Quinn Wolff-Wilczynski, an Atlanta-based artist, has a varied practice which includes visual art, writing, organizing and facilitating, and curating. For one, Wolff-Wilczynski’s show Axis Mundi opened at the Westside Cultural Arts Center in the Collective One Gallery on February 6 and is up until March 5. The show’s use of sculpture and stereoscopic imagery complicates our “usual” notions of space and how we experience it; two dimensions and three dimensions converge and collapse. The figure of the axis mundi, a world axis, relies on the support of the body, as failed as it might be. But, opening on February 24 at 368 PONCE is Scenes of Disproportion, a group show Wolff-Wilczynski curated. The show features the work of Andrew Forrest Baker, Candice Greathouse and Curtis Ames, Laura Noel, Lauren Michelle Peterson and Jordan Stubbs, along with Wolff-Wilczynski’s, and focuses on the artists’ use of found or construction materials to produce sculptural works.
Wolff-Wilczynski took some time to sit down with me on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 16, for a conversation. It spanned a multitude of topics, threads of topics and things: human experience, the problem of narrative, the body and its failures, social-engaged art practices, what is means to be a self-taught artist, philosophy, mythology, artist writings and more.
Here’s some of that conversation.
ArtsATL: In a recent interview you state that you’re interested in the collapse of time in the static object. What do you think of time and space as they relate to sculpture? How is collapsed time compelling to you?
Quinn Wolff-Wilczynski: We live in a time where narrative has become very important in art … maybe it’s related to why we’re so emphatic about the artist statement and that this is either part of a larger narrative for the artist or a larger social narrative or just that within the construct of the piece there’s a narrative. I’m definitely not the first, but I like to explore removing that narrative, and then letting the narrative become more individual between the viewer and the object itself. That it positions itself as an active member of the life of the viewer as opposed to an objective scenario to be viewed.
ArtsATL: For me, that spatial relation unfolds through time and so temporality is extremely important to that.
Wolff-Wilczynski: In relief sculpture throughout time, it tried to deal with how you don’t have a spatial narrative construct. Part of my interest in single-point perspective is the idea of receiving information simultaneously, not necessarily of discovery. I like mystery in an object and I don’t think that’s lost in single-point perspective. In sculpture in the round, there’s the idea of constant discovery of mystery.
Do you remember those triangles in the mall that would have the map on them? And the ads would change? So, as you walked around the triangle, the ads would constantly be different?
ArtsATL: Yeah, before LED ads, the ad would flip.
Wolff-Wilczynski: When I was a kid, I would walk around those and it was like being in a magical world because “Why is it different every time I get to it?” I could not figure out it was rotating! I think my parents kind of helped assist that function.
I just don’t want anybody to have to experience that. I think that sculpture in the round has this constant element of discovery, that as you learn something more over here, you’ve kind of forgotten what’s over here … a kind of spiral understanding of something. When it comes to mystery that way, I enjoy the experience of it, but I’m trying to explore the creation of a different type of mystery which is more aligned with a Duchampian mystery as it comes to the readymades. By distancing the viewer from fully being able to experience an object, to create the object as almost foreboding, Verboten, either one. The idea that I can’t touch this rake, that I’m now separate from this object because it’s in an art space. I want to create that experience for somebody because I think it creates a gaze that is given and returned. It creates that moment of Nietzschean abyss, which I think is a necessity within current experiences of art.
For the most part, sculpture is experienced photographically. We live in a great culture in which you could do that. I mean, I put up every picture of my show [Axis Mundi at WCAC] on my website. I think that half of the experience is that photograph. I’m almost trying to create a constant between experiences. Not, you saw the photograph, but you don’t get the pleasure of experiencing it in the round.
ArtsATL: It’s creating the pictorial plane with three-dimensional objects.
Wolff-Wilczynski: Absolutely, and, I’m just recently discovering this direction. As I push it, I think more and more I may even try to control the idea of the photograph in a way that is more inviting of the viewer to participate in the space of the photograph. To almost create the illusion of the X on the floor where they would stand to experience the work, where it’s very visible that there’s a square plane with boundaries, even though it’s an installation with several …
ArtsATL: Layers … and extension. I still want to push you though on what that means for temporality. How does that translate to collapsed time?
Wolff-Wilczynski: Are we separating non-narrative versus collapsed time?
ArtsATL: I get what you’re saying about this desire for narrative …
Wolff-Wilczynski: Which is beautiful. It’s so human.
I think we could look at some of the work in this past show as collapsed narrative as opposed to non-narrative. In fact, I present a whole slew of Greek and Roman narratives. In the Atlas piece for example: Atlas is punished by the Titanomachy for his rebellion and has to hold up the cosmos. He becomes kind of what the show is about, an axis mundi. In that moment, a permanent and strangely punishing axis mundi. A more rare form of axis mundi, though you still see it.
Hercules was supposed to get the apples of Hesperides. He goes up to Atlas, and is like “Hey you! I need the apples,” and Atlas goes, “I can go get them for you, just hold this sky for me.” So, Hercules holds up the cosmos. There’s a lengthy narrative about how Atlas tries to trick Hercules, but there’s no moment when they simultaneously hold up the sky, it’s an alternation between the two.
In that piece, when it comes just to the Greek narrative and not the contemporary narrative that I’m discussing, here you have a moment of collapse. You have Hercules on one side and Atlas on the other, and I do think that when it was installed in the space, because it’s so far away, because it was viewed from such a distance …
ArtsATL: You can get the total visual field?
Wolff-Wilczynski: We read traditionally from left to right, we do that visually as well, not just linguistically, and I didn’t feel like that piece necessarily encouraged that experience … I felt like it enabled simultaneous viewing. I mean, of course you can walk around it with your eyes and create the narrative.
ArtsATL: How do you see that narrative becoming collapsed here?
Wolff-Wilczynski: None of the pieces are really set up to be experienced in a number of dimensions. Narrative requires a shift, a dimensional shift; one can’t create a completely static narrative. By encouraging or discouraging dynamism, I’m trying to create a situation where the viewer introduces the object into their own narrative. When I meet somebody, I don’t say, “Hey give me your whole back story before I can subjectively experience you.” The first experience is subjective, and then we can look objectively. Now, as artists, we have an art show and we say, “Before you come in, read this, so you can objectively experience my piece.” I think it’s a ridiculous way to experience anything. It’s a little academic.
And I don’t mean that as a bad thing.
Look, I’m a huge proponent of artists writing essays — I would love that for that to happen more. I think we’re in a position for a local arts paper to do that — I think they could get excited about that, to do artist essays on their work — so that it’s like a footnote to the visual experience. I’m not an academic, some artists are, not all artists are. As we’ve learned from the Parallel Georgia Project, not every experience occurs in that objective way, almost beautifully formulaic way. And, to be honest, I don’t experience life objectively enough to even give you an objective observation of my own experience. You come up with that! You tell me what I mean!
ArtsATL: What is the relationship, then, of the artist to the work?
Wolff-Wilczynski: Ideally, I would like to say that I don’t have this strange personal relationship to my art. With this last show, I’m experiencing this strange empty nest syndrome. I’m worrying about my sculptures everyday. I have such a love for them. Now, do you know Rachel Garceau? Beautiful artist. She is so beautifully meticulous. It is something that I am not.
Which is such a skill and talent in that space of emotional control. I guess for myself, I don’t feel in control of the process even when I work digitally. I tell the process to do something and then it reacts to me and it says this is where I flex and here’s where I break, here’s where I resist, here’s where I conform. It’s this constant conversation and one of the reasons why I like new materials; it’s about asking what do you want to do? What do I want to do to you? It’s very mutual. There’s a mutual relationship between us, a sense of equality between me and the piece. It’s not a sense of having the ability to have ownership over the piece.
ArtsATL: The work is supposed to resist you. It’s supposed to resist a certain kind of reading and certain kind of way it should be experienced.
Wolff-Wilczynski: Ok, so here I am saying the viewer should have a subjective experience, the primary mode is subjective, but at the same time, I’m saying the piece should force an objective relationship, rather than a subjective one. And I like that dissonance. I love dissonance. I think we thrive in dissonance.
I just love the idea of stress. Ambivalence is a beautiful state. I would much prefer ambivalence as opposed to ambiguity.
ArtsATL: What’s the distinction?
Wolff-Wilczynski: Let me not quote the movie, Girl, Interrupted, but … Susanna Kaysen is talking to her psychiatrist and says that she doesn’t care, she’s ambivalent. The psychiatrist says “I think you mean ambiguous.” Ambivalent comes from the root, two, ambi, and valence meaning strength, so it’s these two extreme ends which causes dissonance. We have these two fears, desires, cognitions, in warlike odds with each other, instead of just a slight imbalance. I want to encourage continued dissonance. I don’t want it to be resolved.
I write about this in the essay “Eight Notes on Wallpaper,” a kind of ideological rubbernecking or experience of morbid curiosity. The idea of an obsessive viewing. Rubbernecking, when you see a crash on the highway, the idea of actually slowing or impeding movement because of the experience of obsessive observation. That’s the goal for me. If I create a dissonant construction that you’re forced to stare at for two hours … we’ve all seen that art piece, we’ve all had that art piece, where we can’t escape it. We’re stuck in its beauty and its grotesqueness. Whatever imbalance it creates for you and your experience that you refuse to move outside of it, I want you to have that.
Ultimately, I want to create something that is experienced in a kind of idolatrous way. We all want somebody to love something as much as we do, right? And, sometimes you get stuck. Sometimes you’re looking at the work; you’re obsessed with it. You hate it, you love it. All of it. You’re proud of yourself. You’re self-conscious about what you didn’t do. That multitude of humilities and prides. I want somebody to enter that space. A very religious space where you are simultaneously humbled and …
Wolff-Wilczynski: Exalted … or yeah, lifted up as opposed to … I think that actually ties into what I’m talking about with Axis Mundi. In creating these axes that are kind of failed forms in a lot of ways, we’re simultaneously accepting the idea of climbing a failed form or using a failed form for uplifting experience and that the form itself …
At some point, your humanity overflows, in whatever way that is. For most people, nowadays, when it comes to art, since we’re in such a social shift, globalization, post-democracy, etc., there are so many artists working on such cool things that deal with social change because there’s an excess in their experience of that. Ultimately, all I’m saying is that we want to tell the story that we’re obsessed with. For me, it’s very much let’s talk about experience or the space of experience. I have personal things that end up relating to the work, but there are so many people that are so much better at objectively talking about social experience.
ArtsATL: Let’s talk about your other practices: writing, curation. I see that as another kind of artistic practice too.
Wolff-Wilczynski: I love early modern, that’s my go-to when it comes to understanding my relationship to art and societal views of art, not so much in the misogyny, but in how it’s presented. I respect that period because they were so fiercely passionate about what they were creating and why it was important to the world. I also loved the artist Picasso, artists who were able to involve themselves in several movements and the idea of going “This is what it’s about!” and then “Eh? Not so much what it’s about anymore.”
Let’s invent new rules constantly, play with those rules, create something within the context of those rules, push it to its boundary limits, and then pick a new set of rules to push. It’s strangely almost antisocial, but at the same time fun. Ultimately, and futurism aside, most of them, the attempt was not necessary to control society, to control the behaviors of society but to control the behaviors of art, but in an impermanent way.
What’s the game called? Some cartoon with the? … Calvin and Hobbes… Calvinball.
ArtsATL: I love Calvinball.
Wolff-Wilczynski: In Calvinball, the rules are constantly made up as you’re playing, but ultimately Calvinball within the life of the players has no permanent effect. If I’m telling you, that speaking as a homosexual, that this is the state and treatment of homosexuality, it has a very personal social effect, which is important, don’t get me wrong. It’s important in that we’re entering a realm of communication, but at the same time, for me as an artist, it enters a dangerous world where I’m not as strong as some people to commit to that. What I’d rather do as an artist is play with representation, play with ideas that are not so far-reaching.
ArtsATL: The ways in which you’re talking about representation and the body and mythology and idolatry, may be getting at a more originary question than a particular identity …
Wolff-Wilczynski: Maybe that’s a perfect way of putting it, actually, because I even talk about cave painting. I don’t want to give origin any kind of supremacy, and I want to caution against that. I don’t think trying to understand the elements of origin are any more or less important than dealing with current social issues. Maybe I’m sublimating, who knows, there are certain elements that I’m not going to be able to see in myself. When it comes to social issues, I just think there are some people that are more prepared to deal with them than I am. You know, I wasn’t an outgoing kid. I went to 13 different schools. I didn’t participate in society except as an outsider. We can talk about “outsider objectivity,” but that wasn’t my experience. My experience was that I couldn’t be objective because I didn’t understand the internal structures of things. Now in my life, at 33, I’m still trying to figure out internal structure, so for me to take a didactic role and inform or educate would be A. it would just fail and B. it would be slightly hypocritical or slightly narcissistic because who the hell am I?
ArtsATL: You have this project about promoting artists outside the canon — self-taught artists — how does that factor in? What do you actually mean by outsider?
Wolff-Wilczynski: Okay, I don’t use the term outsider. That’s important. I think that academically there’s all these distinctions: folk, outsider, autodidactic, and a lot of those distinctions are class-based and problematic to me. I think a lot of people look at self-taught artists and say, “Let’s define where their art comes from because they don’t have the ability to objectively understand art. Let’s define how art comes from just human experience rather than their specific understanding of cognitions.” What I’m saying is that in every human experience you will see an ultimate pinnacle of humanity. You’ll see humanity at its best in any human you like at any society, culture you look at. Self-taught artists teach each other. Self-taught artists think, read, experience their world.
The self-taught artist is described as just an excess of cultural expression, they just represent their culture, but you go into the Contemporary Wing [at the High] and the wall label describes how this artist speaks to a specific purpose. That’s one of the problems that is very specific to self-taught art, allowing or enabling or creating space, or whatever the word is you want to use, for self-taught artists to show that they’re individual artists, not just some outshoot of human experience, that they’re humans who are relaying something that can challenge any academic thought, just said through a different course of experience.
ArtsATL: What do we consider self-taught?
Wolff-Wilczynski: I think we exist in a time when it’s not so easy especially because certain kinds of aesthetics, aesthetic modes, are crossing. For example, if you showed me child’s art and Paul Klee’s art, am I able to distinguish between the two? What people will do is when they find out which is which, they’ll say that the child created this art because they’re a child and that’s what children do. But, when they look at Klee’s art, they’ll say here is all of the experience of why Klee and Max Ernst and all of them did what they did when they appropriated early childhood art. Same thing happened, and this is part of early modern I hate, with African art and primitivism. The “primitive” art was considered “primitive” when it actually came from a “primitive” source, as extended from the basest level of humanity. Whereas, if someone adopted primitive aspects they did it for an intellectual reason. I think that that still exists when it comes to how we relate to self-taught art.
That’s where Parallel Georgia Project comes from, and parallel is even too simplified, too reductive, but the idea is that we tend to look at art as this constant flow of academic ideas or points and counterpoints, and then self-taught art is these outshoots. I was looking through a book that presented 100 self-taught artists, two of them were both in a mental hospital at the same time, but it never once talked about how, in their art, you can see how they influenced each other, and never once did it talk how this was a movement, but it was! Never once did the book ever consider that they informed each other. Self-taught artists don’t not participate, but there’s so much of an emphasis on the MFA or emphasis on us as artists being able to objectively experience the world, which I think occurs a lot in academic thinking.
The Parallel Georgia Project was really to say that self-taught artists run the gamut and it completely parallels. There is no distinction, but there’s still a societal construct of distinction.
Jerry Saltz said something along the lines of “Self-taught isn’t meaningful anymore because we’re all self-taught artists,” and I think in a way that’s true. When I run into people that are degreed or well-educated, they’re more likely to say we’re all self-taught, but that’s not the experience of all self-taught artists. A lot of self-taught artists have the experience of doors not being open. I respect that we live in a Google era where we can all educate ourselves on new processes, which is great, because artists can be more experimental, we’re more connected, and I think that’s part of why many artists are more socially aware, but at the same time, I think we’ve actually heightened the importance of the academic requirement. I think we’re maybe starting to downsize artspeak. The fact that Parallel Georgia Project has been fairly well-received by everyone we’ve talked to shows that maybe we’re shifting to a state where it’s, “Look there are different cultures and we can’t say that this one is the process of culture and this is how you become important. Your thoughts are validated.”
I think there needs to be a support structure for people going through the challenges of self-taught art, which are more varied than just doors being closed. There are other challenges. No matter how much we read, we won’t know what you read. Unless I get a syllabus, download syllabi from specific classes, I don’t know.
To know that you can speak on something without quoting somebody. Somebody can speak on Cartesian dualism without having read Descartes, right?