Entanglements: 001 - Jordan Martin & Adrienne Gaither
Jordan Martin, Program Assistant at Washington Project for the Arts, co-founder and editor of DIRT sits down with her partner and DC-based artist Adrienne Gaither on February 6th, 2018. During an evening of dinner and drinks at their apartment, the two discuss Gaither's most recent body of work and debut solo exhibition, How I Got Over, the DC art community, and her plans for the future.
Jordan: I think it's recording, okay how are you feeling how are you, what's going on, you ready for this?
Adrienne: Yeah, I’m fine let’s do this.
Jordan: My first question is about the vulnerable conversation you are having in your new body of work, 'How I Got Over,' and how it's so directly tied to your personal lived experience. I remember when you were in grad school and the work that you were making was so emotionally removed; even when you were making your own letters, or your more social commentary work, and I remember distinctly being at your MFA grad critique and Professor Bush was there and she basically raised her hand as if she had a question, but it wasn't a question at all, it was a command to get more emotionally close to your work. So, I feel like here we are years later and it seems like you have taken her advice with 'How I Got Over.'
What has it been like for you being so emotionally honest and vulnerable in this body of work discussing trauma and your own personal incidents and those stages of recovery?
ANG: When Professor Bush made her comment of me becoming more emotionally vulnerable with my work, to me it was more about being confident and knowing what it is that I'm doing and understanding my actual practice. I've been able to dig into myself more and it's kind of a give-and-take between confidence and wanting to explore my own journey. I think just getting to this place of emotional vulnerability in my work and in my practice has boosted my confidence, and I feel more solid about my practice. Overall it's been a very great exchange, its been rewarding.
Jordan: How would you describe your development as an artist to make this current body of work?
ANG: I am just getting to a place of really learning to understand and accept who I am. It’s easier to create work because before I was trying to figure out a concept and then create complexity from a concept that might have been outside of my purview. But to create work now, I take from my personal experiences and share it outward. It has been a process that allows me to let things go and allows me to make sense of a lot of things.
Jordan: Are there ever moments where you feel like 'Ok this work is not for the public,' I know there are works that you created that you won't exhibit or won't sell - for example, pretty much everything from 'Memoirs of Permanence.' So, are there any works that you're making that you feel aren't for public viewing?
ANG: I don't feel like I have met that moment where the work wouldn't be for public viewing. I think that is the beauty of painting abstract and doing abstract work, it can be about something very personal to me, and be interpreted totally different for someone else. I appreciate that because I learn more about what the work is doing for other people than it just being a conversation that I'm having by myself. With my earlier works, I was definitely having more conversations with myself and not trying to give the viewer access. That's why I was creating a code - if you didn't know it was a code, then how would you be able to access the work? But from that experience, I recognized that I don't need the code to create accessibility to the work. This work is accessible without a code or a legend, it just is accessible because of the elements and the context around it.
"I think that is the beauty of painting abstract and doing abstract work, it can be about something very personal to me, and be interpreted totally different for someone else."
Jordan: That makes me wonder how your idea of audience engagement has also shifted. At first it was more, 'this work isn't even for you to understand, unless you already have a certain level of understanding,' to where it's now, 'I want it be accessible where you can think about your own personal experiences,' and I want to know about that evolution of audience engagement, what was the moment that clicked for you where you thought, ‘I want to approach this differently’?
ANG: Just having shows, interacting with people and not being able to necessarily communicate what it is that I was going for [in the work] was one part of that. I think after creating ‘Memoirs of Permanence’ I gained an understanding of what it's like to create something accessible because I was using a figure; the figure was accessible to the audience and I saw 'oh okay with this figure there is some accessibility and understanding about this work.' But I still embedded my original code in it, but nobody saw that, it was working more as a visual element than something that can be read. I think working, pushing myself and trying new things - those experiences are influencing my practice every time.
Jordan: You just said something that I find interesting, which is you had a hard time explaining your work, and I wanted to go into that. What do you think made it difficult, was it because you were still trying to withhold information to keep things under wraps or you felt that if you were to explain the work then the audience would then be in a space that you felt was too vulnerable?
ANG: Yeah, I agree with that. I think initially I wanted to withhold information and I had expectations for an audience that I didn't even know and now I still don't know who my audiences is, but when I'm in the studio it's more about me and my work in that space. I have also developed the muscle of understanding that once it is time to let the work go or put it out that there are no more edits and I have to process that as a totally different experience.
Jordan: Something I feel you have always used as a tool for audience accessibility are your titles, which I think were referred to recently in the Washington Post as 'clues’. Even though they're not extremely strong clues, what has been the reasoning behind including those hints?
ANG: It's solely for the audience, it is one way to access the work, once you get into it. But titles are up for interpretation, sometimes the work doesn't match the title, so there are those disconnects. The titles are hard.
Jordan: Would you consider a piece successful if the title was disconnected from the work, or do you even critique your work in that way?
ANG: No, I mean if you look at a lot of abstract painters throughout history - for example, Barnett Newman has a painting of just a red line and its title is this very bizarre thing - it makes me think about a lot of things - hold on, now I have to google this piece.
Jordan: Take your time. I guess when you said sometimes the title can be a disconnect and knowing that it's not solely for the audience but it is a tool for the audience, I'm wondering if there is a desire for it to be the "clue" or a tool for understanding?
ANG: Hold on, I'm still googling this Barnett Newman. Oh yeah here it is, so he has a piece titled 'The Girl Reading' and it's an all red painting with one line - like I can understand what reading is like, but does this piece really convey or highlight a girl reading?
Jordan: Or in this case, does it give you a context clue to understanding the work, which I would say it doesn't.
ANG: It doesn't, but I think that's just an example that sometimes titles can also be arbitrary, they can throw you off just to put you in another place. But for me, I am trying to use my titles as some access point. But it's not a big deal if it doesn't make sense, hopefully I can explain it, but maybe I'm not always there to explain it and then it's just going to be what it's gonna be. At some point, I have to be ok with letting the audience have their own understanding or interpretation of the work, I can't control that part of the experience.
Jordan: Another thing it makes me think about is the idea of 'trauma-porn' and how your work is so connected to not only experiencing the trauma, but also the recovery stages as well; which I think can sometimes get left out when discussing this body of work. In some ways, the word 'trauma' is this poster-child for the work and then what is forgotten are these stages of recovery that are associated within the body of work. But, 'trauma-porn' is real, especially in the time of social-media, where media in general profits off of trauma, especially the trauma and pain of black people. This is something that I know we've had conversations about while you were making this body of work, discussing your trauma and the possibility of it being seen as trauma porn or you trying to capitalize off of black pain and trauma - what is your response to that?
ANG: This isn't something that I would want to continue to do, I don't want to continue to make work about trauma, it's just something that at the time was very huge for me because I have experienced so many different traumas and I've been processing without a therapist and I'm somehow making it to the other side of things. I wanted to highlight that resilience and the bravery, and I can't talk about those things without talking about the trauma. I wanted to go through it as it is a process. I wanted to mirror my painting process with the recovery process of trauma. Personally, I'm not dwelling so much on the trauma as I am highlighting the resiliency.
"Personally, I'm not dwelling so much on the trauma as I am highlighting the resiliency."
Jordan: When you think about the process of painting and how that coincides with process of trauma recovery - what made you aware of that parallel?
ANG: Overall both processes are not sexy. When you're working on the painting it starts as an idea and you have to put in the work and the labor to get it to a finished product. I think the same thing applies to trauma, you have to deal with your trauma head on, you don't have to re-live those moments but you have to revisit them and create your own understanding. Sometimes it's a matter of revisiting them because of your bad behavior, so it can be the root of the way that you are. I think seeing them both as time based things, it's time and work that you have to put in for both, was brilliant. I thought it was also refreshing to make that parallel. This is as time-based and hard as trauma recovery. Geo-abs are not easy paintings, they might look easy, but they are not easy (I like that too about them).
Jordan: It is interesting that you said 'it's not sexy' because painters and painting gets romanticized in our culture and media in so many ways, but one thing you don't see romanticized is trauma recovery. If anything is romanticized it is how quickly someone gets over a particular trauma and rarely the actual hard work that goes into it. So even though they both are looked at very differently, they kind of both suffer the same assumptions in a way.
ANG: Yeah I think definitely that's true.
"When you're working on the painting it starts as an idea and you have to put in the work and the labor to get it to a finished product."
Jordan: To start talking about technical execution in painting - you've been described as a person who has a "knack for composition" - where do you think that understanding of space, form and color comes from?
ANG: I have to say it comes from my day job as a graphic designer, in which I have to work with different dimensions and it's a recipe for composition. Understanding that has really helped me with painting.
Jordan: In your work you seem to have these puns, or tongue-in-cheek type of jokes and I want to know why it's important for you to use geometric abstraction as a way to explore these emotions and narratives - instead of using a style that is more figurative based or using recognizable objects.
ANG: Short answer is I'm just tired of seeing the same shit.
Jordan: That's real.
ANG: But on a totally different level, that is the way that I process it. I love working with colors and shapes to create those same conversations. In certain cases, it can make it easier to digest the topics I am discussing, or it can also really highlight, ignorance, for example in my series “I Don't See Color.' I just used skin tones to highlight that catch-phrase 'oh I don't see color,' but yeah you do. It was nice to subvert it further using palettes of people who are actually color blind. I think there is a power to putting in just shapes and colors, because it requires people to think a little bit more.
Jordan: There’s a conversation we have had a lot, which I don't want to say is a battle, but it's this thing that happens when solely figurative or representational work is praised and recognized, especially when we talk about black artists. I understand the popularity because I believe that narrative is sometimes more accessible in the work. I feel like a lot of times titles don't even need to function as clues or hints in figurative work, compared to abstract work, where you have to do a different type of searching. However, when we look at the praise and recognition geo/abstract artists - especially black geo-abstract painters receive, there’s a huge void.
ANG: Or black abstract painters and artists in general. I always think about Romare Bearden, I am a fan of him and his work, and his abstract paintings were amazing and you know I always wonder who would he be if he had been famous for his abstract work? In my opinion, he had to put the figure in, he had to introduce that collage process because him doing abstraction wasn't getting him through the door.
Jordan: But why do you think that is? Why do you think that abstract work creates this challenge?
ANG: It kind of speaks to the elitism of the art world, there is some form of elitism that believes black folks can't access or create abstract work. Why aren't there more well known successful black abstract painters? What would Felrath Hines career have been? When he came out there were articles about him saying 'oh he's trying to be like these other people', no, he was not trying to be like other people, he was trying to be himself, and this is how he sees his best self. This is the product of that work. He didn't get credit for his own intellect.
Jordan: I think that's powerful, I might be a little bias and should make note of that, but I think that there is a perceived level of intellect that is involved with creating and contextualizing abstract paintings and black people don't even get to hold that type of intellectual space. I think it's this racist underlying belief that 'this isn't for black people to even consume because they don't have the capacity to do so'.
ANG: How could we not have the capacity to do so when historically black folks have used shapes and colors to highlight what tribe they're from and it's always been representational for us - so to deny that intellect ...
Jordan: It’s ignorant!
ANG: We're expecting white men to paint shapes and colors, and we’re expecting there to be no emotion behind it and the rules are set, but that's just not real to me because we've been doing this.
Jordan: You're speaking of suprematism and constructivism and all these ...
ANG: And bauhaus... I mean if you look at west african pattern making, you can't tell me that bauhaus, suprematism and constructivism, even the De Stijl movement, isn’t influenced by african art, what movement has not been influenced by african art!
"...if you look at west african pattern making, you can't tell me that bauhaus, suprematism and constructivism, even the De Stijl movement, isn’t influenced by african art, what movement has not been influenced by african art!"
Jordan: I want to get into your experience here in DC, you've been here for over 10 years now ...
ANG: I've been here for 13 years
Jordan: 13 years, wow! I think we both feel this outside pressure sometimes that we have to pick up and move to some larger city like New York or LA, and I want to know do you feel that pressure? You ready to move? How do you deal with it [the pressure]?
ANG: I mean I've gone through phases where I've wanted to move to other cities where having an art career seems more accessible. But over the years I've begun to value the space here in DC, aside from the lack of studio space. Most of the artists I am hanging around, and in contact with all the time, are very dedicated to our work and heady about it. We do our research and it's a place for us to really gain an understanding of our work. The Library of Congress is here, we have access to the National Gallery of Art's library, so there's no reason to leave a space that gives you so much access to information. I value having that level of access to libraries. I got a Library of Congress card! I can schedule something at NGA - I have a little pin number to go in and research! Am I going to get that somewhere else? Am I going to have that kind of access to that level of information about art?
Jordan: I mean aside from the institutional viewpoint, the NGA and things like that, staying here ...
ANG: I mean it's hard - it gets hard, it's difficult. I don't want the friends and the community that I have here to go away, but it's expensive to live here. You NEED a day job, like if you are doing art full time in DC that's ...kudos. But, we do not have so much access to the museums and curators of smithsonian - they're not really trying to come check us (sic: the DC art community) like that. It's like, you hear about the art communities in different places, but it's all a game too - who you know, and how you get access to certain things. So for me, I'm gonna stay in DC and rough it out to see what we create because it's nice to be on something on the ground floor. You know, DIRT has been creating, NoMuNoMu is poppin, there's a lot of movement and motion of people trying to produce really strong content-heavy art projects. There's a lot of movement right now, and I'm not saying it hasn't been here before, but I am saying that to be in on the ground floor of it right now - we can make a lot of noise. So, I wanna stick around and make that noise and just build the community that I'm in.
Jordan: Is that how it feels to you right now? That it is something that feels like a re-energized startup?
ANG: It feels startup-y but everyday it's like "are we gonna make it?" Cause we're in DC and everything is expensive, you know, are we gonna make it is the question. The city is not thinking of us in their plans, cause if they were we would at least have some studio space. So many people are coming here, but the artists here (and in most places almost everywhere) are being pushed out, so where do we go from here? I'm not really trying to build up another city, just for me to get pushed out of. I'll just push back here.
Jordan: Well great, i'm glad we're not moving again, no time soon, I don't have time for that!
ANG: (laughing) yeah not right now.
Jordan: So, I also want to know about this heightened visibility you are experiencing. You had a pretty awesome project with Pepsi (and I remember telling you that the only other person I know that gets Pepsi money is Beyoncé), but you had the Pepsi Lifewtr collaboration and this new solo show at Transformer, just by the reception and the turn-out at your programming it feels really successful and something I’m sure you are proud of - I know I'm proud of you.
ANG: Thank you, I am proud of it.
Jordan: I want to know how are you dealing with this visibility and is there anxiety that comes with this level of visibility? How are you digesting and processing it?
ANG: I’m just trying to remain humble and live in this moment and be present for it, but also know this is not 'it', this is just one milestone and that I have other goals and aspirations that I want. This is just helping me get to the next place. The visibility is great, and I am thankful, but I'm still working, and just taking it all in, because these moments are priceless. I am also thinking and strategizing about what's next to come.
Jordan: What keeps you humble?
ANG: My family, my friends - that's it. Me?
Jordan: I don't keep you humble?!
ANG: You are my family and my friends!!
Jordan: (laughing) Yeah, whatever.
ANG: I mean yeah, you, my mom, going home (sic: Cincinnati) - hell yeah, they crazy! So yeah, the majority of relationships keep me humble. When I'm surrounded by love, I'm good because I know that I'm doing what I need to do and I'm being praised for that, but it doesn't mean I need to get a big head. It just means, ‘congratulations”, and I need to keep going, “we are here to support you.”
Jordan: Good. I know we are about to go to New York soon to see Josef Albers at the Guggenheim and I want you to talk a little about his work and his influence on your work.
ANG: I mean as part of my thesis I read the Josef Albers 'Interaction of Color' and he just really opened up my perspective on color and the ways that you could play with color - the physical sensations of color, and he just heightened my awareness on the sensitivity of color. You can't take that away from me and I really value that for someone to have that theory on color and to master it is really amazing. I appreciate the time and energy in developing such a curriculum - it's great!
Jordan: It's sometimes hard to imagine being so masterful at something that seems so minuscule like color. I mean obviously he was just masterful at that understanding.
ANG: Yeah and I mean I give Albers that credit. There are somethings about Albers that I disagree with, because he was also in the vein of "art doesn't have to be expressive," but I understand it from his point of view as "I’m just studying color. I'm just studying the interaction of color." I get that, but you can still add content to it. It can still be more than a study. But I think just for Albers to be committed to the study of color, that was the basis of his work, he wasn't focused on the emotionality of it. I am focused on the emotionality of it and I am also focused on the interaction of those colors and how can I make things pop, or create different sensations, or make the eye see something that's really not there. I think those things are fascinating, and I am fascinated by it.
Jordan: On a more personal note - I want to know what is it like for you having a partner who is also in the arts and then also utilized as your sound-board, how is that for you?
ANG: (Laughing) I mean, stick with you and I'll go far! It's great, I think we make a great team, you're my sound-board, but I am your sound-board too. There are things that I have experienced that I can share with you, and there are strategies and systems that you understand that you are able to relay to me and I think that overall it really helps my practice and I'm just grateful to feel like I am in a power-couple.
Jordan: (laughing) Oh wow! What do you feel is a notorious art-argument between the two of us? Something that we have repeatedly argued about, or that all roads lead back to - do we have one?
ANG: I don't know they are different from time to time, but sometimes I have to separate your opinions from what I really want.
Jordan: Yeah, how do you do that?
ANG: (laughing) I'll just be like "I ain't listening to her this time!" But I don't even think that's an argument, I think that is just something that I have to grow with, and knowing that I have to be more comfortable with my ideas before I present them to you because...
Jordan: Yeah, that is preferred 100%
ANG: Well there you go! That's the thing - showing up with my shit not together is the root.
Jordan: Well, I also want to talk about boundaries too.
ANG: Ok yeah.
Jordan: We have had to develop some boundaries, like we had to say 'Ok, we're not going to talk about work right now" even though we very well could just magpie and talk about work and our careers for hours, but trying to create those boundaries where we can exist without that constant concern of careers and things like that. What would you say is your most successful approach to creating those boundaries in our relationship?
ANG: I think that sometimes we just know when to turn it off. But, it's very necessary to have those boundaries because there was a point in time where I was like "all we do is talk about work, and I think we just grew and reached that point at the same time where we didn't want to do that constantly. I always want to know how your day was, so you're always going to talk about work, but after that we just put it to rest and can move on to other things, and we do. I think we've naturally found the balance, but it took some time to get there.
Jordan: I guess we can finish up by you saying what can we expect from you in the future, but also where you expect to take me on our next date?
ANG: (laughing) Next date? We said we were going to Himitsu so that's that - done. But for what's next - right now I'm just working and I'll plan once I get some more work done. But for now I'm just gonna be working and keep pushing on.
Jordan: Alright, well thanks baby.
ANG: Yeah, was our interview ok?
Jordan: Yeah, I think it was fine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for Entanglements.