Michael St. John
These Days; Leaves of Grass
New York, 544 West 24th Street
At the dawn of America’s post-Presidential election shock, Michael St. John’s solo exhibition These Days; Leaves of Grass at Andrea Rosen Gallery seems like it could not have come at a more pertinent time. Yet, St. John says that he’s been developing this sense of urgency for nearly a decade. The exhibition provides a pragmatic examination of how Americans visualize their democratic nation. St. John deftly assembles a body of visual language that many Americans will recognize: a lamppost plastered with a disarray of posters, graffitied construction site barriers, and campaign stickers, which have their seriousness diffused by images of alluring young bodies. These Days breathes a heavy sigh; a forlorn disappointment in a system that relies so heavily on shorthand advertisement, celebrity culture, and corporate sponsorship to disseminate data and knowledge. These Days; Leaves of Grass also includes a compact exhibition St. Johns curated to bring together works by a group of his peers such as Pope L. and Andy Warhol, as well as his previous students Borna Sammak and Alex McQuilkin. In this web-exclusive interview, Artspeak contributor Danielle Wu talked with the artist about the recurring themes in his upcoming exhibition.
Within the context of how the United States has handled itself during, and after, the most recent election, how do you think your work taps into how people feel right now?
I have been watching this election. I think people who have been out of work and who voted for Trump…I can’t blame them for their displeasure or the anger about their lives. I find it hard to condemn them just because they voted for Trump.
I grew up with steel workers. I do come from those working class people. They had their own little lives. They weren’t really bothering people or anything. I was born and lived near Gary, Indiana, which you could say has a race problem. They’re in the MidWest. But, the people who worked in mills were just people. We are all people. There are huge disparities and awful things that people do to each other. That to me, is what the conversation should really boil down to is, “Where does this fear of the other side come from?”
Your work does try to examine how Americans communicate and feel empathy. I see a lot of celebrity culture and advertisement in your work. What does it say about how Americans get their information?
I try to make things where you can try and see both sides, like in my painting Wall (Chained) has Abercrombie ads, campaigns with naked young people. I put a chain and a Bernie sticker on it because I thought that, “both of these things are not going to happen”. It was like a chaining of freedom.
The Birthright painting does not have so much ambiguity. Birthright was a novel by TS Stribling, and I used the posters from that and then boarded it up, because places like Camden, NJ or South Chicago are atrocities that neither the Republicans or Democrats will even touch. I made that as a statement of conditions.
Your art attempts to merge art and life, but a lot of art makes that claim now. How do you think we bridge that gap, being artists working in an esoteric field? How can artists effectively engage with politics in a meaningful way?
I don’t think ideology gets us anywhere. My automatic reaction to anyone who says something is the right way is to ask why. Especially given that things are so split now, it is a good time to ask “why?” It’s important to think about everyone as an individual and to acknowledge that everyone has an individual way.
Recognition is very important; just as when you meet someone, you try to recognize them. Instead of projecting a set of presumptions on them, it’s good to take the time to just recognize that person. You don’t have to agree with them, but the recognition opens the door for an empathy between people that I think we lack a lot. That’s where I come from. I like to listen to people and try to understand those things about them.
It also involves pop art in a way that pop art was recording what was going on at that time. The main room is kind of a three-dimensional ashcan school painting. I’m trying to compose a street: the things left by people on the street that record their daily life or life as it is.
But the show, in exploring the nature of democracy today, and is more concerned with different class struggles than race?
Right. It does talk about class and value, and in general, conditions of living. Each painting takes on a different sociopolitical topic, so I do think it has to do with that. Focusing on the ashcan school is a political act. The ashcan school really was “from the street up”. They were concerned with the people who were living on the street. They weren’t painting portraits of rich people, you know? It was real people and real situations: scenes on bars and the subway. I think all those things are in my mind when I made this show.
I like to make things that are experiential, so as you can tell I’m not on the intellectual side. [laughs] When an artwork is really working, the content and formal things come together. Much of political art is prescriptive. It just tells you things. It just talks to the converted. It’s important to have the formal construction come together with the content, because that’s ultimately what keeps you around.
And how do you approach sensitive topics like the racial divide in America?
I just feel like we’re all human beings in it together. We all have common things, and there is such a thing as empathy. Right now, you could think there wasn’t any empathy left in the country. But, I do think with empathy and just recognizing that you are a human being amongst many human beings, you’re going to come upon things on similar topics. The recognition is very important to talk about your current human condition. I always question both sides. I do feel that, for better or for worse, everybody has a voice. That is something I am very interested in - the way they leave their mark, commemorate themselves, or make themselves heard.
November 19 — December 22, 2016
Danielle Wu is currently the Gallery Associate at Galerie Lelong, New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Archaeology from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and also writes for CRUSH fanzine and Hyperallergic. Danielle also curates—most notably Wǒmen (我们): Contemporary Chinese Art at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri. @danie.wu