, frames, furniture ~ things I can build interior scenes with.
Blade: It seems like part of your process is about balancing your intuitive response to found imagery while simultaneously preplanning abstract shapes and text. Can you describe how you move back and forth between the two? When do you know a collage is completed?
Mackenzie: You're completely right; for my text-based collages, finding that balance mostly consists of having a letter-shape in mind, and searching for an image that resonates with me, which I can twist into the shape I need and melds with everything else around it. It is a long process of searching, cutting, arranging, rearranging, searching, cutting, and rearranging some more. Generally I stop when it feels like a completed scene. I don't glue anything down until this happens, because if I decide to add anything it may change the balance of everything else, thus necessitating changes. My process for the abstract line collages is the complete opposite; everything is unplanned. I'll chose an existing cut-out silhouette from the millions I have floating around in stacks, one that has a shape which is interesting and compliments the found image I'm working on in a dynamic way (or is compelling enough on its own, for working on blank paper), and I just start cutting & pasting, working with the existing shapes and trying to create something resonant. It is a much more freeform approach; I sometimes think of it as drawing, in a way.
Blade: You have some really interesting text in some of your pieces. What is your process for finding or writing these phrases? Is there a story behind "Look Alive", the title for your current solo show at KRETS?
Mackenzie: I'm not sure I have an exact process; I think I am always just mulling over phrases in my mind, or searching them out while watching movies, reading books, observing art, listening to music, having conversations... Mostly I'm attracted to words and phrases that are sort of bittersweet; I like texts which are uplifting and thoughtful, but never saccharine, cloying, or cliched; phrases which can be interpreted as either positive or negative, depending on mood, are my favorites. They are just feelings I'm trying to capture, mostly.
"Look Alive" is one of those phrases; I love how vivid it sounds, and how it has the immediate impression of being stimulating... Under consideration, though, it is a bit of a reprimand, and a little sad ~ if someone is telling you to "look alive", it probably means you aren't really all there. So it is inspiring and depressing all at once... I think when I was working on this piece, I was telling myself that maybe it was about living in a technologically immersed culture, where many people are somewhat half-submerged in a digital world a lot of the time, and about how I sometimes miss the more analog world of not-so-long ago. But looking back, I was working on this show in the months just before my relationship with my boyfriend came to an end; so it may also have been about neither of us being really all there, and the effect that living this way was having on me.
Mackenzie: I have always admired your projects which are built around interactions among groups of people, creating these events which draw out a connectedness and collective energy/consciousness; many of your paintings also focus on subject matters having to do with reaching out and seeking connections of various kinds (physical & spiritual); with other people and other planes of thought; hands, people exploring nature together, palm readings, Ouija boards, fortune telling... Are facets of connectedness simply an aspect of human nature that you are exploring with your work, or is it more personal? Do you think that as people become more and more "connected" digitally, they are also becoming increasingly out of touch with the world, or do you think this has always been a human proclivity?
Blade: I think I wander through ideas of human connectedness in couple different ways. One side of my practice is isolated, where I paint for hours on end, focusing on my inspirations in a kind of meditative state. Working this way is great because I'm quite private and I enjoy spending time alone. The other side of my practice, where I collaborate with groups, satisfies the more socially inclined part of my personality that is interested in sharing cultural rituals and collective energy. Working creativity with a group is really different from experiencing it alone; at times it's much more rewarding and surprising. Working with a group can also open you up to a unique kind of failure which is an interesting concept to grapple with. Failure embodies so much complexity- when a project fails I usually learn quite a bit more than I would have if the project had turned out polished and perfect. I think about this in regards to technology and many of the speculative conversations surrounding how it is possibly ruining the next generation's social capabilities. I can't claim to know how it is going to affect human interaction long term, but I do feel the exposure and accessibility to information, people and culture is very positive.
Mackenzie: You are currently working on "366 Days of the Apocalypse"; when did you decide you were going to do this? What is it that attracts you to the subject of the apocalypse? Do you think there is actually some form of an apocalypse about to occur (or occurring)?
Blade: The idea for 366 Days of the Apocalypse started last year when the 2011 end times billboards made by Harold Camping started popping up all over the Bay Area, claiming that the Rapture and Judgment Day would happen on May 21st. I liked the recurring anticipation the apocalypse created among the masses so I thought it would be interesting to begin a long-term, daily painting project that would enable me to explore these themes.
As a child the fire and brimstone permeating apocalyptic Christian folklore was really intriguing to me. It's still pretty inspiring as far as image making goes, but in the past few years I've gravitated more toward the 2012 Mayan prophecy about the apocalypse occurring on December 21st, when their calendar ends. The Mayan prophecy claims the apocalypse will take the form of a giant cultural shift rather than the world physically ending. I would love to see a cultural shift occur, and for a moment I thought the Occupy Movement might have been part of the shift. Maybe it still is. Being alive when the sun finally explodes, or a meteor hits our planet, would also be spectacular to witness.
Mackenzie: The text for "Hanging Fire" feels like it has a lot to do with the anticipation of great change; are there things in the world, or in your life, that you are looking forward to, or perhaps dreading, or just wondering about? I like what you said about death being an ally throughout life, I really feel that's true and good thing when people use it.
Blade: Hanging Fire is an expression that means to delay, or to wait and see. It refers to an unexpected delay between the triggering of a firearm and the ignition of the propellant. With so many of the works in the Carter & Citizen show being centered around the apocalypse it made sense to me. The expression pairs nicely with the idea of death as an ally as well. This concept was documented by Carlos Castaneda from his studies under shaman Don Juan. Don Juan regards death as an ally who sits with us throughout our life, forcing us to consider the inevitable and live accordingly. Picturing death as a presence that literally sits next to me, helps me imagine a vision of the past, present and future in sync with the persistent and imminent transition of death. I think it's a really positive tool.
Blade: Death seems to be a repeating character in some of your collages as well. What attracts you to the idea of Death as an Ally? Do you have other characters in your work?
Mackenzie: Mortality is just an inescapable theme in some ways; I think the prospect of our own imminent deaths can be a great motivator to do and appreciate all we can, while we can, if one considers things from that perspective. It sweetens an experience, in its own dark way, by causing the moment itself to shine brighter. I guess Death is a foil. It is also the most mysterious of all life events, since there is no way of knowing what the experience of dying is truly like, or what lies on the other side of it. We have no irrefutable facts. It is the only truly unanswerable question anyone can ask; entire religions and cultures are founded upon purporting to answer the question; I think they succeed in part because of how deep our curiosity and need to know is. Anyway, I think those are some of the reasons Death as a theme is such a draw... As an ally, it fulfills my need for things to have a duality. I really believe in the need for all forms of lightness to be balanced by a darkness; there are no highs without lows, no beauty without flaws; we need sad moments to appreciate how wonderful the joyous ones are. These are just basic concepts I try to explore visually, trying to draw out nuances of feelings and highlight moments when one might consider them, in the course of living. I try to use the fear of death and the sadder, uglier moments in life to highlight everything else.
Mackenzie: I love what you said about failure; its complexities and how you learned from these experiences more than from the projects that succeeded. It reminds me of that Beckett quote, "Fail better." What is one of your favorite failures and what did you take away from it?
Blade: A couple years ago I hosted an event called the "Trust Fall / Peace Sign" at Dolores Park during a peace rally. My idea for the event was to invite people from the crowd to stand in the shape of a peace sign. Once the shape was filled in, I instructed the standing participants do a trust fall exercise; falling into the arms of the person behind them while simultaneously catching the person in front of them. In my mind this action was going to look like a beautiful choreographed human domino in the shape of a peace sign. I explained to the crowd that I was going to climb a nearby hill to shoot video and that when I got to the top I would give them a signal to fall when everything was ready. The signal would be me raising my hands above my head and letting them fall to my side. When I gave my signal to the participants people slowly started to fall in a piecemeal fashion, others flapped their arms up and down imitating me, and some looked around confused while others tried shouting directions to help recover the already failed event. I watched all of this chaos from the hill above, loving every bit of it. The event was a huge failure but what struck me in that moment was how beautiful the symbology of the event was. It mirrored so many facets of our human struggle for peace- at times chaotic and flailing, but interesting, and filled with good intentions.
Michelle Blade holds a BA from Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles and an MFA from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Her work has been featured at Western Exhibitions (Chicago), Jack Hanley (San Francisco), Triple Base (San Francisco), the San Jose ICA, Roberts & Tilton (Los Angeles), Carl Berg Gallery (Los Angeles), Bravin Lee Gallery (NYC), Space 1026 (Philadelphia), Union Gallery (London), V1 Gallery (Copenhagen), and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Stüttgart, Germany). She is a 2007 recipient of the Murphy-Cadogan Fellowship, A 2X2 Pro Arts Grant, an Alternative Exposure SOEX Grant, and was a SF MOMA Seca finalist in 2011. Blade lives and works in San Francisco, Ca.
Alexis Mackenzie's work has been exhibited internationally, including solo exhibitions in San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles. She holds a BFA from Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her work has been reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, and has appeared in numerous publications, including Zeit Magazin, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, doingbird, and Yen Magazine.
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