Interview with Johannes DeYoung
In the wake of Federico Solmi's recent exhibitions at Postmasters Gallery and Luis de Jesus gallery in Los Angeles, CA, Johannes DeYoung engages Solmi about his latest body of work, The Brotherhood, exploring the artist's research, motivations, and process.
Johannes DeYoung: Your recent exhibitions at Postmasters and Luis De Jesus galleries featured collections of animated video portraits that depict mashed-up historical cross-sections of world leaders. Can you describe the origins of the work and how you think about portraiture?
Federico Solmi: My last two exhibitions represent a big turning point for me. As you can see from the images and videos of the installation, it is not a typical video exhibition with large single-channel projections or a video installation presented in multiple monitors. Instead for each exhibition I decided to create an environment that would accommodate the new works by painting the walls of the gallery psychedelic red, or by hanging bright red curtains and displaying each of the video animations inside hand constructed boxes. I am very pleased by the result; I took quite a gamble and it definitely paid off. They were many sources of inspiration, but if I were to choose one to cite it would have to be Oriana Fallaci’s Interviews with History and Conversations with Power. The latter contains transcripts of interviews she conducted with powerful leaders throughout her career, and in it I found the passage below. I was extremely inspired--it was like a revelation. I must have read it one thousand times, so I wanted to include it in the press release for my New York exhibition:
“There's something missing in all writings about power: Very few are able to capture how funny it is. When they examine the horrors that power commits, the sufferings it imposes, the blood with which it stains itself, historians and political scientists always forget to highlight the ridiculous aspects of the inevitable monster and how funny they are, with their ironed uniforms, unearned medals and invented awards.”
- Oriana Fallaci, Interviews with History and Conversations with Power.
This is the first time that I found myself involved in portraiture as the main theme of one of my exhibitions. Studying the iconography of historical portraiture has been a challenge, but it is also extremely exciting to interpret and execute such a series of portraits through this method.
JD: Fallaci’s perspective especially resonates when grotesque masquerades are made paramount in the painted textures and absurd pantomimes of your characters. I’m curious to know how you think about character development.
FS: When I came across at Fallaci’s book I felt amazed, and relieved. Her raw and direct style spoke to me. The Brotherhood series parodies the iconography of historical portraiture, creating an absurd gallery of portraits of some of the most feared and beloved leaders from history. The biggest challenge for me was to pick the leaders who will represent the series. Once I identified the characters, I began to sketch several detailed preparatory drawings. Then I discussed the sketches with my technical director, Jake Jeffries, and with the help of my studio assistants we began to create the 3D models, the environments and the painted textures we used in the videos. Shortly after, I understood that I was interested in creating a series of witty, bizarre characters and not really loyal and accurate representations of the original historical figures. In fact I was interested in creating my own allegorical interpretations of history and its myths. Irony and satire have become my strongest weapons against the hypocrisies and the lies that have been taught to us, and I am not shy about expressing my thoughts. In this new series I wanted to show the viewer how often history is fabricated, manipulated, and carefully crafted by leaders and governments in order to make their ideals our reality. I want viewers to question their beliefs, because I am afraid that our own patriotic or religious partisanship is perpetuating some dangerously false myths.
JD: For me, the work permeates a kind of gleeful exuberance before stronger undercurrents of sardonic irreverence take tow. I wonder to what extent the media plays a role in that read. Altogether, the work is such a complex construction, yet it maintains a particularly humorous tone. In some of your representations, the silent film work of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton comes to mind. Like Chaplin or Keaton, where seemingly light or improvisational gags are actually the result of meticulous craft, your work is underscored by heavy undertones and keen attention to detail. What are your strategies for achieving humor in the work?
FS: Chaplin and Keaton’s silent films are among the many that have fascinated and inspired me. Although they were creating comedies, I often found their gags to be very dramatic. In particular, Chaplin’s movies showed the ongoing, tragic transformation of western society’s industrialization in the background. They highlighted and critiqued the injustice and inequality by focusing on victims of the process.
In a similar way, the Brotherhood finds its humor through emphasizing the absurdity of our contemporary society. The mythical political and historical leaders are visually grotesque and funny to watch, but they also represent some of the darkest pages in human history.
JD: Gaming platforms have long played important roles in your process. Can you speak to that? Do you consider the broader, popular context of Machinima, or does the realtime graphics engine provide something else for you entirely?
FS: The video game industry has had a remarkable impact on me and on my artistic development since my first video animation in 2003. I have always been particularly fascinated by the quick progression of gaming graphics and the level of realism they have been able to reach. I felt I was observing an industry forging an aesthetic revolution and I wanted to be a part of it. I’ve never been much of a gamer but rather a voyeur, and a keen observer. I don't think the definition of Machinima is fitting for my works, as I was never actually interested in researching this discipline. I think my works go well beyond manipulating and editing video footage from video games that are available on the market which basically add a sort of narrative to copyrighted footage. At my studio, I create everything from scratch with my assistants and 3D designer. I build my own game environment by designing and modeling mostly everything you see in the videos. I design each character, then rig and create each one’s custom animation. Each character and prop in all the video footage is hand-painted. This element is crucial since all my work is about combining cutting-edge technology with traditional media (such as drawing and painting). I believe that the blending of these two opposing disciplines perfectly summarizes the struggle of our ages: Technology represents humanity’s pioneering hopes and dreams, whereas drawing and painting represent the inherent importance humanity places on traditions of our cultural past.
JD: That’s especially pertinent in conversations around new technologies. All technologies have capacity to reflect and project their cultures. A toothbrush, for example, doesn’t necessarily have the shock of the new, but it’s certainly capable of encapsulating both cultural tradition and contemporary desire, as banal as it might be. Popular appeal often breaks toward newness, even when the thing posturing as new is steeped in tradition. How do you reconcile traditional themes and material tendencies with the shock of the new - in this case, the capacities of realtime graphics engines and traditional painting techniques?
FS: In the past twenty years our lives and our experiences as humans has been completely re-shaped by the introduction of numerous technological innovations into our homes, like the internet, smartphones, etc. When compared to the previous generation, our lives have changed dramatically, and it is unclear whether we’ve changed for the better.
In our daily life we have become addicted to technology that does not push boundaries, it simply helps us connect virtually and feed our appetites as consumers. It seems that people are more concerned with uploading their selfies and vacation videos, or downloading the latest app, than improving the human condition and spending those couple dollars on charity. I think this is a crucial moment in history, where in the next twenty to thirty years we will be deciding if we want to live as actual humans, or as digital entities within virtual reality. If we decide on the latter, we may stop meeting real people altogether. Sadly, the decision isn’t up to us, but to some tycoon in Silicon Valley. Of course, not everything is negative. Realtime graphics engines have become an incredible tools and inspiration for me to take advantage of.
JD: What artists or histories do you seek for inspiration? Do you find your work in dialog with any particular moments, historical or contemporary?
FS: I’ve always been attracted to artists like George Grosz, Otto Dix, James Ensor, Francisco Goya, Honore Daumier and many others that somehow were deeply engaged with challenging the power structure of their time while fearlessly exposing human folly, weakness, and political hypocrisy. Of course, I am influenced by contemporary figures as well, but we don’t have the advantage of seeing them in the context of history as clearly.
My studio practice is quite intimate, despite working in one of the most trendy neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I was never a bohemian. I feel that in New York I haven’t had too much interaction with other artists, although that would be nice… It just hasn’t played into my evolution as an artist. Really my most important companions are the assistants that help me with my projects. I feel very lucky because I’ve worked with some very remarkable and talented people. New York, unfortunately, is a very difficult place where people don't have time to hang out and discuss art when it does not directly benefit them. There’s an inherent self-centeredness here, and it is very sad. My interests and inspirations are pulled from many various disciplines and different periods of history. Some of the most remarkable people that I have immensely admired throughout the years include Charlie Chaplin, George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oriana Fallaci, Leon Golub, Federico Fellini, Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe Verdi, and Arturo Toscanini. I'd like to think that my works demonstrate the result of learning from history and the attempt to look forward to the future without forgetting that my task as an artist is to speak about the historical context in which we leave contradictions of injustice and absurdity.
JD: Can you say more about film? Filmic narrative threads much of your work - I’m specifically thinking about your Chinese Democracy series. I’m curious to know how you think about filmic structure and storytelling. How does your work engage modes of filmic representation?
FS: The narrative structure has always been very important to me. I would have never begun to experiment with video art if it was not for my need to tell stories. I think the biggest filmic influence for me came from silent films—I truly love them. There is something so magical about them; they are simultaneously very poetic, raw, and often bizarre. The ones that I’ve been most impacted by would have to be Metropolis by Fritz Lang, (1927), The Man Who Laughed by Paul Leni, (1928), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by Robert Wiene, (1920), and Napoleon by Abel Gance, (1927). A metaphysical, surreal atmosphere generated by incredible amounts of craftsmanship and the actors’ physical efforts surround these films. The 1920s and 30s were an incredible period for experimentation in cinema. They remind me of the early Italian Renaissance, one of my favorite artistic periods. Painters such as Paulo Uccello, Piero Della Francesca, and Cosme Tura had tremendous innovative skills. Although they were very far from the pictorial perfection of Michelangelo and Raphael, I think I am in love with this imperfection because it is so much more human. In the case of my video trilogy, The Chinese Democracy and the Last Day On Earth, my biggest inspiration was Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. I was also influenced by a series of books by American writer Jared Diamond, namely Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail Or Succeed.
JD: Experimental filmmaking of the 1920s and 30s is incredibly liberating to watch. Aspects of your work reflect elements of my favorite animation from that time; artists like Oscar Fischinger and Lotte Reiniger initially come to mind. One of the things I find most compelling about your work is the juxtaposition of haptic painterly support and more idealized, computer generated geometry. Your aesthetic is often unsettlingly baroque, chock full of grotesque representations. Meanwhile, the screen frequently dissolves into the most mesmerizing painterly abstractions. What exactly is your relationship to the image and materiality in your work?
FS: My works have continuously been subversive and anarchic—it’s at the core of my soul. The grotesque and raw imagery that I use signifies a protest against the alienating world in which we live. It is an attack: A disapproval of conventional art and conventional thinking.
I’ve always believed in creating works that combine digital technology with the traditional media of painting and drawing. Today everything comes very natural to me, after so many years of making this project. I feel that each character and each prop, each scene and each environment needs to be modeled with 3D software and then when I approve all the 3D works and I finish the storyboard for each video, I make the painted textures for all we have developed. There is not much negotiation in my mind, everything that will end up on the screen needs to be hand painted. I cannot tolerate to see any digital and unpainted element, for one simple reason: painted textures that lay on top of digital models will age like a good bottle of wine, in ten-to-twenty years they will most likely look better than today. On the contrary, a 3D model made in 2016 will look obsolete or less attractive in just few years.
JD: It’s interesting to think about your considerations for variable speeds. For instance, the capacity of one tool to create a mark with more lasting impression than another, the capacity for a particular mark to feel anachronistic when compared to the state of the art, or the tell of a mark to betray its own production. Tools aside, if we're going to linger on one point, what would you say the work really affirms?
FS: My work is a statement of originality, braveness and uniqueness. It stands by itself within a contemporary art scene dominated by market manipulators, art flippers, and flatness. It encourages free thinking and individuality, which is the foundation of art in my belief. It motivates young artists to find their own voices instead of following the latest trends in the art world, and hopefully it will inspire viewers.
Federico Solmi was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 2009, in the category of Video & Audio by the Guggenheim Foundation of New York. His work has been included in several international Biennial exhibitions, including the Beijing Media Art Biennale (2016), Frankfurt B3 Biennial of Moving image (2015), the First Shenzhen Animation Biennial in China (2013), the 54th Venice Biennial (2011), and the Site Santa Fe Biennial in New Mexico (2010). Solmi’s solo exhibitions include the Haifa Museum of Art, Israel (2016); Museo de Arte Contemporaneo del Zulia, Maracaibo, Venezuela (2016); and the Centro Cultural Matucana 100, Santiago, Chile (2015).