Interview with Russ White

Neoteric Art: Tell us about yourself.

Russ White: I grew up in North Carolina with a formative stint in Mississippi. Having graduated from Davidson College with a BA in Studio Art in 2004, I moved to Chicago with some buddies. After several years in an art supply store, as a studio assistant, doing prep work in a dreadful gallery in the Nordstroms mall downtown, and, generally speaking, pushing mops and making coffee for people I didn’t always respect, I finally settled into making cabinets for a living, which has been my day job for the past three and a half years. All the while I’ve been sculpting and just recently have begun a career as a freelance illustrator. I also sell greeting cards on Etsy and live in Humboldt Park with my beautiful, talented wife and Walter, our gassy old grandpa of a dog.

NA: You create sculptures that have more of a “painting” appeal. Do you feel as if you are painting with wood or do you feel that your work is true sculpture? Please elaborate.

RW: Well, I’ve always thought that my work was technically assemblage, but I call them all sculptures as an easy shorthand. I understand the comparison to painting because the work is not terribly high relief and doesn’t tend to play with space, not to mention it’s usually in the form of wall-mounted rectangles. And I’m even beginning to use acrylic paint on some of the wood in my newer work.

But I never was much of a painter, so I hesitate to allow the comparison. Even in Advanced Painting class in college, I wound up making sculptures and “painting” with woodstain; luckily my professor didn’t seem to mind. I’m very comfortable with pens and pencils, but I never took the time to get good with a brush. They just never do what I want them to. On top of that, with my drawings and sculptures, there is not as much chance for revision as you have in painting. Once the ink or glue has dried, that part of the piece is effectively done, with the exception of some Photoshop noodling for reprinted illustrations.

I suppose I’m missing the point of the question, though, which is whether I am closer in spirit to sculpting or painting. I have to admit that working flat has been my preference, and perhaps my crutch, all my life. I have drawn as long as I can remember and spent much of high school making Winston Smith-inspired collages from old National Geographic’s. Despite being exclusively sculpture, all but two of the pieces in my senior thesis show were wall-mounted.

At the same time, though, I approach the construction of each piece the same way I do cabinets, as something, fundamentally, to be put together. I am also beginning to try to push myself out into space a little more, having come to the realization that the work can only move forward if the relief gets a lot higher.

But that’s an interesting question, and a hard one to answer. I reckon it all depends on your view. Ultimately, whether or not the work is “true sculpture” doesn’t deeply concern me. As I said before in our discussion of whether or not something is art, all I’m really interested in is whether or not it’s good art.

NA: Discuss your work/thought process when starting a new piece.

RW: The inspirations for my work have varied greatly over the past few years. Initially the colors, textures, and occasionally the forms of the wood I found inspired my compositions. Later came a body of work based entirely on satellite images of farmland, inspired by a cross-country plane ride over the hundreds of miles of Sean Scully’s we call the Corn Belt. And now, after doing dozens of pieces with hard-edged blocks, I am rounding over the corners of each piece of wood in my work, which forces me into much looser compositions. A recent trip to San Francisco also helped me realize that my work needed some serious color, and that’s where I am now.

Technically speaking, each piece begins as five to ten drawings in my sketchbook, at which point I make a backboard and pick through my woodpile for the colors and surfaces I want to use. Next I use a Sharpie to draw out the composition on the backboard. Once I’m happy with my rough draft, I cut up a whole mess of little blocks, sand all the edges, and start placing and gluing them down in a disturbingly long and anal process.

Ultimately my goal is to make what I call empathetic objects, sculptures (or whatever) that are both confident and vulnerable. I aim for a tough beauty.

NA: You also create illustrations. Is this more commercial-work oriented? Have you always done illustrations? Do you keep your illustration work separate from your sculpture work? Please elaborate.

RW: My illustration is definitely more commercial. As I said, I’ve drawn all my life, but I have long been worried about making my favorite hobby into a job. Recently, though, I’ve decided to give it a shot, in the hopes of one day supporting myself entirely through art.

Most people are surprised that I do both illustration and sculpture, primarily because the two are so incredibly different. My drawings are usually goofy, profane, sometimes gross, and quite often political. In that way, the illustration is a lot closer to who I am as a person, with all the humor and the anger and the fart jokes that make up my day-to-day life.

My sculpture, I think, reflects a longer view, a more sober and serious reaction to life. No politics, no funny business, just quiet, solid, vaguely menacing beauty. Or at least that’s my hope. I’m sure that I have a long way to go before reconciling the two, and perhaps they will never quite meet in the middle, but I am very pleased and lucky to have these two separate types of art therapy.

NA: What is your take on the Chicago art scene?

RW: To be honest, I exist mostly outside of it. I don’t go to or participate in nearly enough shows these days, and so much of my time here was spent in the Around the Coyote circuit anyway (showed in seven different festivals… yikes), which was always a bit on the outskirts of the “real” scene. I am constantly engaged with fellow artists, but my engagement with the galleries and museums here is something I need to work on. That said, I’m definitely more interested in the Fulton Market scene, than, say, the River North scene, just because they seem to be having a little more fun over on Fulton, and the work at places like Packer-Schopf and Linda Warren can be truly surprising and engaging.

I get the impression that a lot of people expect Chicago to have some inferiority complex because it’s not New York or LA, but I’ve also picked up on a surging movement towards Chicago pride, for instance with the many Chicagoans on display in the Modern Wing and with the recent, all-Chicago Art Loop Open. I also remember being impressed with Michael Darling, the new Head Curator of the MCA, in an interview with Paul Klein back in the fall. There was a time not too long ago, as I recall, that the MCA was getting all kinds of guff for only showing Chicago-based artists in 12×12, and it sounds like maybe some of that guff got heard.

NA: You were recently a participant in the Chicago Art Loop Open. How was that overall experience?

RW: I applied to the show primarily because of the high quality of curators, and I was, for the most part, very impressed with the work they picked and especially proud to be part of a show representing exclusively Chicago-based artists.

I am not a member of the CAC, and I hesitate to complain about a show that they clearly put a lot of work into. The turnaround time from application to acceptance was super fast, and the preparatory team did a phenomenal job, especially with pieces as intricate as Bernard Williams’ Buffalo Chart. And the so-called Hub37 was a pretty cool bit of hands-on technology, with micro-chipped magnets of every artist’s piece that visitors could take off the wall and slap on a computer screen to get more info on the artist. Everyone I saw down there seemed to get a real kick out of it, which helped keep the show from ever getting stuffy.

But I have to say there are two main things they could vastly improve upon. The first is lighting. Much of the work, despite being great, looked like shit. In Block 37, where my piece was hung, none of the pieces got any direct lighting; I heard more than a couple complaints from artists there and at other venues. The work was visible, but none of the colors in the show ever popped, my piece included. I hope they find a good solution for next year.

The second problem was the voting, which was stupid from the start. Call me an elitist all you want, but in matters of taste I don’t trust democracy. Aside from that, the ease with which the rules could be abused was mind-boggling, especially given the heft of the cash prizes (three totaling $50K), which were incredibly generous. I have no idea if any of the finalists cheated, nor do I really care; honestly they’d be fools not to (I’ve been called as much by friends for not breaking the rules myself).

But regardless of the technical details here, what pains me the most is this obnoxious tendency to turn every single thing into a goddamn competition. Not only is it tacky to reduce talented artists to begging for votes (a complaint I heard from a collector of mine present for the final hours of public voting), but I resent being put in the position to either envy the winners or suspect them of cheating. Admiration’s in there somewhere, but I’m afraid it tends to get lost in the mad scramble up the pile of money.

That said, hats off to the winners and to everyone in the show, and many thanks to the curators and the CAC, who (regardless of the faults we find in the final product) worked hard and did their best to put on a damn good show. Plus my piece in the show sold, so how bad could it have been?

NA: Are there any art blogs, art magazines, etc. that you keep up with?

RW: Neoteric’s at the top of the list; always fun to get into it with you guys on the message boards. Paul Klein’s Artletter is always good for a read. He is an earnestly excited guy who obviously loves art and who paid my work some very generous compliments at an Around the Coyote several years back. Another great blog, now abandoned but still accessible, is here. Not strictly an art blog, although my work and that of many other artists was featured there, but well worth a perusal. A friend’s blog, here, features some really great photography. Another couple of friends run this site, which touches on art, cinema, and activism, among many other terribly authentic and interesting topics. And I used to get Sculpture magazine, but I let my subscription lapse because, aside from the occasional spread on Ursula von Rydingsvard or the like, none of the work they featured ever raced my motor.

NA: Concerning your art career where would you like to be ten years from now?

RW: Well, wherever I am, as long as I am no longer “emerging” from anywhere, I’ll be happy.

In short: gallery representation, a space bigger than my garage to work in, and enough income from my sculpture and illustration to enjoy a comfortable life filled with good food, good whiskey, and more than one dog. A man can dream, can’t he?