I am a 36-year-old self-taught visual artist from Portland, Maine. In 2003/2004 I attended Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. After three semesters I took a leave of absence with the specific intention to build a studio practice and work any job that would facilitate it. Over the years, amongst many jobs, I have worked as a lab assistant cleaning test animal cages, a security guard, furniture salesman, and a one-on-one special education assistant. Today, I live in Brooklyn, New York and continue to refine the techniques and ideas brought forth through the time dedicated to my practice. I am still currently on leave.
Through the growth of the fingernail a timeline is created. A representation of individual experience that resembles but never duplicates another. As the nail lengthens and curls it becomes increasingly useless in any practical application, however, it finds new purpose by forming a stage on which beautiful chaos can perform its dance. The construction of these sculptures are a combination of common hardware store materials and household items. They are primarily made from wooden dowels, bass wood, glues, wire, acrylic paint and nail polish.
Interview with Eliot Greenwald
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Eliot. What were some early sources of inspiration for you growing up in Portland, Maine?
Hi! I’m a little daunted by ‘inspiration’ questions because for me the idea of what inspiration is can be a bit nebulous. I kept and displayed a stick I found on a hike in New Hampshire for 15-years because at the moment I found it it had an impact on me. There is that kind of stick-oriented inspiration and then there are examples like my older sister Monica. Monica was ‘the artist’ of the family, she was into cool music, very intelligent, and seemed to know about whatever sort of counter culture thing might be happening in our hometown of Portland, Maine. I was determined to entertain and impress Monica so eventually I ended up emulating, adopting and expanding on a lot of these interests and traits that she was already exploring. I also spent many of my childhood years hanging out in Evergreen Cemetery, an expansive cemetery in between the middle school and high school in my neighborhood. As a young teenager, Evergreen Cemetery was were I had many of my most memorable introductions to sex, drugs, and frisbee; frisbee being the precursor to what later would be referred to as rock ‘n’ roll.
You’re a self-described self-taught artist. Can you talk about your decision to independently pursue art-making?
I went to college for three semesters. In the third semester I took a literature class called “The Age of Reason to the Age of the Absurd” where of the many books we were assigned to read, one was Rene Descartes’s Discourse on Method. I remember the book starting with a description of a professor being frustrated by all his students bothering him with questions they had that they couldn’t find the answers to in their books. The professor urged his students to search for answers through experience rather than expecting to find them in books or at all. Furthermore, the professor quits his job and follows his own advice and sets out to learn through experiential means. I never read anymore of that book, dropped out, and moved away from college within 6 weeks. (Sidenote: I never tested very high at reading comprehension so I hope that is actually what happened in the beginning of that book. Also, I don’t think artists should have to pay or owe money to another artist or institution for being somehow certified in personal expression.)
Art education is rigorous observation followed by creative action over time.
Over the years you’ve worked various jobs in order to support your studio practice, including “a lab assistant cleaning test animal cages, a security guard, furniture salesperson, and a one on one special education assistant.” How have these experiences contributed to your perspective as an artist?
I like to think of experiences blending together like colors and that those experience-colors are part of what I use to illustrate new versions of myself and my artwork. When I was 21 and worked at a cancer and tuberculosis research lab cleaning the cages of lab mice along side a 16 year old MS-13 gang affiliate in Boston every day from 6am to 3pm that made a color. A completely different experience-color was made when I took the bus five days a week for an hour each way from my apartment on Mission Beach in San Diego to a mall in La Jolla to sell furniture at a chain store with a 7 foot tall recovering meth addict coworker who had a heart of absolute gold, a talent for fantasy castle illustration, and an obsession with Black Metal. When I was in my mid to late 20’s I had the opportunity to be a one on one special education assistant to one of the most profoundly inspirational humans I have ever known. I worked with Zion from his 8th grade year through his sophomore year in high school. Zion was technically blind but he could read. Doctors told Zion’s mother, after he was born, that he would likely never walk or talk but he loved to dance, which he did often, and he graduated high school. We would sometimes practice counting and using money, the function of which he understood but the application of it he seemed ambivalent towards. That experience-color appears a lot in my work. The duality, and balance, and humor, and love, experience-colors are what I look for and reflect as much as I can. Diverse working and living experiences helped me understand various working classes and cultures and therefore how to interact with a larger portion of the society around me. I believe that these experiences and the ‘colors’ they generate increase my chance of creating work that can speak to everyone, not just those who have studied art or attempt to purchase culture.
You’re currently based in Brooklyn. What are the most valuable aspects of living and working in this community?
Access to other artists and being able to create relationships with them. The ability to visit other artists’ studios has helped transform how I understand my own self and my work. I didn’t have that in other places that I have lived and I am very grateful for it.
Can you tell us about your current studio? Is it important for you to maintain a separation between your work space and domestic space?
It is important for me to live in my work space right now. My studio is in a basement of an apartment building. I have a couple hundred square feet of studio space, a bedroom, closets, a private bathroom, a washer and dryer, and a backyard. I pay more now for space than I ever have before but I have found a way to have everything I need in one place. This is the way I like it. It’s about efficiency for me and it always has been. I want to eliminate the possibility that proximity, or lack thereof, to my working space could somehow deter me from working. If I live where I work then I have no excuse not to get something done everyday. Meaningful or arbitrary, if something is accomplished in my studio everyday then my studio is alive. If I’m too tired from the day and my studio is at all difficult to access because of where it is located then that just opens up the likelihood of procrastination. At this point in my life I am not willing to risk losing any creative momentum. Until the time comes when I don’t have to work a job as much I will live in my studio.
What initially drew you to working with wood?
I think I have always been attracted to working with wood because it is affordable and intuitive to manipulate. Six or seven years ago, I first had the idea to make a finger with a long fingernail and it was pretty much the result of three key ingredients. A joke, a Dremel tool, and the first material I saw. I keep a lot of wood scraps in my studio for the occasions that I want to drop everything I am doing and make a sculpture, jig, or general apparatus. This is how I arrived at fingernail sculptures. I was curious about long fingernails in general but more specifically I was interested in seeing if I could somehow make a replica of a severed finger with a long fingernail to fool my friends. Then I remembered I had a Dremel tool which I had been gifted and was vaguely familiar with. I looked for what was immediately around me to start the process, which in this case ended up being a wooden dowel. I found these items laying around and that’s how I decided to work with wood in this instance.
Throughout your sculptural work, various everyday objects are balanced precariously on long, curling fingernails. Can you talk about the ideas and motivations behind this work?
One way I have interpreted these sculptures are as a sort of gradient map used to describe a three-part transition from one state of understanding to another. I see the ‘finger’ portion of the sculpture representing the biological human, ubiquitous and identical, in that, we are all the same ‘thing’. Our physical bodies are objectively congruent. Additionally to the ‘finger’ there is the ‘fingernail’. The ‘fingernail’ in this representation is human consciousness. Consciousness is identical amongst us by virtue of it being the thing we all use to interpret stimulation and communicate, however, these consciousnesses are infinitely unique and seemingly non transferable outside of our usage of sound, image, and gesture. I am attracted to that duality. Finally, the object which is balancing on the ‘fingernail’ is a representation of significant individual realization. An experience that alters your perception of an idea or relationship to a degree that has profound effects. A moment of clarity, an epiphany, phenomena, a very bold image that appears on a timeline. I chose to represent this part of the analogy with common objects in a state of balance to illustrate something that seems knowable but is paradoxically fleeting.
In what ways does your ongoing interest in both the magical and the absurd inform meaning in your work?
If an experience is magical or absurd then I think instinctively that experience is recognized as true, much in the same way that comedy is regarded as a pure form of truth. There is something about a counterintuitive result or fantastical occurrence that triggers an innate understanding. I think that the innate understanding I’m referencing is our ancient brains reminding us that the world and the reality we live in is magical and absurd therefore expectations should be reduced and acceptance of natural orders and systems should be embraced. I want my work to harmonize with these ideas. I need to make work that helps me remember to relinquish my ideas of control.
Can you talk about the influence of pop culture on your work, especially in the Tell Me Again series? Are there films or TV shows that have a particular significance for you?
I can’t deny the clear connection in that series of work to pop culture, however, as a subject in general I am not particularly interested in it’s relationship to art. Movies and TV were absolutely a big part of my life in the past, however, in the Tell Me Again painting series a large part of my interest was in the functionality of the brain specifically when it comes to forming a believable reality. Through sensory stimulation, context, and memory our realities are continually calculated and what we experience in that reality seems to be mostly due to our expectations of what should be there not what actually is there. By augmenting the text in those paintings and generically recreating the other elements I meant to pay attention to what is understandable but not knowable.
Do you work on sculptures, drawings, and paintings simultaneously, or do you take breaks in between the production of these respective bodies of work?
I would say that the best analogy would be that I work like an oscillating fan. I am continually blowing air into a range of types of work with the intention of expanding them all slowly and continually.
How do you usually conceptualize titles for new work?
Misspellings and overlap dances mostly. Also sentences that aren’t quite as short as they could be if I tried harder maybe they would be less confusing.
Can you elaborate on your overall creative process?
My creative process relies, in part, on rotation. I feel like I make my best work when I have become just the right amount of ‘out of touch’ with it and then return to it. It’s a technique I use to be able to reintroduce a healthy amount of naive creative spirit and discovery. I really like to make things over and over again but if the routine goes unbroken for too long then I feel like my familiarity with a process poisons the work.
In June you opened Garden’s Party, a window installation created with Margot Bird for Love Henry. Can you tell us more about this collaboration and the impact you had on each other’s practice?
Making the Garden’s Party installation with Margot was easily the most comprehensive collaboration that I have ever done with anyone on a creative project. We took the opportunity to work on this installation from concept to sketch to fabrication and logistics and shared in every single part with very little exception. Everything we made was brand new work and created specifically with the space in mind which forced both of us to make work that we had never ever tried to make before. It was the sort of thing that was easy to play around with and draw but once fabrication time came we were both really pushed to do things that we had never done before. This project not only included new types of objects but new ways to communicate ideas and how and when to work on them. I feel very lucky to have been able to work with her on this project because I respect her so much as an artist but also because through the process of decision making with her I was able to problem solve in new ways and see those results manifest into bizarre and exciting objects.
You recently had work included in See You Next Thursday’s group show and auction, Fourth Street Show curated by Lexi Bishop, and currently in Ad Astra Per Aspera at Wassaic Project. How would you describe your approach to preparing for exhibitions?
I have finished work stock piled in my studio and when people want to show it it’s ready to go. The same was true of Tell Me Again at the Spring Break Art Fair. I worked on that body of work for 19 months before the opportunity to show it even arrived. I prepare by assuming an opportunity to show is going to present itself tomorrow. I feel more comfortable that way. I have learned recently, via the installation project with Margot, that I am capable of making the work after the opportunity is presented but in general I am continually working. By working continuously I can satisfy my own needs to explore and create but also feel prepared for unexpected opportunities.
How has your work developed over time and how do you anticipate it progressing in the future?
I’ve spent a lot of time skipping over this question. It seems incalculable to me. There is no way for me to summarize what I have learned about myself and the art I make over a lifetime so far and what I will be making in life times to come. Perhaps there is a way, but I would feel dreadfully incomplete if I even attempted to articulate what it was and will be to make artwork. I know right now that I’m in love with questions. I always have been and I presume I always will be.
Can you share your perspective on taking risks as an artist, as opposed to allowing your practice to follow a comfortable or safe trajectory?
I’m not entirely sure what a comfortable and safe trajectory for an artistic practice is. I guess I understand that if you choose to be a corn farmer and get really good at growing corn and selling corn and people love to eat corn then, hey there you go, you’re a bonafide corn farmer. However, I’m not interested in growing corn. I want to figure out how to grow something that regenerates itself into a whole new crop. Like raspberries that regrow themselves into rattleberries or something like that. That kind of transition takes time and I don’t believe I can figure it out any other way than continually taking risks.
Who are some other contemporary artists you’re excited about right now?
Huma Bhaba, David Altmejd, Sarah Braman, Margot Bird, Todd Bienvenu, Mike Taylor, Roxanne Jackson, Dan Attoe, Allison Schulnik, Drake Carr, Francesca DiMattio, Julie Curtis, Caroline Wells Chandler.
What are some of the best exhibitions you’ve seen in recent memory?
Julie Curtis’ show at Anton Kern, Caroline Wells Chandler at Mrs. Gallery, Yakultji Napangati at Salon 94, Bernard Gilardi at Shrine.
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events, or other news you’d like to share?
I will be sending some works on paper to a group show in Seattle at the Bellevue Art Museum for September. Also in September I will be participating in a benefit auction for the Haiti Reforestation Partnership which will take place on Paddle 8. Additionally, in November, I will be part of Art Walk NY which is a benefit auction for the New York Coalition for the Homeless.
Other than those events, I am producing new work steadily and planning shows for the unplanned future.
Thanks so much for talking with us!
To find out more about Eliot and his work, check out his website.