Q&A with Sobey Shortlist-Nominated Derek Sullivan

Q&A with Sobey Shortlist-Nominated Derek Sullivan
(Derek Sullivan, Albatross Omnibus (detail), 2011)

In anticipation of this week’s Sobey Art Award announcement, ARTINFO Canada continues its series of interviews with the shortlisted nominees. Speaking with Ontario representative, Derek Sullivan, 36, who was long-listed for the award twice before (2009 and 2011), we delve into a mixed-media practice that exudes a self-conscious formality while interrogating basic questions of authorship and ephemerality. Sullivan uses text, drawing, and sculpture, in addition to producing various conceptual projects. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at White Columns, New York (2008), KIOSK, Ghent (2011), and the Power Plant, where Sullivan was awarded the institution’s 2011 commission.

You've had a big couple of years. You've been given solo platforms at major venues in Toronto and elsewhere. Why do you think your work is being received so well right now?

It's been amazing to have these kinds of platforms for my projects, but I'm not sure what specific things have come together to catalyse these opportunities. Mounting major projects at the Power Plant and Kiosk in Belgium allowed me to present existing works that had already been exhibited in smaller contexts and bring them together into something new. So it’s been something else, these past couple years.

We're talking about work that doesn't necessarily lend itself, in terms of its media, to large-scale installation. And yet, you're manipulating these smaller frameworks in such a way as to create an architecture from them. How did you figure out how to wield large spaces to your benefit?

The first way I started was about eight years ago, with “Endless Kiosk” (2005), which was a contribution to a group exhibition at the Power Plant. It was a seven-meter high replica of a Brancusi that was allowed to accumulate material from anyone who wanted to attach to it. I liked giving people the ability to touch and manipulate work in the space, but also giving people space to promote themselves. By offering that opportunity, it also allowed me to explore Brancusi's metaphor of endlessness. Whereas his metaphor is an endless extension into the sky, allowing people to poster on it gave it the potential of endless girth.

For example, with the Power Plant exhibition, which was essentially comprised of 52 very small books, the installation was built around this idea of making readership physical, reminding viewers that it was a physical act as well as a cerebral one. If you think of my objects as discrete objects, they're quite modest in scale, but collectively, there are installation behaviors that allow them to interpret space on a much larger scale.

What’s the deeper appeal for you, in this?

The works I make are often drawings or books, and the things that I'm attracted to when I tour an old cathedral or the MOMA are where the stairs are worn from pilgrims' passage, or the fingerprints on a Donald Judd work. These traces I find quite exciting, and that's where that early work started. In discussion with curators in these much larger spaces, it was an issue of how the presentation in these larger spaces could extend the work and enable it to go in other directions.

Your poster series has been ongoing for eight years, and is still unfinished. You’re presenting older posters with new ones, I’ve noticed. Considering that most artists experience a degree of discomfort looking at work from a previous moment in their trajectory, what has been your experience of pairing these formative pieces with your latest?

I don't know if I feel awkward about the previous ones because the architecture of the project itself is about this kind of diverse and changing content in the drawings. The poster-drawing format is a way that I work through and research ideas, and inevitably move on, so that's reflected in the posters. The poster drawings are more like an open sketchbook. Also, each time the drawings are shown, I think of it as an opportunity to retitle. The pieces may be spray-fixed and photographed and framed, but the title is always potentially expanding. Perhaps I avoid that feeling of awkwardness about previous work by seeing it in new juxtapositional relationships, and changing the title.

Given their often figurative titles, do you see the posters as figurative, despite their seeming abstraction?

I think of them as sculptures, first and foremost. But in terms of picture-making, they are meant to oscillate between the two. A number of them are very simple compositions, monochromes of very simple shapes, but each one is an accumulation of thousands of tiny colored pencil strokes. They're not meant to be pure abstractions necessarily, but an index of an action. Each one has a kind of character to it, a quality that makes it not purely abstract. In a way it's almost like a drawing of a sheet of paper. Like “The Light Through My Eyelids,” a poster drawing that's a series of gestural actions in pencil crayon that catalyzed in a certain form, and then was given a title, and it became figurative, literally representational. And next time it's shown, maybe a different title will spin it in a different direction.

A great deal of your work looks obsessive, or at least labor-intensive. Is there an aspect of process, and that process being made apparent, that is important to you?

There's no ideal state for a work of art, no perfect location where it's most itself. It is an object in space that's put into different contexts, so it's affected by everything around it. I don't think that those marks are any more obsessive than knitting a sweater. It speaks to an idea that although it's built up in the studio, it's out in the world in a different way and it'll continue to build up. I feel less affinity to those practices that are about obsessive labor. Not that there's any less work in it, I just don't see that as the primary thing.

You have an MFA from the University of Guelph. At that time, was the program already known for its painting-heavy program?  

It does have a strong painting program, but it's changed a lot since I was there. It's a school that has a balance between formal and conceptual concerns, which are expressed in different ways around the school.

There seems to be an academicism in your work.

How do you mean?

To articulate the act of reading as physical, for instance. Of course it's a notion that could come from outside an academic institution, but it involves a level of abstract thought and esotericism one associates with academia.

I think I see the poster drawings as being a response to that. I think visual arts does something that's separate from the written word to describe what's happening. It comes out of me watching the structures through which we receive images — from Instagram to ads on the subway. I don't use the written word to explain the works, but probably the opposite — to complicate them, and to hopefully help them exist as objects.

I personally delight in a work that confounds me, and the act of looking at a work and puzzling at it. Things are revealed through awareness of a structure. I don't work from theory, or even read a lot of theory; I read fiction and poetry. My relationship with language is not academic; I'll often use fuzzy logic, which doesn't stand up as an academic argument, but is more intuitive. I think we're conditioned to expect that work has a thesis text that comes with it, but you should be able to feel that, not be able to read it.

After a couple years of being long-listed, does the Sobey shortlist nomination represent a turning point for you?

Well, it's a big deal to be shortlisted for the prize. I grew up here, so I know the diversity and strength of practices in Ontario, and it feels like quite a big achievement to be the nominee. It cements a series of opportunities and exhibitions that I made, that have extended my practice.

Are you in a position to talk about what direction you'll be taking next?

I know I'll continue to make the drawings, because it seems like an unfinished project at this point. It's a way that I work through ideas that I'm thinking about, a kind of repository for the books I'm reading at the time. One of the things I really liked about the 52 books I made for the Power Plant is that that work now exists in a disseminated way, on bookshelves all over the place. People would pick up books as they became available each day, so it's a sculpture that's now embedded in the real world, unpredictably. It's out of my control, scattered. I'm thinking now about creating works that go out into the world like that. The peg rails are the start of that. They're quite formal, loose compositions of objects that have a knowable existence in the world, so they could dissolve and vanish into the real world. Objects that might get underfoot, or sat on.

In an interview with Geoffrey Farmer, this summer, I touched on an aspect of his practice which is not dissimilar from yours, the constant flux of the work's meaning and shape, in iterations that extend past its initial exhibition, its purchase. I asked him a sentimental question, which I'll now extend to you: is there any feeling of loss, in this? Do you carry any attachment to resolution?

These contexts, these exhibitions, are ephemeral. They can never be revisited. So all works have a feeling of loss around them.

But with the “Endless Kiosk” project, there was a moment where I really felt a loss. People put really beautiful posters on it, and over the years, seeing them be covered up through subsequent installations, there's now this memory of what's hidden below the surface. It's still there, but I can't see it anymore, and I really can't peel it back to show something that was apparent six years ago. But then, inevitably, something new will go on it that'll be as wonderful. There's this chance it will be totally changed and refreshed.

So you're hopeful?

I am, yeah.

Finally, are you witnessing any shared motifs, or parallels between you and your fellow nominees?

What's great about the show at MOCCA is that, by its nature, in a shortlist exhibition, the practices shouldn't be as sympathetic to each other as they are here. In a way, it's a good group exhibition but not an obvious one. I can't imagine a curator coming along and selecting these five artists and making a show, but it's an interesting exhibition because there's this overarching interest in objects in the world, and how they function. All of the practices, though they go in different directions, the object in everyday life seems to be the anchor.

But I'd rather not talk about the horse-race element of it. I don't think anyone made the work to then take part in competitions.