A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Interview with Jackie Gendel & Tom McGrath

Jackie Gendel, Crowd, 2009. Oil on canvas. 24 x 22 inches. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.

One problem with Miami is that after shows open (events that are in themselves often over shadowed by the social aspect of our Second Saturday Art Walks), there isn’t much that seems to happen beyond the necessary commercial goings-on. Nevertheless, in spite of the near derelict and quite uninviting nature of Wynwood – Miami’s supposed art hub in slow reform from its previous life as a fashion warehouse district – the fact is that there is an important, age-varied, hungry and semi-isolated yet publicly active art community down here, and that in itself provides reason enough for more sustained dialogues. It seems like everyone’s chief complaint is that there is not enough writing – we’ve all heard those hilarious anecdotes about the laissez-fair climate that would never materialize in a city with more art criticism/publication – and that art’s recent proliferation in South Florida has had an adverse effect on the overall profundity of creativity a la Miami.

Its fair to say that irrespective of quality, most shows that open here – regardless of whether patrons on the opening night are drunk or not – are received well. This is owed mainly to two simple truths: a) that the Miami art public, much like Cinderella at the ball, are for the most part too busy enjoying the city’s new look to notice an impending calamity – in this case regarding their reverence of mediocrity – ; and b) because the poor bastards have scant opportunity to read anything other than aggrandizing rehashed promotional literature to enable them to think otherwise.

Jackie Gendel & Tom McGrath, however, the show that just closed at David Castillo Gallery, was accompanied by one of the most interesting press releases so far this year and featured two artists from New York (Jackie Gendel earned her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University; Tom McGrath holds degrees from the Cooper Union School of Art and Columbia University) who were able to validate the acclaim their exhibition received with a scintillating conversation documented in part below.

No room for criticism here I am afraid – it’s nice to be showed up from time to time!

Jackie Gendel, Installation view. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.

ARTLURKER: Can you speak about your residency at Fountainhead?

Tom McGrath: The fountainhead residency has been good to us. We like Jalousie windows and mid-century neighborhoods- Dan and Kathryn [Mikesell] are enthusiastic and extremely resourceful. We also liked our co-residents Paul Bartow and Richard Metzger who were both just here. They both collaborate as a branch of Spurse- a group dedicated to research, architecture and social practices – but in Miami they went rogue with a system-generated psycho-geography project at Locust Projects involving walks (a bit like a ‘derive’, only with a camera apparatus), transformed into elevations, which then provide raw information used to generate a dynamic environment that is part installation, video-map, and wall painting. Christy Gast and Mike Genovese are at the studio, we have had some good conversations, although if I tried to talk about what I think they are doing I would both run out of time and do them a disservice. Abby Manock and Pooper and Pizza Dog were also good housemates, P and PD had several Chicago-related video screenings at the Upper East Side garden that nobody knew about but which were good. PD had art games at the house – part parlor game, part dada, with something of a weirdo twist. I thought some of the games were self-infantilizing at first, but they actually worked as open collaborations. Some of that Chicago acid-comic-formalist sensibility is very The Hairy-Who.

Tom McGrath, Installation view. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.

AL: How did you both come to have a show at David Castillo?

TM: The show with David fell into our laps while we were toiling away in our studio here. We like the artists he shows, Aramis Gutierrez and Pepe Mar are both part of what we like about it, and there are a lot of good artists with shows coming up and that Tom Scicluna piece last month was absolutely remarkable. Jackie’s work draws a kind of periodized role-play or alternate history with modernist painters who were women- for example, Charlotte Solomon, Florine Stedheimer, and Marie Laurencin. David understands this role, not only does he know the work Jackie’s paintings seek a dialogue with, he has also placed that work- specifically Laurencin.

AL: Have you worked/exhibited/lived in Miami before?

TM: We have only been here for fairs before. Jackie did the Atlantic Center years ago, though. Miamians love to alternately put down their town and promote it. As New Yorkers, with an outside p.o.v., the loosely-defined art community down here is at an advantage as long as does not see itself as strictly market defined. The market is not defined by the demand for slick painting, poster work, glossy photos, antlers, drawings on vellum or even installations and performance- the market is that which creeps between you and your peers, makes you competitive, isolated. It makes your work look the same as everyone else’s, or makes you arbitrarily seek difference at the expense of real rapport. Miami obviously gets that- and they have more self-organizing power and more support than your average Brooklyn clique. We like the fact there is always a talk or an event somewhere. I hope I don’t come off patronizing or make too many generalizations, I really could be off- but we really do think this is a city with an edge.

Jackie Gendel, Swim Club, 2009. Oil on canvas. 22 x 24 inches. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.

AL: What are the connections between your works?

TM: As far as genres go, our work could not be more different. Jackie paints people and crowded environments, what I paint is well within the category of landscape and is for the most part unpopulated. But I think we have overlapping attitudes when it comes to painting, and we both work with thoroughly conventionalized tropes through a medium that has plenty of romantic baggage (as in God-view landscapes), or at least carries with it “joie-de-vivre” (as in easel portraits or genre scenes). Despite our engagement with those notions and genres, we both take a certain pleasure in the act or process of making wet paintings of very dry subjects. We both work with subjects and categories of art that are deceptively quotidian.

Jackie Gendel: I think Tom and I both believe that painting can be about the material, but it can also play with people’s assumptions. We both use painting as a way to question our subjects and ourselves. People, and painters, use appropriation in less obvious ways than quotation (like in Warhol). What is interesting to me is where they try not to act conscious of it.  If you look at a scene of contemporary life, you are going to see people with haircuts, settings, furniture that make references to the past as a kind of communication. It is part of this idea of “lifestyle”. Even in hard times, you see it.  My work isn’t about nostalgia, but I make references in both the ways that I paint and what I paint. My paintings are full of people who believe they are “self made”, but no one really is.

Tom McGrath, Sky Grid VII, 2008 – 2009. Oil on canvas. 56 x 96 inches. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.

AL: Tom, what in particular does your one point perspective from an elevated (God like) point of origin hope to affect in the viewer?

TM: The sky views are supposed to have a kind of superimposed grid; if they have a vanishing point, it is a really oppressive, symmetrical view. It’s also romantic. Sky views are historically associated with omniscience, real estate, tourism, ownership, fear of nature, and colonial enterprise. In a lot of American romantic painting  (at least the kind my work makes a lot of reference to), looking down over a landscape from a scenic spot can be associated with Manifest Destiny, which is one of the most dangerous ideas still lingering in many forms of the American way of life. In contrast to a “God-view”, a contemporary version would expose a sprawling caricature of suburban order, which is so much about a channeled, sequestered life. Nothing really new here, except that naturalism, in modernity, has actually been symptomatic of this process of domestication, rather than the other way around- it makes for the illusion that nature is something out there. This is what relates the work to a body of paintings I made several years ago in a completely different model- they were of windshields in the rain. In both bodies of work, the painting is a scrim that separates the interior from the “outside”.

AL: Jackie, in the respect to making a statement about people’s perceptions of themselves, are you making a conscious effort to create edifying or enlightening work?

JG: I do not want my paintings to be didactic. The people in my paintings are supposed to be in different states of awareness—some are more self-aware than others. I paint people because the process of painting a portrait is similar to identity formation- even if my process has a lot of chance and control issues, and even if I am playing “god” or “author”, I find the materials, the spills, the language, tells me who this person is becoming. I let the process determine things in a material way too- a bit of automatic writing might look like a collar from a 17th century coat, so now I am working with historical code. If I wipe a sweeping gesture over the painting, it can switch gender. Neither is fake nor authentic. I come from a place of not knowing and trying to figure it out.  I think for some people art may reveal truths, but more often it plays with truisms- things that are not necessarily true but believed or accepted because enough people utter them so frequently. Some of these “accepted” notions are dangerous, most are tedious, some are funny, and yes, many of them mask class conflict. You know that song “New York Conversation”?

Jackie Gendel, Parlor, 2009. Oil on canvas. 26 x 24 inches. Courtesy David Castillo Gallery.

AL: From a certain perspective, you could both be painting about Miami. Thinking specifically, has living here in amongst our vast grids of suburbia, tasting the wind of migrant Latin culture and witnessing the spectacle of a city populated by arguably some of the most superficial people in the US first hand affirmed or affected in any way your interests in your practices?

TM: Absolutely, but not in any substantive way in my work yet. Joan Didion’s book on Miami was a good primer for us; we were prepared for Miami to be “a Latin American capital, two years away from a new government”, but also an art-world two years after a bubble. While you can hear a lot of interesting stories from both Cuban Miamians and Venezuelans as well, I think for us to pretend to know anything more about the culture mix of Miami would be a little presumptuous. You can’t just come to a place like this for a few months and understand it; I can barely gauge how little I’ve seen. It takes months to incubate long enough to visibly affect my work. For example I spent this summer in a rural town north of Paris, and I’m still waiting to see how that sinks into the studio, other than the fact I’m chain-smoking again.

JG: Not to be a snowbird, but it’s been good to skip the winter… As for the superficiality issue, people love to say that in NY and LA too for different reasons.  I’m more interested in how people’s aspirations, however obvious, affect their sense of place. This is a city where people identify with the term “self- made”, across origins and classes, whether they really had to reinvent themselves or are just into accessories. I think it’s already something you can see in the work – “Parlor”, for instance (pictured above) – the women may look more northern, but the setting is like an older Miami, one that maybe never existed[.]


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  • Fausto

    How do I Promote My Music as being a person in town.
    Play this until only one child and pillow are left. The forts
    that most of the parents choose are also equipped with the optional
    Built-in Picnic Table for visiting and snacks, tea, coffee, shakes, etc.

  • Eithne Clarke

    Today, Sat Nov 8th 2014, I was invited to tour the newly opened Dr Phillips Center for The Performing Arts, in downtown Orlando, Florida, and was “blown away” by the exquisite Tom McGrath translucent, and highly colorful, ceilings in one of the Dr Phillips theaters. I was not familiar with Mr McGrath’s work, but when one of the guides said that Tom McGrath was a New York artist, I just had to know more. As a fromer NYC resident for 25+ years, I feel very proud to know that the exceptionally beautiful work of Mr McGrath is now part of the Orlando theater experience. Bravo! Bravo!

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Interview with Jackie Gendel & Tom McGrath