All History is Curated: An Interview with Jim Leach by Dwayne Butcher

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To Dream the Impossible Dream

Jim Leach is an artist working in Baltimore, MD. He received his BFA from Kent State University in 2011 and his MFA from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at MICA in 2014. He has exhibited his work in such places as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Baltimore. Leach builds a visual language by altering objects that one finds in everyday life. He creates relationships between elements, to their environment and to the people who inhabit a space.

I met with him in his Greektown Studio at the end of last year. Here is part of our conversation.

Dwayne Butcher: You recently graduated from MICA with an MFA. Talk about that experience, how you choose to come to MICA and where you went to undergrad.

Jim Leach: I went to Kent State University in Northeast Ohio. We had a small program within a large university. It was great. A lot of my friends were in physics, chemistry, various English concentrations and many were in crafts. The diversity of knowledge was, and is, important to me.

After going to a large university I wanted to see what the art school model would be like. I thought it would be the right environment to focus. Rinehart seemed perfect. With eleven students between the two years of the program, there were enough of us to challenge one another, but not enough for any of us to be too distant.

Thrash, Robot

DB: You are starting on a new body of work as you transition out of the grad school mindset. How is this going?

JL: I had been thinking of my new work as a complete break from the old, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. I think it’s more of a progression and shift in approach. In a broad sense I’m still interested in the same issues that I have been for a while: how we individually define context within our huge scope of knowledge and awareness, and how this struggle plays into our small daily lives.

My work was boring me. I found myself repeating tactics, like I was milking some trick that I had learned. Most of this work was centered on simple interventions on objects and in space. I could communicate an idea through simple actions. I vacuum-seal my dining room table and chairs; we no longer have access to these objects or this space. I remove a perfect rectangle from the seat of a chair and place that rectangle on the floor; something is misplaced or dislocated. In vinyl text on the side of a building I make a claim about the feelings of the people inside; how would I know what those people were feeling? I found myself making the third Dislocation piece and it sucked, so I got out. I like all of this work, and I think it’s some of my most successful, but the work doesn’t gain strength through repetition.

I’m not restricting myself in the same way. I take a frozen horse head from a narrative that I’m interested in. Instead of the strip-this-down-to-its-bare-components-until-there’s-nothing-recognizable-from-the-source approach, I’m using the take-this-horse-head-and-mash-it-into-a-shipping-crate-with-the-roman-bust-that-I-like approach. If I feel like mashing, I should mash. I’m not forcing myself to cut everything for the sake of legibility, and instead letting multiple ideas exist in one piece and throughout pieces. I can bring a lot more to the work, and I’m able to get closer to my root interests, which is surprising me.

DB: With this in mind, how do you challenge the viewers?

JL: The challenge is important to me. I don’t think we challenge ourselves enough, and the work shouldn’t be too easy. You usually won’t see exactly what I’m thinking about—an unexplained twenty minute crash and rebound of the stock market in 2010, archive theory, the amazing ability of fiction writers to describe epochs of mood in culture, uncertainty, World War One, the effects of each—You’ll see me respond. I give the viewer objects to consider, and ask them to tie them together, to make sense of what is in front of them. This kind of exchange is uncommon in ordinary life, so a viewer has to adapt and define the scenario.

There is something that prevents us from having a complete understanding in any matter. In my work I will obscure some of the content. Here, I’m talking about the work, but I’m not laying out every thought, how I arrived at this, or connecting the lines between that. If you knew everything about it, why would you want to look at it?

DB: You say that you do not have a romantic notion of the studio. What is this all about?

JL: As far as romantic notions go, if I could throw away all of my proclivities while I was in my studio, I would. My work is about me, the artist in the studio, insofar as the work is limited by my understanding of the world. It doesn’t seem odd to me that this limitation is a main concern in my practice—it’s what I’m always struggling against. And if I just needed to make the work for me, as some kind of therapy, I could just imagine it and save myself all the time, money and hassle it takes to make it. (Here someone asks, “then why do you make it?” Because it’s fucking cool, and it interests me, and I hope it interests others.) I guess I’m saying that I’m not an expressionist. We work within a social context, and I think it would be ridiculous to focus on me rather than focusing on me and us in relation to everything else. Beyond that, there are so many things that I would rather work with and think about that are so much more interesting than me, or how I feel.

Vacuum-sealed Dinner

DB: You have a background in construction, is this why you choose to use the industrial materials you do?

JL: No. I do have an interest in how we construct our environment and how that has changed over time, but I don’t think that’s because of the job. That goes back to my interest in context. Our buildings are a physical context, they affect the psyche, and they have changed over time. I have learned some technical skills and gained material knowledge on the job, but I don’t often use the same materials in my studio as I do at work, and when I do they are handled differently because the intent is different.

DB: Does the material dictate the idea? Or does the idea dictate the material?

JL: This kind of goes back to the romantic notions of the studio thing. I don’t have any interest in perfecting the art of stone carving, but if I absolutely needed a marble bust, and couldn’t find one anywhere, I guess I would have to learn how to carve one. I’m glad I possess some, but I really don’t care about technical skills in contemporary art outside of necessity (which could include the necessity of the work not looking like road-kill, but doesn’t exclude the necessity of the work looking like road-kill). I need a glossy bundle of shit for this piece. I want it to look synthetic. I need to figure out how to build this thing. The materials and skill sets are in response to their purpose in the piece.

I heard a story once about Robert Gober answering questions after a talk. Supposedly someone asked him why he didn’t just order sinks, instead of making them in his studio. He responded that if anyone would know where to source mass-produced sinks that were unusually shaped and looked hand-made, he would definitely be interested. I don’t know if this story is true, but I thought it was good, and that’s exactly how I feel about it.

DB: Do you find yourself “collecting” objects to use in the studio?

JL: Not often. If I see something that I know I will need for a piece I have sketched out, I’ll take it to the studio to sit for a while, but for the most part I’m seeking out specific things. “I need the perfect raccoon for this piece,” rather than “I can make art out of this raccoon.” It’s kind of like my approach to materials and technical skills; scouting objects is based on necessity, and more selective than just collecting anything that I’m attracted to. I think I’m also getting a little more discriminate, so working with readymades and found objects has been pretty tough for the past year or two. I find myself fabricating more and more of what I could have easily found and been happy with a few years ago. It can be hard to find the perfect raccoon.

Infinite Jest Bench

DB: How is the black cube working “out of your comfort zone?”

JL: I’ll probably kill the piece by explaining it, but that’s ok. The piece I Want To Talk About You consists of a large resin cuboid form, hanging from a steel bracket off a tall red-oak stand. The black resin form is glossy and reflective and on one side text is sunken into the resin, reading:


Sun on bricks-
Bright bricks-
Bright sun-

Holes in bricks-
Black bricks-
Black holes-

Birds in sky-
Blue birds-
Blue sky.

This text is taken from a piece of the same name, written by a friend of mine, Russell Brill. This is one of four pieces bearing text from four different authors that were displayed in two different venues simultaneously. The other sources were David Foster Wallace, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Marcel Duchamp. Each piece of text was chosen for a specific reason for a specific piece, but my larger interest was in introducing each of these sources into a piece and showing them side-by-side and in similar venues. There is an attempt at leveling. Russell Brill displayed with similar execution to Duchamp in one space, Wallace and Tennyson in the other. My underlying concern with the text is in how we consider the idea of author and source.

This group was uncomfortable and exciting to me because of how they were executed. Instead of trying to strip the pieces down to a single action or interest, I allowed several ideas and processes to exist throughout pieces. I let it make sense to me, and didn’t obsess over how it would read. It’s more interesting for me, and I assume, for the viewer. Now I’m figuring out how to do it better.

DB: You have a lot of interest in how people communicate, how we experience fact and process information. How do these ideas manifest themselves into the work and would technology ever have a place in your practice?

JL: Yeah, I do, but a lot of this conversation is just so played out. I always feel like an asshole talking about new communication technologies and the issues that arise, but it’s so pervasive that it’s unavoidable. The way we experience the world has changed. I’m not interested in the technology itself; I’m interested in how we react and change. Most importantly to me, we have been in this position before. For historical examples, think of The Red Scares. I have heard that there was an influx of nervous disorders after the first trans-Atlantic telegraph lines were laid. Dada was a response to World War One. I would bet that cave men shit themselves over fire. Every time our world gets smaller or more complex we go through a period of adjustment and anxiety. It’s just that it’s happening now, and communication is central to the change.

I think the topic is so prevalent in conversation because of the slippery nature of fact, communication, archive, source, etc., in general. Let me punch a few holes in the idea of recording and communicating fact or truth or information:

All humans (the main agents of human communication of information) are biased in some way. No exceptions. Further than that, people lie, and are often wrong.

There is a matter of perspective—five witnesses bear six accounts of one event.

History is curated—to describe an event it is impractical to provide every document, account, piece of evidence, etc., so the “describer” takes out what he or she deems unnecessary. This curating is always a subjective judgment.

All information recorded by people (with the exception of recording devices—see the following point) is dependent on the memory of the archiver, and the human memory is flawed.

There is no way to know for sure that you are not missing any information that could affect your understanding of something — how could you identify what you’re unaware of?

Within the work I can look at the effects of our relationship with information. I obscure visual information—we no longer have complete access; I dislocate forms—some of the content has been misplaced; I translate materials from one form to another—what is presented is not the original; I combine objects or create relationships between them—the constituent parts may or may not be in total, or the constituent parts may or may not be connected.

Our language is flawed. There is no way for me to perfectly see or experience what you are envisioning or feeling because I don’t have perfect access to your mind. Instead I have to rely on abstractions and translations. Communication around the work functions similarly. A viewer interprets the work, but never exactly as I had, so I communicate, but without the expectation of perfect coherence.

DB: So, what is next?

JL: More work. It starts with a consideration of my mind as a dumping ground for information from so many sources constantly. They pile it on, and I’m left to sift it, sort it, push it into corners, ignore it or squeeze it into one cohesive form. I’m drawing ideas and objects and forms, bundling them, obscuring them, putting them into relation of one-another, comparing them to a clean, endless and empty black.

There will be pallets and PVC, umbrellas, black panels, poetry, probiotics, horse heads, cornices, absences, guard rails, synesthesia, newscasters, satellites, ceramic cats, 50-gallon drums, bannisters, glossy bundles of garbage, fresh sneaks, sump pumps and lamps and pans and plastics and fuckin’ smart bombs and radio shows, vapors, flowers, books, guns, mugs, better apartments than mine, long walks, an app that will make sausages appear from thin air, Kierkegaard, disposals, things that have never been seen before, things that have been seen before, coats from dead guys, other people’s art, drywall and couches, ink spilled on expensive desks and bumper cars and paper masks and dada, sulfur, nihilism, salads and sponges and saucers, dust, stuffed bears and beer and physics, hair gel, swan dives, dry heat and canned meat, and I’m going to force them together into something that I can live with.

Dwayne Butcher is an artist, writer, curator and chicken wing connoisseur living in Baltimore, MD. Butcher moved here from Memphis in the summer of 2013. In that time he has continued to have international exhibitions, published articles in local, regional and national publications, and curated an exhibition of Baltimore-area artists titled “Bawlmer” at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, TN. To see his work and curatorial projects, visit his website and follow him on twitter @dwaynebutcher.

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