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To Find Freedom in Chaos. Interview with Elliott Hundley

Chaos and mayhem do not immediately come to mind when the ancient Greeks are evoked. Classical antiquity is far better known for its emphasis on rationality and balance, not to mention the immanently sensible quest for truth and beauty, particularly when it comes to the visual arts. But Elliott Hundley sees things differently. No bland Neo-Classicist, he is drawn to the bloodshed and terror as well as the lust and betrayal that spill from the plays of Euripides and make Greek mythology such a riveting way to illuminate the horrors of the present. Since the L.A. artist earned his MFA at UCLA in 2005, he has made resplendently dense works that include so many elements that they test our capacity to take them in-much less make sense of them. The overwhelming abundance of information that defines modern life takes sublime shape in Hundley’s mixed-media pieces of participatory theater, each of which turns each of us loose in a world supercharged with desire and dread.

By David Pagel

David Pagel - Your exhibition last May at Regen Projects was based on Antonin Artaud’s “There Is No More Firmament.” What lead you to that play?

Elliott Hundley - I knew that I wanted to make another body of work about a play because I hadn’t for a couple of years. And I also wanted to do something that wasn’t ancient. I wanted something that felt epic but still modern.

D.P. - Contemporary? Current?

E.H. - Yes. But I mean that the stuff of it was-the subject you know-wasn’t about dead gods. It was really about the imagery in the play. He wrote it in 1931 or 1932 and it takes place in the year 2000. There’s an element of science fiction because it’s about the star Sirius approaching and potentially colliding with Earth and the end of the world. So even when I read the description, the imagery worked. This play is everything I dreamed it could be. When I found it I was happy.

D.P. - And before Artaud you had turned to the Ancient Greeks?

E.H. - I made work for three years about Euripides’ Bacchae. Before that I had done Euripides’ Hecuba, and Medea.

D.P. - Did that start in graduate school?

E.H. - No. Well, actually it did kind of start in graduate school. Because when I was ending graduate school I was making work about myths and I made work about Medea and right at the end of school I decided that I would read specific works of literature about Medea. I felt like I wanted to have a touchstone that was an actual text, rather than a general idea about a myth.

Elliott Hundley, Harmonies Cut Short, 2016, paper, oil, fabric, pins, plastic, dried lotus, glass, foam and linen on panel, 96” x 147” x 10 ½.” All images are courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Elliott Hundley, Harmonies Cut Short, 2016, paper, oil, fabric, pins, plastic, dried lotus, glass, foam and linen on panel, 96” x 147” x 10 ½.” All images are courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

D.P. - Do you feel in any sense that you are a translator?

E.H. - I normally would say I am not a translator but the more I learn about translation the more I understand how creative it is. So, maybe.

D.P. - Is the attraction partly that there is something there? Something to start with? Something to get your juices flowing?

E.H. - Yes. Absolutely. And I have noticed from myself that when I was younger I did my best drawings from observation not from creation. I feel that my working from plays is analogous.

D.P. - You’re not a very creative person?

E.H. - No. I’d rather look at something and examine it and try to figure it out than just create it, whole cloth.

D.P. - That’s why I write art criticism. I need to have something to respond to. I am a responder. Not an inventor. But my responses can get pretty inventive. Is it at all like that for you?

E.H. - Yes. And then there are even layers of that. Because not only do I make the subject matter something I examine, I will lay down an arbitrary field before I even begin.

D.P. - How so?

E.H. - Not only am I not creating the subject but I’m not creating the initial setup-I mean I do take photographs that become the foundation of my works but I do it in a way so that I don’t feel so much control or authorship over those initial images. Even that is a response. It’s a mechanism. Basically I’m inside of the process before I even realize that I could be creating something.

D.P. - So you choose a play, start taking pictures of people acting out scenes…

E.H. - Kind of.

D.P. - What’s the next step?

E.H. - Basically choosing images to lie down on a canvas to begin working on top of, to respond to. I do the setup where I create the scenario in which the person is acting out the play and I’m directing them, but my actual direction is minimal and the set is schematic. I’ve actually learned that I should not build sets; I should wait until the actors arrive and then throw something together. I try to keep it as loose as possible so that I don’t have control over it. Which, somehow, I connect to choosing a text.

D.P. - You have a complicated relationship to control, yet you are drawn to structure, to limitations.

E.H. - I just think that situations create more interesting results than people.

D.P. - By people you mean you?

E.H. - Yes. But in general too.

D.P. - So you do your best work collaging together elements because that allows you to get out of the way?

E.H. - Maybe it’s this: I know that I exert an unusual amount of control over things. And I know that that is not what I want to do as an artist. So I have created new systems by which to balance out my weaknesses. Because what I’m inspired by is not control. I’m not inspired by controlling things. I’m inspired by our ability to make sense of what is not within our control or our understanding.

D.P. - Would you say your works are machines for figuring out what’s going on in the world?

E.H. - For me? Or for you?

D.P. - For both.

E.H. - I don’t know. Let me think. They are for me. Yes. Because you know, in the 1990s artists insisted that art was intellectual and not therapeutic, and I think to some degree that’s a reactionary position. I think that for me those artists were attempting to show that they had agency and social responsibility, which I feel. But I also feel that I’m not particularly skilled at language so I make art to help myself clarify thinking-to have complex thoughts. So, yes.

D.P. - By therapeutic you mean self-improvement?

E.H. - A lot of the artists that I admire insisted that they were not making art for therapeutic reasons. I think it was a reaction against Expressionism.

D.P. - And art got over-intellectualized?

E.H. - Well I don’t want to critique them. I just came to a funny moment where all the people I admire are anti-expressionist but I’m feeling something else so how do I then reconcile that? Basically I feel that I have to acknowledge at this point in my life that there is a degree of expressionism. The images are actually therapeutic for me. And I think that they do serve a psychological purpose as well as a social purpose. I don’t know if they do for other people but they do for me.

D.P. - Do you think that one of the ways you can be most responsible is by being irresponsible?

E.H. - What do you mean?

D.P. - Well, by making work in the way that you do: by getting rid of your micro-managing and controlling self and letting something else take over? I think your art paints a pretty complex picture of what the self is.

E.H. - Yes. I would like for it to capture the porousness of the self. The fact that selves are always changing. That is the way that I am trying to be-at least in my work.

Elliott Hundley, The Plague, 2016, paper, oil, pins, plastic, foam, and linen on panel, 96” x 147” x 11.”

Elliott Hundley, The Plague, 2016, paper, oil, pins, plastic, foam, and linen on panel, 96” x 147” x 11.”

D.P. - I’m fascinated by the sheer volume of visual information in your work. To me, your work reflects on the relationship between selves and the overwhelming abundance of information out there. It suggests that comprehension of it all is beyond any individual’s capacity, but that we are part of it-and had better understand our relationship to the vastness around us.

E.H. - I associate it with a sense of the sublime. With letting go. This relates to control as well-because at a certain point we have to acknowledge that things will remain unknowable. I try to make pictures where that knowledge doesn’t lead to a pessimistic view. I try to maintain a sense of sensuality and desire within the picture. But you’re always aware that you cannot understand, or even take in, all the information. For me, that’s true for me as I make them.

D.P. - There is violence and mayhem and suffering in your works. But they’re not depressing.

E.H. - I like to think of it like this: You have to feel good about walking away. You have to come to terms in a peaceful way with not being able to know.

D.P. - And what about wanting to go back for second looks? And thirds?

E.H. - Well, I’m trying to create a situation in a picture. We all know that people see things differently. I think it’s interesting that an individual sees things differently year-to-year, or moment-to-moment. Or even within a moment, how you interact with an object. I think that’s a beautiful puzzle. That’s why I’m trying to undermine my sense of authorship: so I can interact with these works like I want everyone else to interact with them.

D.P. - You build labyrinthine complexity into them so that we’re always kind of lost?

E.H. - And so that they defy memory.

D.P. - In that way they’re really different from the plays they start out from?

E.H. - Well, I think it’s the same with the plays. These plays are not clearly defined objects in history. They are subtle and changing. Maybe that’s the thing about picking this particular play. Not that much time has passed between when it was written and now. So it still has a mysterious feeling around it. It’s not exactly clear. It’s Surreal.

D.P. - I have clear memories of scenes from plays but I have a hard time recalling any more than details of your works, particularly the big ones.

E.H. - I find that I remember them very clearly and then I see them again only to discover that my memory is distorted.

D.P. - And that’s what excites you about them.

E.H. - Yes.

D.P. - Do you think of yourself as a picture-maker?

E.H. - I think of myself as a painter. And that might be a great delusion.

Elliott Hundley, Tiered Sounds, 2016, ppaper, oil, pins, fabric, abalone shell, foam and linen on panel, 35 ¼” x 29 ½” x 6.”

Elliott Hundley, Tiered Sounds, 2016, ppaper, oil, pins, fabric, abalone shell, foam and linen on panel, 35 ¼” x 29 ½” x 6.”

D.P. - Do you think it matters that we think of some works as paintings and others as collages or sculptures or installations?

E.H. - I think it does matter. I think that I make small decisions that lead people to think in terms of one medium. But where they end up is another matter. For example, if I make a painting with legs, I’m saying, “Let’s start with the premise that this is a sculpture, it’s got legs.” And then if I make a work with linen, and hang it on the wall, I’m saying, “Let’s start with the idea that it’s a painting.” Ultimately, I don’t think it makes any difference at all. But I think it has to do with expectation. I think of pictures as being more illusory than a painting, maybe. I think a painting as being part of a history of making marks. But cave paintings are pictures too. I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I think about it a lot, but I don’t think it makes any difference in how someone looks at the work. I don’t know. I don’t know.

D.P. - But you see yourself as a painter?

E.H. - Yeah. Which is funny. Why would that be important to me?

D.P. - Because it comes with prestige and expectations?

E.H. - It’s just about who you think you’re in a conversation with. There is a history of objects and I don’t really see my objects being in a conversation with sculptures. Sometimes they manifest as sculptures. As objects. But I spend my time looking at paintings and thinking about paintings. It’s a kind of puzzle. And that’s the thing I’m trying to dissect and figure out-the way paintings function. I do use paint a lot. But it’s not just about the paint.

D.P. - It’s about how one looks at something?

E.H. - Yes. It’s not about being handcrafted. It’s about making something both materially emphatic and illusory-objects that exist in space and call attention to themselves and, simultaneously, dissolve into illusion.

D.P. - That seems generous. Kind of a 2-for-the-price-of-1 deal. You’re not a withholder.

E.H. - No, no, no, I am not. I think everybody would agree with that.

D.P. - It seems withholders are getting a lot of attention these days.

E.H. - Well there are different ways to find mystery. One is by holding your cards close. But I know myself enough to know that I have no secrets. I don’t have anything to hide. There is no mystery in my mind that I can create that way. I admire people who have that ability. That’s not something I know about. I’ve seen it. And I’ve felt it. But my mind doesn’t work that way.

D.P. - And you are after mystery?

E.H. - Yes but not mystery about me. I’m looking for mystery outside of myself.

D.P. - The mysteriousness of the world?

E.H. - Yes. I’m trying to make objects that reflect that somehow or that reenact an experience of that.

D.P. - That focus a viewer’s attention on it? Bring us into touch with it?

E.H. - I think so. In the past I made work about Rilke. And Rilke was basically: “Existence is a miracle.” It was his opinion that religion dismantled the miracle. I think that that’s worth thinking about. I think art can provide that.

D.P. - Miracles, mystery and the sublime: Did those words have much currency when you were in graduate school?

E.H. - No. Such talk was forbidden.

D.P. - Do you think it is less forbidden now?

E.H. - No, no. I think it’s just not relevant for school. It’s too personal for an academic setting. You’re not there to talk about your feelings. You’re there to talk about the mechanics of how things work. You can’t really talk about intentions. You can’t learn such things. If you’re going to talk about how you are going to implement that you have to start talking about the hard facts. I will say, I did get justly ridiculed in graduate school for being like Shirley McLane. She would break through sometimes and I would have to push her back down.

D.P. - So you think art school is part of a more long-term maturation process, a stage that artists go through so that they might discover how better to say what they have to say? That education is not about shaping what they have to say?

E.H. - Maybe it’s not so black and white. It probably depends on the student. And students enter school with all sorts of delusions. They probably leave with other ones. I’m 41 now and I will discuss some of those ideas. It’s funny. It’s the difference between your private relationship to creation and to education and how you have a conversation with other people.

D.P. - So there’s a productive dynamic between private reflection and public discourse?

E.H. - I think so. And I think an artist might be motivated by a delusion and it could be really powerful and helpful but you also recognize it is a delusion. So you don’t want to socialize your delusions. What works for you to get the job done may not be productive for society as a whole, the best public discourse.

D.P. - But the tug-of-war between the two is important?

E.H. - Yes. You need that back-and-forth. Maybe that’s why those things aren’t discussed. They are just there. The rigors of school are aimed at something else.

D.P. - So duplicity is integral to art making?

E.H. - Duplicity?

D.P. - Full disclosure is out of the question. Same with total transparency. You have to be a liar, at lest in part. Or maybe it’s different language talking past each other? In no need of translation? Or a particular kind of translation?

E.H. - I think that art is more compelling when it’s complex. I would like to make an object that satisfies both of these poles within my view of the world. And it doesn’t satisfy them by committee. It satisfies them from two divergent perspectives simultaneously. So that you could oscillate between viewing the work-you could look at it as a sculpture and it completes some experience and you could look at it as a painting and it completes a different kind of experience. And then you have to walk away and those two different experiences become one conflicted object in your mind that’s difficult to remember.

D.P. - Is this where politics enters the picture?

E.H. - I think it goes back to having a core sense of identity-and subjectivity. I mean the artwork is positioning itself so that it’s trying to imagine the world from many perspectives. It asks viewers to do that too.

D.P. - So what matters are the experiences it elicits from viewers?

E.H. - I would hope so.

D.P. - Not a message it might convey?

E.H. - No. There’s no message. I think that certain attitudes about me as a citizen come through, from decisions that I make. I don’t think they’re intentional or by design, but I’ve noticed certain things about my identity or my values or my background. They’re not always in my control.

D.P. - Is your work a form of self-portraiture?

E.H. - Sure.

D.P. - You have a complicated, sprawling self. It’s a mess. Nice place to visit, but …

E.H. - I try to make it pretty.

D.P. - But never by making it unified, resolved or easily swallowed.

E.H. - No, my work promotes a fractured reality. I am not critiquing a fractured culture. I’m trying to show its multifaceted character. Artaud did not conceive his body as a unified whole. I admire that. I mean, I like a fractured existence. Hegemony? That’s no fun. But a fractured reality leaves one with a lot more to navigate. It’s a challenge to have to build your world yourself on a daily basis, out of shambles. But that’s better than fitting into someone else’s vision of reality. All of those structures that get imposed on us are problematic. I feel subject to so many things. There is a kind of anarchy to the pictures I’m making. I don’t know if people perceive it that way. But I feel that that is part of their beauty.

D.P. - Among the political wing of the art enterprise, anarchy isn’t taken so seriously.

E.H. - I don’t know if I’m an anarchist. But that’s the impulse. I just don’t see it as political.

D.P. - Because that would be too restrictive?

E.H. - Maybe. Maybe. I mean it would start to create a category and that’s the whole point, to break down category.

Elliott Hundley, There is No More Firmament, 2016, paper, oil, parabolic reflectors, glass, pins, plastic, foam, and linen on panel, 96” x 147” x 10 ¼”.

Elliott Hundley, There is No More Firmament, 2016, paper, oil, parabolic reflectors, glass, pins, plastic, foam, and linen on panel, 96” x 147” x 10 ¼”.

D.P. - Art and freedom are often linked, especially in the United States. Do you find freedom in chaos?

E.H. - Yes. I think there is freedom in chaos. I think there is a great deal of order imposed on creative people. I think it’s insidious. And numbing.

D.P. - Does the anarchistic impulse in your work have anything to do with democracy?

E.H. - I don’t know. You could look at the artwork in a democratic way-where hierarchy is undermined. But I don’t intellectualize my works in that way. It’s more like I’m trying to get at a feeling. And it happens to be that that feeling has all these analogies and metaphors that can be applied to it. For me to talk about it that way after the fact almost seems disingenuous.

D.P. - I like looking at your work because I don’t feel I’m being told what to think.

E.H. - Yeah. In one of my favorite television shows, one of my favorite characters says: “I wouldn’t tell you what to think. I wouldn’t even do that to myself.”

D.P. - That’s terrific. A great way to sneak more freedom in. How is your Artaud exhibition different from the one that came before it?

E.H. - That one was all painting. It was also an attempt to restrict myself. To be rigorous. To get better with paint. And then, in my most recent one, I completely let loose. No editing. I said to myself: “If you want to do it, you do it.” I felt that I had earned that because I had spent the previous year constantly saying “no” to myself. So it didn’t feel frivolous.

D.P. - Hard won?

E.H. - Kind of. Like I could indulge. And let myself do what I wanted. And not ever think about it. That was a big psychological difference.

D.P. - Was it more fun?

E.H. - It was more fun.

David Pagel is an art critic who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. He is a professor of art theory and history at Claremont Graduate University and an adjunct curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y., where he organized “Underground Pop” and “Damaged Romanticism.” An avid cyclist, Pagel is a five-time winner of the California Triple Crown.

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