Something happens when you attend a wake for someone you liked but barely knew. There is a theatrical replaying of heartbreak and embarrassing things that weren’t exactly your experience, but reminiscing changes the stories into your own. That jacket he refused to take off. The ghost town spigot trick he fell for. There is sadness but also celebration. Attempting to memorialize our shared experiences is aspirational but it also comes with heaviness. We enjoy something we are not allowed to enjoy; unhappiness becomes a delicious guilty pleasure.
It’s impossible to analyze the moment you're in, and I share the Victorian view that nostalgia is an illness. Walking backwards is a dangerous way to navigate the world.
Interview with Jeffrey Grauel
Questions by Sidney Mullis
Hey Jeffrey! You reminisce about a lost one in your statement, then later undercut nostalgia as a whole by deeming it an illness. Could you speak more about our shared tendencies to self-correct feelings for other feelings?
Just before moving to Chicago I went to an open studio night at a graduate school in California. I was invited by a friend who had just finished her first semester. Her classmate took my arm and lured me into a studio where they were making peach daiquiris. The woman said, “Let me see your hand. We’re studying palm reading. I want to see what you’ve got.” I gave her my hand and she looked at it closely. “Wow! I’ve not seen this before. You see this fork here? How the line splits? That means you can actually feel what other people are feeling. That’s a good trait for an artist. And look at this. Your life line wraps practically all the way around your hand. You’re going to live a long time!” I was ready to leave at that point. It was the worst fortune I could imagine. Who wants to live forever feeling everyone else’s pain?
So maybe the correction is a self-defense, an attempt to neutralize extreme feeling, a maneuver I learned from my mother. Once she told me, “What I love about our relationship is how we keep each other’s feelings in check. If I’m really sad you point out something good. If you’re too happy I point out what could go wrong.”
In your writing, you recognize how funerals are both aspirational and heavy, celebratory and sad. They are impossibly strange, yet totally ordinary. In your practice, have you always been attracted to notions/things that encompass and slip between categories and defined locations?
Yes. Absolutely. That’s why I have a history of showing in odd places. I’m interested in how settings shift the meaning of the artwork. I also think the pile of adjectives happens when we try to translate artwork into language. Art is pretty difficult to talk about. I prefer to tell stories rather than describe. Stories don’t tell you something is something. They set a tone, give additional information, then leave so you can figure it out yourself.
Throughout your work, you have employed repetition. Stippled, burnt birch and plywood, crocheted plastic bags, tons of miniature pallets, and much, much more! Could you speak about this attraction to repetition of process and/or form in your work?
It’s a simple way to represent time. A painting can take years to make but you don’t naturally stand in front of one and count the brush strokes. People often ask me how I have the patience to do such tedious work, and that’s part of the point. The labor is explicit.
I really enjoyed how the first lines of your statement are deeply personal, yet, with how it is written, is totally relatable. For me, this particular type of loss doesn’t only happen at funerals, but with many people that come in and out of your life (read: former Army brat and current nomadic artist) and how you cope with the relationship and its end. Do you think this body of work will continue and expand upon this feeling? Or does this work hinge on this personal event in your life?
I’m a military brat too but my dad retired when I was young, so I didn’t move around as much other military kids. I’m inspired by personal stories, but I’m always mashing them up. I don’t want to document my specific experience. Your word “relatable” is right on. That’s something I strive for. I like strange stories that are close to my own experience. Like public transportation stories. Everyone has one and they are all fascinating! People are so similar and still so odd. Maybe it goes back to repetition. A collection of similar things that are slightly different.
Your shagged pieces from your most recent show Public School are all from “antiquated patterns.” Where did you mine these patterns from? Why these patterns over others?
That is a backward story. Initially my plan was to make a rug I could destroy. It was an experiment. I was trying to figure out how to make felt so I was going to brush the rug with a pet comb until I pulled all the fiber apart. So I went next door to the craft store and found a pattern in the bargain aisle. It was the right price for an experiment, $1.25! That’s how I ended up with the face of Jesus.
When I finished that rug I decided it wasn’t something I could just discard. It was really unsettling. So I made more of them, animal portraits. When those were done I figured out I wasn’t interested in any of the contemporary patterns available, so I moved on to other projects. A year or two later I got curious about rug patterns from the 1970s, the height of rug hooking popularity. I searched the internet's garage sale, eBay. That’s when things got interesting again. Patterns manufactured in the 70s are weird. NFL football players and cowboys riding off into the sun set. They are familiar images but I’m curious who thought, “That would make a great rug!” What sports loving kid would sit in their room spending hours hooking a rug of a basketball player? Wouldn’t they be outside? There is also a masculinity to the images that is surprising. Now that I’ve amassed a variety of these strange images from the 1970s I’m thinking about what they say when they’re grouped together.
Also, the yarn in these kits is so upsetting. It is so vibrant. The color in that plastic will never fade and those fibers will not degrade. Scary.
As a sculptor, I swoon over your selection and manipulation of materials. Especially, the metal snap clips. I have such a specific relationship to those. How did you come to forge them out of soda cans?
Aluminum cans have haunted me my entire life. When I was a kid I would go with my grandfather when he took the dogs on walks and we would collect empty cans along the road.My dad also had several trash cans behind the house to collect all the cans of soda we drank. My grandfather had a sledge hammer that we would drop on the cans to crush them. When there was a mountain of bags filled cans we would load them in the car and take them to the recycling center. The money we earned went into a savings account, my college fund.
Two years out of college I got laid off my job. I was unemployed for a year and drank a lot of beer. I cut the cans into thousands of sequins. They were nailed to a wall in the shape of a simple mountain range. On the mountain, like the Hollywood sign, was spelled out the name of my hometown, Fontana. The city of fountains.
The can cutting is process I keep going back to. Recently the sequins became barrettes which made sense because there are so many references to hair in my work. And even more recently the barrettes have become earrings that drip down tapestries like tears.
And then, to top it all, each clip was installed with a delicate pony bead. Again, swoon. As these soda can clips become both delicate, silvery tears and almost humorous props, could you talk about there repetition throughout the space?
Another story! When I was a kid we went to a ghost town amusement park. There was an attraction called the Mystery Spot. It was a house built so the angles messed with your perception. I figured out most of the tricks and wasn’t that impressed, but there was a spigot that blew my 10-year-old mind. Water was flowing from it into a barrel but it wasn’t connected to anything. It was the moment I thought maybe magic was real, and it was frightening. I think about that faucet a lot.
You are co-director of Slow, an artist-run curatorial space in Chicago, and director of Loo, Slow’s bathroom gallery. How did you get involved? How did Slow get its name? What’s coming up?
An even better question might be, was there any way I could have NOT been involved with Slow?
Paul and I have been friends for many years. He purchased a building with the intention of turning what was a beauty salon on the first floor into studio space for himself. Another friend, Larry Lee, asked if he could curate an exhibition in the space in exchange for helping to fix it up. Paul agreed and I lent a hand. After the exhibition Paul decided to keep the space as a gallery and started curating on his own.
At some point Paul got overwhelmed doing everything himself. Since I was already helping out I offered to add my name to the billing and share the responsibility. For a while I referred to myself as the “Silent Partner” because I was mostly working in the background. Well, anyone who has witnessed Paul and I working together knows I’m not silent. So I dropped the silent part and just go by co-director now.
The name is meant to highlight a few things. We hope people stick around and leisurely contemplate. We tend to show artwork that becomes more complex the longer you stay with it. We also set out to show artists who have worked a long while developing their practices but have remained relatively unacknowledged. So many artist run spaces focus on the new young thing. Even though Paul fell into the gallery a bit backwards, he had hopes that he could continue the project over a longer period than a typical artist run space, which happily has been the way it has worked out. We knew from the beginning that the name would be compared to the slow food movement, but it is a way of thinking about art that Paul brought from his undergrad experience as his advisors would try to get him to slow down while observing work.
Next up we have Ji Su Kwak, Amaranth Borsuk and Julie Wills. Ji Su is making drawings using strangers’ snapshots as source material. Amaranth and Julie are writing a single poetic narrative, but they are hundreds of miles apart. They are thinking through things that seem universal and just given, but a little digging reveals how provincial the assumptions end up. We’ve got a solo exhibition by Meg Duguid in the works. She did a series of performances built on slapstick gags and then used photo documentation to produce still work. Characters are removed from photos only to be replaced in flattened comic book form. They produce a double negative that is as confounding as double negatives in math. Paul’s been in talks with Judith Brotman and Claire Ashley. They are both working through material in idiosyncratic ways that draw from the body. Then we are going to finish the year off with a big saturnalia party! Saturnalia is a week long winter solstice celebration that demands drunkenness, small gifts for exchange, and a temporary erasure of social hierarchy. It also happens to be the root of so much common Christmas imagery including the evergreen tree lit with candles, Santa’s costume, holly, and even encourages cross dressing. All exciting stuff!
Do you have any upcoming events, shows, or news that you’d like to share?
I’ve got some new rugs that will be in a 3-person exhibition at Heaven Gallery in September, “The Event of a Thread.” Elizabeth Lalley is curating. She was over for a studio visit the other day and revealed the other two artist will be Melissa Leandro and Noël Morical. Melissa and I just finished a year-long residency together at the Chicago Artists Coalition. She makes beautiful lush saturated tapestries that fuse the patterns and colors of her hometown, Miami. Noël is an ethereal being. Her macrame is divine and she always has a trick up her sleeve. I’m excited to see it all come together!
Thanks so much. It was a pleasure to learn more about your work and have the opportunity to ask you about it!
Bonus question: Does one enjoy a traditional funeral? Despite it being sad, could one enjoy it for its seamless orchestration, you know, to make space for being sad? Or does one enjoy it for how it went against its pre-planned orchestration because so many people showed up in support and love for the deceased that it can’t follow any sort of choreography?
Maybe enjoy is not the right word, but benefit, yes, absolutely. In some cultures mourning is so structured that it is scheduled. One hour of silence, one hour of crying, two hours of feasting, then burial, and done. Folks in those cultures don’t get stuck in depression. They move on.
Full disclosure: In college there was a physical education course requirement. Something like 3 credits worth. On top of that each physical education course was only worth half a credit. 6 courses of archery, NO THANK YOU! But I found a loophole. There was a course called Death and Dying. It fulfilled the physical education requirement and it was 3 credits. I guess the logic was if you were not willing to exercise you were going to die soon so you better be prepared! It was one of the more informative courses I took in college. It covered mourning practices in different cultures, differences in laws about handling dead bodies differed from state-to-state. There was even a guest lecture from a hairdresser who did hair and makeup on the dead.
To find out more about Jeffrey and his work, check out his website.