In the spring of 2008, Crystal Wagner earned her Master of Fine Art degree from the University of Tennessee. Currently you can find her large sculptural form “Conversion” at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Knoxville Tennessee as a piece of their permanent collection. She spent the month of July 2008 at the Joshua Tree National Park Residency, in Joshua Tree National Park, CA. Crystal’s recent shows include: “Fresh” at the AVA Gallery in Chattanooga, TN which ran from 7/11/08-7/26/08, “The Organics” at Laredo Community College in Laredo, TX, (03/12/09-04/24/08) and “Prints by Crystal Wagner” at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro AR, (9/1/08-9/30/08.) In April of 2008 she was featured as an emerging artist in Juxtapoz Magazine.
James and Crystal discussed Fabrication, Creation, Science Fiction and the End of the Empire.
JG: You’ve lived all over the map. When I met you, you were a waitress in Knoxville serving me lunch. Where is home?
CW: Ah, home truly is wherever I am in the moment. Maybe it is more of a state of mind than anything. I know it sounds cliché’, but as a young professional it helps to be transient and happy with it. We go where we can. Life can’t stop because of your location.
JG: You’re pregnant right at the time your career is taking off.
CW: It has been intense. I have a solo exhibition downtown in March. The opening is March 6th and the baby is due March 8th. We’ll see how that goes. Smile. It helps to have supportive spouse.
JG: I admire you for your positive attitude. How do you maintain it?
CW: I am a very hard worker and tend to place an emphasis on my belief that if you work really hard, are passionate about what you do, and set your intentions, the universe will provide.
JG: In your statement you quote philosopher Michael Oakshcott, about how humans are what they understand themselves to be in a relativistic existence. How does this philosophy help you?
CW: What I truly enjoy about philosophy is the abstract nature of its existence and how that abstraction correlates with the way we as human beings perceive things. Art, like philosophy, like science, like math, is compiled of abstract prose and in that way I am fascinated by my own ability to determine what is ‘true’ or not based on my own understanding and acceptance of it. The mind is a powerful tool. What it offers my in my work is freedom. Freedom to fabricate my own interpretations of the visual world I am surrounded by and freedom to understand them as assemblages of my entire optical experience.
JG: Science fiction is an important factor in your work. Also you have authored a book that could be described as science fiction- do you read much sci-fi? Do you agree with some literary critics who say that sci fi is the last great literature of ideas?
CW: I think great ideas can manifest themselves in many forms of literature, so I wouldn’t say I completely agree, but there is a semblance of truth to the idea that science fiction reaches beyond to grasp the unimaginable and make it concrete. With that I said, I would argue that ‘science fiction’ describes more of our everyday lives than most people are willing to admit. I think you have to shake it free from its’ cultural connotations and really consider its’ meaning and then apply it to the way the science of today is created. Just ideas, abstract ideas. In my own book, “Crimson Sky”, I worked to create the illusion of a time in the future, but the dates were the only thing really different. The content depended on contemporary culture, and society and in that way shared the same ideas. I would feel the same way if I wrote a book dated to today. Both as fictive interpretations of our world based on some semblance of truth. Not really much different than one persons opinion of a color to someone else’s? I read a variety of books: fiction, to non-fiction, to science fiction.
JG: Where do you draw the line between science fiction and fantasy?
CW: Fantasy, like, science fiction, is a seemingly loaded word, and as a genre, I think it depends on a culture more dependant on the trends of medieval society rather than contemporary society. Maybe, it is regressive while science fiction tends to be progressive?
JG: When I first saw your work I couldn’t tell if the figures and images were fantastical faeries or biomorphic androids.
CW: I am increasingly interested in the line between abstract and representational. The tendency to push all the way one way or the other sometimes misses a great opportunity for a moment in-between where an aesthetic experience is created and a viewer can interpret it anyway they feel comfortable. Maybe, I am celebrating my interest in people’s imaginations.
JG: Can you recommend some good books?
CW: “The Artful Universe” by John Barrows, “Spell of the Sensuous” by David Abrams, “The Naked Ape”, by Desmond Morris, “Truth” by Simon Blackburn, “What is Art For? by Ellen Dissanayake, “The God Part of the Brain” by Matthew Alpers, “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand, and of course “Crimson Sky” by Crystal Wagner.
JG: According to Immanuel Kant, we can never draw any real conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality. Are we all just drawing our own conclusions?
CW: Absolutely. Of course we share some of our conclusions with each other as a part of our social construct, but each of those conclusions are acceptances. We accept what was written in history books, even though we all learn eventually of the filtrated nature of their manufacturing. It also helps to have been acculturated by a system of thought, but again even that acculturation is an acceptance.
JG: How does making art help you to draw your own conclusions?
CW: Art makes me very aware of my own ability to fabricate my own conclusions. It also makes me aware of the system of thought I use to construct my work. While I am working, I am conscious of my education, conscious of my sociological influences, my environment, and my own minds interpretation of it and I can see those pieces of who I am manifest themselves in the work. Really I am just throwing crazy stuff together until I feel like its finished. Kind of the way people throw fragments of other peoples ideas together to come up with their own.
JG: Fabrication, your new body of work, shows off your fabrication skills in hand-cut printed paper and mylar and makes a point about how we construct our existence as humans. Is the fabrication of your newest pieces a stand-in for a strategy of being- a way of choosing well what we believe?
CW: I think that is a tricky question. Especially since, even as I write this, I am aware of the ridiculousness of my own convictions based on them and in effect tend to think myself out of relevancy over and over again. I celebrate what I am, with my life, and my art, and realize even in its absurdity. Again, I say, our minds are very powerful tools.
JG: Your work seems to be decoupled from any traditional formal demands or overarching societal questions. It’s as though by fabricating things this efficient and beautiful you are choosing to construct a positive reality. This is by far the best justification for making work intuitively.
CW: Absolutely. I mentioned earlier on about how philosophy frees me. The same can be said for the craftsmanship. Do something all the way, with conviction, and even if you are a raving lunatic, people can still appreciate the beauty in your effort.
JG: For a relativist, you have remarkable initiative. Have you known a supposed relativist artist who, well, makes crap and is all talk?
CW: I think it is easy for people to talk themselves out of things. Especially when art and relativism are concerned. I often feel that way about conceptual art that depends too much on the theory and places no emphasis on work. I like to see the artists work and ideas become one rather than separate. Synthesis. And in reality, the one “truth” so to speak, I am constantly aware of is that I am a part of a system, a society, and I choose to participate.
JG: For you the relativist impulse is attended by joyfulness instead of doubt, and an attention to craft that boggles the mind. A lot of relativists don’t go as far.
CW: Maybe being a relativist to some is an easy escape route from society. I find it quite to the contrary, fascinating and at times extremely exhausting. It is like mind-mapping with objects and ideas from the real world. In that way, I am a joyful pursuer of the puzzle.
JG: Haven’t we all known a supposed relativist artist who had a “everything is art” mentality? Or are you that person?
CW: I recognize the different systems in place and choose to participate and when it comes to the “everything is art”, I think it would be difficult to find anyone in the 21st century who wouldn’t be able to acknowledge the truth in that statement at least to some degree. Especially with the evolution of art from the product it was to the intention it is. Now, whether or not I think everything is good art or not is really the question.
JG: You more than anyone I know seems to fully grasp the implications of such a view- a world made of beautifully fabricated nature, and most people who claim “all is art” do not have a full grasp of the metaphysical?
CW: I don’t think it takes much to stop and examine the design of our surroundings. Traffic signs juxtapose zipping tree lines, flocks of birds set in contrast to the light blue sky. It is incredible. It drives me crazy to consider that my own biological utility only offers me a glimpse of what is going on.
JG: You talk about greater human nature and metaphysics and link it all to biology. How has your pregnancy made you more aware of these conditions?
CW: I am an animal, hear me roar! (Smile) But more than anything, I am beginning to truly appreciate my body and its ability to create on auto-drive, without me over-analyzing it.
JG: You presented a paper at SECAC on what you call “Artademia.” What is the jist of that concept?
CW: Artademia is a system. When art education was implemented in the United States after the Civil War, the artist was effectively transformed into the ‘art professional’. The broad range implications of that shift created an entire social structure based on it.
JG: So have both you and I coined neologisms?
CW: I guess the only new thing about it is my acceptance of it.
JG: So are you sick of artademia?
CW: (Smile.) Definitely not. Artademia is a fascinating system to be a part of and even if I were ‘to leave it’ so to speak, I would still be a member of it. An academically trained art professional who spouts abstract prose at the whim of a conversation and will drop four or five artist names at gallery openings while I cling tight to my starbucks and MacBook Pro. I have been an artademic artist ever since I stepped into my first drawing 101 class.
JG: No one really cares about boring blowhards, do they? I mean, if you’re artedemic it doesn’t mean you upstage people who are just good craftsmen or traditional in their technique.
CW: Not really. The two are systems with different goals. The over-analytical approach in Artademia is not much different than that of any other systems, whether it be blacksmithing, quilting, or illustration. They each have their own audience, own vernacular, and own purpose.
JG: Could you give me an example of over-analytical blacksmithery?
CW: Sure. How is the form working? Should I curve more towards the end? It may be more dependent on form and function, but the conversation surrounding its success is still abstract. It is still just an object human beings assign value to.
JG: What is academic art again? I thought it was work done in the classical western canon, where you make like you’re in the academy and copy paintings of masters. Is that not it?
CW: That’s not how I understand it. The way I present Artademia is as a sociological construct is defined as the institution of art as education and its community; in other words the academia of art.
JG: Is it problematic that schools produce artademics?
CW: The Artademic is a professional. And anyone who pursues fine art in an academic setting is automatically integrated into the system. I definitely think the standards are being lowered, but you can find that across education in general.
JG: I see an opportunity in Foundations classes to turn the tide against the lowering of standards.
CW: But, alas, if the students are in a classroom, they have taken the blue pill. The best thing we can do as instructors, is make them aware of the system that they are a part of so as they move forward they can develop their own understandings of that system.
JG: I take on the not-so-relativist role of Gatekeeper sometimes. Some students should probably not become artademics.
CW: Even in my relativism, I tend to lean more towards the hardworking, dedicated pursuers of knowledge. This goes back to my statement about relativism. It is one thing to say, “everything is relative” and another to truly consider what that statement means and implies.
JG: Tenure was invented to protect professors and academia from state government political interference in the name of educational freedom. Now it has created a whole new internal political trap at every school.
CW: I am just concerned about getting a job right now. I will let you know once I become integrated into that system, what I think.
JG: What does the future of teaching look like for you?
CW: Extremely optimistic. I am very passionate about teaching and have many ideas for how I would implement a foundations curriculum that incorporated my interest in encouraging independent research for conceptual development and also the synthesis of the both technical and conceptual approach within a students work.
JG: What if we have to work as adjuncts for years and years despite our accomplishments because of all these practitioners of artademia?
CW: The system is saturated, but there has to be a change sometime. There are advantages to being an adjunct, like pursuing residencies, and having more time on our work. With that said, I say, “move over, and let us in!”
JG: I like being an adjunct because it gives me time to actually make work and be a family man. It’s the just pay and utter uncertainty that is so unfair.
CW: I agree. We worked really hard to get where we are. Especially to feel slightly disposable, it is a bit unsettling.
JG: Would you ever join a Union for fair pay and promotions for “established” adjuncts who have taught at an institution for 2 or more years?
CW: Unions get a little complicated for me. The mob rules mentality can start to be over-powering.
JG: But how long will you be okay with trying to raise a family and being paid under the living wage?
CW: I keep saying: it will all pay off. Art is an investment. But the idea is wearing me out. I just want to live comfortably with my family, play my guitar, and make art.
JG: Do you think being an artist made you a more creative problem solver on the everyday level? Are you a smarter more resourceful person?
CW: I often joke, that it is the other way around. I feel like I have the capacity to have become many things and been good at them. My absurd track record with sports and writing, JROTC, and other miscellaneous moments of my life, have shown me that it is the hard work, obsession and passion that drives the car, I just choose which direction to point it. Art.
JG: Has the collapse of the US financial industry hurt you at all? Because I feel like I’ve been living in a recession for years.
CW: I feel the same way.
JG: Your book Crimson Sky is about the end of the world. Will we survive the cataclysm?
JG: What would be the point of art, artademic or otherwise, in a post-apocalypse?
CW: Cultural and social institutions keep us occupied. Artworks, like other achievements by mankind, will become relics and in that way serve as memories of those achievements. I always think about the Romans and Greeks. For hundreds and hundreds of years, artists continued to see the work done by them as the greatest artist achievement and they would often revisit the styles or artistic approaches abandoning their own inclinations. In many ways it acted more as a hindrance and in the regression we lost valuable time for growth and innovation. Maybe something new would happen or maybe we would revert once again?
JG: Would we go back to building stone temples again?
CW: Only time can tell.
JG: I thought about the end of the world a lot a couple years ago when I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Have you read it?
CW: No, but I will. Thank you for the suggestion. One that is really good is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
JG: Crystal, what will happen if the shit really hits the fan?
CW: We will finally see the absurd truth at the bed off all this elaborate nonsense and that it is: survival and perpetuating the human race.
JG: But doesn’t Obama give you hope that a disastrous future may be avoided?
CW: Again, I think that the empire will fall eventually and politics are politics. With that said, Obama does give me hope. I look forward to a renewed interest in education during his presidency. It is the beliefs of others that have me more concerned. The mind is a powerful tool.
JG: Will artists flourish during the Obama years?
CW: Not unless the economy does and unfortunately, it would be difficult for any president to get us out of the mess we are in right now.
JG: Where will we be able to see your work in 2009?
CW: In March, I will be in a three-person show, “The Organics” at Laredo Community College in Laredo, TX and I have a solo exhibition titled, “The Enigma of Growth”, at the Balcony Gallery in the downtown Emporium in Knoxville, TN in also in March. I hope to add more on once I figure out where we will be moving in July.
JG: You chose a great baby name for the new arrival. Can you tell us a bit about why you chose it?
CW: Gwynivere Odessa will be her first and middle name. Both my husband, Joshua and I enjoy the antiquity associated with Gwynivere and also its more contemporary shorter version (Gwyn). His family is almost entirely Welsh, so its nice that the name pays homage to that heritage. And her middle name is the feminine version of Odysseus, the Greek mythological hero in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey . In truth, we even think she sounds like a fictional character. I guess it is funny how it is a testament to our entire being.
JG: Best of luck in everything. Thank you.
CW: Thank you.