Joe Amrhein in conversation with Ati Maier

Conversation:  Joe Amrhein and Ati Maier. July 28, 2008.

AM            My first question would be about your history, because I know you were working as a sign painter in California at some point. How did you make the transition from that to your art?

JA            In Sacramento, where I grew up, I started a sign painting business with my brother as a way to maintain a semblance of life as an artist. It took over my life, though, at that time because it was hard to do and we had to pay the bills. I was learning on the job, back in ’75.

AM            What kind of signs would you make?

JA            They were all commercial: silk-screening and cutting letters for Plexiglas signs. It was all before plotters-vinyl letter-cutters-and computers. The important thing for me was painting the hand-lettered signs and learning that skill. In 1978 or ’79 plotters were becoming more and more dominant in the sign-painting world and taking over the business but we were still doing things that computers couldn’t really do, like gold-leaf lettering. Anyway, we were doing okay but I decided to leave Sacramento and go to San Francisco. I kept doing sign painting and started a new business there. I went door-to-door with my little pamphlets to all the truck companies, trying to get work. At the same time I had my studio practice on Stevenson Street in San Francisco, south of Market. I lived there for two years before I moved to LA.

AM            But you always made your artwork at the same time?

JA             Yes, I always made artwork too.

AM            So had you already started working the way you do now, in terms of your art, or was it very different?

JA             No, it was very different then. I always thought of my artwork as separate from my sign painting. All though the eighties I was in LA and after the first few years was able to support myself as an artist and was painting in my studio, away from sign painting. When I came to New York in ’89 is when the two converged.

AM            When did you actually start using letters and text in your artwork?

JA             In New York, I started working with sign painting differently. I was still making paintings, but I started to meet and assist artists who used text-and who have since become friends-like Lothar Baumgarten and Lawrence Weiner. Then I met their dealers, Marion Goodman and Leo Castelli, and interesting people like that. So I was getting involved with great galleries through my day job, sign painting, and still working in my studio as an artist.

AM            So this influenced you, working with artists who actually worked with words, like Lawrence Weiner?

JA             Yes, I was getting completely involved in that kind of work. Then someone suggested to me that I should try to utilize my skills as a sign painter by using text in my artwork. I was reluctant. I just couldn’t see it because I had always thought of sign painting as just a way to make a living. Then Bruce Pearson curated a show in Brooklyn in the mid-’90s, “Just What Do You Think You’re Doing Dave?” Bruce asked me to do something large and to try something different. So I did a piece that was purely text for the first time and I really loved the piece after I finished it. From that period until today I’ve been working on Mylar and glass in enamels using text.

AM            What kind of words or what kind of language are you using?

JA             I used to use site-specific language, words that would describe a place. Or I would use words or letters that would be repeated. Now I’m using words I’ve appropriated, language that is usually from art-critiques. That hyperbole and exaggerated language is poetic in a way. When trying to describe artwork, especially out of context, it’s hard to make any sense out of it sometimes. I just love that exaggeration in language. I utilize this by bringing it back into my art making. Usually art criticism has a very linear direction; artwork is made, then it’s reviewed and it ends there-it becomes abstract. Some years after I started this work I read a quote by Robert Smithson that really resonated with me. He said “that writing on art replaces presence by absence by substituting the abstraction of language for the real thing.” I’m pulling it back into art-making again.

AM            Can you explain a little how you build up the Mylar pieces?

JA             It’s based on the idea of layering because this language is very dense and very hard to understand. I use that aspect of the language and physically overlap the words which are painted on Mylar because there’s a transparency to the material. Layering the words on top of each other makes it even harder to read. And utilizing the painting style and fonts that are developed in sign painting gives me a visual to work with. Artists like Lawrence Weiner, Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger all use a particular typeface for a certain reason. When I use sign fonts and lettering it relates back to billboards and signage and it gives the possibility of making large or small-scale work. Utilizing sign fonts brings a commercial or nostalgic context to the work.

AM            How much did people in New York influence you, or not? Because you’re going further with the sculptural work, towards the scattered glass pieces.

JA             One artist I worked with-this connects to running a gallery too-but one artist I worked with while running Pierogi is Brian Conley. Brian and I co-curated a show of Robert Smithson’s work. It was a re-creation of his “Dead Tree” installation. Researching Smithson’s work really influenced me.

AM            Even though he was a land artist, he influenced you in terms of writing?

JA             More in terms of making art and how to present work, and developing ideas outside the box. But he also did pieces using glass and mirrors and I really love those aspects of his work. One piece he did was called “Atlantis.” It was an outdoor installation of broken glass that formed the shape of Atlantis. I was really fascinated by that. I loved working on glass and painting words on it-because of my sign painting background and having worked on glass, storefronts, and windows-but the idea of breaking the glass added a whole other dimension to it.

AM            That’s another piece you have in the show, a broken glass piece.

JA             Yes, the words are painted on the glass and then broken into a large pile so they become artifacts in a way. They become fragments of words and are almost illegible. The color and painting of the words becomes more of a visual abstraction and the broken glass develops a real tension.

AM            Can you tell me more about this piece? You told me a little bit about the first time you showed it and you said that it got broken in the transport or something?

JA             This is an evolving piece. I started it about eights years ago. It was a very small pile of glass with text the first time I showed it. I saved this pile and every time I re-installed the piece I would add new larger pieces of painted glass and break them on site, always saving as much of the glass as I could afterward. So the piece has been growing and growing and I’ve shown it maybe six times. The last time was in 2005 at Dogenhaus gallery in Leipzig. I shipped the glass pieces and customs was confused because I put zero value on it. The forms just said “broken glass.” I guess because they couldn’t understand it they opened the crate. In the crate were separate sections of broken glass pieces, some larger, some smaller, with text painted on them. I had been preserving the larger pieces separately so they weren’t all just tiny bits. In their somewhat brutal way of opening the crate they did break a lot of the glass. It was fine because that’s the end result of the work, but I was frustrated because I wanted to break the glass on site.

AM            So tell me about the breaking of the glass. Is it important that you are the one who is breaking the glass? What is the important aspect to that? Because it’s a violent act somehow…

JA             Yes, you don’t want to approach it because you’re going to step on this broken glass. It’s dangerous. It’s the nature of glass. And I utilize that aspect of the broken glass to emphasize the broken language. When I do install it I like to compose the pile somewhat. It’s not just opening a box and dumping it on the floor. There’s a compositional element to it that I like to develop and in doing so the spontaneous breaking of the glass on site becomes obvious and important to the installation.

AM            So you don’t do it as a performance.

JA             I don’t do it as a performance. It’s more of a process for me.

AM            Tell me about the other big piece in the show, “Abecedarian.”

JA             “Abecedarian” is a development from other work I’ve done. Again, the medium is glass and enamel paint. I utilize glass as a translucent material and the paint as a mask. There are 26 pieces in the installation, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each piece has five glass “shelves” painted with words or phrases starting with that letter of the alphabet and a single light source, which is the most important element of the work, that creates a shadow.

AM            The shadows are on the wall?

JA             Yeah, so what happens is that the opaque enamel lettering becomes an anamorphic distortion. The letters are distorted to the perspective of the light, so that the letters are in correct perspective when cast down as a shadow on the wall. The light source has to be positioned exactly where it was when the piece was painted in the studio. Again, I’m using shadows as an aspect of language. In this case the ephemeral nature of language-when it’s spoken it’s there for a moment and gone the next. And the nature of a shadow is very ephemeral. It goes away or changes.

AM            Can you talk about a bit about the use of color in your work?

JA             The piece I’m working on now, “Detailfülle,” has an eclectic and elaborate color scheme. Sometimes I use color patterns or a transition of color, from reds to blues, let’s say. In one of my arch pieces I used that transition to emphasize the idea of traveling from one side of the arch to the other. So the arch is really a bridge, a visual bridge, but you’re underneath. You walk under and look up and the language goes up and over your head, so to speak, metaphorically. So there’s this color transition and it draws you across what you’re reading. But I also use monotones to emphasize the letter fonts and structure. I’ve done a few number pieces, one of which is in the show, “Infinity.” It’s painted in black and white only, to emphasize grayscale, but also to emphasize the formal aspect of letters beyond their meaning.

AM            So would you say in the arch piece, for example, that the concept is more important or the visual result?

JA             One really enhances/INFORMS the other. When I layer Mylar I create transitions and overlapping information, so it becomes about the density of information.

AM            Some of your work, like the arch pieces for example, are almost like word sculptures. They go out into the space.

JA            Yes, I realized that I could physically separate the layers and in doing so they came off the wall and became sculptural. That opened up the whole idea of hanging the work from the ceiling as “curtains” of information. The first arch piece I did started against the wall and extended out from the wall into the space by twelve feet. There was a gradual shrinking of the panels in height as they came forward; beginning with the largest at 11 feet high by 20 feet wide, to the smallest, at the front, at 4 inches high x 20 feet. Similar to the bridge idea, it created a wave of information that went over your head. This emphasizes the concept of density that I described earlier. The information can be very funny and ridiculous, and also poetic and interesting. It all depends on how you look at it. It describes art and it can describe a lot of things. People don’t have to be in the art world to laugh at it or read it or get involved in it. But it is language that describes things that are very esoteric in their own right.

AM            You basically only use terms out of the art world?

JA             In this series it’s all based on critical art reviews. Most people I talk to in the art world or outside the art world who read this dense language have a hard time understanding it because it’s so exaggerated. I use that in my work and a lot of writers think I’m dissing them when I use it, or they like that I’m using their language, but then they want to know if I’m making fun of them. But often I think it’s very poetic language. It can be a creative language, but it can also be ridiculous.

AM            Well, you’re taking it out of context, so it’s not specific to anything anymore.

JA             It’s funny how language can just be so vague, but very specific at the same time.

AM            I’m sure critics write about you too. What happens then?

JA             The reviews of my work can be straightforward, but some say it’s hard to criticize, and some…well, one reviewer called it “bomb-proof.” It’s about what they do.

AM            It could go on forever. You could use parts of their reviews of your work to make another piece.

JA             Right, and I have. Using these words comes out of a conceptual idea of using language. It’s hard to make a concept into a concrete idea. When you make it concrete it has a physical form and that physical form has a relation to what the concept is. You have to consider what it looks like. I utilize these words and letters as a physical form. I use the commercial word as a reference to make the letters a physical object and give it a reason for scale. Every time I paint words, I have to tip my hat to other artists who have developed art with words because they made this possible, but their work came out of other concerns about making art and using words to define artwork, or defining situations that talk about life. My work is referencing and appropriating text that talks about artwork.

AM            Could we talk a bit more about site-specific works like the one you did at Laumeier Sculpture Park? That was a really nice piece.

JA             That piece was a billboard, which was great for me. Gregory Volk and Sabina Russ curated the show. They wanted to use billboards as painting surfaces and as sculpture in the park. The idea of billboards fits perfectly into my work because it’s about the idea of signage and advertising, and it gives the work a reason to be in that place. I considered that site the center of the world and opened up the center of the billboard like a picture frame, through which you could see Laumeier Sculpture Park. From that point I went North, East, South, West and I randomly picked sites. The beginning layers were sites located 5 or 10 miles away. I wrote down street names and buildings and places. As the layers continued out-there were about 30 or 40 layers from the center to the outside of the billboard-I went across the United States in each direction, and then across the Atlantic and the Pacific and Europe, and down to the Antarctic, up to the Arctic, and over to China, ending up in Sri Lanka and Russia. It referenced sites all the way around the globe, like a world sign map.

AM            Another question-how do you survive as an artist and a gallerist at the same time? That must be very difficult.

JA             I do run Pierogi Gallery with my wife Susan, but for me it’s just a matter of allocating time to do my artwork. But that’s probably true of a lot of artists who have day jobs and try to allocate time to do their work. Running a gallery isn’t so much wearing two hats because both are very much the same vernacular. Running a gallery can be a work of art.

AM            Right, you work with the same medium, which is art, but on one hand you have to work as a businessman and on the other you work as an artist. It’s quite different I would say.

JA             Well, there are 25 other egos involved, not just my own. It’s hard but it’s also wonderful because it becomes a whole family and gives me other reasons to be involved in the art world. I can’t make as much artwork as I would like, but I probably don’t need to make as much artwork as I’d like to. Sometimes I think artists make too much work. It saturates what they do for the sake of trying to satisfy a market. Making art can be very personal, it can be very interesting-it is a lifestyle. I think the idea of making art is very important.

AM            It has more to do with quality.

JA             Exactly. As long as I can maintain quality and keep it separate from what I do as a gallerist. And I have to keep it separate, it has to live on it’s own. And hopefully it’ll always continue to develop. That’s what’s exciting.