Phil Rabovsky, Venus in Ferns (2017). Oil on canvas
On the occasion of “Too Late: the European Can(n)on is Here,” their second dual exhibition together at Shoestring Press, artists Lane Sell and Phil Rabovsky sat down with curator Madeleine Boucher in a tiny Brooklyn living room over no small amount of whiskey. Their conversation sheds light on the origins of each artist’s new installation pieces, their process, their identity as technicians and relationship to history, and, of course, erotic art.
Madeleine Boucher: Phil, for the show you created a number of large-scale oil paintings with installation components. Lane, you created a textile piece that used body print silkscreens and found objects, and also had a participatory component. How do you feel your work in this show relates to one another, given that it looks so different?
Phil Rabovsky: Whoa, that’s tough.
Lane Sell: Yeah. I’m gonna pour some drinks.
LS: So, I think it’s useful to talk about the prehistory of the work, because the trajectory of the pieces in this show comes from work that is more obviously similar. We both showed together in 2015 in “The Model and Her Artist.” That work was about the representation of bodies, particularly female bodies.Both of these groups of work started from a very similar series of questions about ethics of representation, and how an artist uses the body of a model, how the artist represents a model or puts themselves in the service of somebody representing themselves, which then has sort of opened up a lot of ground in terms of different ways of asking about the body in art, but also the body in culture, the body as sort of the carrier of inheritance.
MB: Particularly for you, Phil, the shift has been one from an interest in the representation of bodies to a linguistic approach.
PR: One of the pieces of feedback that I got from the first show in 2015 was from Melanie Kress, who was I believe with the Invisible Dog at the time. She remarked that all of the backgrounds were white—I’m expressing it nicely, I think when she said it, it was more of an objection—like, ”I don’t feel there is any sort of concept with the white background.” I thought it was a fair criticism. Eventually I made the connection between the white space of the canvas and the white space of the page.
MB: Like it’s a blank slate to be expressed upon.
PR: The way that meaning happens on a blank page is not so different from the way that meaning happens on a blank canvas, right? Now, a few years before that show, I made a few “Word Paintings” which probed the sorts of interests that I had in undergrad as a linguistics and philosophy of language student. I realized that a lot of the questions about gender that I was asking in that first show were questions about grammar, in a broad definition of that term. Like, how do we recognize gender? Well, there’s a certain syntax in which a body places itself, or which a body follows, that is taken as a set of rules governing gender expression.
MB: The way you use the linguistic terms “grammar” and “syntax” is particular and unconventional. It’s not just describing how the educated art viewer “reads” a painting. It’s also about how people express their identity visually to one another in life without having to talk about it.
PR: Whether they want to or not.
LS: Well, there is a connection: the way that bodies convey information. Or maybe convey is not quite the word that I’m looking for—it’s something more like transmit.—Genetic and cultural information moving between people. I think is what Trans-Atlantic ended up being most about.
MB: Where did the idea for Trans-Atlantic come from?
LS: I kept a diary as part of this project, which is something I had never done before, and I think it starts on May 16th, 2016. This was two days after I got married. After we got married.
PR: It’s no secret that Lane and Maddie are married.
LS: Yes, we’ve been accused of being married before. We were spending the night at a lighthouse upstate in the Hudson River, which is accessible by a sometimes tidally-flooded causeway, and the entire causeway was just covered in these black, shiny, pointy seeds, like H. R. Giger sculptures, like something out of Alien. They’re called ‘devil’s heads,’ but they are actually the seeds of the invasive Chinese water chestnut, which is also a tasty vegetable. It poses a significant environmental risk to the Hudson. It clogs tributaries and spreads like wildfire.
MB: Chokes out native species.
LS: Yeah, which leads people to have a rather low opinion of it, but if you think of it as bent on survival, it’s a tough, resourceful plant that has created these seeds that will not let go of you—they will go through your boot. It contains both sides of the rhetoric about immigration. You can call it an invader, or you can look at it as a self-made success story.
About the same time I started reading The Atlantic by Simon Winchester, which looks at the Atlantic Ocean as a nexus of human exchange—most of it pretty brutal: enslavement, warfare, commerce, technology, trans-oceanic telegrams… I’d already been in this historical frame of mind from working on 75-Foot Riot, which is basically about a violent encounter between two communities that I have been a member of my whole life—the West Indian community and Jewish community. Looking at that past as a series of coincidences; the strange combinations of individual will, desire, and complete accident that cause people to be in a certain place in a certain time with others, to see things and feel things. There’s also the component that’s just genetic, mixing up DNA and creating new people… [it was like] the sky opened up and all these things fell out.
MB: Trans-Atlantic comes from a personal place, of trying to understand where you came from. But I can tell for you it’s uncomfortable to talk about it as personal.
LS: I feel like I’ve made a lot of work that hides its personal nature, that goes into the historical record of things I most certainly wasn’t around for. That biographical connection stayed external to the construction of the piece, but as an imaginary hook into all the things that happened between people who don’t seem to have anything to do with one another; shtetl Jews from Lithuania, slaves on a West Indian plantation, and people who were born on a rock in the Aegean Sea all being smashed together and wanting each other…
MB: And that’s not just a set of examples—these are the people who made up your family.
LS: I was trying to shoehorn into twenty feet of cotton shirting a more cartographic way of collating the genetic, cultural, and historical information with the direct experience of desire and exchange and theft and enslavement. I think all of those things add up to a memorial.
On sex, the erotic and reproduction
MB: Lane, Trans-Atlantic takes the form of a map of inheritance, which includes female bodies swimming in the ocean, and a giant swirl of these silver things that look like a school of fish, but upon closer inspection, they turn out to be sperm. Can you talk about how reproduction is represented in Trans-Atlantic?
LS: I started to think about the way that my family has worked, which has been strongly matrilineal. Not that the families lacked a male presence, but that the real carriers of the culture in the family were mostly women. Men don’t have to be around at all really, and they get ground down or spit out, or sent off to war, or they didn’t have any intention of sticking around in the first place. It seemed to me to more honestly represent that chain of inheritance.
MB: Well, we’re talking about human reproduction and genetic material and DNA in this clinical way—but what we’re really talking about is sex. Do you feel that Trans-Atlantic is in any way erotic?
LS: Yeah, but how exactly is hard to put my finger on. There’s a part of making body prints which is inescapably erotic. There’s a lot of physical contact, there’s a lot of talking about touching, moving, and pressing.
MB: It makes me think, Phil, about the fact that we had one resident in our neighborhood, Crown Heights, raise concerns about the fact that there were naked women in this show—but in yours, not in Lane’s work. Specifically, she demanded the removal of the poster for the show, which featured the left panel of Venus in Ferns, from the window.
LS: And the words she used were ‘graphically sexual.’
MB: ‘Graphically sexual’ seemed to me to be completely missing the point of the painting. But, you could argue that representing a person for who they are, standing in front of you naked as they came, is erotic, but not ‘sexual.’
PR: Yeah, as much as I disagree with the objections raised by this individual, I don’t think they entirely missed the point. Graphic sexuality is something that we are completely shell-shocked by and have become inured to. Children are exposed to it constantly—part of this individual’s argument against the painting was that children would be exposed to it, and the youth would be corrupted, which is total bullshit, frankly. I think what lies at the core of it is the fact that it’s not actually sexual, it’s erotic—in a way that seeing a runway model photoshopped for your viewing pleasure is not erotic. And that, I think, is disturbing in the way that anything you’re not accustomed to seeing is disturbing.
On playing roles from art history
MB: Phil, In both Venus in Ferns and Audrine, I had the impression that the women depicted are actually full people who find themselves trapped in the unlikely and dangerous situation of being stuck inside a masterpiece. What was the process like of working with these models?
PR: I’m worried that the answer might not be as high-fallutin’ and conceptual as you hoped it was going to be. There is definitely a participatory element which survived from the previous show, The Model and Her Artist, in which the models participated in the creation of the image—in the case of Audrine, she actually took up the brush and made changes herself—but that participation is no longer the centerpiece as it was in the earlier work. It’s no longer part of the rules, but it seeped through the cracks anyway. They would come over and say. “Oh no, that’s not how I wear my makeup,” or “Is my nose a little too big?”. In the case of Audrine, I never quite managed to get it to where she wanted it, which is why I called the piece How I Thought Audrine Wanted Me to Paint Her. Because these were not professional models but people that I knew from my private life, capturing the personality, and the fact that they seem uncomfortable with the shoes that I’ve assigned them—
LS: The role comes with certain kinds of rules. In the same way that the Venus becomes a shorthand for a notion of timeless beauty, the Luncheon becomes a convoluted way of thinking about the relation of the artist to the model and the male to the female and the object to the subject.
PR: Right. and the extent to which I managed to represent them as full human beings is the extent to which they are uncomfortable with those roles. I hope.
On being a technical artist
PR: Getting back to what Lane’s piece and my work have in common in this show, I think that one of the things Lane and I both share in our approach to making work, and this might sound a little bit ridiculous, is a respect and passion for the craft. In our own ways we are both very technical artists.
MB: True, you’re very committed to understanding the techniques and traditions of oil painting, and Lane is a Master Printer in his day-to-day profession.
PR: And I feel like this is something that is not a universal in our current moment. I think there’s a lot of “audio feedback” from conceptualism which influences many artists to think of their work precisely as a vehicle for an idea. Lane and I think of work as significantly the product of our fingers at work. As a violist I know says about her own work, you have to let the left hand lead.
LS: There’s a horizon of ideas that I always come back to, because it has to do with the way prints work. The print is always going to be a trace of something that happened—the evidence of that event. You could call that the conceptual foundation of printmaking, but it’s the other way around—printmaking becomes the foundation of revisitation, memorial, record and history. It’s also a method of capture. It extends the moment of capture across time.
PR: And if the word for printmaking is extend, the word for painting might be expand—because unlike a camera which captures a person in a split second from a particular perspective with the light falling on them in a particular way, a painter is constantly correcting for the image or idea of the person they have in their mind, even if they are working off of photographs. That image or idea in the painter’s mind is not built off of a single moment. Rather, you are expanding the moment of capture to the lifetime of your acquaintance with this person.
MB: Well, we should say a word about the somewhat tongue-in-cheek name of this show: Too Late: The European Can(n)on is Here. Like all good things, it comes from a David Bowie song. Remind me, how did we get there?
PR: For me the pun there was a very succinct way of conveying both sides of the two person show. The European Canon (one N) clearly captured my interest in the art historical canon that figures on people’s bodies today and Cannon (with two N’s) clearly figures in the history of migration or forced migration from Africa to the Americas in Lane’s work.
LS: Well I’m going to take the other side of the title - I liked Too Late. Maybe this is projecting a certain memorial function from my work onto Phil’s, but all memorials are “too late.” Because if they had been in time, they wouldn’t be memorials. Which doesn’t make them less important to make, but it does acknowledge that the time of action for something is gone and what we can fill it with is—
LS: I’d take reflection, but it could have gone differently. It’s a fool’s errand to argue against the European canon with one N or two, because it’s already here. No amount of cultural studies is going to change the fact that we live on a continent that was emptied by steel, gunpowder, and disease, an entire civilization—
PR: And cultural cliches.
LS: And it’s also the case that you are never going to make art from nothing, the Venus de Milo is standing there. This is what you’ve got to work with—there’s no undoing it.
PR: I think Lane’s Too Late is a very interesting moment. I’m thinking specifically of an argument by Slavoj Zizek, who said that going back is often the wrong answer. ‘Okay, this European canon has deprived me of something, but it has also ushered in a new era, where it might be co-opted in the struggle against itself, creating something that may just be worthwhile.’ So the Too Late: The European Can(n)on is a double-edged sword—something that must be struggled against, but also that be taken up and used in the struggle.
LS: This makes me think of a famous moment of encounter in my family history. During the war, my Greek grandfather ends up in the Virgin Islands on a supply run, meets a nice girl (my grandmother). He goes to meet her grandmother, my great-great grandmother—a woman who is black, Jewish, the daughter of a slave and a German Jewish merchant, and born in the Western hemisphere—and she attempts to converse with him in Homeric Greek.
LS: Yeah, Victoria Levin addressed my grandfather in Homeric Greek because, riddle me this, she could read Homer.
PR: Did he understand her?
LS: Yeah, but I think it totally flipped his lid. He was totally self-educated but obsessed with the classical canon. This is also a man who wrote passages of Homer into his will to be inscribed on his tombstone: ‘My home is Zacynthos far to the east by the dawn.’
Phil Rabovsky’s pieces are on view through August 8 in the exhibition “QUALITY TIME,” curated by Jacquelyn Strycker, at SVA Chelsea Gallery.