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Illusive Topography - Leah Oates

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Michael Schall, Desert Bunker, 2006.  Graphite on paper, 38 

Leah Oates: When did you know you where an artist?

Michael Schall: Well, the first time I received recognition for my creative abilities was in kindergarten. The project was to draw something on a paper plate, which would eventually be sent somewhere to be made into a real laminated plate. I drew a picture of a fish swimming underwater with the sun shining above. Once the other kids saw how sweet my fish was, they all asked me to draw fish for them too. Not to be boastful, but it was a really great plate. My parents still have it, and I try to eat off it whenever possible while I’m home.  

Other than that first experience, I can’t really point to any other event as the first time I knew I was an artist. It has been more of a gradual progression of decisions to follow my interests that has gotten me to this point. I’ve always liked making things, so when I was growing up, I spent a lot of time doing just that: making models, tree houses, crude machines, forts and the like. I even built my own bike once. I’m still proud of that one.  Probably the first big decision in my adult life was to major in Studio Arts at Swarthmore College, an incredibly academic school. I tried my hand in a number of different traditional subjects, but nothing stuck. I stressed a lot about that decision to focus on art at Swarthmore, but in hindsight, it doesn’t matter to anyone what you major in at college. The undergrad experience is more about socialization, curiosity and gaining the skills to think for oneself than it is about leaving with a head full of knowledge or skills. After graduation, and after spending a year teaching in Brussels, I moved to Boston and spent three years making bad paintings. That time, for me, was a trial run as a professional artist. I wanted to see if I enjoyed the daily experience of working in a studio, finding a way to pay my bills from crappy part-time jobs, and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to show my work around the city. Surprisingly, I loved it and decided, in 2003, that this was what I wanted to do with my life, so I went and got my MFA at Pratt, in Brooklyn. And nothing makes you feel more like an artist than leaving grad school with an unbelievable amount of debt and with no real marketable job skills.  

LO: How do you conceptualize your images?  Do you work from photographs or from imagination? Is your work about the memory of place?

MS: Although I do not draw from photographs, I use images to gain an understanding of how certain things are structured, such as the interweaving piping of oil refineries, or the layers of earth on a grand butte. I then use this structural understanding to create imagined worlds where these forms can do whatever I want them to, and it all looks believable, or almost believable. Once I have the overall composition established, the excitement for me, in my working process, is in the invention of the detail; it’s in rendering light and shadows off of completely fabricated forms to make my created worlds come to life. An interesting part of this process is that, since I’m not working from observation and since I never use rulers or guides, the way I draw changes during the progression of each piece. To prevent smudging the graphite, I usually work from top to bottom and left to right. If you look carefully, you can see in each drawing a gradual development in those directions through the way I render forms. It’s visual evidence of the way my hand and eye learn. This is most apparent in Remote Production Outposts, a 38 ft. drawing (of which 15 feet are on view at Pierogi). It is basically a long scroll that was drawn in six-foot sections on my drawing table in my studio. The organic, fleshy mounds of rocks and pipes are descriptively similar from start to finish, but the difference in the way they are drawn from the first form to the last is staggering, even to me. This was heightened by the fact that, after completing one six-foot section, I had to roll the scroll to the next section, therein hiding what I had just completed. With no visual reference to work from, I had to reinvent these forms over and over again.  

A lot of people ask me if I grew up in the southwest because of all the grand, majestic rock formations found in my work. Well, I grew up in New Jersey, so the only time I’ve seen landscapes like the ones I draw is in images. I think this is a circumstance that affects a lot of my generation.  We live a life through images, always one step removed. I’d rather not have this interview devolve into a social critique of mass-media culture, so for now, the point I’m trying to make is that a lot of these places have always seemed fake to me. They feel like decoration, an amusement park for vacationers, far removed from daily life. So, my work is not about the memory these places, but about using the idea of these places to create something new. I want to create images of alternate worlds that resemble our own, but at the same time, are slightly off as well.  

LO: Do you work in color or only in black and white? Why one as oppose to the other conceptually?

MS: For the past two years, I’ve worked exclusively in black in white. This decision to use only graphite on paper came out of desire to simplify my working process. For years before, and all through grad school, I was a painter who prided myself on color. However, I eventually realized that my reliance on the process of laying down color was distracting me from the ideas I wanted to communicate. I had been seduced by paint and color to such a degree that the concepts behind my work were taking a back seat.  So, by switching to drawing, I was able to strip away everything but the essentials, and focus purely on imagery. Now, I’m not trying to say that color is superfluous, or that drawing is inherently more communicative than other media. I had just dug myself into such a rut with a very narrow way of painting, and I needed a clean break to refocus my efforts on the ideas that mattered most.  

LO: Do you think that all art is in the details?

MS: Absolutely. The details of a thing are what make it unique.  Like a lot artists I know, when I look at art, I spend a majority of the time analyzing how it’s made. For me, the craft of a given piece of work is just as important as the idea behind it. In my work, I hope that the time, care and effort spent on making my drawings is apparent and demands from the viewer a level of care in the viewing process. Someone might not like the images depicted, or care for the ideas I’m attempting to convey, and I’m fine with that, but no one can take away from me the fact that they are extremely well made. I’ve grown tired of looking at sloppy art, and I have no interest it making it. There is a fairly popular aesthetic of slapdashery in the art world right now. It’s a look that relies too heavily on messiness alone to create meaning. I believe there is a place for quickly made, energetic work, but there is a big difference between thoughtful, expediently executed art and baseless, superficial, aesthetic flotsam. My preference is for rigor, care and substance and that’s what I strive for, right down to the smallest details of my drawings.

LO: Your drawings are of architecture and everyday objects such as sand castles. What does this signify in your work? (This question should be reworded, because my drawings are not really of everyday objects, or sandcastles…they are more about the intersection of architecture, industry and natural formations.)

MS: The forms that I use in my work stem from an interest in the way that architecture, and its relationship to the environment, can shed light on our collective social fears and desires. Jacques Lacan wrote an interesting essay comparing our culture’s use of architecture to that of the Aztecs. He argued that the physical properties of Aztec monuments mirrored their society’s obsession with death and sacrifice, while our constructions are built to repress these ideas by inspiring fear and prudence. I agree with his premise, and have since noticed how our skyscrapers, churches, bridges, stadiums, banks and the like can be used to distract us from the very impermanent nature of being alive. They pose as black or white in a grey world, and only when they fail or become useless, do we understand how the world is in a continual state of flux. So instead of illustrating these existing monuments to permanence, I use them as starting points to create worlds where both futility and potential are celebrated. The illogical projects I depict can be both functional and obsolete, growing and decaying, present and absent. The specific forms that I use, such as piping, scaffolding, and cranes create an ambiguous interdependence with the nature.  Sometimes, these symbols of human industry run amuck on top of a pristine landscape. Other times, they are subjugated and hidden from view. Regardless of which appears more dominant in any given piece, there is never a clear winner. I find things to be more interesting in half tones.

LO: What makes drawing a unique art medium from others such as painting or sculpture?

MS: One thing that I really like about drawing is its immediacy. The simplicity of making a mark on a blank sheet of white paper reveals the process of it’s making instantly. There are no tricks, no gimmicks, no ways of hiding or covering up. Even if I try to erase something, the paper will never be as white as it was before I made a mark, and this blemish then becomes a visible part of the work. Drawing is very improvisational on one hand, and very finite on the other. Because of the blank white ground, a drawing is never really finished, but since paper is a such an unforgiving surface to work on, all decisions are more or less final. This immediacy I think makes for a more accessible viewing experience as well. Since drawing allows the viewer to see every decision, in a way, the viewer is granted privilege to witness the act of creation. The result is a very efficient form of communication between artist and viewer. Plus, everyone knows how to draw, so everyone can relate to act of making a drawing. This can’t really be said for other media. Drawing is the most elemental form of image making and although its been used for thousands of years, it doesn’t inherently carry with it the weight of an art historical lineage (like painting or sculpture). It is a populist medium, accessible to everyone and I like that about it.

LO: You have had a very busy year. What has it been like as an artist to be so busy?

MS: It’s been great. It’s what you hope for as an artist; to have one opportunity lead to another; to always be working towards something else; to always have something on the horizon to look forward to. Plus, deadlines are a great motivator. If I have too much time alone in my studio, I tend to over think things, and sometimes I can get really stuck. But if there’s a deadline looming, I’m forced to make decisions and deal with the consequences. It helps me take risks, and in the end, I think those decisions have really facilitated the development of my drawings.

LO: What do you think of the Manhattan arts scene? The Williamsburg arts  scene? How are they different if at all?

MS: Obviously, the biggest difference between the two is sheer numbers, but proportionally, I think there is just as much good art in Williamsburg as there is in Chelsea, with half the pretension. Unfortunately, Williamsburg will always been seen by some people as a minor league farm system for Chelsea, because a number of Chelsea galleries started in Brooklyn.  But there are a few really good galleries in Brooklyn that have consciously decided to not make the plunge to Manhattan, and I really respect them for it. Take for example the two Williamsburg galleries I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, Dam Stuhltrager and Pierogi. They both have great programs, and have established themselves as serious, top-level spaces committed to showing edgy and less traditional art. Dam Stuhltrager, who gave me my first show last January, has been getting so much critical attention in the past year or so, with many of their artists landing museum shows, they have become a serious force to be reckoned with.  And ever since I moved to the city, I’ve always considered Pierogi to be one of the best galleries in New York. Not only do they show great video and installation work, but they also have shown so many of my favorite artists who work primarily on paper (James Sienna, Fred Tomaselli, Yun-Fei Ji, Ati Maier, Daniel Zeller, etc.). So even though the Williamsburg scene is much smaller and a little rougher around the edges, at its core it can hang with the best of what the slick and polished Chelsea has to offer.

LO: How long have you been in NYC? Why is it such a good place to be for an artist (besides the large, ever changing arts scene and the largest  artists community in North America)? What has been your experience of being here as an artist?

MS: I’ve been in NYC for almost four years now. As an artist, I think this city is such a good place to be because of its energy. Most people you meet here are exciting, creative, and motivated to contribute in some way to the collective cultural energy of the city. There are just so many interesting people and places and events, it’s hard to be bored.

LO: I always ask the same question and get different answers each time.  What advice would you give emerging artist in NYC who want to show  and be part of the scene?

MS: First and foremost, apply for anything and everything. There are so many residencies, artist registries, flat files, workshops, juried shows, etc. both in NYC and across the country that too few young artists know about. Do some research on the internet and apply to them all. And if you don’t get in, apply again next year. At the very least, it teaches you how to write about and document your work properly. It’s the easiest, and least intrusive way for people to see your work, and if you’re diligent and consistent, you’ll get noticed. As far as the NYC gallery scene is concerned, I was always told that you should go to openings. The only problem is there are so many of them, and for the first year or so as a young artist who knew no one at these openings, the whole ritual seemed kind of pointless and tiresome. Then I got some great advice from a professor who told me to just concentrate on the five or six galleries where I thought my work would be a good fit. If you narrow down the playing field the whole process seems much more approachable. Go to every opening those galleries have and try to meet as many people as possible. Introduce yourself to the artist if you like the work. Sign the book. Just be honest in your appreciation of the program. Then after a while, find out if gallery has a submission policy.  The biggest waist of time is the cold submission. Have a reason, and preferably a connection, before you ask someone to look at your work.  Most importantly, though, is to just keep making work. I’m a believer that if you’re making strong work, you’ll get an opportunity. It might take longer than someone with the right connections, but you’ll get one eventually.  Just be ready for it.

LO: What upcoming series, projects, shows etc do you have coming up?

MS: The next five or six months for me is all about residencies. I was really fortunate this year to be accepted into a couple, one right after the other.  In April, I received a full fellowship for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnston, VT. Then in May, I’m going to the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico with some help from a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. In June, I’ll be in residency for a couple weeks at I-Park in Connecticut. Then, I’ll come back to NYC at the end of the summer for a two month Special Editions Residency at the Lower East Side Print Shop.

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