Amze Emmons is the latest artist here in Life, the Universe and Art. A University of Iowa grad, Amze is Assistant Professor Print and Drawing at Muhlenberg College, outside Philadelphia. Amze has an extensive exhibition history including, Painted Bride, Philadelphia, PA, Transmission Gallery, Richmond, VA, Works on Paper Gallery, Philadelphia, PA and Scuola Internationale Di Graphica, Venice, Italy. Awards include Individual Creative Artist Fellowship, Pennsylvania Arts Council Grant, The MacDowell Colony, and a Key Holder Residency, Lower Eastside Printshop, New York, NY. Amze talks about his latest body of work, Refugee Architecture, which deals with the architecture of displacement, here on Life.
1. This body of work seems very much about alienation and the urban environment. It almost feels post- apocalyptic, but with a wry wit to it. How did this recent series come to in being? What was your conceptual base for it?
Your description touches on most of my main conceits; it’s great to hear that it comes through to the audience.
Only in retrospect does this work really appear to emerge from a fairly logical trajectory. I had finished a large body of work investigating modernist architecture, mostly vague office spaces and bleak waiting rooms; that work was intended as a kind of critique of institutional space. It was beginning to feel played out and I wanted to head in a new direction. The civil war in Iraq was just beginning to explode, and imagery of the people being displaced and all the car bombings was overtaking my attention; these events seemed too important to not speak about but I had no interest in making polemic imagery. So I just started working and asymmetrically I found subject matter that suited my vocabulary: refugee architecture, abandoned inhabited spaces, and decimated urban landscapes. Initially I set the constraint that I would only harvest source material from the New York Times. There was something odd and quiet about the grey black and white halftones when compared with the streaming video TV or the cheap digital images of carnage found on the web. Eventually I settled on a process of only working from documentary sources: newspaper clippings, news media imagery, documents and images from the UNHCR, Doctors without Borders… This led me to a broader investigation into global displacement. In a sense this body of work is really about this moment in time as seen through my various filters and procedures. It’s interesting to me that people often refer to it as post-apocalyptic. It’s just a collage of all the information we are fed on a daily basis but we’ve become numb to it.
2. You have a very distinct aesthetic, where your environs have a sense of accumulation, almost an all-overness, if you will, and yet there is a distinct visual quietness. How did you develop that?
I think the aesthetic sensibility in the work comes out of the process of making it and has been developing since I started this project three years ago. From the start I knew that this work needed to be pared-down in broad visual terms. The content and source material are overwhelming to me and needed to be filtered. Also I wanted to bring more of what I was really enjoying in my print work into this drawing/painting space. In my prints I was trying to exploit the anonymity that one finds in architectural drawings, printed matter and vintage comics. They clearly speak about the artist’s hand but also have a removed ‘age of mechanical reproduction’ quality to them. It seemed somehow important at an intuitive level to combine this pared-down, minimal realism with this interest in print language. I’m glad it reads as visual quietness--I would see that as a kind of success.
3. Your sense of balance between what is depicted in your imagery and what is not is really sophisticated. It seems to give just enough to allude to a particular narrative, but not enough to spoon-feed your audience. How have you developed that tension? And how do you see your audience relating to this narrative device?
This work starts out with all of these layers of source material--articles and newspaper clippings, found text, etc.--all of it seems important. I spend a lot of time drawing and erasing, but mostly erasing. I’m trying to find the essential elements that resonate inside of all the noise, intuitively editing and paring the image down to what seems most true. I’m interested in how the voids that are left can occupy space, both formally and conceptually.
The question of narrative is an interesting one. I don’t really intend these images as narrative works. From my point of view these images exists as artifacts of my process, fragmentary like a film still. I think the reason the images allude to narrative are because of what the audience brings to them. The shelters, blast walls and discarded water bottles are embedded in our visual culture; we remember them from images of Katrina’s aftermath or of sectarian conflicts in Baghdad. I’m very interested in how these assemblages, made up of architecture and evidence of displacement, can pose questions of narrative to the audience. It’s like a piece of isolated footage, composed of these discrete symbols that can be decoded in many different ways. I like the idea that an image can be a place of discovery for everyone involved.
4. Within your environs, you use these really rich moments of color, which act as a sort of punctum. How do you balance the color with your forms? How has this aesthetic device come into your work?
The short answer is that a lot of what happens in the studio is an intuitive process; the longer answer is that I have always had a keen interest in color and shape as formal elements to be manipulated. I spent a good deal of my time as a student looking really closely at Renaissance heavy-hitters like Giotto; I was always taken with his use of color. Later in my education I really tried to focus on learning formally how to manipulate composition, I guess coming out of an interest in the Bauhaus artists. I suppose it’s probably not really cool to suggest that I am a formalist inspired by Renaissance painters but that time spent studying their work is essential to how I construct these images today. But I should add that my pallet is strongly informed by my everyday activities. I carry a camera with me almost all the time; you never know what you might see in Chinatown or Target that will inspire you. I went to graduate school with some really great color theorists/practitioners; Gianna Commito and Nate Haenlein both taught me a lot about ways to deploy color.
5. There is an absolute adherence to craft and a sense of detail in your work. What is your drawing methodology and how do you think that methodology affect the aesthetics?
I think my over-arching method comes out of an interest in finding the image through the activity of drawing. I try to lay down a lot of information, rapidly, proceeding without expectations or emphasis. The forms are conjured out of this mess. Then I spend a lot of time erasing/editing until I find what is essential to the image. This willingness to really rework the image as if nothing is sacred comes out of my time spent making etchings and scraping plates. I think the surface becomes a kind of palimpsest. The images are very sharp but if you look closely all the history of erasing and re-drawing is there in the surface. I really like the way the drawn marks and painted shapes serve to act as foils to each other.
Top Ten list of Influences
After re-reading this list, It seems to have turned into more a list of things that entertain me right now. And I only came up with seven items. What does that say about how I’m influenced or my long term memory? I don’t know.
Podcasts- It’s hard to remember what I did in the studio before I started listening to these. I have a full list of my current favorites on my website.
Books- I read a lot and at times with haphazard taste. I’ve realized only lately how generative text is to my work. Recent titles worth mentioning- City of Glass by Paul Auster, Spook Country by William Gibson, Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.
The Wire- It’s almost cliché at this point but this is really good TV. Up with complexity!
Comic Books- It seems to me that my aesthetic decisions are very informed by all the years of my youth spent looking at kinetic, brightly colored bursts of energy trapped in fading newsprint. I recently ‘discovered’ this indie, artist-writer, Anders Nilsen. He’s really, really great. I feel like our work is somehow in conversation. I have a total comic crush on him.
Food that comes in it’s own container- Bananas, hard boiled eggs, burritos.. the list goes on. It’s natures’ own mysterious symmetry at work.
Kiosk- is a store in NYC whose owners comb the world over looking for small odd items that are in themselves beautifully designed or packaged everyday objects. I’m sure I’m not doing justice to the items in their collection. www.kioskkiosk.com/
Portable Architecture- The future is coming at it’s on wheels! Check out the archive of images of portable architecture at Temporary Services, www.temporaryservices.org/ --If you aren’t familiar they are a very cool art collective out of Chicago.
What are your current projects?
Besides just continuing this body of work and few upcoming shows, I have several other more collaborative projects in the works.
HUSH, a Dance Theater X production
HUSH is a multi-layered Dance collaboration under the direction of the choreographer Charles Anderson. I will be working as a visual designer on the piece.
I am contributing a section of text and imagery to Refuge/Refugee, a Chain Links series
Book. This interdisciplinary text will explore the plight and nature of refugees and refuge
from several distinct vantage points।
List of Works
Portrait of the Artist
Technical Oversightt, Paper, 18.5x24” 2007
Secret Writing, Paper, 18.5x24” 2007
How to Run, Paper, 18.5x24” 2007
Disruptive Technology, Panel, 20x24” 2007
Being Cheerful Starts Now, Panel, 20x24” 2008
Pidgin Satellite, Paper, 18.5x24” 2007
Protective Clothing, Paper, 18.5x24” 2007