DIRT IN CONVERSATION WITH SADIE BARNETTE, THE 2017 NAVIGATION PRESS VISITING ARTIST
Navigation Press: Prints, Books, and Multiples -- housed within George Mason University’s School of Art -- was founded in 2006 and provides a week-long residency for artists to collaborate and create prints within the studios. DC artist Renee Stout was the first visiting artist that year. Now in its eleventh iteration, the 2017 Visiting Artist is Sadie Barnette, an Oakland and Compton-based artist whose traveling exhibition “Dear 1968,...” has received critical acclaim. Additionally, Barnette has a solo show on view at Fort Gansevoort in New York City entitled, “Compland,” on view until October 28, 2017.
DIRT recently went out to visit Navigation Press to visit Christopher Kardambikis, director of Navigation Press, and to sit down with Sadie and discuss her artistic process, her influences, and her thoughts on the interplay between the public and private.
DIRT: How did Chris present Navigation Press to you? You’ve only been here for a day so it’s still the beginning, but what drew you to the program?
SADIE: I know Christopher from graduate school and he was always the king of elevating someone’s idea with material suggestions. He’d say “yeah I see what you’re doing but you could also do it this way, or what if you printed this on top of that.” He has a unique gift for using his knowledge in the service of someone else’s conceptual premise, which I think is pretty rare. So I was really excited to have his technical expertise, while also having all these amazing set of hands to help produce something. I work in so many different mediums, I don’t really consider myself the master of any one technique, so it’s really great to work with people who are super focused and specific in terms of material considerations. Whereas, I tend to be more conceptual.
"It seems like they are running a press together and not taking a class, which seems rad."
DIRT: What has your experience been so far with the students?
SADIE: Yesterday was pretty epic. I didn’t come in knowing exactly what I wanted to do, so I came in and presented some of my previous work and then had ten elements that I was interested in using, like collage and the things that have appeared in previous works. We played around with them in real time on the screen and seeing what people were drawn to and what would work best. I’m not sure if they are just awesome students or if it’s the way that Chris has them invested, but they all seem to have agency in their ideas. It seems like they are running a press together and not taking a class, which seems rad.
DIRT: You said you didn’t know what you were going to do, but did you bring an idea of the print? Is that print being made into multiple prints?
SADIE: It’s going to be one print, edition of forty, plus artist proofs, and then there might be some room to play with some other things that might become a smaller edition. We went from very loose ideas to concrete ideas of what we’re going to make. We basically have Monday through Friday to get this thing made.
DIRT: How big are the prints going to be?
SADIE: The page size is around 25 x 22 inches. There will be about four inches of white space on the top and bottom. Then it becomes about 17 x 22 inches. It happened by accident when I set up the document in Photoshop. I had an 8 x 10 document and the work was vertical. I liked the idea of the print being landscape on a portrait-sized paper. It feels like this framing is referencing something, and this becomes a photo or a film-still. The framing of it makes it feel documentary. Typically I’m all about the full-bleed.
Print studio photos at George Mason School of Art
DIRT: Are you working continuously with the students throughout the week? What do the hours look like?
SADIE: There are students from the Navigation Press class that are also in this Advanced Printmaking class and there are also other people that just came because they wanted to help out, which was super rad. The hours are typically 10 am to 7 pm. I was telling the students yesterday that in terms of thinking about being an artist in the world, I am really into keeping union hours when other people are involved in things, otherwise you end up not making a living wage. I’m not really into the drama of 3 am, and the idea of powering through it. It’s just not good politics. Obviously, that sometimes comes into play in your studio when you’re up against a shipping deadline. My parents were both working in labor rights for my whole life, so to me art isn’t better or worse than any other profession. It’s not so noble of a thing that people should be dying for it. I’m not into the super late install. People are already not getting paid enough.
DIRT: What draws you to the iridescent pink color that you use and what does the chevron shape signify to you?
SADIE: In terms of the pink color, I try to use colors that are very slick and seductive and appealing and almost commercial looking to pull people in. Once you’re in there, there is maybe some grittier questions or content that come up. Specifically for the FBI project, I was thinking of the pink as a real way to reclaim the information and deface it in terms of what would piss off J. Edgar Hoover, which would be pink and rhinestones.
The chevron-shape comes from this puzzle of game pieces where you try to fit smaller shapes into a larger shape and most times you can’t figure any of them out. I was doing a bunch of re-photographing of those shapes on top of other photographs so that it was sort of an in-camera collage and flattening. In a way, it’s not a portrait of this particular little girl anymore but could be any brown child in footie pajamas in the 70’s. I wanted to open it up and hint towards an alternate dimension that is right beneath the surface all the time. But also there is this very modernist and minimal figure, which is also some of the work that influences me the most. I have to admit, I really like all the modernist white dudes. It’s definitely a language or tool that I play in and feels very natural to me.
“Why do we all even keep on making art
when David Hammons is making art?”
DIRT: Could you go more into your influences? Both historically and contemporaneously? Whose work do you see that pushes your own practice?
SADIE: Starting historically, whenever people ask who my favorite artist is, I usually say Prince and David Hammons. Prince, in terms of pushing things that seem to be purely aesthetic, but really pushing them with content. Somehow lace and glitter become powerful, charged tools to destroy the patriarchy and also steal people’s girlfriends. Hammons is just the best at everything. Sometimes it’s like, “why do we all even keep on making art when David Hammons is making art?”
I’m also influenced by things that are different than ways that I’m working. Two of my favorite painters working today are Henry Taylor and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. What they’re doing is totally different but I’m forever mesmerized. There is this sense of looseness and cool, but at the same time everything is exactly where it needs to be.
In terms of minimalist dudes, Sol LeWitt was a huge influence to me. He is just correct. For the show at Fort Gansevoort, we executed wall drawings for the first time and this amazing master wall drawer that works for the Sol LeWitt estate helped us with the wall drawings, and that just felt like a not accidental thread to my work.
DIRT: Could you describe the interplay and tension between the public and private in your work?
SADIE: In terms of receiving this FBI document, it’s the most private thing, but yet your government has made it about your family because it considers the Black Panthers to be a terrorist organization. They were interviewing everyone that my dad had ever worked with, they interviewed his high school teachers, siblings and their spouses. There are infiltrators at meetings pretending to be your friend. It’s at a really invasive level and asserts this notion that there is no private. In my work, I’ve tried to bring in this domesticity to face-off with this black and white text account. I wanted to make it personal. What is more dehumanizing than a mugshot? The whole point of that type of image is so that someone becomes a number and can sit on people’s desk and be someone that is a target. But what does it mean to draw that by hand in pencil as the daughter of this person, and make it more of a portrait than a mugshot?
With the family polaroids, and the wallpaper, I’m creating these domestic cues. In all of these 500 pages there’s nothing illegal and nothing says anything bad about my dad’s character. So all they could go after was his job at the Post Office. He was fired for living with a woman who he was not married to and they had a child. It was actually a law that was put on the books by Truman in order to kick gay people out of government jobs. It was considered “behavior unbecoming of a government employee.” So living with a woman you’re not married to and having a child -- and they’re obviously an adorable little family -- is “behavior unbecoming of a government employee.” So the notion of a private life, what private life? That’s the struggle of this whole thing is to have a private life and to be able to live.
"What is more dehumanizing
than a mugshot?"
DIRT: Are you ever conscious of being tracked in your personal daily life after working with this material?
SADIE: I just assume that every digital communication is public. In a way, I’m lucky that my work is public. I worry a lot more about activists or journalists who are investigating ongoing cases. I definitely hope that they take as many precautions as they can and take themselves seriously. I think that one thing that’s really important, that a lot of activists organizing at this time might have thought was nothing, was organizing a free breakfast at a church. They figured that no one would take them that seriously to infiltrate the organization. I think that is a danger and a mistake that people can make today in that their work is not significant enough to be tracked and we know that that’s not the case.
Last week, foreignpolicy.com published this huge revelation of a category that the FBI just created called “Black Identity Extremists.” Amy Goodman wrote a good piece on Democracy Now. I hoped this FBI project wouldn’t become more relevant, but it’s already shocking how relevant it is. With this new category of black identity extremists, people are calling it COINTELPRO 2. It’s exactly the same tactic of conflating blackness with extremism without any evidence of a propensity toward violence. The two things are synonymous in government language.
DIRT: Do you see the “Dear 1968,...” exhibition as an evolving show and will it continue to grow?
SADIE: The show will evolve and the source material is very dense and loaded. It would be arrogant of me to think that I would get it right the first time in terms of how to produce this work. The show will be traveling more. I will have to more than likely make new work, so it would be a good time to expand. There are so many stories within stories. The first time I showed the work, I created a wallpaper out of about 100 pages of the file and there were family photos on top of it. I wanted to impose upon people how intense the surveillance was but I didn’t realize that people would be reading every line. When I would go to the Oakland Museum, where it first showed, people were sitting on the floor reading everything. I got the feeling that people don’t often have access to these documents and they were reading it in this almost self-defense kind of way, wondering what the government had access to in their own lives. In the next iterations, I made it with the 28 pages all in a line that were easier to read. Those elements changed as I saw how people interacted with it.
(L) Sadie Barnette, Untitled (Baby dress), 2017, Collage on glitter paper (R) Sadie Barnette, Untitled (Pink fence sparkle), 2017, Archival pigment print with Swarovski crystals
"What does it mean if there are no more black cities and spaces?"
DIRT: Can you talk a bit about the solo show you have on view in New York at Fort Gansevoort?
SADIE: There’s an excerpt from the five prints that talk about the Post Office firing and is sort of a contained story, but the rest of the show I think of it more as illustrating the lives that are at stake and the work that is being done. The show is entitled “Compland,” which is a blending of Oakland, where I’m from, and Compton, where my family first moved to when they came to California. Oakland has recently undergone this radical gentrification and thinking about the fact that the Panthers were founded in Oakland, what does it mean if there are no more black cities and spaces? Compland is this imaginary black city that exists outside of state surveillance, police brutality, and gentrification, and so there are more of the glittering collages with contemporary figures or family members elevated to these third spaces.
DIRT: Finally, what are your goals for today in the studio?
SADIE: We’re going to mix up some pink and our goal is to get all of the pink layers printed today and maybe make the screen for the black layers.