Posted: November 13th, 2010 | Author: Lance Hewison | Filed under: Digital, Drawing, Installation, Mixed-Media, Painting, Sculpture | Tags: George Pfau, Zombies | No Comments »
George Pfau, a multi-media artist based in the San Francisco bay area, generously opens up about his current exhibition, zombies, and his altogether fascinating inspiration from beyond the grave:
Q: I interviewed your friend Joshua Hagler
in my last feature. Both you and Joshua are showing together in your current exhibition “Nearly Approaching Never to Pass”
, which features pieces you worked on together. Do you two have projects you intend to collaborate on together in the future?
A: I loved your interview with Josh
, although I never would have guessed that my “breast pocket” or my alleged opening night antics would be topics of conversation (I did drink a lot of root beer before the reception). I told Josh I would jump at the chance to show with him “even if it was in a barn in Nebraska.” While I was in Austria in August, Josh emailed me about showing with Sharon Reaves
and I was immediately on board. When I got back to San Francisco we met up and the collaborative juices starting flowing immediately and pretty damn smoothly. It was interesting because the invention of the “Pfaugler” print medium really happened in step with the creation of the project’s conceptual framework. Probably the only bit of drama that happened was when Josh’s puppy, Francis Falcore Bacon, tried to eat a chop-stick.
I think both he and I share a similar need to unabashedly funnel energy into our creative practices. Working side by side was a thrill for me in that we could act as a merged, artistic being. I think we communicated very openly through the whole process. I know his artistic path is now sending him off to Norway and Italy for at least half of a year, so perhaps we’ll have more chances to collaborate after that in the Bay Area, or possibly in New York.
“Figures in Movement (After Francis Bacon)”
These questions emerged: Have I inherited, through blood, something from the making of my grandfather’s drawing that is now in my hands in the present day? In the appropriation and reconstruction of his image, how does my identity become further merged with his?
“Tip of the Blade”
Q: Exploitation of zombies is prevalent in pop culture, from scores of zombie films and books, to the new television series “The Walking Dead”. I often wonder what drives this obsession. Your work certainly approaches zombies in a way I hadn’t considered before. What are your thoughts regarding this infatuation with the undead?
A: Yes! Zombies are near and far in the pop-cultural media landscape. They are a recognized symbol of the unrecognized, and are now fully entrenched in a very marketable genre. They are our closest loved ones. They are a homogenous mass. They are the sick. They are the underclass. They are the marginalized other. They are somewhere in-between dead and alive, person and thing, “I” and “they.” What is sad to me is that most contemporary portrayals of zombies reinforce stigmas surrounding these various traits or notions of in-betweenness, labeling them a threat.
I’d speculate that current zombie narrative that transpires in a TV series like “The Walking Dead” or in a videogame like “Dead Rising 2″ plays off of societal fears surrounding contagious disease and the sanctity of the “self.” This gets combined with survival fetishism and glorification of weapons, which engender a scenario like: Oh shit! Here I am in the midst of a contagious group of identity-less, animated bodies who want to merge themselves with me by ingesting my flesh. I now have a perfectly justified excuse to use household objects to commit grotesquely exaggerated acts of violence. I think people love the fantasy scenario of: Given the particular set of rules laid out by the film or game, what would I do in this situation?
I look a lot at the systems of logic zombie narratives create and promote. Then in my work I seek to examine and re-frame these systems. Zombies are often identified by various physical traits, which can vary from a walking corpse to a cartoonishly exaggerated form of decomposing flesh. In most depictions, the skin of the zombie body is in an unstable state of peeling and decay, often revealing the body’s interior. In the work for “Nearly Approaching Never To Pass” my work takes aim at ideas of skin and the layered, in-flux body. Through the lens of the zombie, I examine skin as a permeable, shedding membrane as opposed to the impenetrable shell that gets glorified by pop-advertising.
Q: Tell me about your sculpture titled “Framing Cannibal”. The object itself is quite modern and beautiful to my eyes, but the title gives me the impression of a more sinister edge.
A: During various late nights being around the CCA studios this past year, Neil Ledoux and I went on various dumpster diving missions, pulling out all sorts of interesting scraps of wood, plastic, fabric, cardboard, etc. We found all sorts of great treasures discarded by architecture students, many of which were transformed into the skeleton, flesh and guts of this sculpture. This spring I saw a David Smith sculpture show at Gagosian
in New York, and was somewhat influenced by the anthropomorphic qualities of some of his pieces, so maybe that’s the stench of the “modern” that you may be smelling.
I was thinking of making a painting/sculpture hybrid that is can support its own weight, thus the title “Framing Cannibal (Standing).” A key element to zombie logic is that the dead stand up and have agency. A crazy thing that happened with this sculpture is that it got loose. It somehow made its way over to the CCA cafeteria, blending in with the students, and ordered and ate a terrible painting of a blue brain, which is now visibly digesting in its midsection. (see attached image)
Q: The appropriation of your ancestor’s drawings into your work is a brilliant idea. How did you eventually end up using them, and in what ways did borrowing from your family’s history inform the work?
A: The imagery I chose comes from a drawing by my grandfather, Clarence Mayhew, of small figures at the base of Notre Dame Cathedral. He studied architecture at the École des beaux-arts in Paris in the 20′s, and I have several of his drawings from this time. I felt that they were relevant for this project because they depict figures with a minimal amount of visual information. A small grouping of lines is enough to indicate a figure and differentiate it from its environment, which is essentially a larger field of similar lines. This is not dissimilar to my view of zombies as figures on the verge of recognition.
I think it was an interesting process for both Josh and I because in some way we were coming in contact with the touch of people who have been dead for a long time. It felt like an exploration of what happens if my hand tries to draw with the same series of movements that my grandfather made and if something instinctual, or genetic be literally drawn out by this type of re-enactment. I wondered if my body would actually remember something that my grandfather performed. These questions emerged: Have I inherited, through blood, something from the making of my grandfathers drawing that is now in my hands in the present day? In the appropriation and reconstruction of his image, how does my identity become further merged with his?
Q: Your work incorporates so many different media: film, digital prints, drawings, painting, projections, and sculpture. Have these simply been a natural extension of your vision, or do you seek out new ways of expressing yourself as a challenge?
A: While I am totally interested in the complicated histories of artistic media, the life and death of painting for example, I don’t intend for my practice to be limited to any specific mode of making. I grew up drawing, so I do think I’ll always be somewhat involved in some sort of visual / graphic language. Over the past four years or so, some of the most exciting projects for me have been collaborative, working with artists like Josh, Hannah Ireland, Klea McKenna, Alex Pratt, Kristina Willemse and as a member of the ScreenLab / Tender Transmissions Collective. One project I’m currently working on here at the Vermont Studio Center is a collaboration with Calder Yates, who bravely crossed the freezing Gihon river with no trousers on in order for us to set up a long distance tin can telephone system, from my studio to his.
Q: I’ve noticed you have utilized the backside of canvases in several works. Is there a story behind how this came about?
A: In a piece like “Epi/Exo/Endo Dermis,” stretcher bars are positioned against a wall in a conventional, frontal way. The fabric you see, which wrinkles at the joints, is stretched around each wooden bar and then across the gaps. So what you are seeing is actually the “front.” However, in this piece I did do a lot of the drawing on the back of the fabric, allowing the ink to bleed through to the front. In this piece and others I want the skeletal stretcher bars to play a visible role in the body of the painting. They also serve an organizational function, dividing the painting into structural and graphic compartments. The thin veil of tightly stretched fabric acts as a skin-like structure.
Q: You have participated in an impressive number of exhibitions
. One of the most difficult things for artists, it seems, is getting work shown and sold consistently. Many elements have to come together at the right time, not to mention the tumult of the artist’s personal struggles. Is there any advice you would give to an artist in the nascent stages of their career?
A: I feel very lucky to have received such great support thus far in this artistic journey. Exhibiting has been an important, invigorating experience for me for sure. I’m currently in a show curated by cyborg/zombie/humanoid expert, Torsten Zenas Burns, entitled “The Jellification,” at the Parsons Hall Project Space in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I spent a long time absorbing the other carefully selected artworks in the show and learned all sorts of things about masking, mimicry, facial recognition, costumes, apes, and much more. I loved it.
Perhaps the advice I would try to give myself and to others is to try to be as honest as possible with yourself about what you want. Perhaps there are many proven formulae out there for artists. I think most of them are written about thoroughly by Alan Bamberger on artbusiness.com.
“six hundred pound parachute”
Q: The translucent quality of your work reminds me of encaustic medium, where one can bury several layers of images on top of the other. I was surprised to find many of these pieces were not made using encaustic. Have you experimented in this medium?
A: While I have played around with wax a little bit, I’ve typically used varying combinations of semi-transparent fabric and acrylic media. I made a painting a couple of years ago about the death of George Carlin, and that used solely layers of acrylic matte and glossy medium on canvas. Here in Vermont I’ve actually been getting back into oil painting. I’m making 14″ x 22″ impressionist paintings based on stills from zombie films in which tiny figures translate into little blobs of paint.
I think to describe the feeling of fear that swept over me during that sequence of events is to imagine what it might feel like to have a thick layer of flesh stripped away from my bones and dangled over a cliff.
Q: Congratulations on receiving the Daisy Soros Prize for Fine Art. Can you tell us more about this prize, and a little bit about your experience in Austria?
A: Thanks, it was an amazing experience. Basically the winners of this prize attend a class of their choice at the Internationale Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst
, in Salzburg, which lasts for roughly a month. I chose a class taught by Marko Lulic entitled “Space and Body.” The class met in the Festung Hohensalzburg, an enormous fortress on top of a giant hill (also probably the biggest tourist attraction in Salzburg). Most mornings I would dodge through hordes of tourists with digital cameras, fanny-packs, and overpriced bottles of water to get to class. I worked on an installation involving a digital projection, a two sided frame, the photoshop selection tool, hair and dandruff, a piece which I am currently revising. The highlight was definitely meeting all the fantastic artists there: both the other Daisy Soros
winners and the Europeans. There was one particular group of Viennese artists in my class who I think are doing some really exciting things with appropriation and site-specific installation. I’ve studied the Vienna Actionists a bit, and it was interesting talking to people who are now coming out of that immediate historical context. I really hope to go back there soon and travel around a bit more.
“inflatedeflate (bucket field goal)”
Q: I like to ask a random question at the end. Tell us your single most terrifying experience.
A: A really terrifying moment for me took place in 2004 when I was living in New York. I got a call from my sister saying my dad had been rushed to the hospital (in San Francisco) for emergency coronary surgery. I think to describe the feeling of fear that swept over me during that sequence of events is to imagine what it might feel like to have a thick layer of flesh stripped away from my bones and dangled over a cliff. The most torturous moments for me tend to be those of sudden uncertainty and pending disaster, where priorities are immediately shifted, and any annoyances become instantly trivial. I find a lot to learn from these types of situations and they are tremendously valuable to me. I flew back to San Francisco as quickly as I could, and arrived at the hospital as the surgery was taking place. From what I remember, he had a quadruple bypass in which blood vessels are taken from elsewhere and grafted to the coronary arteries to renew healthy blood circulation. It was amazing to see my family come together in quiet, concentrated support for him. It was actually one of my first glimpses into the amazing character of my stepmom, Susie. The surgery was successful, and I think we all feel incredibly lucky.
“Strings of examination”
For more work, visit www.gpfau.com