We talked with American artist Joseph Montgomery, now showing his second solo exhibition at the Car Drde Gallery in Bologna. Between painting, photography and sculpture lies a deep and personal way of looking at things, and through them. Art, like vision, needs many facets, whether they are chromatic or thought.
In your works, I think of both three-dimensional and pictorial works, there is a strong reference to American art of the fifties and sixties of the last century, I think specially to Pop Art and New Dada. Tell us about your formative years, your teachers and your influences?
When I was 15 or 16 I happened upon my high school’s art studio during a free period. Stacks upon stacks of art books and National Geographic magazines. We were simply encouraged to copy images we found interesting using scrap paper, pencils and charcoal sticks. The content of the magazines was of course always other - landscapes, bodies, animals not found in the southern United States. With patience, reproduction was possible. From copying, individuation was possible; I could choose which images to remake. A little later, I could choose the manner of replication. This was of course supplemented by a library of art books showing the canon and art magazines representing the present tense. Rarely did I visit a museum or gallery.
My formative years learning about art were all about reproductions, copying from photographs, both the content and the style. Fast forward to 2009, when I have graduated from an MFA program in New York City and I begin to work for Sherrie Levine, my second mentor after my high school teachers and the critically-celebrated Picture Generation artist, who comes to fame re-photographing modernist images.
Throughout these years I had always chosen painting as the problem I wanted to solve and beginning around 2009 decided I could take it apart and reassemble it not only as a way of understanding its multiple manifestations and the choices that precipitate them but also as a project to represent what painting is, a sequence of choices from a multitude of options. This is where influence becomes visible and is acknowledged in my work beginning with the constructivists, minimalists, and most recently visible as a Warholian reuse of photography.
In the exhibition at the gallery Car Drde, Human Stain, is of particular interest your approach to photography. Would you like to tell us more about it, where does this encounter with the photographic medium come from?
The two main encounters occurred through my father and through Sherrie Levine. As a boy, I grew up around cameras and the amateur photography processes of black and white darkrooms because my father shot roll after roll of images of our family, travels, and his work. These rolls of film were all processed at home and printed as contact sheets, grids of 36 small, sequential, rectangular images stored in binders behind their plastic-encased negative counterpart. On those printed grids of images, one or two might be selected and marked by a red grease pencil. The choice of one over the other plus the abundance of options introduced to me the notions of image proliferation and hierarchy.
This was latent knowledge, however, suppressed with other analytic urges, until I once again started to work with photography assisting Levine. Here was also a practice of choice (out of art history, what does Levine choose to possess and re-author) and execution, the means by which she re-presents an image to a new audience. In my home, it was a choice among options and then a scale shift. The negative was printed as a 5x7 or 8x10 inch image. In Levine’s practice, the possessed image might be simulated or it might be multiplied but in either case, it reiterates a hierarchical gesture with new, critical authorship.
My practice mimics the structure of the photographic archive, privileging several images over others but including the layers of processing many more attempts. I love that photography proliferates so quickly now, that all the permutations of the image capture continue towards infinity. Which begs the question, will the number of photographs approach infinity? With pleasure, I dip my hand into this roaring river, pull a few out, and stain them with intentions.
What is your relationship with the definition of your artistic research? Do you like to write about your research or do you prefer to delegate to the critics and curators with whom you collaborate? Do you find that writing is still today a valid instrument of mediation between the artwork and the observer?
The definition of my artistic research, to begin with, is to explore visual systems that proliferate and generate permutations in the studio and on the computer. I am always looking for language that describes this and have found that various concrete poetry systems, Oulipo, and science fiction with android or ancillary protagonists best approximate how I believe language accomplishes the world-building I see possible with image proliferation, seriality, and variation. I do think that the critic and curator could translate or mediate these visual ideas through language, but the writing most appropriate to my work is one that employs language formally as much as conceptually, analogous to my painting method, such as concrete poetry or speculative writing.
My practice produces diverse outcomes and that can be difficult to reconcile with the categorization that is often the entry point for collaboration in the curatorial or critical fields. Without fitting into a discrete set, my hope is to find the interlocutors who understand an ecological approach to studio production, a network of influence and evolution revealed and expected.
What is your relationship with social media? Do you think that Instagram can be considered as a virtual gallery where you can show your artistic path?
Ironically I find that photography often fails to represent what my work looks like. It should be a surface that you desire, that has an erotic skin-like seduction, layers of texture that beg to be explored from different angles, the puzzle of deciphering what is on top of what. But Instagram has a distance incorporated that rewards the saturated and the figure. How do you achieve FOMO from a surface? Make it into a vacation destination? A fine meal? Perhaps. I see Instagram, the only social media I use, as a present tense interaction. To post something is to receive satisfaction over the next eight hours and then the image loses functionality, begins to decay in relevancy toward the dopamine injection it was intended as. I suppose I use the platform as a focus group but it is not an archive and it is not the work.
If you had to tell in a tweet about the Human Stain exhibition, to those who haven't seen it yet, how would you introduce it?
If an exhibition were an analytical cubist composition, and its subject Joseph Montgomery’s studio in 2021, these 10 paintings portray 10 facets of a system mid meal, chewing on paint, thinking of old rooms, listening to staccato strings.
Last question. Why practice painting in the future, in your opinion?
Simply because all of the options are yet to manifest. I want to see all of the recombinations, all of the permutations, dissonant or pulchritudinous. Painting is now an extremely porous genre. It is a digestive sieve. It is fertilizer. It is still generative.