ANDREW WOOLBRIGHT – STUDIO VISIT, OCTOBER 2021
Andrew Woolbright is an artist, educator, writer, and curator currently based in New York City. I spoke with Andrew shortly after he was awarded a studio in DUMBO as part of the Sharpe Walentas Program.
Amy Boone-McCreesh: You’ve faced many obstacles recently, including a fire that destroyed your studio, and this collective mourning during the pandemic. How have you remained resilient?
Andrew Woolbright: We’re all going through it as artists. We’re all trying to piece together and find a counter culture, which means navigating life in ways that can be difficult and thin. My artistic practice is the thing I do no matter what is going on in my life. You have to make your studio practice your best friend; the thing you go to when you’re heartbroken or excited. If there was a missile launched at New York I would spend time with my family and the people I love, but I would also be thinking about a painting I need to finish. So the making is always part of it no matter what happens.
It was really difficult during the fire because it was the longest time I went without painting, probably since I was about 18. That lasted about three months, which actually ended up being a time that allowed me to really think about things. Loss can be unifying. When my studio burned down, a barber shop next door to me also burned down. Barbers from all over the world weren’t sending him scissors and supplies to keep cutting hair. As an artist, I had a different experience. So many people sent brushes and supplies and reached out to me. And my students showed up with this bag of paint and brushes–I definitely broke down crying. Art is a really beautiful, ecological thing in that we can go anywhere in the world and there are artists living there who have similar circumstances to ours, and some understanding of the living that we do. Obviously it’s really difficult losing things, but I do believe this is all very pagan–you have to lose a lot before you can have a chance to make anything. I think you have to throw things into the pit for anything to emerge from it. The more I live life as an artist, the more I realize that’s what allows us to understand each other.
There was a lot to learn from that, but a lot of good learning in how artists want to take care of each other. It’s really difficult too with how life is structured, how we are so busy all the time. It can feel sometimes like people aren’t there for you when really they are just busy. But then if something bad does happen, you find out everyone is right there. That was a really important thing to learn through it–everyone is still there and wants to help. We’re just all spread thin over everything.
A: Like many artists, you wear a lot of hats in the community such as writing, teaching, and making art–can you talk specifically about Super Duchess and the transition to Below Grand, as well as the writing?
I think it’s about feeling responsible for things and understanding how shaky it all is, but I love that image of Mike Kelly wearing the janitor outfit with the mop. In the art community there is more need than there are helpers. It’s always been difficult for me to go around and ask for people’s walls and floors to show my work. On a very basic level, writing and running a gallery is like the take a penny, leave a penny concept. If I’m asking for attention, I’m trying to give attention somewhere else so that on an ecological level it’s sustainable. That’s part of where that motivation comes from. It also comes from frustration–romantic frustration of dealing with galleries and institutions handling my work or my friends’ works in ways I wish they didn’t.
With writing, it’s reading a lot of purely descriptive reviews. So much of art writing isn’t evaluative or about assembly or recovery, or really about anything except describing what is in the gallery until the word count is hit. It’s rearticulating the press release–rather than talking about what the work can do and what it is saying about the moment, how it engages with a context. I have a really conflicted relationship with running a gallery, curating, and writing. I would love to just be an artist, but I feel like I keep getting pulled into other things. I don’t know if I agree with people who say that teaching or curating or writing is a form of their practice because I try to keep each of those things separate so they aren’t about my own self-promotion; but I will say that I don’t think I’m capable of being in the world and being an artist without doing all of it. I remember being young in Illinois and reading about an artist in Artforum that was introduced by the editor with “It’s not uncommon to find their work, their reviews, and their curation all present in the same issue.” I didn’t realize that was possible until then, but there’s a rich history of it. Artists like Donald Judd, Phong Bui, Mira Schor, David Salle, Amy Sillman, R.H. Quaytman, and Carolee Schneeman–they’ve all tried to expand beyond their practice to help develop the language and the community itself and they’ve all set the bar really high for what is expected of us.
I think it’s about asking ourselves what do we owe each other. As we feel climate and system collapse more and more–asking that question of what do we owe each other leads us and pulls us in directions that require being community minded and think about other peoples’ practices. We have to create space for as many people that we have the ability to create space for.
I talk to gallerist friends and there’s a very real material reality that we do ten shows per year. That means that realistically each gallery can help 20 or 30 people per year. I have a lot of friends I want to help and the New York gallery world shrunk by 25% after Covid. There are always fewer and fewer spaces, because realistically, who would ever want to run a gallery? It’s a terrifying reality that they don’t really make money and if they make money it’s not worth the time and effort put into it. Most business-minded people say it is too much work, they’d rather sell a car than deal with artists. That’s why cooperative systems and sustainable models are necessary. A lot of it comes down to rent and why would any stable person want to do this who’s not obsessed about this community and this culture of making art? Anyone from the outside would say there’s too much risk and too much work. So that’s why everything keeps shrinking and gets more unstable. We all know people who get really down about their work because it isn’t getting shown, and they stop making it.
There was a very formative experience for me while I was at RISD. It was a Harvard lecture series Isabelle Graw and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth put together “Painting beyond itself: The medium in the post-medium condition.” There’s a moment that didn’t make it into the book where after one of the lectures Amy Sillman and R.H. Quaytman were on stage and when the lecturer turned to the panel to ask if they had any questions, Amy Sillman said something like, “I don’t have any questions, but you don’t know any good artists. The people you care about have economic value. You know them because of their auctions. It’s artists’ jobs to remember people long enough that you then care about them.”
So that was a really transformative moment for me. I realized that as an artist, we have to be oral historians. We have an oral tradition that can side-step, circumvent the top-down vertical history that is imposed upon us by people who don’t want to talk about work and only know how to look at a few galleries that are related to the market. Only artists have the ability to occasionally upset the direction and impulses of the market.
What gets me excited about Below Grand is that the artists we show go on to show with some really great galleries and get curated into great shows. It means something to me that that is our reputation, and even though our gallery is small, we can introduce better artists into the ecosystem. I like knowing bigger galleries are keeping an eye on us. And we’re close enough with our artists that they call us excited when they get an email or a message for a studio visit because of a show they did with us.
A: Let’s talk about your studio practice – Your paintings feel delicate, yet confrontational at the same time. How would you describe your work?
I’m trying to make something complicated within figuration, something that isn’t too this or too that, effectively. This body of work is dealing with digital sublime–this shock of circulating digital images that are neither good nor bad, just ultimately soul dizzying. I’m interested in the way its existence informs the way we visualize and pictorialize the world in a way we can’t understand yet, while trying to avoid being didactic. I’m trying to just understand it as a new visualization of the world and at times bump up against the affect of it on me and how I feel about things. The delicate touch, the airbrush, removes my gesture so my hand can reintroduce the bodily element through the brush. It’s trying to acknowledge that there’s a physical embodiment within the virtual. There’s a dual nature to it in that what happens in our minds happens in our bodies simultaneously. The way our body flows through the world affects how we think about it and vice versa.
I think about these current bodies as either sand castles or fight screens. The sand castle Shrinebeasts are a romantic grotesque, and are stand-ins for the utopic vision that we can only appreciate because it is an exception to reality, not the rule of it. The fight screens reflect a realization that the future can always be characterized as an abstraction of bodies engaged in a pageantry and ritual of violence that we currently can’t understand. I think it’s all in the same body of work, but everything is either a sand castle or a Mortal Kombat character of my own creation.
For me, the grotesque is a mechanism that feels like it can deal with post-humanist ideas. The dialectic, the opposition, the fusion dance between different entities that create something new while retaining their individual characteristics. The Dragon Ball Z fusion dance and virtual chimeras are all updates on the Renaissance grotesque and the marbling together of difference.
I think what painting can still do is arrest things–the swirl or swarm of images, the act of painting arrests it and makes us have to look and think about it for an amount of time that the images themselves can’t retain. There’s a Paul McCarthy interview where the mask drops for a second and he was basically like, I hate this shit, but I was born in the foothills of Disneyland in LA. I don’t get to work with stained glass or marble like the Renaissance. My stained glass and marble is Doc and Grumpy and I have to figure out how to make a chapel out of this shit. I like having a practice that is sort of resigned in a way, where I personally feel responsible to remove my opinion from the work as much as I can, and can address culture as a sculptural clay that I have to do something with.
A: What is the typical studio day for you and how do you manage your schedule?
Studio always fills the space up. I’m really happy here. My schedule’s pretty busy, but it changes everyday based on when I have time. If I’m teaching all day I’ll come in at night or before I teach. It’s difficult to write while I’m in the studio and think about making while I’m writing. I have to separate that. When I’m writing, I write for a week straight. And I write better if I’m also reading, so I’m reading and researching a lot at that time as well. What I’m really trying to focus on doing is keeping language and art as separate as I can. I keep research separate too. I’ll do my drawings, reading, and research for a month straight outside of the studio. After I figure everything out, I come into the studio and make a lot of work. Keeping some guardrails in place and determining how much of the world I allow in, is really important for this type of work. The compositions are based on classical designs and address the edge of the canvas in ways that are traditional. The drawings take a lot of work to figure out that relationship to the edge and then I try to mess it up by adding things I see on my phone, but that swarm can get to a place where I could allow myself to never finish anything. I think you have to do that when you’re dealing with the digital swarm. I also don’t really listen to music in here because it gets me mixed up. I’m thinking too much about gesture and music influences it too much for me.
I do usually have the Brooklyn Rail’s New Social Environment on while I’m working. They host them every day at 1 and its great having a discussion like that going while I’m working.
A: What have you been watching, listenting to, reading, playing? What’s been getting you through during the pandemic
I’ve been watching a play through of the game Death Stranding in the studio while I work. The game is set in the future, and you play the part of basically an Amazon delivery driver making deliveries between the last outposts of what used to be America. I don’t play video games myself, but there’s something about how this game makes the future so technologically wondrous but ultimately boring that I’m interested in it. Its such a slow game, for the most part you’re just going back and forth and making deliveries, that I can have it going on in the background while I work.
I read a lot when I’m not in the studio. I get a lot of inspiration from William Gibson’s novels. Pattern Recognition especially is really influential to my work. I love the way he creates moments of abstraction with words like polymer, that are specific but don’t really inform. And I like the roles he suggests advertising and gaming will have in the future. The main character in Pattern Recognition is a sort of oracle of logos–she has such a visceral, bodily response to graphic design that it almost borders on divination and companies pay her to look at their new designs.
Beyond that, I’m really trying to understand the usefulness and purpose of art writing so I’m reading a lot of it to try to form a stronger ideology behind my writing. I wish to feel things like Berger, have the language of Storr, the assembly and analysis of Nochlin or Foster, the worldview of Clark, and the poetic clarity of Ashbery.