Fabrication and Existence: Crystal Wagner Interview

Posted by on Dec 8, 2008 in Interviews

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?



CW:
No. The time will come when the empire falls. This might sound morbid, but it is a fact. I am okay with it.

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.

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15 Comments

  1. markcreegan
    December 9, 2008

    really fantastic,

    doesn’t it seem that artists of our generation are much more interested in being teachers as well as artists? Wasn’t it a fall back position for our teachers while we embrace wholeheartedly? In fact we are wanting more recognition as teachers of art than the art itself it seems.

    Is this a good thing?

    Reply
  2. byron king
    December 9, 2008

    yes indeed. really fantastic.

    Really appreciate this interview. James you really have a knack for these. Please keep them up. Thank you Crystal for sharing.

    An interesting question was brought up to me this weekend after leaving Art Basel, and looking at the whole entire machine of the art market? Dana, my wife, actually asked it.

    What gives artists the right to want to have the time, or right, to want to sit around and make art all day (essentially have fun) and do that for a living while the rest of the folks have to actually work doing something they don’t like and isn’t actually fun (called work)?

    As much as artists struggle to make their work, and to figure out their path, it is an interesting question to ask. I answered her question by saying because art is a vocation just like any other, ex. blacksmith. The problem is, I don’t believe the rest of society sees it as an actual viable vocation. So for a second just think about that… what gives us the right to want to want to do activities like Crystal noted above:

    I just want to live comfortably with my family, play my guitar, and make art.

    After reading this I realized that “Artademia” might be the problem with perpetuating the myth that we have that right. I still believe I do myself, but have to work a day job like most fine artists while dreaming of having the huge warehouse studio and minions to help me make my concepts come to fruition as I fly all over the world to have openings, drink wine, and eat fine cheeses.

    What makes us special? Why do we have the right to have fun, while everyone else has to work a day job they hate?

    Reply
  3. stacey page
    December 9, 2008

    Crystal, you speak so beautifully, it is clear as to why you write as well as make art. i tend to find the whole language thing a failure, as words seem to be self defined? is that the right word? ha ha ha

    “What makes us special? Why do we have the right to have fun, while everyone else has to work a day job they hate?”

    I don’t view us as artists special. everyone has the right to have fun. I often find making art mentally disturbing, exhausting, and sometimes even quite hazardous to my health. it is just a choice i have made like any other who works. something to take up the time between birth and death.

    Reply
  4. byron king
    December 10, 2008

    I’m not sure if we have the right. I find it odd that we think we do. Others have hobbies but don’t claim them as their careers and in the process maintain semi stable households and families.

    Artists, especially one’s in this defined Artademia, seem to feel that they have some birthright to follow that has given them the right to make art, have fun, and not do “real” work.

    In many countries work is never defined in terms of fun. As my dad always said, that’s why it was called work. And when he was done working he would work on his cars, or in his wood shop. But if he had an art education I’m sure he’d find that his wood shop was his calling and that it was criminal that he had to work at Starbucks for health-care.

    I’m just throwing this out there. I find it odd. Especially after leaving Art Basel and seeing the art machine all greased and oiled up with all parts moving in top performance.

    We are people who are creative people who have talents others might not possess but why do we torture ourselves so trying to find this mythical place where we can sit and daydream, work, and exhaust ourselves mentally and psychologically over an activity most would only call a hobby?

    I mean I’m all for swallowing the blue pill and seeing my mad art dreams come true, where I can figure out how to do it full-time, but what is the reality of that? Has anyone seen any numbers or percentages of who is really making it. Even at Art Basel and the surrounding fairs, everyone is just scraping by, pitching their work, busting their asses, trying to sell their work so they can pay rent and call themselves comfortable. Definitely odd when the desires and lifestyle we have chosen do not lend themselves to comfort.

    There never will be a magical one man show that solves all of our problems and puts us in with the blue chip artists at Gagosian or Mary Boone. We are intelligent people. Why do we continue to chase this allusiveness when we all know it most likely will never come?

    Making art, being engaged, and finding others to discuss the work with if that’s your thing, is all we can ever really and truly realize. The rest of it is just a desperate game that Artademia has placed in our minds to think is achievable.

    I bet if you found me five tenured professors from reputable schools with five page CVs they would all feel they had not accomplished enough. Shit…maybe that’s my next art project.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  5. markcreegan
    December 11, 2008

    Two tracks are being discussed here- the academic and the commercial- but both are a result of the professionalization of art. When I first read “artademia”, I assumed it referred to a specific type of conceptualism that was centered around serious research rather than serious play. After WWII, college art programs sprang up which gave us the “artist/teacher”. The MFA was invented to justify payroll and research grants to these artists. So art became researchable just like science and math. Therefore a certain type of art (conceptual or not) evolved that could be quantified, explained, rationalized. The parallel in the commercial world is that art became a quantifiable commodity (tho mysteriously so) just like cars and furs.

    Underlying these two tracks that some of us may be trying to enter is the shift since the industrial revolution from a very rigid class structure (birthright) to a very fluid one (self-determination). During the former, artists were “artisans” with a few supported by wealthy/royal/religious patrons or by the state. The function of art certainly changed but for a long time it was determined by specific social needs. Now the social need is very vague if it exists at all. For me, I think society needs adults who do irrational things to bring out the hidden (not to sound too surrealist) or to show society’s crap to itself, to take the social-reflexive role.

    Reply
  6. Dana
    December 13, 2008

    I just read this comment by Mark to Byron over the phone while he is in the hospital. He fell into a daydream while I read it and woke up when I asked him if he had heard me. (He wants you to remember that he’s heavily medicated) and he wanted me to post the daydream:
    Everyone from Globatron and their kids were sitting in a square drywall room like a gallery. They were sitting against the walls of the square with their legs crossed in meditation. In the center of the square was a glass box, 3 stories high and 3 stories wide. We were all looking into the center of the square and were all interacting through facial expressions as our offspring circled the square and played hopscotch or some game and stuck their faces and bodies up to the glass.
    Byron had been waiting to check back the comments on this post and says he’s sorry not to come up with something more coherent, but wants you all to know he’s thinking of you.
    I think this is pretty coherent, though….

    Reply
  7. markcreegan
    December 13, 2008

    yes! Thats perfect!
    the point IS incoherence!

    Reply
  8. Akbar Lightning
    December 13, 2008

    The coming existential truth is change

    The great philosopher of this coming wave will be the one who best defines the position one should take in regards to change.

    Social change, political change, technological change, bodily change, gender change, life expectancy change, global change, climate change, keep the change.

    All of these arguments are bound up in old notions of static organizations, such as ‘Artademia’, attempts to tie down these practices, all the areas of study are bleeding off into one another. It is as though we are living in the time of Adam, so many creatures without names.

    I have not yet formulated the coping mechanism, the inspired perspective that will allow us to dance with the machine as it turns us into Gods, but I am working on it.

    Why does society need people who are irrational? Why does society need anything? These utopian thoughts. What is work? What is fun? If we look closely at what it is we do, these words dissolve. I type, light hits my face, i construct words to match the impulses, it is a mystery. is it fun? is it work? is it important?

    my answer is not no, in fact it is a universal yes, it is everything. but because of this…in other words, we are at once liberated and bound by old desires. hence, the artworld, the victory that artists have created where ‘anything goes’, we’re rich or struggling, or any combination of artistic form of life can be had. and yet, it still does not satisfy, it still acts as a trigger for our disenchantment with existence.

    is it any better on top? well, i don’t think so. is it any worse, definitely not. history, genius, science, thought, invention, dominance. what is there outside of this.

    I have been thinking lately that I want my art to divorce a few things.
    I want art divorced from fashion.
    I want art divorced from commerce.
    I want art divorced from pornography.
    I want art divorced from pop culture.
    I want art divorced from meaninglessness.

    fashion, commerce, pornography, pop culture and irony, they have their places, i got no qualms, but i would love to see some work with distance from these corruptions.

    there’s my rampage, i apologize.
    akbar lightning

    p.s.- I spoke with Globatron today, what a thrill! He’s an amazing person.

    Reply
  9. Lee Westwood
    November 3, 2010

    really fantastic,

    doesn’t it seem that artists of our generation are much more interested in being teachers as well as artists? Wasn’t it a fall back position for our teachers while we embrace wholeheartedly? In fact we are wanting more recognition as teachers of art than the art itself it seems.

    Is this a good thing?

    Reply
  10. Ysabel Price
    November 12, 2010

    Check out an interview with Crystal Wagner, an inspiring installation artist that I have been admiring for quite… http://fb.me/DJ6U6tWo

  11. Ysabel Price
    November 12, 2010

    Great interview w/Crystal Wagner- an installation artist I greatly admire.
    http://tiny.cc/k28nb I often miss making sculptural work…

  12. Johana Reynolds
    November 12, 2010

    Great interview w/Crystal Wagner- an installation artist I greatly admire.
    http://tiny.cc/k28nb I often miss making sculptural work…

  13. Crystal Wagner | Camille Frate
    March 19, 2011

    […] Interview  […]

    Reply
  14. Ted
    April 8, 2011

    Interesting art work, I haven’t seen anything similar yet. I’ve read something about acculturation while I used to work in an antiquities shop and sell used textbooks and became quite intrigued by the concept. I enjoy it when I hear someone talk about this. “even that acculturation is an acceptance” – good point of view.

    Reply

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