LaToya Ruby Frazier, Edgar Thomson Plant and The Bottom, 2013, color photograph, 42 1/4 x 63 1/8”.

The photographs and text in LaToya Ruby Frazier’s first book, The Notion of Family (2014), depict the story of three generations of women—Frazier, her mother, and her grandmother—whose lives parallel the rise and decline of the steel industry in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Here, Frazier discusses her documentary photographs, which portray how the town’s industrial activities have left physical traces on the landscape and residents. Frazier’s latest exhibition “Riveted,” will be on view at the ISESE Gallery, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin from February 6 to May 6, 2015.

GRANDMA RUBY (1925–2009) witnessed Braddock’s prosperous days of department stores, theaters, and restaurants. My mother, who was born in 1959, witnessed the closing of steel mills, white flight to suburban developments, and disinvestment in our community at the local, state, and federal levels. My birth in 1982 presented me with the task of witnessing as the war on drugs decimated my family and what remained of my community.

Across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, my grandmother, mother, and myself—a trio I perceive as one entity—are markers on a time line that represent the end of industrialization and the rise of environmental degradation, social isolation, and health care inequity—and, most recently, Rust Belt gentrification. Together we embody the shifting landscape and history of Braddock. My photographs are psychological portraits of the identity of the body and how the surrounding space shapes and forms it physically.

The underpinning element in my photographs is the collaborative process between my mother and myself. Mom is coauthor, artist, and subject. She turns the camera on me to document us. I am also the subject and content of the work. My decision to collaborate with my mother was based on a feminist viewpoint that experience should be a criterion for knowledge.

Theory becomes empty rhetoric unless it is applied to daily life and spoken in a language that people can understand. My mother did not have to read Camera Lucida to understand death in a photograph. In order to handle themes of industrialism, capitalism, environmental racism, and ecofeminism, the point of view and voice needed to come from my mother. I am dismissing the bias that only the elite and privileged can report, articulate, contextualize, and provide a creative solution for the disenfranchised subject.

My mother’s courage, strength, and creativity enabled her to make intuitive decisions about how she chose to direct shoots and document her own health and illness. Essentially, my cameras, lights, and tripods became a platform for her to exercise agency and to document our plight within the health care system. Our portraits are a visual document of health, illness, medicine, and healing, and they are buttressed by camaraderie and a will to survive. The photographs on their own have not salvaged our relationship or cured our illnesses. We do these things outside of the frame. What would be exciting would be to actually use our portraits to advocate for policy and legislation that fights discrimination against black women’s bodies, health, and illness.

The true essence and power of documentary work is its ability to reveal answers to a generation that has yet to come, or yet to ask the right questions. My relationship to the future of Braddock is best described by a line in James Baldwin’s 1962 essay “The Creative Process”: “The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states—extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.”

As a child in the 1980s and ’90s living on Washington Avenue, a shrinking residential street close to the Monongahela River and the Edgar Thomson plant, I always wanted to know why my grandmother and I lived at the bottom of the street and under the shadow of the steel mill—in pollution near railroad tracks and heavy truck traffic. A few years ago, the great documentary filmmaker Tony Buba, who grew up in Braddock in the ’40s and ’50s, gave me a DVD of his documentary films from the past forty years. When I watched Struggles in Steel: A Story of African-American Steelworkers (1996), I cried. The interviews and stories of black men and women, recounting their years working hard with unequal pay, which in turn affected their families financially for generations to come, was the exact answer to my question and frustration as a youth. This film explained my plight, displacement, and poverty. It helped me understand why I had been making these photographs since I was a teenager.

— As told to Chelsea Weathers

Helmut Lang


View of “Helmut Lang,” 2015. Sperone Westwater, New York.

Helmut Lang’s stealth apparel upended fashion, violating basic principles of design and reshaping the silhouette of the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2005, Lang retired from fashion entirely, retreating to his property on Long Island where for the past decade he has created artwork that have been shown in exhibitions worldwide. Here, Lang talks about his New York solo debut at Sperone Westwater, which is on view through February 21, 2015.

I NEVER WANTED TO BE A DESIGNER. I wanted to be an artist but happened to land in fashion. Most of my friends in Vienna, where I spent the majority of my twenties, from the mid-1970s to mid-'80s, were artists—Martin Kippenberger, Kurt Kocherscheidt—and I watched their practices develop; I observed how they approached and built things. Fashion is a different medium, but I don’t think artists think that differently—before, it was about building around the body. Now, it’s more about building the body.

When I began Helmut Lang, I wanted to add a new dimension to the field, to create a different kind of practice—something, I learned, you can’t actually do with clothes. My work was a reaction to the opulence of the time, and it was part of what in hindsight became an essentialist antimovement. A designer is ultimately confined by the body because an item of clothing has to function, it has to move, and it has to do something physical for a person. I was working around bodies, and now I’m actually creating bodies in alternate physical forms with my new work, so it’s a completely different set of circumstances.

The largest series of works exhibited at Sperone Westwater are made of shredded fragments from my former archive. In 2010, as a result of a fire in my former studio, we ended up shredding thousands of pieces and used the raw material as a source for the pillar-like sculptures. This series consists of two hundred unique columns, each measuring between ten and twelve feet high and approximately four inches in diameter. What makes these works so interesting for me is that I still see things and consider aspects I hadn’t before, scars and memories from a former purpose. When all this—what was an archive of thirty years—gets shifted into a different environment, into a different context, it takes on a different kind of life. I am not sure how the pieces take shape; I am very much driven by instinct and the works make sense to me only at the end, and it seems then that I knew all along where I was going. I guess it’s some kind of amnesia, forgetting how complicated and difficult the process can be. It takes me a long time to transform an idea into reality.

I don’t have classical training, so I am less concerned with traditional prescriptions or notions of medium. What I am interested in are “replacement forms” that break conventional frames. This can also be seen in my cardboard wall reliefs, where I also repurpose manufactured supplies. Regardless of their original usage, these works become charged with emotions and the dynamics change.

During my career as a designer, I collaborated with artists I met through projects and exhibitions, most notably with Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois on a joint exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien. We became very close friends. Louise once told me, “Materials are just materials; they’re here to serve you.” That quote continues to resonate with me

After I left my company in 2005, I planned to take six months off to clear my head completely, as I wanted to change my way of thinking. This ended up being nearly a year, because it takes much longer than one imagines to reprogram—to try to return to a state of innocence, to erase any ingrained approach or methodology. After the first year, I started to make art in my studio and have devoted myself to my artistic practice for the past ten years. There is no reason to be blocked by material.

— As told to Allese Thomson

View of “Chitra Ganesh,” 2015, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Chitra Ganesh is a New York–based contemporary artist whose work centers on feminist narratives via popular graphic and South Asian cultural iconography. Her installation Eyes of Time, 2014, is on view in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art’s Herstory Gallery at the Brooklyn Museum through July 12, 2015.

EYES OF TIME is a drawing-based installation that also incorporates sculpture into a mural. The main figure takes its inspiration from a key Indian concept of divine feminine power, Shakti, of which the goddess Kali is a fierce iteration. Kali embodies time and change in Hindu and Buddhist writings such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and Devi Mahatmyam. According to these scriptures, we’re living in KaliYug, or dark ages of strife and discord.

The mural’s central figure, towering over the viewer at fifteen feet tall, wears a skirt of human arms, in line with popular portrayals of Kali as a demon-slaying goddess. The bodies in Eyes of Time literally pop off the wall, exceeding the limits of the two-dimensional frame. I’ve been working with clocks over the past year and a half, having sourced antique hardware and clock parts from local bazaars for exhibitions last year in Delhi and Mumbai. For this installation, large brass gears were fabricated in an allusion to the notion of mythic time as a circular rather than linear force, which has been on my mind as a point of intersection between contemporary sci-fi and traditional mythical narratives.

As part of the exhibition, I was given the opportunity to curate an arrangement of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, both ancient and contemporary representations of femininity, in order to shed light on the conceptual context, in both historic and contemporary art, for my own work. I also researched exhibition catalogues that addressed the concept of Shakti within their theoretical and curatorial framings. I examined a broad range of representations of Shakti and Kali, from kitschy fantasy art and twenty-first-century cultural appropriations to ancient abstraction and bronze statues dating as far back as the sixth century BCE. Eyes of Time picks up on a number of the ideas and formal references running through these curated objects, as I considered both visual and thematic resonance in my selection process.

One example is Eyes, 1996, a Louise Bourgeois drypoint print featuring a sea of endlessly repeating eyes which articulate ideas of the body in light of fragmentation, repetition, and iconicity. There’s also a 1971 psychedelic screenprint, Relate to Your Heritage, by Barbara Jones-Hogu, who was a part of the collective AfriCOBRA in the 1960s. I also included two figurines of ancient goddesses from Egypt and India, one of which is Sehmet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and menstruation, and the other a seventeenth-century bronze statue of Kali. Some objects I initially selected faced conservation issues, such as being hundreds of years old or so fragile they could only be shown every few years at most—issues that one doesn’t typically have to consider with contemporary objects.

My first zine, Tales of Amnesia, 2002–2007, is also displayed in a vitrine in this show. The museum has made copies of it for visitors to peruse in order to contextualize Eyes of Time with zines and comics that focus on the intersection of ancient myth and popular science fiction, which is a critical aspect of my practice. There will be some programming around the exhibition, and the Brooklyn Museum will also be screening a few of the films I’ve made, such as the collaboration I did with Simone Leigh as well as an animation. I’m also hoping to have a dance party as one of my public events. Coincidentally, in the ’90s there was even a queer club in London called Club Kali.

— As told to Courtney Yoshimura

John Waters


John Waters, Library Science #8, 2014, two C-prints, each 6 x 7 1/2”.

John Waters is a filmmaker, writer, and artist. His latest exhibition of new photographs, sculptures, and a video is on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York from January 9 through February 14, 2015.

BECAUSE CELEBRITY IS the only obscenity left in the art world, it’s a subject I’ve had to make fun of and use. I titled this show “Beverly Hills John” because I’m in between pictures, and I don’t have a current box office profile in Hollywood. The press release image is me with the worst face-lift you could ever possibly get. I tried to imagine myself as if I’ve lost all reason. Many rich people in Beverly Hills look the same; they’re like one science fiction race. But Beverly Hills isn’t exactly known for having impeccable taste and God knows neither am I, so there’s no put-down—I’m just marveling. All the work in the show addresses Hollywood in some way. I’m dealing with my idols, show business, art business, sexual attraction, racial issues, and tabloids. Witty is always fine in the art world, but is funny acceptable too? It’s a thin line.

Jean Genet has always been one of my idols. The original headstone to his grave was stolen and never found. So I fantasized that I had stolen it and kept it hidden all these years. Of course, what actually happened was I made it for the show. Genet would like it if somebody stole his headstone and sold it, don’t you think? Betrayal was his favorite compliment.

I’ve always had this little eight-and-a-half-inch ruler that was used to locally promote the Fellini film 8 ½ in Baltimore. I re-created it for “Beverly Hills John” but it’s eight and a half feet instead. I think that Fellini is being forgotten, so I wanted to exaggerate it and bring back his memory a little.

I have a work called Bill’s Stroller in this show, which is influenced by Provincetown’s Gay Family Week. Bill is my fake son. I had him made. He is an angry baby with bad hair. He was also my Christmas card one year, and people believed my fatherhood was true! The piece is a child’s stroller but with leather straps, and printed fabric with logos from all the sex bars that have vanished in New York or San Francisco. I’m trying to pay tribute to the passing of time for an outlaw minority that is now eager to be middle class.

I always make fun of things I like. Every work in this show is wishful thinking in a way. For instance, there are ten double-feature photographs called Library Science. Each piece is the original paperback cover of a classic novel with the porn knock-off edition right next door. Like “Clitty-Clitty Bang Bang.” You’re not really a classic, in my book, until there’s a porn parody.

Another work is Filim Festival, whose title spelling will always be corrected by copy editors and then printed wrong. It’s a storyboard piece supposedly put together by an illiterate programmer so the original titles are innocently altered to bad English. Like a hillbilly film festival, arty yet unpretentious. One is called “Where The Boys Are At.” The whole deal is a tribute to my mother, who hated bad English. A related piece in the show is a sculpture that is titled Thimk. In the sixties IBM had a hugely successful promotional campaign called THINK for display in offices and Mad magazine parodied it with their own THIMK campaign. I never forgot it. I redid the original desk sign that IBM produced so it read like the parody. My job is to thimk up fucked-up things. I’ve always thimking. Every morning, Monday to Friday, I have to thimk.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley

Emma McNally


View of “MIRRORCITY,” 2014–15. From left: Emma McNally, Choral Fields 5, 6, and 1, graphite on paper, each 118 x 79”.

London-based artist Emma McNally charts the astronomical, the anatomical, the topographical, and the topological. Recent selections from her ongoing drawing series “Choral Fields,” 2014–, are on view in the group show “MIRRORCITY” at the Hayward Gallery in London through January 4, 2015. Here, the artist talks about her inspirations and what pencil portends for paper.

I THINK OF THESE DRAWINGS as fugitive, heterogeneous gray areas. They are the turbulence between noise and signal. They are a space of difference and deferral, a weather system of graphite. They are also broadband realms where signals at multiple frequencies are being transmitted and received—including those not usually within our “range”: sonar, ultraviolet, the very fast and the very slow. I’m constantly trying to disrupt the figure-ground relationship to make blurred areas where the conditions of focusing are undone.

I mine all sorts of ways of thinking visually about space and time: the spiral paths of particles in bubble chambers, which are infinitely fast and small; images of cellular mitochondria; the Hubble Deep Field images that probe deep time, where all time is held in the surface of the image but can’t be reached. I like looking at images that show fleeting events and images of aerial views of cities at night—all the emergent formations at a macro scale that look like deep-sea organisms in the dark water. I also love aerial images of airports, both in use and obsolete, as well as the Nazca Lines.

I constantly listen to sound when I draw—the white noise of rainfall; field recordings from all environments; the humming and buzzing of Francisco López’s album Buildings [New York]; the transmissions from the hydrophones under the Antarctic ice, streamed live on the Internet; as well as all kinds of music. I try to attend as closely as possible to the sound, and to transcribe the rhythms into the drawing, to make a sort of seismograph. Marks that are suggestive of the airborne or the sub-oceanic, for example, can come into relation with marks, lines, traces, and paths suggestive of circuitry, telecommunications, Morse code, molecules, stars, shoals, electronic pulses, particles, networks. These sorts of “readings” are at the center of my drawings.

Graphite is a medium that lends itself perfectly to this practice of rhythmic making and unmaking. The dense graphite areas act as engines in the drawing, emitting dark signals of loss, desire, longing, separation, reaching—they are the material “heat.” I also like to think of carbon—a material that is both an insulator and a conductor—in different states: coal, diamond, smoke, black oil; as well as water in all its states: ice, snow, mist, rain, vapor. I want the works to be humming graphite sound-fields: vibratory, oscillatory, multivoiced assertions and hesitations, yet also full of silences, voids, ghosts, residues, and remainders.

— As told to Himali Singh Soin

A student working as part of Chemi Rosado-Seijo's Taller Vivo: Salón – Sala – Salón (Live Workshop: Classroom – Gallery – Classroom), 2014.

For the past five months, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC) in San Juan and the neighboring Rafael María de Labra School exchanged institutional spaces for the duration of Taller Vivo: Salón – Sala – Salón (Live Workshop: Classroom – Gallery – Classroom), a project made by artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo in collaboration with the de Labra School teacher Rita Duprey and young students from the school. Here, Rosado-Seijo discusses the project, which probes the interconnected histories of both buildings, the role of each institution in the local community, and the intersection of contemporary art and public education in Puerto Rico. The project is on view at the MAC exhibition gallery at the Rafael María de Labra School until December 21, 2014.

I'M A SOCIALLY ENGAGED COLLABORATOR, a community-based cultural activist, and an artist who makes paintings and collages from life at specific sites. I’m interested in architecture, history, art, and local knowledge. I begin projects by getting to know the community that will be involved in the work. Then I make an aesthetic proposal that is developed with the people from where the project is taking place, as well as other individuals who become collaborators, helpers, and participants in the process. The museum in San Juan asked me to come up with a project that would involve its neighbors in a celebration of its thirtieth anniversary. This was a moment to address the history, function, and imposing architecture of its 1918 building, which used to be part of the public school behind it. Older students had told me how excited they had been to have the building reopen after a lengthy restoration, but it became a contemporary art museum in 2002. I perceived that since then, these structures and sites of education where culture is built have been somewhat distanced from one another, so I proposed that a classroom become a museum gallery, and that a museum gallery become a classroom. This crossover, this overlapping, was a conceptual collage of the similar yet different realities of the two establishments.

I was interested in how architecture would affect the students’ experience, and how students would affect the museum experience. The museum became a more active place, full of adolescents every day from 8 AM to 2:30 PM. Math, science, and Spanish teachers used the art on view to teach their curriculums. The museum lost its sepulchral silence and became a school again, which for me was a surreal experience. Students reclaimed the old building: We literally opened a door and created a passageway between the institutions. The school gained a calm, reflective exhibition space, and art spectators experienced life at a public school on their way to see videos that would normally be displayed in a museum.

Rita Duprey, a Spanish teacher at the school, asked for an artist intervention in her class, so I directed a weekly art workshop for her students which involved other artists and museum educators. We focused our conversations and drawing, collage, and sculpture projects on the museum building as well as on language and mass media communications in Puerto Rico. The immediate results were incredible. We formed groups within which students chatted in the classroom, proposed techniques, and then worked eagerly on their own creative projects without much input from me. For instance, one group made frottages of all the names of past students carved into the bricks of the museum and wrote stories and plays about their possible lives. Another group wrote words and definitions from their everyday language on Post-it notes and made a community dictionary, which the museum will publish. By the end of the project, the students realized that they are artists too; our original perceptions of each other changed.

We developed a unique model to creatively have an impact on Puerto Rico’s traditional academic system and to positively intervene in the lives and educational experiences of teenagers, teachers, and artists. This project challenged the established structures of the school and the museum almost every day, but no one ever said No to anything. The project is still mutating; we are designing new initiatives to keep the exchange alive. Now I know that I want my future work to involve teenagers, schools, and teachers—things I thought I would never like!

— As told to Cheryl Hartup