Michael Genovese, a Los Angeles-based visual artist, doesn’t like the term “self-taught.” Genovese—whose second solo exhibition with progressive art platform OHWOW, titled Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses, is running now through Feb. 9th—says of his artistic development: “It was just like any other artist’s, the difference is that instead of going into the controlled environment of a university to learn about art, I went out into the world with the same intention.” Beginning with a stint painting signs across the country for Red Dog Beer, Genovese followed an unconventional trajectory, ultimately utilizing his experience in sign-making to develop a series of projects geared towards engaging the collective experience. Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses is an attempt to re-contextualize the overflow of information that comes at us from all directions; rather than analyzing this information, Genovese chooses to render the silence that lies in the middle.
The series involves various plasma-cut steel recreations of lines in their most common forms—including an architectural fracture, a hair in the bathtub, or a simple fabric seam— that are meant to redirect the viewer toward “visual moments of silence.” Based on the aphorism: “When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don’t expect a zebra,” Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses asks the viewer to investigate accepted methods of designating value. According to the artist, “We’re trained to say, if it’s a spade call it a spade, if it’s green, it’s green—and that works, sure, but it’s just not true.” Here, Genovese takes us back in time, examining the past works that inform his current perspective.
ON BECOMING AN ARTIST:
I’ve always studied the lives of artists and the actual lived experience, and how you can process that for yourself and create these objects or notions from that experience. I always felt that that was much more interesting than working in the canon of art history. So that’s what I did. I was 18, I was working at the Art Institute of Chicago as a security guard, and I was at this crux, you don’t know what the hell you’re going to do. I was watching everybody go into school, and come out of school, and go, “what the fuck did I just do?” And an opportunity arose where I was asked to paint signs for a carnival. So I learned from other people’s mistakes and went with my gut, and I went over to this carnival and painted these signs for Red Dog Beer.
ON PAINTING SIGNS:
I had no idea how to paint a sign. I could render things or whatever, but painting a sign is a completely different story. And this is before the internet, so you don’t have any how-to videos. But I tried my hand at it, and they loved it and asked me to come out on the road with them and paint signs. So I just left the Art Institute without turning in my resignation, and I went on the road for three years. We traveled from Wisconsin all the way down to Miami, all year long, painting signs. They trained me to be a carnival barker, so there was a real performative element where you’re bringing people in to play these games, and you sort of have this cognitive discourse with the public, where you’re trying to negotiate and solicit their attention and money. So if you look at these two things, if you look at visual presentation and you look at the performance that goes along with it, they kind of interweave with what was going on in the art world, as well. The difference is that there wasn’t an art historical context, this was just life as experience, or experience as performance.
ON LO QUE PUEDES PAGAR:
Fast forward to about 2006, when I was working as an architectural photographer. I went home one day, and an ice cream truck pulled up in front of the house. So I show up and there’s this family of three, the truck just has music, there’s nothing on it, it doesn’t say it’s an ice cream truck or anything. The mother was sitting on a five-gallon bucket of ice cream with a two-month-old baby in her hands. It just looked like an empty room with buckets of ice cream, not even those like strawberry shortcake things. It was like we were in a third world country; these people were out there just trying to make money to survive. They didn’t speak any English, had no signs on the truck. And I was like, hey, you know what? I know how to paint signs. Why don’t you come tomorrow by my house, and we’ll put some signs on your truck that say whatever kind of ice creams you have. Let me do something for you, I’ll feel good about doing this for you, I’m not expecting anything in return. So I went home, and I was drawing things for this truck and I was like, this is awesome. I have this stupid corporate visual job, but I feel this. I waited for this guy to come the next day, and he never showed up. I never was able to find him, and it sort of broke my heart. So a week went by and it just kind of sat in my head, and I walked into my office one day and handed in a letter of resignation to my boss. And if you can imagine, the white collar perspective on that is like, are you fucking crazy? You’re going to give all this up to go paint ice cream trucks?
So I had finally found something that was my voice, and that I could do, and that sort of bridges into the collective experience, and incorporated all of the things that I had learned from that point. I created this project called Lo Que Puedes Pagar, which means “What you can afford,” and I went around the city finding locals in my neighborhood, mostly immigrants, that had these start-up businesses, but they were only really doing business with their own people. So I went hunting for these carts and small businesses, and would confront them with the idea of Lo Que Puedes Pagar; for what you can afford, I’ll paint signs for you so you can open up your business to everyone. So I would get paid in a bag of fruit, a couple dollars, whatever. The work would be in motion, as well, so I’d get these phone calls, like “Mike, I just saw a junk collector’s truck driving down the alley with your text on it!” And then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago asked me to do a residency there. So as a resident there I developed that project; I built a cart, and instead of taking it out of the museum, I left it in the museum and started feeding the staff and visitors. It was performance, but there was also an object, a by-product. So this was the beginning of assigning value to thinks that we overlook, which is really the common thread that runs through my work.
ON THE P.S. PROJECT:
During that time, I was creating these engravings at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. They were these 4 ft. x 4 ft. panels filled with social commentary. So if I’m waiting in line at the currency exchange and I overhear a conversation, I’d take different quotes that were sticking with me and compose them on this big sheet of metal. And at one point, this lady walked up to me and she was like, “Can I try it?” and I was like, “No! What do you mean, can you try it? This is very expensive material!” [laughs] And then she left and I was like, man, that was kind of a dick move, why wouldn’t I let her put her mark on the stupid thing, it’s not that big of a deal! And it kept happening, so I taped off this little section and let people carve into it. And this was 2008; the internet was not the way it is now, it was a completely different digital landscape. There were comment boards, but they were nowhere near the dialogue that happens today; Grandma wasn’t plugging in and telling you what she thinks about a New York Times article. So there was all this information that was coming out onto the plates. And then from there, it just went national; I started taking those plates around the country, to different social spaces and different institutions. I did a residency at the Chicago Cultural Center through the Department of Cultural Affairs, and it was there that I started designating themes: there would be a theme of “secrets and confessions,” or “complaints.” I would have a plate designated for children, or one for lovers. Since I was transcribing and reading all of this information, I was processing it and thinking, My God, there is so much information here, I’m learning so much.
So here comes a shift: where edited media becomes less important; the work is giving me all the information I can digest. This was a language that was alive; how do I bring that into my process? How can I start making again? A lot of conceptual artists out there don’t make, they just fabricate. I’m in a conceptual vein, but I’m a maker, too. So right after the transcriptions started happening, I started engraving them on these historically referenced silhouettes on these mirrored plates. And on there, I would put the different themes and transcriptions engraved onto these plates in different languages, from where that plate was created. So if a black plate was made in Chicago, I would make the transcriptions on the silver plate in those languages—so it would be English, Spanish, Polish, the prominent languages of the city. And the information would vary from, you know, “Tom Cruise is my hero because he taught me how to pick up chicks,” and “Obama smokes weed” to more serious things, like “I lost my baby at 31 weeks in Belfast, Maine. Rest In Peace.” There would be these angles of humanity, all these different stories, but they started to change and morph through different languages.
WHEN YOU HEAR HOOFBEATS BEHIND YOU, DON’T EXPECT A ZEBRA:
We’re trained to say, if it’s a spade call it a spade, if it’s green, it’s green—and that works, sure, but it’s just not true. As a human there has to be more investigation. With Lines and Cracks and Horses and Zebras, that’s really what it comes down to: this idea of knowing what something is, in your mind, but that’s not the truth. Everybody has all this information, and everybody has it all figured out, but they don’t. In this work, all the information is there, but I’m not trying to stand on a soapbox and tell you about it. My process deals with a lot of information—like, look at all this information: it’s actually bullshit. Or, it’s all the same. With this work, it’s like, sure, we have this designation of value that happens—this simple thing looks like it’s a bad thing, or it’s overlooked, so here, I’m putting the spotlight on it and saying, “it is not.”
ON THE CONCEPT OF REFLECTION IN HIS WORK:
The tablets in the P.S. series were reflective in a way that said, “Go ahead and look at the work, but what you’re really looking at is yourself.” And it’s fucking funny having a show like that in Miami; people aren’t looking at the work, they’re in there fixing their makeup. What’s nice about the pieces in Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses is that it activates when the viewer is present—as you approach the pieces, the light hits them, and it’s almost as if they come alive. It’s almost as if that crack is happening in the wall as you’re walking towards it. I create these works large, so that from 20 feet away you see this line, but it keeps on drawing you closer and closer. The detail in these works is really in the millimeters. Each piece fits each other, and it really keeps you interested in the work to where you’re looking at it from 5 inches away. And as you look from side to side, you start to catch a reflection of yourself.
ON CRITICAL RECEPTION:
For me it’s about history. These objects are marking the time, and if it’s something that comes off as bullshit or whatever, it’s still making a statement that says I was here. And I appreciate negative responses as much as positive; it’s when nobody says anything about it that things get a little tricky. And I think that’s what makes a more unsuccessful work, is something that doesn’t even get a negative response. I have an affinity for all kinds of art; what is the clincher for me is where the artist is coming from.
ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A VISUAL ARTIST TODAY:
It’s really not for everyone, you know? I don’t know what it means—it’s just something that you have to do. There’s nothing else you can do. It means that you have the need to make it, you really have to make it; it’s not just something you do, this is your life and your job. I think the direction I’m leaning towards is, since there’s so much information out there in the world, and so many dialogues that already exist, I don’t want to put out any more text, or any more information. I wanted to put out this sort of geometric abstraction movement, where I just want to be quiet, where I just want to be quiet. I just want to think about things visually. Like, let me pull through all this shit that I’ve been thinking about, and extract certain moments. Lines and Cracks, at the end of the day, is about how can I minimize this all the way down, to where there’s still a trace of it, but it’s not in your face. I want you to enjoy the quietness of the work. I want to simplify it for my viewer.