Monday, April 25, 2011

Kevin Titzer's "Ghost of a Chance"

Over the past few years, sculptor Kevin Titzer has been cultivating his own folk-punk aesthetic, building ramshackle narratives of carnivalesque mayhem, backwoods asceticism and reckless impulses. On May 21st, he will be unleashing a new body of work entitled "Ghost of a Chance" at Thinkspace. Though he's still whittling away at this last batch of characters, he was kind enough to give his fingers a rest and answer a few questions for me.

Detail of new work for "Ghost of a Chance"

Erratic Phenomena: You grew up in Evansville, Indiana, the son of a bricklayer who had a talent for fixing cars and building things. Other members of your family were also good with their hands. Consequently, you started nailing things together at an early age. Tell me about the landscape of your childhood, and some of your earliest artistic experiments.

Kevin Titzer: I think I have a different perspective on it now that I'm an adult. The biggest part of creativity, if not all, is good problem solving. I grew up surrounded by people who were very good at making use of the resources around them. Without really realizing it at the time, I think I learned from example. I just applied it in a slightly different direction.

New work in progress in Kevin's studio

EP: At one time, your studio was a workshop that your grandfather built. Tell me a bit about that place, and how it felt to work surrounded by the echoes of ancestral labors and pastimes. Do you think the resonance of your personal history there infused itself into your work?

Kevin: Absolutely. I started working in the shop not long after he died, and it was left to me to sort through everything he left behind there. It was an emotional time and it influenced the work I made there. It took me a long time to even move anything. Everything was right were he left it. I made a body of work for a show there before I moved. I used his tools and utilized a lot of old metal and stuff that was lying around. I think it was kind of my way of grieving for him.

Detail of new work for "Ghost of a Chance"

EP: I understand that in the past, most of the materials you worked with came from a particular spot on the Ohio River where driftwood and other interesting things tend to wash up. What is it like there? Have you ever had any interesting adventures while scavenging for riverine flotsam?

Kevin: That spot is back in Evansville, where I grew up and spent most of my life. It's a big grove of trees on the bank. It's very quiet, with lots of birds and the occasional beaver. As the river rises and falls, driftwood and trash get caught . It was always a one-stop shop for wood and weird things from the river. When you start poking around places like that and you see what washes up, it really makes you wonder what else is floating around out there and how dirty our water systems are in general.

For a while I was collecting rubber balls. I found hundreds of them over the years. They would be wedged everywhere, like a Easter egg hunt. They turned out to be the cores of old tennis balls, from people boating on the river or throwing them to their dogs. The fabric rots off them and the core just keeps floating down the river. That was part of the fun of that spot — I never knew what the hell I was going to find down there.

One time I found a live commercial bee hive. I was walking along and I saw this white wooden box in the distance. It looked like some interesting wood. When I got up close to it, I jumped back. I could see all the bees buzzing in and out of it. Farmers put those box colonies on the edge of their fields to pollinate the crops in the spring. That grove of trees is down on a flood plain and there was a late water rise that year. The river just came up and floated those bees away. It was amazing the box did not sink. I sat there and watched them for about an hour.

Odds and ends in Kevin's studio

EP: Tell me about your philosophy behind creating art almost exclusively from found objects. From photos of your workshop, it seems that you are an obsessive collector and categorizer of lost things. When did you first start picking up interesting detritus and taking it home? Were you always a bit of a pack rat, and found a way to use that in your work, or did the sculptures you envisioned drive the need to gather those materials?

Kevin: I've always been a big pack rat, but I think I use found materials for many reasons. A bit of it has to do with the landscape of where I'm from, as far as the aesthetic. Dilapidated barns, rusty signs and old broken-down farm equipment were a common sight growing up. There could be some nostalgia peppered in there. I've always been drawn to old things. An implied history and story is always interesting to me. Also, I like the side benefit of reuse. There's so much waste around us. It's so satisfying to finish a piece of work and realize you made it out of a bunch of trash.

"The Collector"

EP: Recently, you moved to Quebec. What prompted the change in locale?

Kevin: My girlfriend is French Canadian, and she was being transferred back home by her employer. So I moved with her. Now I have an addiction to Tim Horton jelly doughnuts and St. Hubert chicken.

"The Collector" (detail)

EP: Your figures are carved from chunks of driftwood, then their hands and faces are painted in many layers of acrylic wash, which leaves them with a patina reminiscent of antique milk paint. Afterward, they're armored in old tin from ceilings and candy boxes, which is held in place by hundreds of tiny rusty nails. What is it about working with driftwood that you find particularly enjoyable? Do you sometimes sense a shape in the wood before you start, or does the wood guide you in any way? Is there a sort of sensuality to the woodcarving process?

Kevin: Since the move, I have not been able to use driftwood. My show in May will be the first batch of my guys I've made without it. By the time we got settled into the house and I got my studio back up and running, there was snow on the ground. I didn't know the area, I don't speak French, and I had to get to work on the show. So I had to compromise and buy wood.

It worked out pretty well. There's a lumber yard down the road that offers all local wood, so that was the next best thing, although there was a big unexpected learning curve with it. I had gotten so used to working with the unpredictability of river wood. It can be good sometimes. You find an odd shape that you react to, but more often than not, it's a pain in the ass. You may think you have a really good piece, and then you find halfway through that it has a big rotted spot in the middle, or bug damage. Too hard, too soft, or both in different parts of the same piece. On the one hand, it keeps you on your toes and teaches you to improvise on the fly. On the other hand, you also waste lots of time fighting the wood and making repairs.

Not having to deal with that in this go-round has been very helpful. I had more time to focus on the narratives and hopefully pushing the work forward, instead of being bogged down with technical problems. It makes for a much more even work flow. I learned a lot from working with river wood, but at this point, I don't think I'll go back to it.

"Light Bulb"

EP: You once worked for a blacksmith, which is where you began experimenting with ceiling tin. Tell me a bit about that job, and what you learned there that proved useful to you later.

Kevin: That was a short but very transitional time in my life. He's a distant relative of mine, Patrick Titzer. At the time he was doing a lot of traveling to outdoor art events, selling his work. There was going to be a long string of shows coming up and he asked me if I'd be interested in looking after things while he was on the road. At the time, I was working for a greenhouse delivering plants and had nothing to lose. So I packed up and moved. He let me set up a small studio in the shop, and that's where I first started working with the tin.

I'll be forever grateful to Pat and his wife Karen for giving me that time to work. It was a window that helped me figure out where I was going and what I really wanted to do. Also, during my stay I applied for a Indiana artists grant. I didn't think I'd get it, so why not swing for the fences? I wrote a pitch to travel to Thailand and be a visiting artist. The envelope came, and I got the grant. I remember standing there with the paper in my hand thinking, "Oh crap, now I have to really do this." I had never been overseas before, and I was scared. It ended up being an amazing life-changing experience. Once again, I have Pat and Karen to thank for encouraging me to write that grant. They really changed the course of my life with everything they did for me then.

"Light Bulb" (detail)

EP: The faces of many of the figures you create have a very similar appearance, as if your narratives are the trials and tribulations of a single beleaguered individual. Does he represent someone specific for you, or is he a sort of everyman figure?

Kevin: The answer is a lot more boring than that. I used to do a lot more shows than I do now. When I first started getting invited to do gallery shows, I grabbed everything I could get. I was just so happy that people liked my work. It didn't take long to find myself overextended and always under the gun. That treadmill of back-to-back shows went on for years and years. Everything started going down that road when I quit my day job and started doing art full-time. Paying the bills is a good motivator, and needless to say, very stressful.

I think it was a good thing to do when I was younger and first starting out. It helped strengthen my work ethic and forced me to just get on with it. You can't do a lot of navel-gazing in that situation — although in that state of mind, lots can fall though the cracks. You can't help but learn things by making a ton of work, but all too often, I'd find myself cutting corners because of a tight deadline. I put myself into that situation, and that's fine, but I paid for it down the line. In that mad rush, I let my carving skills plateau. I let myself get away with being able to carve a face, rather than an individual, to get the job done. I have more experience now and a little more breathing room, so it's something I'm trying to work much more on now. Live and learn.

"Puzzle Pieces"

EP: Improvisation is a big part of your process. Can you tell me about a piece which the materials compelled you to evolve into something else while you were working on it?

Kevin: I'd say almost every piece I work on ends up somewhat different than how I started out. I don't really do sketches before I start, the most I do is simple line drawings on index cards, just so I don't forget an idea. So ideas often expand or change during the process.

"Puzzle Pieces" (detail)

EP: One of the pieces of art that you most admire is Swoon's floating art commune-cum-DIY utopia "Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea," a mobile artwork consisting of seven vessels made of scavenged materials in which dozens of her friends traveled down the Hudson River, eventually docking at Deitch Studios as the kickoff of her 2008 solo exhibition there. Why did that project move you so profoundly? Did you ever have fantasies of doing something in that vein on the Ohio River?

Kevin: The first time I saw footage of that work, it blew me away. I think on one level it really resonated with me because I grew up by the Ohio River. I responded to the materials they used to make the rafts, the collaboration of the artists, the performance element. It's the type of project I dream about doing, and I think they just nailed it. It was really well done, and at the end of the day, it just makes me happy.

"Diver Fish"

EP: You've said that graphic novelist Chris Ware, creator of the Acme Novelty Library and Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, is perhaps your favorite living artist. What is it about his poignant narratives that you find so inspiring?

Kevin: I think he's a great storyteller. His art always surprises me.

EP: Is there an underappreciated artist working today whom you wish would get more attention?

Kevin: Douglas Miller. He's a artist living in Louisville, Kentucky. A gallery needs to snap him up. His work is amazing and online images just don't do his painting justice.

EP: If you could have just one classic artwork from history in your studio, what would it be?

Kevin: Alexander Calder's "Circus."

EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?

Kevin: The band Sea Of Bees.

EP: Tell me a bit about your upcoming exhibition at Thinkspace, "Ghost of a Chance."

Kevin: I'm looking forward to it. I'm actually going to be at the opening, which does not happen much anymore. I think the work so far is looking good.

EP: Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Kevin: I'm curating a show for C.A.V.E. Gallery. The name of the show is "Dig For Fire: Art Inspired By The Pixies." It will open September 9th. Each artist will choose a song from the Pixies catalog and interpret it however they would like.

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