NZ ex-pat Michael Stevenson and NY artist Steven Brower were joint artists-in-residence at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery earlier this year. The residency culminated with the show Genealogy in which the two artists recreated rooms from their childhood: Brower, his fathers living room, complete with a scale model of his family home, and Stevenson, his high school art class, filled with fake School C portfolios by well-known NZ artists.
Both artists included a number of works by their parents in the show, tracing a lineage of inter-generational creativity. In stark contrast to the morally upright academic studies of the Stevenson clan, Steven Browers father William Brower was represented by numerous cartoon satires of everything from Freud having a douche-bag emptied on his head, to Hitler buggering one of his SS officers. In fact, two of Brower Seniors paintings were removed before the opening of the show, and there was a point at which Genealogy wasnt even going to make it past the Chief Censor.
Michael: The show was extremely difficult to produce for many reasons. At one stage we were told that the show had the potential to destroy the Govett Brewster Art Gallery. There were two works by Steves dad that couldnt be put in the show, on legal grounds [featuring child abuse].
Log: I really enjoyed those works by William Brower - they were witty.
Well, they made sense of the whole show but not in a way that was easy for people to engage with - they were controversial for all the wrong reasons.
Just plain old crude rather than conceptually challenging?
Yeah, and painted by an old guy whos "unimportant".
Whats Steves dad like?
He just seems like a normal, sweet old guy
Were your parents OK with being shown in the context of William Browers work ?
My parents were fantastic, they were very generous, and it was great to have that level of generosity involved with the show. My parents are very private people, and being shown with Williams work was not something they would normally want to be involved in. But because this was a family situation, they put a lot of things on the line. Theyre involved in a deeply Christian environment. So I respected them for that, because it meant we were able to put together this very unique show. I didnt want any flak to come back on my parents, that wasnt the idea of the show at all
Was Stevens father pleased to be involved?
His father and my parents had the same admirable attitude: "this isnt our show, were just helping out". My parents certainly arent seeking any attention. Theyre not sitting at home hoping that someones going to come around and do a masters thesis on their work or something!
Maybe someone will do that after this show?
I dont think so. That is the great thing about Steves parents and my parents, theyve both been through art school and involved in art in some sort of way, but theyre not interested in art world structures, or the gallery system, theyve got other, better things to do.
Some people were reading it as a solely cynical gesture, but I actually felt quite moved, it seemed quite tender.The intensity of the workmanship is quite staggering, its hard to read something as cynical when youre that involved in your creation, because you almost enter the mind-state of these people that youre portraying. So is it more of a homage than a derisive tactic?
Why is it always one thing or the other? My work is always read like "this is so cynical". But I dont think its ever one thing or the other. The artwork Ive done more recently, the big question mark over it, has been the question of intent. People cant deal with not knowing what the intent is. But I think the more ambiguous that is, the better.
The processes of everything Ive been involved in are much more tender than people would make me out to be. Look at those charcoal drawings, for goodness sake - as if youre going to knock people over in the street with a bit of charcoal! But you spend hours, literally, weeks, on a charcoal drawing. Or transcribing another artists music with composers who are intensely interested in musical structure and detail, and then its read as only being cynical! The amount of extra energy thats been put in to make these things that are invisible amongst other things is incredible.
So whats the mentality behind craftsmanship when you live in the age of mechanical reproduction?
Well, one of the reasons Im interested in the School C syllabus is its the lowest common denominator for art in this country. Youre doing a show in New Plymouth, and you can probably count on one hand the people that have been to art school in New Plymouth, but the number of people that have done School C art is vast by comparison. In the community, general knowledge about art gets developed by people doing School C art, and its got nothing to do with mechanical reproduction. Its about being given a crayon, or a pot of student-grade, smelly acrylic paint, and being told to paint a stylised version of your Nomad shoe. You know exactly what Im talking about because everyone did it. See?
Are you on some kind of moral highground when you do make all your stuff from scratch?
In terms of those School C folios, you cant do it mechanically,
What about the charcoal drawings, when you could have used big photographic blow-ups?
Well, it would have been totally different work, thats all. Some of those musical scores are composed on computer, but it doesnt make it any less worktheres still a huge amount of time involved in making that stuff. Steve and I talk about the effect of time on making artwork. I suppose ultimately, its going to create some kind of intensity that the other stuff doesnt have
If you want to call it that, I guessThe video, Daily Practice [made in collaboration with Danius Kesminas] has that intensity, even though its a recording, its still hand-made because its meticulously scripted and costumed.
Do you think your skills are due to your upbringing, the value systems your parents imbued in you?
Well, plenty of people have parents that have been to art school, and it hasnt had the same effect on them. Heres a family tree that I made tracing the connections between the artists in the show and my parents and their teachers. Its pretty stunning because you can go from Jackson Pollock to Lois White.
My parents were taught by Lois White, who was taught by Archie Fisher, who came out from England to run Elam. He ran the joint according to where he came from, which was the Slade school. He was taught by Augustus John. And it all gets filtered down to my parents who start making this art that looks like Thomas Hart Benton, but they dont know who Benton is, because theyve only been taught about Augustus John. Benton has become famous because he was the teacher of Jackson Pollock, and of course Pollock is connected to Max Gimblett, who taught Steven at the Pratt Institute. And then there are style connections: Pollock and Julian Dashper for instance. My father taught Carole Shepherd at high school, and she now works at Elam. He taught Fiona Clark as well. Get this: in 1970, when the Govett Brewster Art Gallery opened, the guy who did the first show there, which was this sound-light installation called Real Time, Leon Narbey, was on section at my fathers high school art department during the day, and at night hed go and set up Real Time. So theres this connection to the gallery via Leon Narbey as well. Christine Hellyer went to Girls High in New Plymouth, and she taught me at Elam. Theres another connection with Paul Hartigan who went to Elam and used to teach at Elam. He was taught at Boys High in New Plymouth by Tom Kriesler, who in turn was taught at Ilam by Rudy Gopas, who went to art school in Lithuania. So theres a weird Litho-connection going on [Stevenson went there with some nationals last year] - Kaunas, London, Kansas City! Obviously this thing could be arranged in many different ways
Whats the impetus for seeking out historical ties? Do you want to feel connected, as opposed to out-on-a-limb?
There is such a strict reading about New Zealand art, where its come from and where its going to go. I just wanted to provide something thats alternative to that. No matter how much a show like Headlands was supposed to have "rearranged" New Zealand art, its still very proscribed. I think the advantage of having not lived here for five years, and then doing this show with an American, is that the show could just be about NZ art, but its not just about that. It provides a really different reading on New Zealand art than what is currently available.
Why are you so interested in New Zealand art, rather than just art per se? Why is The Big Picture such a Big Issue for you?
The main starting point for this was to do with my parents, and the fact that there are generations of people who have been through Elam and Ilam who know what goes on in the art world, but theyre not involved in the art world. My parents left Auckland, went to Inglewood and poured all their skills into that local community. When they went to Elam it was the last time that it was a skills-based course. After that, people like Jim Allen came in and said, you dont need to do all that figurative stuff, you just get a chainsaw and cut down a tree, and thats art, get chicks to take their clothes off and writhe around in paint, thats art! And that happened very soon after my parents leftThey caught the last of the academic, classical art school education. Everyone then went on to training college and became a high School art teacher, because there were limited options back then.
Did you miss having that classical training when you went to Elam?
When I was there, there were a lot of people talking about how there should have been more training, because it was the 80s and painting was back in. People were saying, "why did they chuck out all those plaster casts?" that had been ceremoniously trashed 15 or 20 years earlier. That whole trans-avant garde thing was in, and people had to race up to the Auckland Museum to draw the discus thrower and the dying centurion, because it was all cool all over again, see?
Do you think that the art world constitutes a kind of global family?
Not one that Id want to be a part of
Its interesting the whole idea of genetic vs memetic family tree, because the family tree youve drawn up seems to be more about the art world than about family
I guess Im interested in the idea of communities. So is Steven - hes made work about Buckminster Fuller, and Black Mountain. I guess hes interested in the way that communities function or dont. I guess I have been involved in serious communities, and the art world is only disappointing in comparison to that.
Why do you put so much effort into it then?
Well its this Utopic notion of what a community should be, so you can only ever be disappointed by it. The art world pretends in lots of different ways to be some weird kind of a community, but the kind of community I was involved in was one where if youre moving house, you dont even need to phone, and ten mates come around in the morning to help you shift. Now, in the art world, ten artists dont drop in on my joint when I need to shift house.
In Stevens room theres a bookshelf where Freuds Totem and Taboo is prominently displayed. According to Freud, every son has to metaphorically kill and eat his father, so that he can have all the females of the pack to himself. Is that what you and Steven were getting at with Genealogy?
Its not as straight-forward as that. Obviously Freudian readings of that show abound even with the School C folios, they are full of that stuff. You can read the student/teacher relationship as a father/son relationship. The hardest thing about making those School C folios wasnt trying to make work that correlated to the artists current work, it was remembering that the person who you were trying to be had all these hormones flowing through their body at that time, that was making them do things that you cant even remember what it feels like to be feeling! Seriously, its all about hormones!
Log: How did you meet Michael, and when did the two of you decide
to work together? Was it the coincidences in your lives and work that
made you decide to collaborate, or did the coincidences come out afterwards?
What did your mother mean that you were "blowing up"?
One of the most overwhelming things about the show is that you are
both such consummate craftsmen/artisans. Do you feel that really good
art has to be "made"?
OK, if you don't think good artwork has to be "made", what makes you "make"?
I have very few consistent criteria for determining what good art is;
Ive liked all kinds of stuff. Ive thought many things I would
never want to make myself are very good artworks - films for instance;
abstract expressionist paintings; urinal cake sculptures, performances,
street interventions, altarpieces, dresses, things made of wax, dirt,
and stuffed animals.
Michael Stevenson is an expatriate New Zealand artist presently undertaking a residency in Berlin. Steven Brower is an artist living in New York.