Joe Hedges Mural Release [Interview]
"En Root, a hostel in Chattanooga, has been hosting artists residencies along with ARC (Artist Residency Chattanooga) for backyard murals. Artists are given a two-week stay to work on their mural while getting to explore the local Chattanooga scene. Their most recent artists Jiemei Lin (Mei) and Joe Hedges participated in this tradition with two very diverse pieces. Joe worked primarily with trompe l'oeil painting techniques and combined elements of nature, technology, and nostalgia. Mei is investigating compacted ideas of feminism and rule breaking from her more structural childhood studies of Chinese methods of art. I was honored sit down and talk to the both of them about their practice and life. Here is a bit of our conversation." - MH Curator Claire Bloomfield
MH: How long did it take you to complete your mural?
JH: Three days.
MH: Do you often do mural work?
JH: I have completed at least one mural each summer for the last five years. I’ve now completed projects in Cincinnati, Ohio, northern Kentucky and Pullman, Washington.
MH: You are strongly interested in nature and technology. What originally inspired this juxtaposition? Was there a gatekeeper or experience that influenced this?
JH: I am a product of the 1980’s. One thing about 80’s movies is the prevalence of handheld gadgets--the flux capacitor, the robotic dog feeder and hoverboards of Back to the Future movies, Ferris Bueller's synthesizer, the Pinchers of Peril in the Goonies, et cetera. For young boys especially, growing up in the 80’s, there was a kind of obsession with early digital gadgets. The message coming from books and cinema was that we could be saved from bad guys, zoom through time, or defy the laws of gravity if only we had the right device.
I used to love taking apart toys and putting them back together. Once as a kid I had (what I now know to be) an exhibition of electronic parts that I had taken out of my toys. I spaced them evenly apart on a fence and invited neighborhood kids to come see them. It was really just a mess of wires and circuit boards. I now realize how weird this must have been to the other kids!
As our devices have become blander aesthetically (think about the cold minimalism of the iphone) but more powerful socially and telematically, on a personal level I think I never let go of a kind of nostalgia for the hope that was embedded in those earlier, more transparent and seemingly more magical devices.
MH: What else inspires your practice? Are you reading or watching anything in particular?
JH: I’m watching Westworld right now. I think it touches on many of my own anxieties and threads that run through my work--the tension between the real and built environment, nature and technology, et cetera. As a species, I don’t think we’ve had a real reckoning about the so-called digital revolution, and perhaps it is coming. The 2000’s came and went, but the flying cars that we dreamed about in the 1980’s never materialized. Instead we have a universe where we cannot tell what is real, phones that listen and record our every action, and worsening (not improving) infrastructure. Westworld does an amazing job highlighting the perils of our moment, but not in a didactic way.
I am also leafing through two amazing old hardback books of Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Artists, written in 1550. I found them at Half Priced Books recently. In addition to Science Fiction, I also enjoy Renaissance and Ancient History, especially Art History. I like the contrast between those worlds.
MH: What do you often daydream about or have you ever had any dreams about your art?
JH: I like to daydream that I am on a beach. I played music for many years in a rock band. Those were really formative experiences. Rather than having art dreams, I often have dreams that I am in a van with my best friends. Sometimes in my dreams these worlds intersect in bizarre ways; I’ll be setting up for an exhibition but the gallery is also a stage and I can’t find the right cord to plug something in.
MH: As you explored Chattanooga, you used different elements from the city in the piece. The background is derivative from a landscape on Stringers Ridge and the stereo was found at the local antique shop. Is this often they way you find inspiration in your paintings; by hunting and gathering local landscapes and and found objects?
JH: Yes. I’ve always loved to explore new places. When I was a kid my mom called me “traveling Joe” because of my proclivity to run away. I can almost definitely count on finding something interesting wherever I go. This is also a strategy to keep me open to new experiences, and more selfishly to make some of my favorite hobbies--hiking and thrift store shopping--part of my art practice!
MH: We talked a little about your love for vintage technology. Your interest was not only nostalgic, but almost surgical in the way 80’s devices can be opened up and dissected. This is unlike modern devices which have become smaller and flattened with screens. How do you see the evolution of technology affecting your future work? Do you adapt as you start finding more and more screens in antique shops or do you start to researching back further into history, maybe even to the relic?
JH: This is a great question. I have pieces that make use of phones and ipads, and other works that are more ambiguous or are unapologetically nostalgic in the selection of objects. Increasingly, I think the scarcity of some of these older objects give them the kind of aura that Walter Benjamin did not believe could be ascribed to mechanically reproduced objects. Right now I am indeed trying to figure out the role of nostalgia in my work. Nostalgia is sometimes seen by artists as a kind of a dirty word as it belies a kind of sentimentality that was supposed to have been banished by the cold gaze of critics in the modern era. One way I solve this conceptually is an acknowledgement that in the postmodern confusion of 2018, everything is now (as celebrated directly in 2017 by Arcade Fire and covertly by the resurgence of retro rock). Artist Nam June Paik was using those 1960’s televisions to make big robot sculptures in the 60’s, then kept using the old tv’s right up through the 90’s and beyond. When you see one of his robots from the 90’s, in a way it’s still a robot from the 60’s. Or is it? I don’t really know how to feel about that, so I try not to overthink it too much. As artists have always done, I begin by using the materials that are around, the materials I can afford. Rauschenberg is one of my heroes. His works are contemporary but nostalgic. They just blow apart all these categories between old and new. I get excited in that tension and ambiguity.
MH: You mentioned your art being puzzles that you collect moments of magic and incompleteness. Do you feel by leaving a bit of the work incomplete or ambiguous this is what creates the magic? Or how do you achieve moments of magic?
JH: The idea of magic occupies a really weird place in the 21st century imagination. We’ve still got mania for Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, yet many of the technologies in these worlds pale in comparison to what our smartphones can do. The smartphone is an every moment recorder and a crystal ball that allows us to see into far away places all over the world or to know things with simply a “Hey Google”. Yet on an individual level, this kind of magic omniscience hasn’t been as exciting as we may have imagined it to be. Ambiguity and incompleteness are hallmarks of the moment, and as such I think it’s important not to wrap anything up too neatly in my work. I don’t think i can create magic but in a world of super heavy image saturation, if I can sustain a feeling of curiosity in a viewer for a few extra moments, I consider a work successful. That’s a pretty low bar I guess but I think that’s where we’re at.
MH: What were some of your first art projects you worked on?
JH: When I was a kid, I drew constantly. I invented games, drew up blueprints for spaceships. I vividly remember drawing plans for a flying saucer and asking the other kids in Kindergarden. “Would you like to ride on this when it’s complete?” The ship was made of things I knew I could scavenge from around the neighborhood. In my mind, I really was going to build a flying saucer and it was going to work. I suppose this was a kind of accidental social practice piece about alienation and wanderlust, main themes in my life and of many artists I suppose.
MH: You are also interested in critiquing the history of painting, specifically realism and trompe l'oeil methods. How has this changed throughout your practice?
JH: Sometimes I think I’m just hanging onto painting because it’s easy. I mean it’s something that I know I can do reasonably well, and I don’t have to explain the medium to people. It’s a painting and representational painting especially, people already have a knowledge about what it’s supposed to “do”. But with that as a starting place, I am always trying to figure out, 'Okay if it’s easy, can I make it ...harder? Can I get weird with some aspect of it? Can I surprise someone after I invite them in?' I exhibited a piece recently of a painting of my own mac computer with the screen flush with the picture plane. The piece just didn’t seem resolved but a deadline was fast approaching. When I stepped back from the piece and saw my studio chair sitting in front of it, I realized that’s what it needed was that real chair sitting in front of it. I like to paint representationally, but I like to play with quote unquote real objects as well. Questions of reality and representation have always been important to societies--from the Byzantine iconoclast to Westworld and AI. While the trompe l'oeil paintings of Art History have been dismissed by some critics, I think right now they can teach us quite a bit. I have been recently playing with how objects might cast a shadow as if they are on top of, rather than within, the painting surface itself. This is a recent change and I hope will continue to drive some ideas.
MH: Do you have any personal habits that inspire your creativity?
JH: I always seem to have at least one skill or hobby going that is only tangentially related to art-making. I’ve been learning Chinese for a few years. This is inspiring mainly because in the process I am continually coming into contact with other ways of thinking and communicating. I think as artists we have some obligation to develop habits that make us somewhat uncomfortable. In discomfort there is personal growth and creativity.
MH: What is your perfect Sunday?
JH: On a good Sunday my partner and I like to visit a place called Kamiak Butte. It’s a short drive from our home out here in the area of eastern Washington State called the Palouse. The hike to the top of the butte is short about a half hour, and from there you can hike the ridge for a bit. It is among my favorite views in the world. Through the trees one can see undulating green and brown dunes, like CGI waves someone pushed around with a finger tool. You can see forever. If there’s time, we might visit an antique store in a strange dusty town on the way back. My partner likes to cook (I do the cleaning) so a perfect Sunday would likely end with a great meal on our small deck in the backyard and an hour or so of television. Because we have traveled quite a bit in the last few years, we’ve really come to appreciate the comforts of our own area and home.
MH: What other projects are you currently working on?
JH: I’ve got a video piece being shown in Korea’s CICA museum right now as part of a show about experimental video. I am also preparing three works for three upcoming group exhibitions. The first work is for a show about Madeline Stowe. Chris Reeves is curating this show at Pique gallery in Covington, KY. The exhibition is part of an “alternate reality in which Madeleine Stowe was the most talked about figure and Trump was number 1,000” (instead of reality which is the inverse). I’m also doing a piece for a show about Selfie Culture here in Pullman, WA to be exhibited in the brand new art museum here at Washington State University where I teach. Finally, I am preparing a piece for a show out in Portland as part of group of people who have gone on trips coordinated by Signal Fire, a non-profit that “builds the cultural value of the natural world by connecting artists to our remaining wild places." I am hoping to use some of these works as part of a larger body of works that more directly connect painting with new media for a solo show in San Antonio, Texas at Mantle next year. I am staying busy, which is a good thing!
More About Joe
Joe Hedges is an interdisciplinary artist working in the eastern part of Washington State. Hedges has exhibited painting, digital imaging, installation, music and video in galleries and museums internationally. Hedges’ art projects often explore the links between the digital and physical realms, and between the arenas of science and art by utilizing the visual language of the experiment and the archive. Hedges’ works at once celebrate and critique art historical archetypes, while engaging questions related to contemporary technology and the iconography, sounds or geological features of specific places.
Hedges has placed two songs in the Billboard charts, one with his former rock band formerly of MCA Records and one performed by a reality television star. He has placed music in commercials, movies and podcasts such as Freakonomics from WYNC, and has played countless shows in the United States and Europe opening for acts such as MUSE and The Counting Crows. Hedges’ songs range from folk acoustic to atmospheric electronica, often balancing these elements ala Peter Gabriel.
As an educator, Hedges works at Washington State University coordinating the painting program as Assistant Professor of Painting/Intermedia, looking at painting as a form of media technology while exploring ways painting can interface with other disciplines and media. He has collaborated with educators and students in the fine arts and beyond, including fields such as environmental science and chemistry. Beyond academia Hedges facilitates workshops, shares ideas about art and works as a project manager of large-scale public art projects that help to bring communities together.
Hedges has worked with collective Near*By to stage ephemeral and interdisciplinary exhibitions that connect artists and pluralistic audiences. In Cincinnati, Ohio he ran Boom Gallery, a project space that featured exhibitions and curatorial experiments by regional and national artists including friend and frequent collaborator Corrina Mehiel (1982-2017).