G.T. PELLIZZI with Nathlie Provosty
G.T. Pellizzi spent his formative years as an artist with the Bruce High Quality Foundation, of which he was a founding member, before venturing into his own distinct domain in 2011 with his first solo show at Y Gallery. On the occasion of Financial Times, his third solo show and first with Mary Boone Gallery (currently on view in the uptown location), Pellizzi met with Nathlie Provosty to talk about his life, his work, and the interwoven contructions of fantasy and reality.
Nathlie Provosty (Rail): It’s interesting that you began studying philosophy at St. John’s College in New Mexico before you went to Cooper Union and studied architecture. What specifically did you focus on in philosophy and how do you see those two areas of study connecting into a trajectory of becoming an artist?
G.T. Pellizzi: Saint John’s was basically a chronological study of Western thought. With the Greeks, one of the first things we covered was the way that the social structure of the city and the places where discussion happened—the gymnasium, the market, and anywhere else the Socratic dialogues took place—could imply both philosophical speculation and the physical application of a craft or other sort of activity, so there was kind of a mind-body parallel. Pretty early on I realized that even though I wanted to finish this degree in philosophy from Saint John’s, I needed to have an idea of what I would be applying it toward in a more concrete way. And so after my first year, I decided that I wanted to eventually pursue architecture.
Rail: What was the topic of your thesis?
Pellizzi: Sleep, actually. It was about how Ancient Greek mythology and biblical stories illustrated sleep’s kinship with death and oblivion, while also showing it was a catalyst for dreams and transformation, or rejuvenation. During the Enlightenment sleep was considered an absolutely terrifying thing because it represented the dissolution of reason. I guess I’m more terrified by the tyranny of reason than its dissolution.
Rail: Let’s go back to your early upbringing. You were born in Mexico, and raised in the U.S. and Mexico, with two anthropologist parents. Do you have any vivid early memories related to your parents’ occupations or these crossed-cultures?
Pellizzi: Well, yes, my mother worked very closely with painters from indigenous communities in the state of Guerrero, and also with local silversmiths so I had some painting lessons when I was four and five, which I remember, and also lessons with the silversmiths a bit later. My father was very involved in the textile weaving traditions in Southern Mexico as well, so all of that was around me from a very early age. Generally speaking I was surrounded by important public figures and academics studying the arts and crafts of Mexico, while also traveling the country and visiting the artisans in their various communities. And I participated in all the ceremonies the communities had for different rituals and things.
Rail: And when you were in or witnessing those rituals did you recognize what was going on or the belief represented?
Pellizzi: Yeah. Cosmologies about light and dark, and rain ceremonies, ceremonies for weather. The communities were agricultural, and there was an interesting mix of pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions. The fact that these cultures blended so seamlessly with each other made it feel like there was a more universal ground that everyone was tapping into and related to in some basic way.
Rail: We first met about six years ago at the architect Raimund Abraham’s house. How did you first meet and come to work for him, and has his thinking influenced your own?
Pellizzi: Enormously. He was maybe the most important teacher I’ve had. Even though I never was his student (he was also one of the best friends I ever had); I only worked for him for about three years on and off. I met him, actually, on a flight coming back from Mexico. He was working on a house for himself and he had been going to Mexico since the mid-’60s. He had some amazing stories of his first experiences down there. But I was a student of his partner Joan Waltemath, and she introduced us on the plane. We happened to be on the same flight together.
Rail: Just by chance?
Pellizzi: By chance, yeah. And then he asked me to come visit him at his studio. This was maybe during spring break. I started working for him, and then I went down to Mexico to help him finish building his house, which was a crazy project, impossible circumstances, but it eventually came together in this really amazing, amazing place. I managed carpenters and masons and people, as well as actually building things myself.
Raimund was just an incredible teacher because, first of all, he trusted you with a lot of responsibility and had very high expectations. But then, something that I learned very quickly was that it was okay to fuck up as long as I owned up to it and apologized. The moment you tried to explain why you did something wrong or whatever, he would get very annoyed and explain why it was extremely stupid to think that way or rationalize it or whatever else. And he would just get more and more annoyed and really get into it with you about why it was really dumb. [Laughter.] And no matter how you tried to justify it, he would not accept it. But when you were willing to just accept the fact, and then say, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I did this, I’m sorry,” he would be like, “It’s okay,” and then he would work on it with you to fix it. So I learned how to fuck up. Which makes it a lot easier to do things, knowing how to deal with mistakes and failures.
Rail: So you were working with Raimund while going to school at Cooper. And it was there that you and a few fellow students founded the Bruce High Quality Foundation, in 2004. But now that you’ve been working on your own for a few years, what has stayed with you from that experience?
Pellizzi: Working with other people is an amazing process. I learned so much from that experience, it’s unquantifiable really. Everything from discussing ideas, visualizing the whole trajectory of the project and putting it together, to finally exhibiting it in public, and so on. The great thing about being with a group is you don’t have to suffer the consequences of owning the things that you’re doing—you share the responsibility with others. I mean, in a way you have not just a responsibility to yourself, you have a responsibility to your friends, and it’s easier to push yourself when you’re doing it for someone else than if you’re doing it just for yourself. Somehow it matters more when people you care about are depending on you, like it was with Raimund, and the feeling is mutual.
Rail: How did your first show Transitional come about?
Pellizzi: I had one small show before which was a collaborative drawing show with Rita Ackermann and Daniel Turner. We went to Brazil together with Sarina Basta and stayed with an artist friend of hers, Geraldine Belmont. On New Year’s, we spent the whole day doing drawings together on paper produced by an NGO started by Geraldine in this small beach village called Piracanga. That was a really amazingly fun experience, and really helped me make that psychological shift to begin working alone. Transitional was my first solo show as an individual artist in general, ever.
Rail: From there, you did the collaboration with Ray [Smith], then you did the Red and the Black, where, to give a bare minimum summary, you built a room within a room, and the walls were for sale per the square foot price of the real estate in the Lower East Side.
Pellizzi: That’s right.
Rail: So the political and the socio-economic factor has been present, as it is in the new show Financial Times, as a kind of armature. How did you transition from the work in the Red and the Black into conceiving Financial Times?
Pellizzi: The continuity is more direct with the Transitional show because the materials being used are construction materials again, the scaffolding of construction sites and the themes of gentrification and transformation of the city, and their political implications. The Red and the Black was also about real estate in a way, about the market value of real estate and its relationship to the market value of art, and to art itself.
In this show I started doing drawings with snap lines, which are kind of like blueprint drawings projected into the space of construction: the first gesture of building something. In this case I was interested in the mythological undertones of the financial system, which is a socially accepted fiction. The value of money and all the exchange rates and all these numbers are an elaborate construct of invented values that we all kind of agree on, or are complicit in, and the ramifications of that construct are huge in every aspect of our lives, embedded in everything. It really is as if we sat down and agreed to just believe—agree to this system that’s not arbitrary but is for reasons, very concrete reasons, though the overall rationality is really invented. Fiction. And that made me think of other mythological constructs that were used in previous societies, like the ancient Greek myths, or astrology, or the I Ching, and how those are similar to these new financial projections that also allow us to read into the world and even predict the future, or have an idea of what to expect and what is to come. But they’re also constructions.
Rail: In Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, they talk about the new myth of capitalism, which is very much the same or related to what you’re describing, the entrenchment—how does one not be complicit?
Pellizzi: It’s impossible.
Rail: Do you see the I Ching and the socio-economic system as equivalent myths?
Pellizzi: I wouldn’t, but I see them as coming from a similar desire in mankind to make sense of things, or to have a way of talking about things. I don’t come at it with a value judgment as to whether it’s good or bad. Even a fiction isn’t necessarily good or bad. Fiction sounds like not real, but I think it’s ambiguous. It’s man-made, and that’s artifice, and that’s fiction, but not less real necessarily. It’s just man-made.
Rail: In one review of your show the Red and the Black subversion was noted, the subversiveness of buying a piece of the wall ($400 per square foot, which was the value of real estate in the Lower East Side at that time) and then having the wall itself be cut away, so this thing that’s supposed to be in terms of its very basic qualities a protection against the elements, is no longer functional. Is subversion, political or otherwise, an aim in your work?
Pellizzi: I have my own personal political views and opinions about things. But when it comes to the work, I try to be careful that it doesn’t posture itself on one side or another of a political issue. It’s kind of like Socrates when he engages with the public. It’s not about postulating a position, because then it can be dangerously propagandistic and quite simplistic in the way it actually engages an issue. The work is important to bring attention to and make people talk about an issue or a subject or things that are relevant in society and to our lives. But I think it is also important that the work does not try to lead the viewer, maybe even contradicting both sides or subverting the preconceived notions of an issue on both ends.
Rail: Making visible, complete with contradiction.
Pellizzi: Exactly. Anything else I think is patronizing to your audience.
Rail: Now, the snap lines. A number of the graphs that went back and forth seemed fairly evenly zig-zagged. Were they based on specific financial charts? I’m used to seeing charts with dramatic climbs or plummets.
Pellizzi: No, in this case, I took them as if I really knew very little, basically nothing, about the subject of finance and stocks and things of that sort, like an anthropologist finding a weird hieroglyphic language and being impressed by it.
Rail: They also evoke ECG charts, you know, heartbeats.
Rail: Sound waves too, so then I found myself thinking about the human body in relation to the entire show, actually, because all of the work is at a human scale. What is your feeling about, or interest in the human body as an interaction with the work? Or subject even, of the work?
Pellizzi: The term “snap lines,” even the process of making them, has a sonorous quality and rhythm, a beat. And the pipe sculptures also. My fantasy is that they are at least evocative of jungle gyms. I would even like people to climb on them. The mental gymnastics of processing data is sort of embodied in a person playing on a jungle gym.
Rail: It’s as though if you do enough pull-ups, you’ll absorb all of the information through osmosis. These books, functioning as the feet or pedestals of the pipes, are all about getting money—I think there was one titled More Than You Could Ever Imagine! [Laughter.] But of course you can’t read them. You seem to be playing on wish fulfillment, or un-fulfillment.
Pellizzi: Yeah. This idea that if you dream it and if you want it and if you wish it, you can make it happen is very present in the culture of the financial Wall Street world. You can visualize your dreams, and there’s this whole culture of having agency on your future, and you own it, etc., which I think is interesting.
Rail: In “Diagram #2,” one of the pipe sculptures has a wrench clamped to it, which is pointing toward the I Ching painting. And it’s not in the photograph of that sculpture. It’s like the cog in the wheel and the fulcrum of the whole piece, or possibly of the whole show. Why did you include it so prominently?
Pellizzi: It is the tool that builds the work. I wanted to reintroduce the making, the hand. I wanted to bring the viewer to the physical, tactile aspect of the pipes, and not just to look at it as a walkway. I wanted the viewer to think of it as actually something tactile but also a mental construct. Or an idea. You build an idea, and this is the diagrammatic manifestation of how you build an idea, and you have the actual tool that was used. Yeah, it’s pointing at the I Ching. Someone asked me if I used the I Ching to determine how the pipes were built, but I did not.
Rail: The I Ching painting is shaped as Hexagon 61: inner truth, the wind over the water, and it stands for good communication with the people who surround you. Was Hexagon 61 chosen by choice or by chance?
Pellizzi: It was by choice.
Rail: Also, was the shape of the painting next to the hexagram consciously made to have a figurative reference?
Pellizzi: I was really trying to correlate the hexagram with bar graphs. The scale was, you could say, almost derived from human height, the proportions. But other than that, I don’t have anything to say about the relationship to the anthropomorphic. Or, it wasn’t intentional, even though there are echoes of it, yeah. Actually, now that you say it I think that this is true; I’ve always really liked Joe Bradley’s anthropomorphic monochrome paintings that are playing between figuration and abstraction. I think those had an influence.
Rail: I have a quote that Raimund wrote that I think is very pertinent to the spirit in your work and the multi-layering of very matter-of-fact materials and projections—the projecting of fantasies, of hopes, and things of that sort. He wrote, “Eyes barter vision for touch, perpetuating memories of the future embedded in layers of the past. Walls are transformed into sensory constructs defining movement through tactile sensations.”
Pellizzi: Beautiful. The Greek work for “poetry” and the verb “to make” have the same root. Raimund was a poet/maker in that sense.
Rail: Part of the effectiveness of the myth of visualizing success and ensuring agency and seeing the ball go through the hoop is about creating a memory of the future. And yet, to remember the future is an impossibility. Memory, by definition, is of the past. Yet the future only comes from what we do now. And I see in your work vibration of a kind of memory of the future.
Pellizzi: History in general is very important to me. But history and memory of the past can be oppressive. So, I guess if you think of it as memory of the future, it changes that relationship that you have to history and to things.
Rail: What is your relationship with art history specifically and maybe history more generally? There are references to a few artists we can think of, like Barnett Newman, you could say Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, and others.
Pellizzi: One of the things that is important to all three of the shows that we’ve been talking about is that they are in a sense site-specific to New York and the history of the New York art scene, the vocabulary of construction sites in New York, the relationship of gentrification to the city but also to art history in SoHo, the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, etc. The conduits and pipes are, for me, also nostalgic for the old loft spaces that used to be where the artists worked, the sort of architectural vocabulary that you see in the background of the photographs of the studios from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. The vocabulary of Minimalism is very much there in my work.
Rail: Color is another fulcrum. When I entered Financial Times, one of the first impressions is the repetition of red, yellow, and blue. These three primary colors are infinitely dividable; all others come from the combinations of these three. You seem to use them as signs. If that’s the case, what do they signify?
Pellizzi: There are a couple of levels. On the material level, construction chalk for snap lines comes in those three colors (even though I used pigments instead). Also, the blue of the scaffolding and all the different codes requiring red or yellow have a very direct relationship to building site vocabulary. Art historically, I always looked at Mondrian coming to New York in 1940, where he lived and worked until his death in 1944, as a very pivotal moment in the history of modern art, and particularly the art scene in New York City. The fact that he spent the last four years of his life painting here set a lot in motion—which is not the only reason why all of these things came to be, but it was greatly influential for the Abstract Expressionist movement, Barnett Newman and his series of paintings Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue, and then all the artists that responded to Newman and so on. This lineage from Mondrian’s paintings—“New York City 1” and “2” and “3,” I think there’s three of them, and then there’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie”—this group that he painted in response to the city, the urban fabric, the iron grid, city planning, and everything else, has had a whole repercussion in the development and explosion of New York as an important locus of the international art scene. And my relationship to color in general is very strong also from my experiences in Mexico; Mexicans’ relationship to color, like in other parts of the world, is very different than it is in this Puritanical reserved neck of the woods where we live.
Rail: Now, the pipes in these old industrial buildings are visible, and in many new developments are invisible. You say that also about snap lines, which are used early in the process and then become invisible. I wonder how this relates within yourself as an artist, what you know, or perhaps your intuition if you want to use that word.
Pellizzi: Absolutely. Yeah. There’s a way in which I almost don’t see myself as the owner or proprietor or even the author of the work. I see myself as the custodian. I have a responsibility to the work, and I don’t know where it comes from or I don’t really understand how it comes to be, exactly. So I don’t see it as mine, or me. I just have a responsibility to do everything in my capacity to have it be represented and presented to the public to the best of my abilities, as well as can be. Everything comes from interaction and dialogue between people and things and everything else. Everything is a response to something else and a consequence of some sort of interaction, so at the end of the day it’s a whole sequence of responses and interactions that make it impossible to know what the origin of anything is, really.
Rail: There are two bodies of work that we’ve talked about less, which are the primary triptychs and the constellations. And I have one material question about the primary triptychs, about the encaustic. How did you come about using that medium?
Pellizzi: I was trying to find the most effective way to capture the powder quality of the snap line, and so, when it gets snapped, you first of all capture the material and secondly preserve its powdered quality, so it’s most true to its effect. Ron Gorchov had recommended venetian medium as a ground for painting, and while I was looking for that, I found wax which I was already familiar with from Brice Marden’s paintings. Wax worked really well for the snap lines. And I liked that I could apply it with a trowel. So it kind of had a more wall-surface-y quality to it.
Rail: Yeah, utilitarian. The three main groups of work in the show are the paintings, the floor sculptures, and the wall sculptures (the constellations). I thought a parallel could be drawn with three positions of a person: standing, sitting, and lying down. Standing would be the pipe sculptures because they feel like jungle gyms, they’re active and interactive. Sitting would be the snap paintings because they evoke charts and study. And then the constellations, I thought could be associated with lying down because they evoke more ancient associations with the stars and with projecting into the future, and they have lighted bulbs, lit lightbulbs. Is it important for the matter-of-fact, meaning the factual materials that you used, to be transformed into matters of fiction or fantasy, or even into matters of contemplation?
Pellizzi: Yeah, I think that’s really nice. There’s a matter-of-fact quality to these very bare simple materials, you could say poor materials. But then being used in a way that is more—that heightens and transcends the quality and essence of the materials. And the stars are always about looking toward the future, trying to, and they have this eternal quality. Timeless. But I’m worried about sounding hubristic to say that I’m going beyond the matter of fact to the matter of fiction, fantasy. There’s a word in Latin languages: ludico, for which there is no real English word, but it’s kind of like playful—joyous and playful.
Rail: One of the striking characteristics of your work is that it embeds itself in your thinking, which seems like a second life outside of the physical application of the materials. I wonder how you balance both elements?
Pellizzi: Yeah. I’m not sure which comes first, the making of the work or the ideas being explored with the work. It’s a kind of semi-conscious process. Certain ideas and things can be discussed as ideas and issues and themes, but at the end of the day they’re expressed by the thing being itself as a work of art rather than expressed by anything else.
Rail: Well, we could end on that, but your press release epigraphs are noteworthy. You quoted Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”; and Walter Benjamin: “A philosophy that does not include the possibility of soothsaying from coffee grounds is not a true philosophy.”
Pellizzi: The quote about the coffee grounds I first saw in a Michael Taussig essay, “Getting High with Benjamin and Burroughs” that I read in Cabinet a few years ago. And the Kierkegaard quote I came across more recently, but it’s from his Journals [Journal JJ: 167, 1843]. The Benjamin quote stuck with me. I’ve had my future read from coffee grounds, pretty impressively. Accurate.
Rail: What did it say?
Pellizzi: It’s not like major revelations. It tells you where you are in your life and what is going on in your immediate surroundings; it was pretty accurate, pretty much all the time. I was also surrounded by shamanic culture in Mexico. And these questions Kierkegaard was trying to grapple with in his work, in his writings, they go back even to the Greeks, their preoccupations with heroes that fight against their fate to remake their own destiny. What agency do we really have?
NATHLIE PROVOSTY is an artist living in New York.