Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

27 October 2013

Art Space Talk: Mark Staff Brandl with Brian Sherwin


This is an interview Brian Sherwin did with me back in 2008.

Art Space Talk: Mark Staff Brandl

Mark Staff Brandl was born in 1955 near Chicago, where he lived for many years. He has lived primarily in Switzerland since 1988. He studied art, art history, literature and literary theory at the University of Illinois, Illinois State University, Columbia Pac. University, and is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Zurich. As a critic, he is a frequent contributor to London’s The Art Book and is a Corresponding Editor for New York’s Art in America. He is also the curator of The Collapsible Kunsthalle

As an artist, his works have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Whitney Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the St. Gallen Art Museum, The Thurgau Museum of Fine Art, The E.T.H. Graphic Collection in Zurich, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the International Museum of Cartoon Art, the Art Museum Olten and others.


 Panels, Covers and Viewers, Painting Installation (Panels wall view)

Brian Sherwin: Mark, you studied at the University of Illinois and Illinois State University. Can you discuss your years in Illinois? I understand that your career in fine art began in Chicago....
Mark Staff Brandl: ...And Col Pacific and I got a "Latinum" Latin Diploma from ISME and a Diploma in German at the Translators’ school and am now doing a PhD dissertation at the University of Zurich in Art History and Cognitive Metaphor Theory. I like to learn stuff!

I was born in Peoria, Illinois, raised mostly in and around Pekin near there, although I spent the longest time anywhere in the US in Chicago. I loved most of the places in their own way. I occasionally miss Chicago, although not its art scene — more its Mexican neighborhoods and African-American influence and good food and music and just plain tough, cool, amazing denizens.

Panels, Covers and Viewers, Painting Installation (Covers wall view)

BS: Mark, can you discuss your academic background? You have also studied at Columbia Pacific University and the University of Zurich. Have you had any influential instructors?

MSB: Besides the various universities and the like (there are more than I have named), I also learned a lot about sign-painting and display from my father Earl Brandl and I learned a lot from my mentor, the renowned comic artist (from the 40s till now), Gene Colan.

In the university my most incredible teacher was C. W. Briggs, who was a truly amazing man and teacher. He could see into your artistic soul and tell you "what you were trying to do" even when it was more radical than you expected and than he enjoyed. He was a great painter too and deserves a fabulous monograph (take note art historians out there).

I am always open to "the technique of friendship and dialogue" (as Ortega y Gasset called history) with other artists —frequently dead ones who are somehow more alive than many of my contemporaries. Goya, Tintoretto, Titian, R.B. Kitaj, Eldzier Cortor, Jackson Pollock, Marc Swayze, Gene as always, my Dad — those are some people I’m discussing with in my head currently.

Dripped Double Portrait (3 Chords and 4 Colors)

BS: Mark, I understand that you have lived in Switzerland since the late 80s. Why did you make that choice? How has that experience influenced you?

MSB: As I said, I was born near Chicago; I lived in this city the longest I have ever lived in one spot. My career as an artist began there. I worked at the Field Museum building dioramas, had my ups and downs, had many shows, many reviews, sold well enough, won some awards, was listed as best installation of the year (or something like that) in The New Art Examiner once for a Raw Space piece. And so on.

I left in the 80s, when it appeared that there was nothing more for me in Chicago's visual artworld. In one of my recurring, sporadic changes, I had abandoned my earlier Late Conceptual Art and began pursuing the painting-installation-popular art mongrelization that I still engage in. (Although all my "directions" have dealt with the same core content and subject matter.) As I decided to abandon the Windy City, a brand of art was beginning to be enforced — an exceedingly trendy, art magazine-derivative Neo-Conceptualism (then still linked to Neo-Geo).

That, together with all the other aspects of Chicago's recurring provincialism, and a dreadful, dissolving love relationship, made me think, "Why the hell, then, don't you just go directly to that worshiped Mecca — i.e. NYC?". I started on my way, however, then met my future wife, Cornelia Kunz (pronounced "Koo-ents" as English speakers may be wondering!). I met her in the kitchen of my Chicago studio, strangely enough, due to a Maxtavern connection (a well-known artists’ bar). She is Swiss, and after an unexpected further year in Chicago, and a later year in Tortola in the Caribbean, we headed off to Europe.

I have now lived in one place or another in Europe for 20 years. Whenever I live for extended periods in the US, I never seem to make it out of NYC. Recently I have, though, become re-involved with the Chicago artworld due to Wesley Kimler, called "The Shark." I have dual citizenship now and feel both the US and Switzerland are my "Heimat." I feel very American when I am at home in Europe, and feel very European when I am at home in the US. I enjoy somehow always being a part of something while somehow standing outside it as well. I spend a lot of time in other countries too and would like to live in many of them.
BS: Mark, can you discuss your art? Perhaps you can describe the direction of your work? Tell us about the thoughts behind your work...

MSB: I currently work in two directions — well, a third has just popped up, in point of fact. These are the Panels, Covers, and now "Dripped" works.

Panels are wall installation pieces wherein large oil and acrylic paintings on canvas are surrounded by additional painting directly on the wall. The wall and its elements are created as a huge, readable, sequential "page" of a comic. Usually built in a corner and resembling an open book. My Panels installation in Kunstraum Kreuzlingen was about 35 ft long by 14 feet high.

The Covers works can be quite large, but are generally very small (often exactly comic magazine size). The works are paintings in gouache, ink, and acrylic, oil, paint on paper, canvas. The Covers works are recognizably based on the structure of comic book covers, with title, bold lettering, price, date, numbering, image and so on. Nevertheless, I do not simply appropriate an image, as did many Pop artists. Rather, I engage this form as an inherited yet incomplete grammar, coaxing it to proclaim celebrations and complaints, desires and critical thoughts.

The Panels works are involved with my compositional creation, Iconosequentiality. I created the term and seek to apply it to installation and painting. Iconosequentiality is my neologism for the unique combination of forms of phenomenological perception in comics — and my art. Viewers frequently perceive both the entire page as an iconic unit, similar to a traditional painting, and simultaneously follow the flow of narrative or images from panel to panel, left to right, up to down.

It is therefore ontologically as well as phenomenologically both iconic and sequential. Aesthetic attention flickers between forms of reading and viewing, most of which are under the control of the perceiver. The ultimate hyper-text/hyper-image united with the joys of an image's patient always-there, self-reliant presence.

Iconsequentiality has the inherent predisposition to be tropaically democratic. It is also a step beyond Pollock's revolutionary "overall" composition, while embracing that discovery, as well as its child, installation, and not retreating to relational balancing games or Duchampian knock-offs .Iconosequentiality offers an arena for individual development.

The "Dripped" works unite the two forms above with a third element. They have three "levels" of potential viewing: close-up they look like a dripped Pollock work (hence my slangy nickname for the series), middle distance you see all the sign-painterly outlining, shadowing, feathering, etc. that I got from my father. Farther away, you see that they are genuinely representational works in a sketchy, painterly-drawing fashion much like Gene Colan. So, depending where you stand, they either unite or contrarily collide my three influences. 

Nu Pop Scape Covers Bunch

BS: So do you have a specific philosophy that you adhere to as far as your art is concerned?

MSB: Oh, I have a vast and intricate philosophy that would probably bore your socks off! I am highly interested in contemporary philosophy, especially aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and metaphor theory.

Furthermore, there is a definite socio-political aspect to my approach. Although I am highly, perhaps over-educated, according to a few gallerists, I am bringing the blue-collar technical achievements into the museum/Kunsthalle world. Like superhero comics, I feel attracted to technical ability and violence. I have sublimated this into my creations. But I always feel good when I get Colan and my Father's hard-won techniques, merged with philosophy, smuggled into the "upper" realms — near a video-on-the-floor, purposefully bad painting or junk installation gesture or the like.

Chiefly, my work is something of a "mongrel" or "creole" combination of installation, painting and comics. The word creolization is not employed exclusively to describe Creole culture. A broad anthropological term, it now describes any coming together of diverse cultural traits or elements to form new traits or elements –- thus a complex process of cultural borrowing and lending in an area with many different influences and bears directly on comics and fine art.

I am against purism in all forms. I find it morally and politically questionable. It is a trope of fascism and racism. Philosopher David Carrier sees comics as an inherently impure entity; I would amplify this, claiming that comics offer a positively anti-purist emancipation from narrow formalist reductivism. This is a trait to applaud and emulate in the fine arts. Objections to comics are usually objections to the form’s impurity. Like them, I am trying to make art that is radically technically non-exclusive, even expansive. The in-betweenness of my art has important social, psychological, even ethical implications — as well as historical-philosophical ones. The future of art might not be posthistorical, but rather polyhistorical. A Braided rope instead of a timeline. Let’s hope.

BS: What about other influences? Are you influenced by any other specific artist or art movements? Where do you find inspiration?

MSB: I’ve named most of them, but there are more. Of course I probably couldn’t exist artistically without the precursor, Pop Art. Nonetheless, it is important to be aware that I developed from comics into fine art, not the reverse, as was true of most of the pioneers of Pop Art (esp. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol).

Indeed, many fine artists today grew up with comics as their first art source, thus referring to them without cynicism. I am not slumming, no matter how much higher education I have had. This is my culture —, an inherited vocabulary, even if it is perhaps habitually insufficient as James Brown has said; an inheritance and "scene of instruction" from which I am attempting to forge something meaningful.

By the way, I went BACK TO painting — away from my earlier purely-conceptual work, by way of comics. I was a traitor, just as certain pundits came into Chicago and forced Neo-Conceptualism. Baaaaad career timing! I realized that such work was the new academy.

BS: Mark, you are in a unique position in that you are an artist as well as a professional art critic-- having worked as a Contributing Editor for Art in America. You are also a frequent contributor for London's The Art Book. Has your work as an art critic given you insight into your personal art? Can you discuss some of your experiences working with these publications?

MSB: I suppose primarily, I am a coincidence of contraries – a damn intellectual who’s also a comic-loving biker, a philosophical artisan. I must be trying to reach out to people. As I just proved so longwindedly, I like the highs and lows of culture and hate the middle.

I wish artists did not have to do everything themselves, ourselves, … at least everything that is not "Consensus Correct" (CC — my phrase, please steal and use it!) I became a critic to prove visual artists are as capable, if not better, than most critics. The same with theory. Likely curation too — although I haven’t done much.

I enjoy writing about art because I enjoy drawing attention to art and artists who I think deserve it. I don’t feel that many critics do that nowadays. Certainly curators don’t. They only memorize who is in the Very Important Shows by Very Important Curators, usually of the jet-setting variety... and then show exactly the same artists they do whenever as often as possible, so that they get to hang out with all the Big Consensus Curators and Gallerists at closed VIP dinners and super private pre-openings and so on,… never "discovering" any artists as that will simply help the artists, not the curator.

They do all this to eventually win a prize as a curator from other Consensus Curators, thus getting them a better job in a better city, climbing the ladder one step at a time, maybe even a shot at Documenta, etc. ... Thus, catalogues have taken over from art mags, and art mags have become simple reportage. Real criticism will probably only return on the internet. Maybe.
While I love the readable, elegant style of Art in America, I find most (other) art magazines superfluous. For example, everybody looks at Artforum, but seldom does anyone in truth read it. It’s too boringly Consensus Correct for that. I most enjoy my work at www.sharkforum.org, where Wesley and I and other "Sharkpack" members are strongly, sometimes viciously, critiquing the artworld. I also enjoy doing podcasts for Bad at Sports (www.badatsports.com). I will be editing and contributing to a series of theoretical essays by artists in the pages of the new art magazine Proximity, where we will be trying to address this dearth of genuine artistic thought and analysis, with essays by practicing artists! No kidding! Look for it.

I like Alter Ego and The Jack Kirby Collector, as well as art historical publications like the Art Bulletin. Oh yeah, and the Journal of Aesthetics. Try out some real philosophy, not memorized, pre-chewed obedience.

The Art Stand / der Kunst Kiosk, A Covers Painting Installation, Mogelsberg, Switzerland

BS: Mark, what is your opinion about art fairs? There has been some debate in certain circles about the validity of art fairs in regards to the negative impact they may have on the viewing public. Some feel that the fact that it can take days to view all of the art at some of the fairs may harm the appreciation that the general public has for art in general. There is also concern that galleries may have to eventually depend on art fairs-- and their acceptance by art fairs --in order to remain successful-- in other words, some feel that the popularity of the fairs has caused a shift in power that some curators are worried about. My experiences at the art fairs-- as a member of the press --has always been positive... and I normally hear more positive remarks than negative remarks concerning these issues. What are your thoughts on these issues?

MSB: I have some difficulty with fairs, but not a lot, frankly. I know they have nothing to do with artists (who are usually unwanted at VIP affairs there, e.g.); they are about commercial sales between collectors and high powered galleries. Curators always complain about them, but what the heck, of course they do — fairs are the only part of the contemporary artworld that Consensus Curators do not control. Why can’t there be various parts of the artworld for various members. And remember, collectors and gallerists are putting THEIR money where THEIR mouth is, not tax or foundation money where someone else has told them is cool.

I would like it even more if ARTISTS actually had some corners of the art world, (we only make the stuff, right), but that has seldom if ever been true throughout history. Take fairs with a grain of salt, have some fun, then take a serious shower with disinfectant for your soul when you go home and forget them.

BS: Do you have any concerns about the artworld in general?
MSB: MANY concerns. Mostly they revolve around sycophancy. "I've seen most creative minds of my generation destroyed by obsequiousness." One and all seem to want to rewrite the beginning section of Alan Ginsberg's wonderful first line of his poem "Howl." The original: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, ...." Yet I could not resist, for in art, culture and politics, as well as elsewhere, I find my version to be true.
Recriminations run rampant in the artworld. What's wrong with curators? What's wrong with critics? What's wrong with galleries? I would like to add "What is wrong with us?" By that I mean primarily artists, but perhaps beyond that, all of us in all the mentioned categories.

Tessa Laird wrote of researching the artworld, that she "felt like [she] had stumbled into an anthill, where thousands of industrious (anty) intellectuals were going about their business of empire-building and ankle-biting." When exactly did we turn from manifesto screaming, naive-yet-hopeful creators-with-attitudes into fawning, trendy Sophists? The artworld is collapsing into academic mannerism owing to tiny, curatorial-fiefdoms. Too many fine artists are technically incompetent, faddish slaves of curatorial fashion trends. 

Everybody Loves Hirschhorn

BS: Speaking as both an artist and critic... do you have any advice for artists who are just starting out? In your opinion, what are some of the pitfalls that young artists need to be aware of?

MSB: Read my rant above. Follow your own individual dreams and visions. God has given you something to do as an artist. Only you can listen to the voice and find out what it is. Learn about all the ins and outs of the "art business" but don’t take them to be engraved in stone. Just know your enemy. Be smart. Be smarter than those who would control us, work harder, and be of higher quality. Stop kissing ass, and stop viewing kissing-ass as simply "correct career management." Change whatever you can get your hands on. There are no rules. Rules are for mannerist academic sycophants and are used to control you, the artist.

Find ways to build scenes based upon artistic imperatives, support other artists. We are encouraged to compete with one another, yet most other "artworldians" stick together in their individual fields. Make high quality work. Get technically competent. If you don’t know something, or how to do something (like draw), go learn it instead of explaining it away in silly artist statements. Push yourself, intellectually, technically, creatively, morally. Yes, this is an ethical activity, but not in the ways it is usually preached. Attack racism, sexism, ageism (both directions), classism. If you have no enemies, you have never spoken clearly enough. Stop kissing ass.

BS: What about the Internet? Do you view the Internet as a tool that artists can utilize for exposure? It seems that the net is becoming very important for artists today-- even the galleries are catching up-- and I'm certain that will continue. Oddly enough, there are artists online who are more popular traffic-wise and with the general public than many of the artists that have been championed by mainstream galleries. As you know, art collectors are getting younger and are more tech savvy. Due to this... Do you think at some point online exposure will make an impact concerning how successful an artist is in the artworld? In other words, do you think that artists who can show high traffic-- and interest for their work online-- might gain the interest of galleries in the future? Could that become something that galleries will consider? What is your view?

MSB: The gallery is unfortunately probably fading away to be replaced by far more nefarious entities. The internet is not one of them. Collectors love the personal contact of physical presence — parties, gallerists, other collectors, aperos, but also really touching a painting, for example. For music, internet will be wonderful. It has begun to replace the radio, it will accomplish that, and then replace the record label. However, visual art (other than perhaps photos) don’t do well on it. It is not a conveyer of primary information for most artforms (especially paintings and installations).

Nevertheless, the internet will be a form where revolutionary things may happen for visual art at the secondary level. Probably through networking. It is already replacing the closed-shop of the art magazine. Sharkforum has more readers (not hits, actual readers, —hits are of course huge too) than almost all art magazines. Internet e-zines, group blogs, are the wave to follow, I think, as they indeed replace paper-based art magazines as the makers and guiders of taste, as the conveyers of discoveries, as genuinely critical venues. Yes, most blogs are masturbatory now, and their sheer number is numbing, but that is real democracy and we will slowly learn to sort out the best. Let’s hope they remain enablers for artists.

BS: Back to your art... your art is included in the collections at the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), The Whitney Museum of American Art and several other collections in the United States and throughout the world. Where can our readers view some of your most recent work in person? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?
MSB: Whew. I seem to be all over the place right now, when I should be concentrating on my big dissertation (which will also exist and be created on-line and end as a book but also a painting-installation). I have been working with my buddy here, Daniel F. Ammann, a novelist and theorist, doing some more complex Covers works.

I am teaching Art History and Painting, at the Art Academy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. I just finished learning Latin, that took a lot of time. I’m podcasting with Lamis el Farra on Bad at www.badatsports.com, as I said. Writing for Art in America, where, also, a Cover drawing should be appearing soon on the Pen & Ink page as a sort of visual critique of the artworld. I am writing a lot especially on Sharkforum. Also, with my wife Cornelia and our dog and two cats, getting over the death a few weeks ago of our sweet old Golden retriever, Buddie and great old tomcat Toby.

The Proximity things should be quite exciting. If you are an artist out there with a hankering to write a Smithson-like, or any other style, theoretical essay on art — but as an artist, it need not be academically-styled — contact me through my website: www.markstaffbrandl.com.

As for art, I will have a large Panels installation (titled Carried Away) in October, November and December in Krannert Art Museum, in Champaign, Illinois, in a show curated by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. I will have a show in the summer in Werk2 Galerie in Zurich. In one year, I’ll have a large show in Peoria, at the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria, organized by William Butler. I’ll be having a show in October in a gallery in Chicago. I have a piece in a show in the Art Museum of Thurgau, at the moment. A hot shot journal just published C Hill, Andrei Molotiu’s and my CAA Art Historian Conference speeches about Gallery Comics — you can get mine on my website for free.


You can listen to an interview with me here:
www.wsradio.com/internet-talk-radio.cfm/shows/Comic-Book-Talk-Radio/archives/topics/category/Mark-Staff-Brandl.html

If you’d like semi-regular email updates of about my activities (usually drawn in sequential comic style and featuring images of the latest paintings and so on), contact me through my site.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or anything else that is on your mind?

MSB: I’ve said enough, if not too much, already at this point! Thanks for the interest and questions, Brian! Good luck with your own work and stay in touch.

You can learn more about Mark Staff Brandl by visiting his website-- www.markstaffbrandl.com. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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