Two Ships Passing: An Interview Between Andy Campbell and Gail Chovan
The following is an edited transcript of a conversation held at the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas in Austin, between art historian Andy Campbell and fashion designer Gail Chovan. It was the first in a series of conversations co-presented by the Visual Arts Center and Pastelegram.
ANDY CAMPBELL: So I've been rereading Emily Post's Etiquette lately, and at the end she talks about how there's this pervasive thought that the youth of today have terrible manners and everyone needs to “get on the youth,” "what are we teaching the youth," "how are we inculcating them with the correct manners and behaviors." Post rightly points out that there is a little bit of moral superiority in that move, and she says that the youth is where we derive all our innovations. We get a lot from the youth that are not the manners that we were inculcated with. And that is precisely where we find joy and comfort in a way. I want to approach this conversation from the same angle, because we are living in a time where there are more and more images all the time and in a way that that comes with a moral position, meaning the notion that we are creating an ADD culture or a culture who doesn't know how to read images closely because we now deal with so many images. I think that this is false concern to some degree. I think that communication with so many images at once creates new possibilities for scholars, thinkers and everyday folks alike.
Screenshot from Google image search for "contemporary art." Image courtesy Andy Campbell.
So, one of the best examples of this is Google image search. I think it’s a really easy target because if you type something in to it—for example, “contemporary art”—anybody who's an expert in that area will tell you that the results are not representative of that field. For example, if you type into Google Image search "beauty" you will get a bunch of saccharine landscapes. If you type in “ugly” you'll get malformed people. And so while that's interesting, culturally, to think through why that may be, it's not precisely what I'm getting at with the profusion of images. Rather, I want to point to and talk about my own work for a little bit, which is about communities that really haven't been written or talked about. Specifically I'm talking about gay and lesbian leather folks in the 1970s. One of the problems I have in communicating my research to people is how to do you communicate a world that no one really understands within our academic realm? How do you communicate that there is a kind of rich history without relying on lots and lots of images? For example, (slide) these are images from one gay bar, the Gold Coast in Chicago, and there is a whole program of murals and images and lights that could be a chapter of a whole book, I feel like. But for me my challenge is always how to communicate, and I think that providing a lot of images is one way to do that. I think it comes closest to what contemporary artist Emily Roysdon calls “Ecstatic Resistance” which is this idea that between these poles of struggle and improvisation we find movement, but I want to point you to this triad in the lower right: the telling, the communicability and the unspeakable. There's a way that I think that this profusion of images is at once telling, communicates something, but also might be a kind of blockage to communicating something. And part of using lots of images is approaching something that may be unspeakable, that may need to be unpacked even more, instead of kind of outlining every little tiny detail. It actually leads to somewhere that may be harder to get into. I see this in contemporary art, especially queer art, like Ryan Treecartin, who uses YouTube aesthetics and video formats over and over again; to A.L. Steiner who plasters walls with photographs. There is just so much profusion of images, this overwhelming expense of information that you have to take in, and representing that might be a kind of strategic or tactical move. I want to consider the way in which that, for me, feels closer to my own truth and my own experience rather than some kind of moral imperative or hunkering down and looking at one specific thing.
Photograph of The Gold Coast, Chicago, c. 1978. Image courtesy the Leather Archives & Museum.
So why I chose Gail has a lot to do with my first experience with an artist who I felt edited really well, and that was Derek Jarman and his film Blue. For those of you who don't know it, it’s a film that is just a blue screen and a soundtrack. I found myself really moved and compelled by this elegant and severe gesture of limiting the filmic color to just blue. And I'm thinking about Jarman's move into blindness, dealing with AIDS. I'm thinking about his associations with blue, whether they be flowers or smells, or through people, associations. And I find something similar with Gail and her store, Blackmail. For those who don't know, it limits its color palette to black and white and grey. I was always intrigued by that as a concept and seems to be something very fruitful, because even though I'm someone who loves a lot of images, who likes to talk fast, who likes to go from point A to point B in a split second, it gave me a chance to kind of slow down and think about texture and think about form and think about where the seams are in the garment, about what’s being placed next to the garment, instead of thinking about what each one particularly means to me. So it was actually a way of getting me to focus and I found myself in the same place as I found with Jarman's film. And I also found myself in the same place in a different way at the Alexander McQueen show at the Met this past year. This is also why I wanted to talk to Gail because there seems to be one of those periods when the art world becomes super fascinated with designers and they give them these huge exhibitions in big spaces. And I hope that it’s not just a period, that its a continuing dialogue. Seeing the Alexander McQueen show and all its grandeur and the millions of dollars that went into exhibition design for me took away from looking at the garments themselves. In this room (slide) for example, the accessories room, there are things on every shelf, and there are video monitors, and you are kind of overwhelmed by the spectacle of it, and you aren't paying attention to details like, “Oh my god, those are turkey feathers that are made into butterflies on the hat.” You are paying attention to everything except the clothes. I guess that's a way of introducing Gail, of saying that with this profusion of images, I wanted to pick someone who didn't traffic in that, because I felt like the conversation would be more fruitful.
Emily Roysdon, Ecstatic Resistance (schema), 2009; silkscreen and chine collé on paper; 87.6 x 63.5 cm. Designed in collaboration with Carl Williamson; image courtesy the artist.
GAIL CHOVAN: I go a little crazy because of course my thing is fashion, which is a word I just detest. I like to think of “clothing.” As a designer, I like to think about how these pieces of fabric can be deconstructed and looked at and put back together. And now with technology, the Internet, and of course Google ... we're given this unprecedented and limitless supply of images all the time that then saturate our brains. I'm in my fifties, so when I was in school I wrote my Master’s thesis by hand, and so I look at students today and it’s a huge change.
There were a series of events that occurred in my life, between having children later in life, having a daughter who is blind; so when you say profusion of images you think, “what are the profusion of images in her life?” That changes my whole outlook. How can I take in the world at a more controlled and limited way? When I see those artists that have all these things going on all at once, I feel crazy. So my task is to set parameters for myself, give myself rules and when I'm creating, inspiration is not so much from the visual and not so much from the imagery. Rather it is something that comes from inside of me.
Basically, I look inside myself and not at what anyone else is doing. I don't read fashion magazines. I've never seen Project Runway. When I look at things I start always with the shape. This is an example, on the right, in Marfa where there's nothing else around but this woman and the dress. And it’s basically a triangle and that's all it is. And its how many different ways can I make that triangle over and over; whether shorter, wider or more narrow, whether it looks different from the back or the front. That's basically how I challenge myself. The piece of the left is squares that have been sewn together in a way that there's really no cutting involved. And this is another way of challenge myself so that the actual piece comes from somewhere that has to do with something beyond the visual imagery. One of the people I've always looked at since I was in design school in the 80s was Yohji Yamamoto, who would actually drape the fabric on the person and let the fabric speak for itself. Here's a designer, he is letting the fabric speak. When it’s put on the person, it actually becomes a part of the person. If you've ever seen the film that Wim Wenders did on Yamamoto, called Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989) it talks a lot about history, about the fabric having this life of its own. And this (see below) is him sitting down and looking at the different shapes he has created. This is what he does before every show. He kneels in the studio and looks at this white piece of paper and he knows every shape and every piece of fabric before he sends it out there for the world to see. So that's where I come from, as opposed to the land of Project Runway: "Everyone can be a designer!" "Everyone can be an artist!" and "Let’s just look on the Internet!”
So when I do my personal work, I try to make it available to the world, because of course financially it must be, but with this unprecedented amount of images, with this faster-cheaper-out of control ethos, does that then cheapen it? Does it then make it harder to pick out what is really good? What is really worthy? Or is it all good and worthy because people are creating? I don’t know. That's something my judgmental self deals with every day; "Oh, it’s great that you are making this little dress out of polyester and with one sleeve, but it sucks!" With all the stuff, how do you pull one thing out? As Elton John said, “How do you pay your dues?”
Yohji Yamamoto, Preparations for the Spring/Summer 1991 Collection.
AC: So, I hold Project Runway parties at my house (laughs). I feel that with Project Runway, it’s either that or watch the Kardiashians or something. I feel like with Project Runway there is a creative element to it. Even if it is whatever "reality," there is some creative element. I don’t think that everyone on that show should be a famous artist or whatever. So for me it’s my way of decompressing at the end of the day. I'm socializing with people that I love, watching the show, and sometimes we talk all the way through it. But it’s funny because you are pulling out Project Runway as your example, and I'm like "Oh, if she only knew..."
GC: Apparently there's one about art, with some star, and you go on there and you create art...
AC: Yeah, and I probably feel the same way about that you feel about Project Runway. I feel like it’s horrible. Maybe it’s territorial then?
GC: Yea, you feel that way about art and I feel that way about clothing. But, going back to the Internet, how do you separate the good from the bad? There was something I was listening to where they were saying, would Spielberg's first film, Herzog's first student film, pan out among all the films made today among students? How would he do? Is he where he is because there was so much lack at the time?
AC: I'm interested in how you got to how you are, and how you decided to pare down to this concept of Blackmail. You said in our earlier conversation that you used to look outside of yourself, look at other designers. At which point did you decide to put up those blinders and focus in? Was there a moment you can point to?
GC: A lot of it has been just in the past five or six years. I've been a designer for twenty-five years. A few years ago, I had to stop and think, "What is my passion, what really makes me happy?" and how do I go after that. Now the black thing, well I was in school in Paris in the 80s … But there's something within the credo of anybody that loved an artist or is attracted to someone's work that came through to me with the Japanese and then the Belgian designers. There is just something about their soul and something about the way they approach design from inside out, as opposed to the outside in. And so, my husband and I have twins, who are six. Our amazing daughter Zelda is blind, and she was born blind. And as she gets older I watch her dress and I give her pieces of clothing. I give her leggings for example, and everyone else would go "Great!" but with Zelda it’s, "Okay, what’s this mom? Where did this come from?" She might put her arm through it. She might put it over her head. "Let me do it myself!," she says, "I want to do it myself." When do those leggings cease to be leggings? Because they're not on her legs anymore. We start to deconstruct. We are taking everything apart. When does a skirt cease to become a skirt? We call a piece of fabric with an elastic enclosure at one end a skirt. And usually we put it around our waist. What happens when we put it around our neck? Is it still a skirt because its a tube with two openings? If we put it on our arm, it becomes a sleeve. We've changed it because "arm" automatically means "sleeve." That’s how I got into my whole thing and my whole approach. This past season I did this geometric approach where I took four black squares of the same fabric and I spend days draping them on a dress form and never cut them. I sewed them together and formed dresses out of them. For me it’s a challenge. It 's seeing how my daughter is going to approach a visual world.
AC: Yea, I am frightened by that. I live in fear of losing my eyesight. Seeing stuff and talking about it is what I do.
GC: If you close your eyes for a second you start to hear everything: the chair, the hum, my voice. We walked all around Paris last summer and Zelda said, "Mom, what’s that," and I said, "Umm," and she stopped against the wall. I'm looking at the city, and I look down and she is on the ground feeling this eighteenthth century grate with cobblestones and there is air whooshing out of it. To me that is more beautiful that any image on the Internet. How do you slow down? As a professor, how do you make your students then pick out that moment that is so meaningful and so tactile and so emotional. Because that's what I think when I am overloaded with images.
AC: For me I kind of feel the opposite. I don't do yoga because I can’t get my mind to shut up. I actually feel more centered when I've seen more. I actually feel that I understand something in some sort of broader and larger context. So when I approach lots of images, when I see lots of images, when I'm looking through one of the large collection books, like those of Phaidon or Taschen publishers, of contemporary artists, I feel excited. I get the adrenaline, but I actually feel that I am moving and challenging myself forward into thinking about, "Okay, why was this put here in this book and do I believe it should be in this book." I do have a very limited cadre of artworks that fit a kind of emotional resonance for me in ways that few other artworks do. I start to compare them and say, "How do these things relate to those works that I really love and adore and really hold sacred?” I get a kind of energetic charge out of it. I feel that it propels my work forward. I don't get the immediate feeling that I need to retreat.
GC: But you said when you went to the McQueen exhibit, something happened.
AC: Yes, something happened, partly because there were so many fucking people there (laughs). So, the exhibition started out with some of his early stuff that is very architectural, very highly constructed, and then it went into the kind of crazy big showpieces on the runway. And those became the work that was the center and the core of the gallery. But there was this first room which was really muted, and I felt really intrigued by that. I think for me the thing that tripped me was the second gallery in that exhibition which had Halloween spooky sounds playing through the speakers. I felt like I was being tricked. I think that's where my feeling of, "Okay, some of this shit needs to go," came from.
GC: My question to you then, as a professor, how do you impart that to your students?
AC: It’s really hard. I teach three classes a semester. I teach Issues in Contemporary Art every semester at Texas State and now I generally teach Renaissance to Modern survey, and then a seminar. In the survey, it’s really hard because your job is to show them the grand sweep of art history but also get them to pay attention to what they are seeing.
GC: So maybe you ask them, "You go on the Internet, and you go and do the research, and you bring in a painting that maybe I've never seen."
AC: What I do when I test them in that class, is I give them an image that they've never seen. Its kind of part of this synthesizing knowledge where they really have to put it in place with what they already know. They have to put it in a context. And I think that's where, for me, that little place in the exam is where the actual learning in that class occurs. They can either read the book or listen to me in class, you know, but I think the real learning happens when they get into a museum and they don't know quite exactly what they’re looking at. There isn't a place where all the greatest works of art are gathering in one place—
GC: On the Internet!
AC: True! But there is no place where they can do that. So they walk into the Kimbell. How do they make sense of it? That’s their task. And I think it’s the same with contemporary art. The strategy is different. In Renaissance to Modern art, I show them a lot of images but I make them kind of focus in on one. In contemporary art, I show them a lot of images because I want them to see a lot of images so they—because a lot of my students are artists themselves—so they can have a sense of what is happening out in the world. So if someone comes up to them and says, "Hey, your photographs look like Cindy Sherman photographs," they won’t say, "Cindy who?"
And I think that's actually important for a young artist to see a lot. I feel fine with you at forty saying, "Okay, I've done that and now I'm focusing in on this thing." That to me is a choice. But I think that when you are moving through the beginning stages of your profession you do need access to a lot of information. I think I identify with artists that use a lot of images—who work from the outside in—because I think that that is a process by which queer identity is solidified. So, queer identity is not something that is just felt from the inside, but, like, you get called a queer on the street. It's not just what you say you are, it’s what other people call you. I mean, I'm sorry, but I'm a swishy fag. When I walk down the street, no one's going to be like, "There goes a straight guy going back to his home" [laughs]. Part of it is self-presentation, but the other part of it is what other people call me. So the external-in approach actually makes sense to me to claim as an approach in my own work.
[ … ]
AC: How do you work with assistants in your store? What’s your approach?
GC: I basically bombard them with information and talk to them and tell them we should go see this and that. And then hand them stuff even if they don't know how to do it. And then we learn as we go along. If I have interns from, say, UT, if they have to have a certain amount of stuff, a portfolio, then we will do it a little more structured.
AC: But you still bombard them with lots of stuff.
GC: I do.
AC: What is it about that then that you find useful for them? Why do you do that?
GC: It’s about passion. It comes from passion, for me. I want my children to be healthy but also I want them to be passionate about something. Something that really hits them. So when I'm talking about Ann Demeulemeester and the Antwerp Six; how they formed in Belgium and then took their show on the road to show the rest of the world what the Royal Academy was doing in Belgium, I'm so passionate about that. I've been to Antwerp to see the shows that are put on by the seniors, so I can see how are they getting it. Where is it coming from? How is it being taught? And my husband makes fun of me, he says, "You're always a school teacher." He thinks I'm a school teacher to everybody. I was having a conversation with a friend, they were telling me, "You are an educator. Don't expect to educate everybody out there, but stay in Austin and keep doing what you are doing and some people are going to get it sooner or later … ”
AC: Do you believe that?
GC: I sincerely believe that. When people walk into my shop I want to educate them. This is not about disposable imagery. It’s not about disposable fashion. It’s not about disposable art.
AC: So how do you convey that to them? Say someone comes in and they are looking around, they're browsing. And you are on South Congress so I assume you get this all the time...
GC: Oh my god, I know. People are like, "Is this art?"
AC: Yea, so what do you do in that situation?
GC: I don't shut them down hopefully. Sometimes I don't look up at them, but I try to do better.
AC: So when you are aren't feeling bitchy and sarcastic, then how do you respond?
GC: I tell them that I make everything in here from start to finish. I pattern, I do this and this. We sit down and we have a dialogue. We'll sit and we talk … or they flee. I put a doorbell on my front door that says, "Please ring me before entering," and nothing else on it. And then I have a sign that says, "This is a working atelier." And I love when people come up and they see that and they look at the doorbell and walk away. I love that. [laughs] Because I figure if you are going to come in, then be open-minded and explore it. And you don't have to like it. It’s like going to an art museum. People don't usually go to art museums if they don't want to go. But people walk into retail stores all the time without wanting to be there. With those people who see the doorbell and walk away, I feel that they made a decision. And kudos to them for thinking, "This doesn't look of any interest to me," or maybe subconsciously they are saying, "I don't want to see this." That's better than the chewing-gum cell-phone girl in flip-flops who walks in and talks on the phone and walks out. Ring my doorbell or don't come in. That's how I want it.
AC: Have you thought about moving the store so that it’s not on South Congress?
GC: Oh yes.
AC: What keeps you there?
GC: I love my building. It’s the soul that we found in that building. And we live right behind it, and the dialogue that I have with certain people during the week that come through. I actually love when people come in and will talk to me because they don't know. I love the interaction. When we were looking at imagery, its like, "How can you express to artists, or look at yourself and be able to express—as opposed to just being judgmental—what you really feel you do or don't like, and how someone is going to look back at you and say what they feel they do or don't like. With today, with everyone making magazines, everyone making art, everyone thinking they are a photographer...
AC: We were talking about this last night. There's this thing that people have great ideas all the time but they don't follow through with them. And one of the things I really like about Ariel's magazine [Pastelegram] is that after Art Lies closed, she said "Well, I'm going to make a magazine." So many people would say that, but never actually make the magazine from start to finish and to come out with it. There is something really special about following through with that idea and doing it well, doing it to the specifications of no one else. Like, when you look at that magazine, that is Ariel"s magazine. It is a collaboration with another artist but it is very much Ariel's magazine. The whole pruning and looking at galleries and figuring out what to cut and what not to cut. I think about that process. Iit blows my mind. I would never think to start a magazine. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks, Andy!] That would not be in my head anywhere, nor would I think to sew some pants. It’s beyond what I want to do. I want to go and buy some pants; but I appreciate that effort. I guess it gets back to what you were saying about passion, about people having instilled in them some sense of passion or direction.
GC: Yea, this is what brings me back to images, and reducing it to our process of selection? Are all these people passionate about what they are doing, that process?
AC: This is where it gets hard. You said, at the beginning to some imaginary student, "You made a one sleeve dress, but it sucks." That person might be really passionate and really thorough with what they are doing.
GC: But they need to go to school! [laughs]
GC: Well, we live in a world where in kindergarten and first grade, "Everything is great!" Kids are brought up now thinking everything they do is fantastic. Like, "Go you!"
AC: The "you are special" generation is the generation I grew up in. I grew up in that environment that said, "You have to write a paper, but instead of writing this paper, you want to do a drawing and turn it in? Well, go for it!" Here's what happens. I did that and then my teacher didn't like it, or it didn't make sense, or it didn't follow guidelines, and I had to pay attention to what the consequences were. Even if you are raised in an environment where people are like "You're special, you're special," you are going to encounter that at some point. If you don't, God help you.
GC: Don't you meet plenty of adults who still think they are special?
AC: Oh totally, but what happens is that they and we create communities around that. So, yes, you have a shitty jam band, but you also have twenty-five people who are really into your shitty jam band and who come to every one of your shows, and who form a community around your shows. I don't mean “shitty jam bands” to denigrate it. I'm just saying that is a catalyst for creative community in a way that each one of us might create community. It's just a different kind of community. But it does get tricky when you have to come in contact with something that you don't believe is special. Like you said, when you approach students and they make something and you try to impart some of these ideas. I think that is a really useful thing to do. I wish I knew how to do it in that way.