Alex Gartelmann Interview: With Subura and Suburbia


Boyang Hou: Please introduce yourself

Alex Gartelmann: My name is Alex Gartelmann, I work primarily in the realm of sculpture/installation but also video, performance for video. Usually those videos will have some type of sculptural element that has been made for that action.

BH: What’s the difference between the two mediums for you?

AG: I guess the way I’ve always thought about it, this goes for the collaborative work I do with Jonas Subura as well. I guess I never drew the distinction that they were different formally. They are generated from the same place. So sometimes it video, sometimes it’s sculpture, sometimes it’s printmaking. I’ve always worked this way myself before working collaboratively.

BH: How about painting?

AG: –Laughs – Curveball, well I don’t paint. If I were to somehow engage in conversation with painting it would probably through appropriation somehow, but I wouldn’t be making original paintings. Who says that couldn’t change, but the content I’m dealing with is typically autobiographical. Conceptually, I fell like being a maker of objects is important to content as well. Because of my history, growing up a son of a carpenter, working these jobs that are typically construction or fabrication, feeds into the conceptual framework. Painting’s just not the first thing I go to.

BH: How does your background in construction and fabrication and your father being a carpenter inform your work? What role does art history play in your making?

AG: I love art history. I love studying it and seeing how things have evolved and fractured, but art history in probably one of my last concerns I have in my practice. I mean it’s always present, as an artist it’s unavoidable. I’m maybe confronting in the way of similarities between other people would have make work that are dealing with similar content. I’m not thinking necessarily about how this sculpture about baseball relates to Cimabue’s developing of perspective. It’s not in my wheelhouse of thought. Outside of being aware of it’s presence and dealing with it as a contemporary maker, it’s not something I’m concerned with when I’m doing.

BH: What are the current topics or interests that are influencing you?

AG: I’m always influenced by the people around me, especially my peers. Particularly my studio mate, who I’ve known before I moved here when I was in Philadelphia. I think there is a magnetism towards people who have similar interests when you’re an artist. I’ve been lucky to be around people who I have this ever evolving conversation towards the things I’m interested in. Often sports, very personal narratives about loss and decay, I’m also interested in the physical nature of activity, which is why I’m interested in sports and why I’m building things. Things that are so culturally loaded in the now. Kind of debunking that physicality in what I do. I’m also interested in the suburbs and it’s relationship to youth culture and the intersection of youth culture with that physicality because I grew up in the suburbs and it’s what I know. I always make up work about what I know which is my experience growing up in the suburbs. I never try to project onto something I haven’t experienced. I am an expert on playing baseball from the ages of 6 to 15. At this point, I am looking for relationships between my experiences and those highly developed mental times of adolescence and teenagedom. What I do now as an independently thinking, somewhat capable adult because there are crossovers and little things I notice everyday when I realize that that’s something I figured out when I was 16 or 12 but I never thought about it and now it’s resurfaced in my studio practice. In this same way, I’m really interested in exploring the relationshop of the expection and the role of expectation in growing up in those environments. Specifically for me, playing sports and the contrast of being heavily invested in punk rock and skateboarding and art-making in a place were that was not cool, not that I’m concerned with ‘cool’, but the expectation was that you played sports, you do well in school, you go to boy scouts, you do all this shit that you do growing up in the suburbs of Manhattan. At a certain point, for me it was like ‘fuck this, I don’t give a shit about any of this stuff.’ And so now I’m looking at that fracture and seeing how I, and I feel like a lot of people around me, had a similar thing happen. So it’s looking at their situation and reading into a lot of their histories and critically writing of that time period and seeing how things have evolved.

BH: Could you speak more about the collaborative community now in your practice?

AG: With the collaboration (with Jonas Subura) the themes and conceptual underpinnings are really similar to what I deal with in my own personal work and what Jonas deals with as well. Dealing with these self-experiences, I don’t know what growing up on a lake in upstate New York is like and he doesn’t know what playing baseball in suburban New Jersey is like. That’s where the major separation between the collaboration and the individual work lies. But because a lot of the interests are similar: skateboarding, punk rock, art making, and sports as well. I think we often talk about how being in those communities growing up were so important to us, to help us identify. With the collaborative work, it’s not only our relationship as best friends but also the nature of intimacy. In the case of our relationship, it’s between two men. Growing up in those communities and situations, there’s a very specific type of intimacy, it’s maybe not something you share with your wife or girlfriend but you share with your brethren, although it’s not necessarily gendered, but mostly it is dominated by maleness. It’s unavoidable to fall into this ‘dude/bro-art’ thing. But we really try to find spaces within those senses of intimacy where we can subvert that notion of machismo and chest pounding. Working in construction or fabrication, often times these highly gendered environments where you’re expected to be working with men. And these situations where you have to really intimately know the people that you’re working with, because your physical well-being is often in the hands of these other people. We look a lot at people who’ve worked in factory lines, generally you work with a partner, maybe someone you’ve worked with for 40 years, they may know you better than your wife, you know? These kind of weird spaces of intimacy.

BH: How does intimacy play into your personal practice?

AG: I guess I haven’t really thought of it that way. Mainly because my practice and the collaborative work with Jonas has so much alignment. I do think that with the personal work, there is a sense of loneliness and reflexivity that maybe doesn’t show up so much in the collaborative work. As an individual artist working by myself, it is often really hard to give permission to do certain things; risks that should be taken in the studio. It’s easy to dismiss it as a silly idea that’s not worth my time. But with Jonas, we act as permission givers for each other, which removes that crippling type of self-reflexivity. Usually it’s like ‘this is an idea I have, yes or no?’ And usually it’s a yes because even if the idea is bad it usually leads to something else.

BH: When do you guys stop each other?

AG: That’s something that’s ever evolving with us. I think we’ve talked with each other so much and seen things together so much that it’s almost an intuitive no brainer that when I send him an idea and he says ‘no dice’ I kid of already know that there’s a good reason for it, and visa versa. It’s not often that that happens. And because we met each other at school, where everything has to be justified and have meaning before you even do it, and I think the two of us became a reactionary thing towards it. No, it doesn’t have to be. Our ideas are coming from the same place, so they’re just as valid. There’s always some reason for us to make it that’s on top of the fact that we are devoted to this idea that art should be an enjoyable endeavor. When we are together, it’s like “are we going to have fun, or enjoy each others company while we do it?” That sometimes can lead to things being wacky, and maybe that gets cut away, but if we are not psyched about something it just means it’s not worth our time, because it means we don’t really care about it. That doesn’t mean that at times fun and enjoyability is not a brutal struggle to parse through because sometimes it’s easy but sometimes it’s very hard.

BH: What do you think about the larger landscape of American artists who are addressing the topic of suburbia?

AG: So I actually just wrote a syllabus for a course specifically about the relationship between the suburban experience and contemporary art. Whether people realize it or not, that experience has massively shaped the conceptual and formal aspects of what we’re seeing now, because like you said, any generation post-war, a larger number of those people have experienced life in the suburbs. It is like this weird, dystopian, complacent, fucked-up zone where nothing is right. I spent a lot of time reading about the development of the suburbs and architectural theory. Looking a lot at early Dan Graham, the Smithson’ Passaic, and all those things, and really as much reading as I’ve done, all the background information that I get from it, it really like you see something that someone else has made and you’re like “that person grew up in the suburbs.” It’s either a material choice or some kid of gesture in their work that’s so specific to like a vernacular of existence in those places. Sometimes I think it has to do with an appropriation of culture from the outside, because everything in the suburbs in co-opted from the urban, it proliferates in and then it gets bastardized, all jacked up into something it was never meant to be, I feel like that’s been a really heavy influence on the larger scope of art being made.

BH: How do you filter the experience of being in to suburbs now that you are in the urban environment because it can get pretty meta pretty quickly?

AG: Yea, it’s a weird thing right? When I moved to Philadelphia I was like “Oh shit”, the suburbs are so watered down. It’s like playing Telephone, each person who says it changes it a little bit and you go out to the deep suburbs and it’s like this wimpy-as thing. When I moved to an actually urban environment and was like, oh the subculture actually has a different subculture. It’s the same thing with anything, hip hop, fashion, you know? The difference between going to the Comme de Garcon in Chelsea and the Hollister store at the Garden State mall, but it’s like high fashion and high fashion. It’s like this appropriation of subculture that gets watered down to this thing that has reminence of what it was, but it’s something totally different and specific and bizarre tot eh suburban experience. As I’m sitting here and thinking about this I think there’s complacency in the suburbs that you can’t have living in the city because of this sense of uncertainty in the city. Not that there isn’t uncertainty in the suburbs, but it’s actually designed by engineers to dispel those things so there’s the weird, really disturbing calm that comes with living in the suburbs. So I feel when ideas of subculture find their way out there and are co-opted in the suburban experience. They have to be diluted to be understood or experienced because it would be too extreme. I mean there’s people who fully embrace the extreme and live in the suburbs and are like blasting heroin behind the Shop Rite, but that’s few and far between.

BH: So just to wrap things up, are there any specific things you are thinking about right now?

AG: I think it’s always the same, and it evolves through me experiencing more things with every year that I’m fortunately alive. But I really do keep coming back to this developmental stage of being young in the suburban experienced my perception. I guess I’m really interested in my perception of things at that age that were way bigger than my myopic experience in the suburbs. So what does it mean to be punk rock in the world? Or I’ve been looking a lot at the history of built heroism of baseball players from the 20s into the 60s, so people like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio; these are people I idolized as a little kid. Why these mythologies were built around them and what purpose did those myths serve, which don’t totally translate to the suburban experience, but then totally do at the same time. It’s all like really confused and muddled I guess I’m really interested in that confusion because that existence of being young and growing up is all about confusion and there’s something that’s really revelatory about that experience that has allowed me to be here talking to you right now. I guess I’m just always thinking about this stuff.

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