ANDREW ROSS with Jarrett Earnest
I think I hate my show, Andrew Ross told me laconically the morning of his recent opening—Actually, I think I’ve hated most of my shows. This seriousness—hovering between mocking cynicism and desolate sincerity—helps define Ross as one of the major sensibilities of his generation. At 28, he is at the fore of a group of young artists mining the slippages between images and objects—in physical space and online—that effortlessly merge material abstraction with representational form. The various grab-bag parts of his sculptures add up but never resolve. In a climate focused on having the final word, his art is closer to the subtle process of thinking itself, embodied in matter and spooled out in space and time. Moving around his sculptures in the gallery, they accumulate associations and images, often at striking odds with each other—an archive of internalized restlessness. All of which is to say I wasn’t too surprised by Ross’s dire phone call. I reminded him that lack of sleep exempts him from judging anything, and also, that it’s not his fucking business to judge his own work.
His current exhibition, Iceman Returns (through October 15th) is the inaugural exhibition for American Medium in their new Chelsea location (at 515 W 20th St, 3N). It opened on the heels of his solo show Chassis at Clima in Milan this summer, and Holes at False Flag in NYC in the spring. I met Ross during his year-long stent as an MFU fellow at the now defunct BHQFU, where he taught the class “Post-Fact Studio.” We met to discuss the politics of “the figure,” conspiracy theories, and the future of formal ingenuity.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): What is it about Hollow Man With Rubber Boots (2017) that feels politically urgent?
Andrew Ross: When I made it I was looking at an iconic photo of a Black Lives Matter protest, where a woman is super poised as she’s getting arrested by police officers in riot gear, and I kind of copied one of those police officers stances for the sculpture.
Rail: Why did you want to make the officer?
Ross: Because the officer, clad in riot gear, was like an empty shell. The woman was a complete figure, but the officer was like a stage. That piece makes me somewhat uncomfortable because I opted to purchase actual tactical gear for parts as opposed to hand-making them, so the result is harder to disassociate from reference material than my other work.
Rail: But also there are parts of it that don’t make sense within the context of a riot—the boots it’s wearing are rain boots.
Ross: That sculpture was important for the rest of the show because I knew to begin with that it was going to be the negative space of a figure entirely clad in outer shells. Anatomically, we all already understand the basic parts and proportions of a figure, but in that sculpture there is another smaller figure emerging from it, unrelated to the anatomy of the overall sculpture. I wanted to make a figure wherein a caricature that inhabited it revealed itself. This caricature is coming out of the shield and stomach area—there is a shape cut from it, almost like a car window, as though it rolled down a little opening to express its cartoonish rage. Its mouth is paper thin and monochrome but also formed into a convex shape and in a permanent image of someone shouting.
I started making that piece before Charlottesville, and it became very uncomfortable to finish it afterward, because I didn’t want it to be just a representation of our current moment or simply a depiction of a militarized person or policeman. I wanted, without identifying with the person who would wear that outfit, to make material an inner turmoil. To depict the anger but also the fear that must be embedded in a person who would be in that get-up. I chose to do so in a way that was confoundingly blunt and graphic.
Rail: You grew up in South Florida with a black Haitian mother and a white Jewish father. I want to know more about that experience and how that intersects with the way you think about the politics of these figures.
Ross: I’m often trying to make non-human, non-animal figures, perhaps to obfuscate heritage-based notions of identity. That’s maybe one of the reasons why unnatural skin tones are interesting to me—as well as the concept of shape-shifting reptilians for that matter. The cultures that comprise my family do have some beautiful customs and traditions that I have experienced, but growing up in a hodge-podge kept me from claiming any heritage in particular. What I wanted originally for this show were sculptures that are partly site or space or stage and partly figuration. And that is coming from a place where I guess I’ve always wanted to open up the possibilities of what someone could be.
Rail: I was thinking about the article Zadie Smith wrote about Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) and Hannah Black’s letter, and part of her argument is that both she and Hannah Black are biracial and not American, and she wonders who has the “right” to make work about the black experience given the terms Black laid out in her letter. I remember that you were an original signer of Hannah Black’s letter about Open Casket. Somehow this show feels like a response in part to that entire conversation.
Ross: I could see that, but maybe only in that it is a result of my own experiences. I haven’t read Zadie Smith’s article so I can’t comment on that, but I signed Hannah Black’s letter as a gesture of solidarity. I felt that getting others to cosign the outrage was a performative gesture on par with hanging a painting that produces outrage. I will always identify as black regardless of how each of my parents identify. I was recently mentioned in an article about Derek Walcott by Abraham Adams, which prompted me to read more from Walcott. One of his essays described something that is similar to my position. To paraphrase a sentiment, my identity is much too fragmented to respond to these issues in ways post-colonial America might like to expect. I’d rather try to be inventive and let my ingenuity work on problems that none of us might have otherwise noticed.
Rail: Well, you’ll never rally a crowd around a nuanced response. And the political world we live in now has burned all nuance out of the conversation.
Ross: Recently I was reading about syncopation in music, especially in African diasporic music. The “off beat” can induce a kind of involuntary, unpredictable movement. You can actually see it by comparing people dancing at rock shows to dancing at Jamaican dancehall shows. It’s possible to mobilize people without anyone necessarily realizing that’s what you are doing. Lately, when I’m working I refer to this possibility as vibe. I think myself and some other artists that use assemblage methods like I do create a vibe from the attitudes of our construction sensibilities.
Rail: Your work is mostly assembled from pieces you craft, even if the effect is a feeling that they’ve been “found.” But I’m interested in how you think your identification as a black man, or how you experience that identification in the world, relates to how you approach making sculptures where abstraction and figuration are interpenetrated?
Ross: I’ve been thinking recently that my position in the world puts me at an advantage when it comes to evoking feelings of the alien or the fantastic. As a product of diaspora I’m set up to create these feelings with a sort of rhythm that I can tap into naturally, almost like skillful painterly marks or technical abilities.
Not knowing my own history very well, I sometimes feel like I’m better able to leverage intuition into something inventive. So while I’m working and plotting to force things to fit together I am making style from ingenuity—that by creating idiosyncratic processes, I can have an impact on sculptural traditions via a wedding of science fiction and an internal rhythm.
I was reading some Octavia Butler this summer—which definitely had an influence on my process—thinking about her interventions on sci-fi sub-genres, like a black vampire and all the particulars that could come with that, while also redefining the form. I’m also interested in the broadening of notions of good and evil via the concept of the monster. I guess I was trying to be a little bit like Guston while I was working in the studio upstate, trying to find the evil within myself while making these entities that were all covering and costume.
Rail: It makes sense you told me you were looking at Lisa Yuskavage while you worked on this show, because that is one of her major dictums, and she cites Guston too. So how does “caricature” function in your work in relation to artists like Yuskavage or Kara Walker?
Ross: I started this body of work thinking about naturalization and cartoons melding together, which led me to look more closely at Yuskavage’s work. Caricature is caricature because they are stylized to an extent that something about the character is expressed through their features. I think Kara Walker makes caricatures of caricatures, shifting focus from the depicted to the decisions to depict in that way. I can’t honestly say I know the historiography of imagery that Kara Walker is culling from, but it’s in the exaggeration of body parts that relates to this idea. I think Tschabalala Self is very similar—the idealized black female body, influenced by popular culture becomes an abstract form. Ultimately, I think Tschabalala’s work is progressive and exciting because its interventions come from its vibe and ingenuity. They’re very energetic works and manifest an immaculate-feeling invented style. I would guess my style appears to be in development because my works generally look as though they could have been “found,” or as an assemblage of ready-mades. But I tend to work toward this feeling, because I like the potential energy of a work that feels like it could plausibly exist in another context.
Rail: In your sculpture When I changed my name I changed my reality (2017), the vinyl dress on the figure reminded me of Hellenistic Greek sculpture, where the folds look like wet cloth clinging to a body. Your pieces show so many allusions to the histories of figurative sculpture.
Ross: That piece is actually a direct reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–1966). I had been reading Feedback (2007) by David Joselit, and he was talking about people like Nam June Paik and Jasper Johns and their relation to the Duchampian readymade. He talks about how Johns’s “readymades” are actually remade by him—he cast and painted those beer cans and flags. So, I wanted to make a response to that lineage. Étant donnés intrigued me as a reference source for this show because it is an architectural space and a tableau—you look through the peep hole and there is a figure. I’m making all these other hollow figures—what if I remove the space and make a space out of the figure? I didn’t want it to be naked, but I wanted you to see the form, so I needed a material that would suck onto the form. It was partly about interpreting the original work. You don’t see the face, you don’t see one of the arms, the legs were cut off. What is happening to this figure? Are they in distress?
Rail: Instead of holding the lamp she’s holding the small steel wool figure.
Ross: Yes. All I can really say is that by putting that figure there, I was trying to make her into a site for it.
Rail: The larger figure is a site for the smaller one?
Rail: For me that little steel wool figure is like the Klee painting Angelus Novus (1920), that Walter Benjamin described as the angel of history being blown backward into the future, manifested as a wreckage piled at his feet. When I saw that little steel wool guy in your sculpture, I thought, oh there’s that angel of history again!
Ross: Totally. It could be an angel of history. As I was making it I said at one point, “This is like that meme with an image on the left that shows what they thought 2017 would be like back in 1980, and there are flying cars and robots. And then on the right it shows the real 2017, an image of a fidget spinner.”
Rail: Wait, how?
Ross: The piece is like a narrative fragment to me, which is supported by memories or after-images of movies with characters that have body modifications to become part machine. So it’s like a figure that has a large body modification, which does what? It gives it the ability to hold or to conjure this little angel of history-like figure? There is definitely a comedic aspect to it that relies on a feeling not unlike disappointment.
Rail: How do these sculptures relate to their lives online as images?
Ross: The sculptures that I’m making are riddled with slippages that take place when they are photographed. My work always feels conflicted or unsettled in an effort to break down binary readings. Like those pieces from my exhibition at Signal, Dog Chases Rabbit (2015), the “It’s my pleasure” pieces are about combining the language of sarcasm and gratitude into an unsettled feeling. I think my recent work like this has been involved in psychological warfare between different types of humor. We’re in the midst of a war between sarcasm and irony. Sarcastic humor is what I’m fighting against, in a sense. Humor that feeds on putting people down by defining them erroneously. I’m trying to expose these unnecessary definitions by making work that reads differently from different angles.
Rail: What about the relationship between the physical object and its online counterpart as a digital image?—a relationship every artist of our generation is forced to confront on some level.
Ross: Well first of all I think photography and social media have allowed me to become super free with how I construct, very haphazard, because I know certain things will be glossed over in the overall form in a photograph. It allows me to embrace the physicality of a forced illusion. For instance in Hollow Man in Rubber Boots, it’s mostly negative space but there is actual stuff holding up the padding that denotes the figure. In physical space you see that more clearly. In digital space it’s like a glitchy simulation. A lot of my works operate well as tableaux, but from key multiple angles. So repetition and negative space are huge parts of the work. If I use a color, it’s often going to be in at least two spots, to draw your eye in different directions so you end up seeing things as a whole. When making very graphic three-dimensional work, I am very conscious that it will travel primarily as an image. I want it to react to the camera. Push back against the camera, so that the image has its own life.
Rail: How do you approach the connection between the various materials and parts of the sculptures?
Ross: I’ve often wanted my work to feel like a picture of a crowd, at a momentous event: you see that it’s just a crowd and everything appears random, but something big just happened and that picture couldn’t be composed in any other way except by a kind of logic of reaction.
Rail: Is there anything you really want to talk about in your work that you think people miss?
Ross: I think there’s a big collaborative aspect to my work that goes mostly unnoticed and that I’d like to continue exploring. Through reference images and by making things that tend to be beyond my own capabilities many elements get donated to the work by friends who volunteer their time and the gallerists that I’m working with. It is almost as if I were using found objects because I’m usually reacting to what these people bring during the installation. My shows lately have been a lot like theatre productions. People bring things to them. And that collaboration has been really crucial. By allowing ingenuity to be a driving force to creating form, I end up casting other people’s belongings, or asking a friend to sculpt a part given the context and feeling to be evoked, and then altering their version. Or leaving gaps so that others can fill in—literally putting clay or other materials in between appendages. I leave things open—things like that little angel man can be distilled to eyes and a mouth, to leave it open for the world surrounding it to create the rest of the form.
Rail: Earlier you’d made a sculpture with a 3D printed face—a process that inherently produces the kinds of “hollow shell” forms you’ve been discussing. I assume making those elements was also collaborative because of the nature of the technology. How did working with 3D printing relate to your sculptural ideas?
Ross: That was collaboration with a production company called Womp. I did partially model it myself and I also made a drawing of it that they interpreted. The 3D modeling has been really helpful because it’s another way to make exact replicas—to do what I was talking about where you create the tableaux through repetition, drawing your eye outward. With that piece in Miami, Repose (2017), I wanted to flatten the space, where in that curve you’re missing the distance between the face and the feet. And in that it’s similar to Étant donnés—because of that truncated-ness you’re not sure what happened to the figure or if there’s a narrative at all—Why are they laying there? 3D printing was also a way for me to reproduce an iconic face in a way that felt branded, without actually having access to them for the sculpture Untitled (Landowner) (2017) from my show at False Flag.
Rail: What was the face?
Ross: Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Rail: How did you get his face?
Ross: I copied it from a lot of images, tracing them until I had it.
Rail: And why Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Ross: Because he’s become the spokesperson for science and logical thought. He’s the antithesis to the context that show was playing with: the possibility that the world is not round. The show asks the same questions a large faction of the Internet is asking, What if the world is flat? And it considers it from a standpoint of appreciation for the snowball effect of untethered speculation. What would be underground? I’ve been exploring a desire to see the world as something more mystical than what we’re being told. That is where my interest in online conspiracy theory comes from, the desire for something more from a secular world. So if I can make something through some idiosyncratic process that approaches an illusion, even if that illusion breaks itself down as you walk around it, I think to some that appeases the desire to see magic and to others it exposes some of the mechanisms of that desire.
Rail: What does a “mystical” experience mean to you? Does it connect to your spirituality? Or the wish for that kind of spirituality?
Ross: Maybe, but I maintain that I’m more concerned with the desire to find something mystical than the hypothetical mystical thing. A lot of problems arise in the world from wishing for something more fantastic and not finding it. It’s not just about my own spiritual search; I’m happy with the reality of materials and art-making. The material is sometimes rooted in fantasy disguised as pragmatics, like wearing the riot gear not to protect oneself, but to feel more powerful.
I guess that’s where “sculpture” comes in again. For me sculpture is the combining of images and things. It’s like double entendre—sculpture allows me to make something that looks one way, but the physicality is different. That is why social media becomes interesting—it doesn’t let the images settle. Like my sculpture A Mouth that is a stage (2017), it looks like a red shape, almost like a sticker on the wall, but the physicality is so much more interesting and complicated—it’s a cavernous interior.
Rail: When you first thought you were an artist, what did that mean to you?
Ross: A way of showing other people and myself the, sometimes willful, gullibility of sight. One of the pieces I made in school that I thought about a lot and I remade recently was a kinetic sculpture that looks like a propeller making a piece of fabric wave. However, the piece of fabric is connected to its own mechanical parts. They’re completely different movements—they clearly are—the fabric is moving in a really jerky manner and the propeller is underneath it, spinning too slowly to make the fabric wave, but it reads as a cause and effect scenario.
Rail: What is it that changed for you, or that you’re questioning about art?
Ross: It’s changed in that I’m trying to make these things that are more complicated visually and are about the culture that I’m seeing and experiencing and actively participating in, tapping into not only the fact that perception is fragile, but to illuminate internal mechanisms that label things automatically based on sight. Maybe there’s somewhere in there where I can really explore form—where I can make something that feels alien and spectacular.
Rail: What does “form” mean to you? There is an extreme investment in form itself as a thing that carries an experience or meaning in your work.
Ross: I look at form a lot like butchering meat—I want the whole ox, trying to get something usable, something edible or something wearable. So, coming up with a form is the beginning of this process of pulling it apart and getting the pieces of it that you can use.
Rail: How does material choice come into that? Because it sounds like you’re much more engaged with the meanings and associations of the processes you use than you are with the materials themselves?
Ross: That changes in time. Of late, I’ve become interested in materials that can produce cavernous forms while maintaining a sheet thinness, like plastics and fiberglass, which just happen to allude to ubiquitous forms of armor and costume. But I’m sure my material choices will keep changing as I keep searching for new processes. I have an ongoing list of materials that I want to look into. There are some that are mentioned in the first paragraph of my press release: The soul is a self-sealing thermoplastic, polystyrene, expanding foam, emergency blanket, raspberry pi, magic sculpt, isomalt sugar, mylar, crystal clear, digital display, LCD curtain, polycarbonate, shell.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.