Artist Kevin Greeland offers a peek behind the curtain of his curious narratives and evocative works in a conversation about what’s real, what’s imaginary, and the delicate line he so masterfully blurs between the two.
Name: Kevin Greeland
DOB: June 2, 1962
Place of Birth: Lancaster, PA
Current City & State: San Diego, CA
Q: In your artist statement, you note: “I seek to create my own “Natural History Museum” of sorts, seeking to investigate, explore, record, capture and collect that which would evoke memories of the wonder and awe of the Victorian Wunderkammer or Cabinets of Curiosity (German - Wunderkammer "wonder-room" or Kunstkammer "art-room").” Can you elaborate on what you mean and how this influences your practice?
A: Well, I’m a collector. I love having little collections of things and then creating small vignettes or displays of those things. I think at heart we are all collectors of something. In my case, I want to turn those collections into larger installations or rooms that the public can see and folks can interact with. My installations and artwork are assembled for display in the spirit of those great Victorian collectors of exotic specimens and wondrous renderings. I invite the viewers, the public, to become participants and join the expedition in exploring these artificial places, with alluring folktales, and unique landscapes – I achieve this by crafting fake artifacts and stories. I like finding some odd bit of something that will springboard me into thinking about who created this and why, and then I develop a whole tale about the person, place and time. I’m not sure which is more important the adventure or the find or maybe it’s really both simultaneously; once I’ve developed a narrative about the “thing” I then set about to create more objects to help support the idea and enhance the collection.
Q: In terms of the actual art making your practice is undoubtedly cross disciplinary, you are working across many arenas such as painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, and book making. How important are the materials in your work and how do they assist in translating your concepts? What does each material represent for you?
A: In some ways the materials are everything, they are the artifacts – without them there is nothing to back up the storytelling. Without materials there are no things and nothing to collect. The original object may eventually become over-shadowed by the fake objects. The real and the fake all play a role in crafting the charade of the people and place. There’s the real object, maybe a teacup, then there are the multiple copies I make of the original (to enhance the collection one must have more than just one teacup), then some sort of illustration of the teacup; perhaps a book that depicts the significance of the teacups or how they were used and then maybe a painting or portrait of those who use them, yet still maybe a sculpture or cast of the hands that held the teacups. Each material has its importance in crafting the believable story of the object.
Q: Your work, particularly your sculptural and installation works, involve great care in crafting an experience for the viewer. Can you elaborate on this process and the importance of the viewer in these works?
A: Ultimately it must be vanity or maybe ego, I want the viewer to love my collections as much as I do; for me, good craftsmanship makes the objects more desirable and thus the collection more valuable. I suppose to some, I’m old school in thinking that next to materials craftsmanship is absolutely everything or at least the very best effort! For me the great care and attention to detail in crafting each vignette creates a more believable narrative. Ultimately, as a viewing perspective, I realize that no one at heart will believe this is all real; but if a few people, just for the briefest of moments, find some grain of an item to contemplate on in it’s role in history or think about the potential of its usefulness with the collection then I’ve done what I wanted.
Q: You quote the poet William Carlos Williams, “No ideas but in things.” Can you elaborate on what this means for you personally and how you apply this to your work?
A: At the very core of all my creation exists the “thing” I find, the thing propels me forward to create the world in which this thing existed, the thing is an objected manifested to have a life an existence. Again, for example, I might find an old tarnished silver cup. Once the discovery is made, it has now become a sacred chalice, so I construct an antique box most appropriate for such a chalice, search for just the right fabric to line the box, polish it and restore its beauty, enhance it’s existence, and bring it into the real. Next, perhaps is the story of its use and why it may become part of a reliquary – perhaps now an old image of it in use, so next I’ll need the last set of hands that held it, create those by casting them (maybe in the same material as the chalice). But, it all started with the thing, so the ideas for me spring from the thing. For the viewer it becomes how they might interact with the object.
With painting, printmaking and photography, this boundary is more obvious, so the viewer follows conventional paths, concerned with visual or intellectual processes. With sculpture and sculptural installations, which primarily address the body, a consideration of the larger physical world is triggered. Ideally, I like for my viewers to encounter my work (the objects) through a somatic experience.
Q: Frequently your work incorporates found materials with objects of your creation. What is the value and/or importance of these “things” in your work? How do they measure conceptually into the overall pieces you are making?
A: These “things” become the springboard for investigating the social and emotional life of objects in our lives and in our past. I mold, cast and alter the objects, to explore issues of authenticity, replication, value, status and identity. This helps to prompt debate between the real and the simulated — opposing tendencies — authentic versus artificial, the real and the imaginary, the present and the past, the detail and the overview. To this end there is a great book titled The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic by Perniola which is just brilliant about the relationships of us to the value of the inorganic, it examines the coming together of two opposite dimensions in a single phenomenon as the mode of being of the thing and human sensibility.
Q: How important is the creation of a narrative in your work? And, when crafting your narratives – is there a difference for you between those that are created and those that are actual?
A: For me, once an object is crafted it has come into being and therefore no less than the actual. Both objects serve side by side in furthering the narrative of themselves as things and as a whole in the greater collection of objects. There is a conscious intent on my part to the manipulation of narrative by multiples. For me, narrative enables belief. If an account flows without interruption, it is easy for a premise to become an assumption, i.e., a truth – the story told. If the story, the narrative, becomes too ambiguous or inconclusive the viewer does not relax into the “obvious.” For this reason, I like mixing real objects with fabricated objects, but ultimately in the end once part of the collection they are one and the same.
Q: Quite often, your works reference specific places and experiences of personal significance to you. What is the importance of place in conveying your conceptual ideas?
A: Again it's the idea of making the narrative believable with the fabricated; with a few references to real places the story becomes believable. I use personal references because they can be felt and add weight to the fabrication I’m creating. I think the viewer can sense or pick up on the feelings of the personal and they add to the belief needed for the objects and the collection.
Q: Do you ever feel compelled to create imaginary places if real ones don’t fit with your ideas?
A: Oh yes, almost all the places are imaginary; there are maybe only one or two small pieces that had a foothold in the real, but the viewer doesn’t always realize this. It is the fraud of the narrative, the objects, and the arrangement of the things that make it believable.
Q: What is the power of ritual mean to you? And how is it incorporated into your practice and work?
A: Oh boy, well I really think all collectors have rituals – it is the ritual of the grand collection. Think of museums whether art or natural history, science – there is a ritual, a certain social hilarity to the way we conduct ourselves in there, who are the monks, who are priests, who holds the keys to the sacred cases? The guards, the viewers, we all pkay our role in the ritual of viewing the objects. I often observe this same ritual in others homes and work spaces – the ritual of placing certain things in certain spaces, etc.… Even for me when I’m creating multiples there is a ritual to the process, i.e. each is a little prayer that builds to the exaltation of creation – one more object for the collection. There is a beautiful little book titled Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement by Koren, it’s wonderfully insightful.
Q: In many of your works, you create series and multiples as part of your content. Can you elaborate on the reasoning for this?
A: I alluded to this above but I think whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional, the work often emerges as multiples or as repetitive forms and in this way mimics the repetitive nature of ritual. Sculpturally, the multiples of a given form also help to re-contextualize or transform that objects “false” history.
Q: Your work is complex conceptually and rich with personal information that is not always easily visible in your finished works. Can you talk about your process from concept to execution and how you translate very private details into public works? How do you decide what to give away and what to keep for yourself?
A: Well I like to think I give it all away; it’s just that it’s all veiled within the objects and the placement of the objects within the narrative. Some viewers may work to discover the information while others may never notice – it’s all there, just in different layers and it is up to the viewer how they mentally unpack the object from its case, so to speak. Some ideas start with objects from my childhood or from a relative, like the shoes my grandfather wore before he passed away – it’s an odd thing to collect, but it has eminent importance to me. For the viewer who’s presented with 50 or 60 pairs of shoes and then the shoes are used in a performance beside the sculptural element, they carry a huge impact (just different than mine: some saw them similar to the piles of shoes from the Holocaust others saw it about politics or consumerism); but it’s about having an experience – whether the same or different, it’s still “some” experience. The sight of that many shoes, the smell of leather and old shoes, the sounds they make when worn by the performers or thrown, it all adds to the experience.
Q: How important is it to you (if at all) for the viewer to know all the personal background and influence when interacting with your work?
A: I don't think it’s that important for the viewer to discover all of it, it’s really more about the experience the viewer has with the objects and the narrative they create, my personal story is tertiary to all of that. Maybe a little bit like going to see a play, everyone experiences the play, but many walk away with different feelings or different “take” on the experience.
Q: When you and I first met some nine years ago, I once asked you to describe your work in three words what would they be and why? You said, “The relationship between image, object and person and place. OK—so its more than three words—let's go with image, object and person.” Would you still say that’s true? If not, what three words would you now?”
A: First of all…WOW…nine years! Yes, I think I would most definitely say it’s still the same, maybe just the relationship of object and person because image can be an object; but, yes, it’s still the relationship / experience of object and person.
Q: Do you think there is room for humor in contemporary work these days? Are we all just taking ourselves a bit too seriously?
A: Yes I do! I love going to older museums in smaller towns and finding the display case with the very dusty squirrel, half it’s whisker broken and fallen to the bottom to the case; there is irony and hilarity in that, especially when you have a couple of people crowded around it. In my work I’m deceiving the viewer about the objects I’m presenting and its fake authenticity, it’s funny to talk with viewers about it and some believe what’s being presented.
Q: Who (artists, philosophers, writers) are you drawing inspiration from these days: artistically speaking?
A: Well right now I’m hooked on a Norwegian artist Borre Saethre and I just finished reading Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses. In reference to the somatic experience, I’ve also become more intrigued by the possibilities of guided performance within my sculptures and installations.
Q: Ok, last question. A major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — knowing that you may lose a limb — what works do you rush in to get? A: Well it’s going to be one hell of an oddball museum. 1.) Any painting by Max Beckmann, 2.) The sculpture/installation End of Presumption by Angelo Filomeno – it’s two taxidermy peacocks, with silk, garnets, crystals and some hand-blown glass….a total love affair, and 3.) Any sculpture /installation by Joseph Semah.
Q: Oops, one more: what’s next? A: For my last solo show, Fragments from the Garden, I worked with a sound artist to design a soundtrack for the show and it was an amazing experience. In addition, I hired a choreographer and dancers to help create an interactive performance piece that was integral to the sculptures and installation---again, it was amazing so I’d really love to explore the potential for both (click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tsZZSqMtBk to view a video of this performance). I’d also love for my painting as a whole to become part of my installation/sculpture work instead of a separate entity; beyond that, I’m really just enjoying life as it is and totally loving my job working for Golden Artist Colors, Inc.
For more information about Kevin and his work, please visit the following:
Images (from top to bottom): Silent Observers, 2013, cast brass, corn meal and a turned acacia wood bowl, various dimensions; PBB (detail), 2009, bottles, various types of knot work and crochet, and right angle bead weaving using glass beads and Swarovski crystals, various dimensions; Meditations for the Journey, 2013, Rudraksha seeds, metal armature, casting plaster/hydrocal, paint and human hair; Reliquary Box – The Hands of Kearin Ki, 2013, cast pewter, found box relined with fabric, and tassels and The Chalcis of Obedience, found object, crocheted and hand-dyed doily; Remembrance: The words of your ancestors, 2013, glass containers, tin photographs, string, twigs, bones and gelatin capsules, and diary pages, various dimensions: glass tubes are 12 inches high with a 3-inch diameter; The Divine Ephebe – Eight Disciples of Antinous, 2013, colored pencil, chalk pastels and acrylic encaustic on wood panels, cast ceramic teacups and saucers stained & waxed, crocheted doilies and hand constructed prayer beads with various glass beads and Swarovski crystals, various dimensions; In the Beginning – Creation Myth (detail of heads), 2013, the small heads are Raku clay and pit fired; larger head is Paper Clay and supported by a tomato cage, burned with a torch and stained with tea and yerba mate, various dimensions; The Shoes - Crossing Over, 2007, personal possessions and found objects, various dimensions; Young Antinous, 2013, cast plaster/hydrocal and glass beads, 11 x 7 x 8 inches; Places for Souls (stage area right), 2013, Performance Art, found objects, various dimensions; and Uncle (detail), 2012, gelatin capsules, paper, tea, pill bottle