you are not dead
A night of visual art inspired by Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) produced in collaboration with Vignettes.
Reading by Wendy Xu
Susanna Bluhm, Max Cleary, Jueqian Fang, Aidan Fitzgerald, Klara Glosova, Paul Komada, Francesca Lohmann, and Søren Nilsson
This event is supported by Poets & Writers, Inc
A Complex Machine | The Work of Aidan Fitzgerald
Essay by Rich Smith | Photographs by Megumi Shauna Arai
Aidan Fitzgerald’s work ethic approaches insanity. So it’s no surprise that entering his studio apartment in Capitol Hill feels like that moment in the movie where the crazed inventor switches on his light to reveal a workshop bustling with perpetual motion machines and bubbling beakers.
In the apartment, art and parts of art lie everywhere. Half-finished abstract paintings lean up against the walls. Books splay out on the couch. His Risograph, a printing device that resembles a copy machine, rests against a wall. Even his records, turntable, and Nintendo 64 seem to be part of a project he’s got going on.
As Fitzgerald gives me the tour, he explains that he splits his apartment into three separate zones of work. A small, windowless room he calls “The Shed,” houses all his materials and tools. His kitchen table doubles as a drawing table, and he’s reserved the larger living room area for painting. When he decides to work on something, he simply walks into The Shed and selects a few tools that excite him. If he’s selected drawing tools, then he shuffles into the kitchen. A brush in his hand sends him to the living room.
Juggling so many projects at once didn’t used to be the norm for Fitzgerald. Back in 2011, when he was completing his B.F.A. at the University of Washington, he would focus all of his emotional and artistic energy into one, giant, project. At the time he was under the impression that the man-hours and rawness he put into each piece would somehow show through in the work. He describes a painting of great ambition, a big drawing of Freud and his daughter that he scraped up, drew over, and layered with paint for months and months. That painting now carpets the floor of The Shed.
“After a while I realized that if you keep whittling a log, eventually you’re gonna end up with a wood chip,” Fitzgerald says. “One day I looked around at my studio and thought ‘Gah, I have so many wood chips.’”
Enter the Risograph, the solver of the wood chip issue. The device, as Fitzgerald puts it, “is the funky little brother of the letterpess.” Like a photocopier, the machine scans an image and produces an ink copy, but the effect looks more like a screen print than a Xerox. To create a piece, Fitzgerald takes an image—a collage he’s constructed out of cut-up personal photos, say, or a drawing—and runs it through the machine. Now that he’s got several copies of the same image, he starts experimenting with different treatments. He’ll draw all over the image with a pencil. He’ll try paint. He’ll see what it looks like dipped in water. Because he has so many copies of an image he likes, he can whittle away as much as he wants and still have a log at the end of the day.
The Risograph also serves as an art-making tool in and of itself. He basically paints with the thing: “When the scanning light is moving, I move the image with it so that it warps and smudges the image,” Fitzgerald says. He used this process to create Neighborhood / Unwind, his piece for Vignettes Collection. The red part that looks like a broad brushstroke is actually a collage of different scenes he smudged together on the machine. He shows me three different treatments of that image: “I fiddled with some colored pencil. Then I drew a cartoon weasel and thought ‘Whaaaat? Why??’ Then I experimented with broad black lines and thought they worked. It’s a tornado. It’s a prison cell. It’s a landscape. It’s a radiator. It’s a cavern. It’s a gunstock.”
Fitzgerald also employs the Risograph to make his own short-run comics and books, all of which are informed by his early training in painting. Painting offers him a set of skills, impulses, and pleasures he uses to push against the strict constraints of comics.
“I don’t really make good comics. I’m not a cartoonist,” Fitzgerald is quick to say. “Most of the comics I do make are less comics and more like sequenced images. It’s less like you’re watching a movie and more like you’re sitting on the couch at 3 a.m. and you’re strung out, flipping through channels.”
His “lists,” a kind of comic strip / painting hybrid, evoke this channel-flipping mood. The lists are a number of disconnected, distinct drawings that use the same imagistic vocabulary. They look as if he went into a comic book, exploded it, and then gathered all the pieces and laid them all out into a line. Like a haiku, each drawing makes one “move.” In the case of a haiku a leaf might become a butterfly wing or a mountain might shrink in a dewdrop. In Fitzgerald’s drawings, a pattern will reveal itself or a juxtaposition will emerge and then at that moment he’ll abandon the piece, as a painter might, satisfied with having made a move he could feel.
His interest in poetry adds even more tools to his shed. In recent work, Fitzgerald takes poetic rhetorical devices such as anaphora and refrain and breaks them over the gridded rhythms of paneled comics. With this process he produces surreal-ish and lonely full-page compositions that repeat several images until a concrete feeling emerges.
In the future, he plans to sustain that lyrical play over the course of a much longer work called Tuesday in Othrwrld. Blending rhetorical techniques and skills from several different genres in order to create an epic lyric comic strikes me as bold, challenging, and potentially really fucking cool. One thing’s for sure: he’s got the tools and the gumption to do it.
MEGUMI SHAUNA ARAI | SILENT MOMENTS
Interview by Aidan Fitzgerald | Photographs by Andrew Waits
Whatever a photograph sounds like, Megumi Arai’s sound like the exact moment two people stop talking in an empty warehouse. Her photographs sound like your bed after you’ve both gone to work, they sound like waiting. Megumi’s work is figurative, but she refers to it as abstract portraiture: the faces are often obscured or turned away from the camera, draped in shadow or hidden altogether. “A lot comes out when the camera is there. But then I hide it. I know how that person looks and feels and sees, but the reason why I hide it is because each person is completely unique. By obscuring these certain elements of the human, it could become anybody. It allows people to come into the work.”
Megumi’s work delicately captures the precise moment when her subject ceases to be a person – a “self” – and becomes a gateway for us to enter into the photo. In this manner, her work investigates just what it is to be ourselves, and allows us to try out another self, if only for that moment of the photo.
Although I’ve known Megumi for years, I have never seen her in the studio. I’ve seen her shoot before, at events and such, but that’s documentation, that’s taking pictures. When she’s taking pictures she glides through the crowd, exchanges hellos with just about everybody there, hugs and laughter, gotta move on, need a shot of that guy over there.
When she’s in the studio, that’s something different. I have never seen Megumi in the studio, in her element, on a shoot, but when I ask her about it her eyes go wide and her voice gets smoother. “I don’t like to be in complete control, because it feels weird, it’s not natural and you don’t get the best photographs. But I do feel out each person, and I do generally give very specific direction. Within that direction, it’s kind of like this push and pull game. It’s practicing being able to shed control, because with each person it’s totally different, there is so many variables… the quietness on that set. I work in complete silence.”
Megumi’s methodical practice is evident in the precision and depth of her work. She works mostly with a centralized composition; each figure is balanced in the center of the photograph. Her camera seems to focus more on the texture of skin than on the skin itself. Hair becomes an abstract shape, a form entirely separate from the body it covers. The shadows hold a deep velvet black, the figures are constructed from some material more dense and dry than flesh.
“The work is less about ‘who is that person?’ and more like what does this person represent. Each person looks at the photograph or the piece and they decide the piece represents. And what they believe that piece represents says more about that person than the piece.”
A while back, I walked into Vermillion, a bar in Seattle with a large artspace in the front section. Towards the back of the gallery section, I saw two women furiously painting over a huge portrait of Megumi. Thick black paint dripped down the photo, while Megumi stood next to the performance. Members of the audience were invited to paint over the portrait. After Megumi’s face was completely covered, another portrait was revealed. She told me the piece was about rebirth, about how we let other people silence us. Our identities are not such mutable objects. They cannot be covered with paint, no matter how thick. Identity and the ideas of the self are central in her work.
“We are objects, the human body is a sculpture. I like the silent moments. I like to make silent work, maybe because I’m so loud. That is a real part of me that maybe I don’t express as much. I think that my photos explore that silence in me… going back, in my history, I didn’t have the ability to be alone. Translating that into my inability to be quiet. But my need to be alone, my need to be quiet. Wanting those things, finding great value in those things, but being so fearful of them too. And trying to recreate those things in my images.”