Bad as I Wanna Be: An Interview with Joshua Bienko and Piper Brett

In our ongoing series with Ortega y Gasset Projects (O y G), member Sheilah Wilson talks with show organizer and member of O y G collective, Joshua Bienko, and artist, Piper Brett, about their recent exhibition, Bad as I Wanna Be. Other artists include Keith J. Varadi, Andrew Ellis Johnson and Layet Johnson.

This strange and lovely conversation traces the dividing line between flesh and meat and the shifting sand between bad and sincerely bad. That which remains is the dubious sanctity of skin that holds meaning to an object. For Joshua Bienko, and the artists whose works he has gathered together for this exhibition, one way tho throw a kink in the system is to extract a portion and re-make it.

Piper Brett is an artist based in Philadelphia. She received her BFA from Massachusetts College of Art in 2004. She has exhibited work in Seattle, WA, Boston, MA, Brooklyn, NY, Benrimon Contemporary in NYC and most recently Ortega y Gasset Projects in Queens. She has had solo exhibitions at Vox Populi and Rebekah Templeton Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, PA and has been featured in the Summer 2011 edition of ArtNews as a Critics Pick by Edith Newhall. Her work has also been reviewed on Artblog, Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia Inquirer and by Christine Yong Wap on Art Practical. In 2014, Brett has been invited to be a visiting lecturer at Cranbrook Academy and will participate in a two person show at CUAC in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Joshua Bienko has exhibited at the Dallas Contemporary, Big Medium (Texas Biennial), the Guggenheim Museum and Vox Populi. In the last two years, he has had solo shows at Artpace in San Antonio, 4411 Montrose in Houston, and in the Spring of 2014, Lipscomb University in Nashville. His approach is diverse employing painting, ARTRAPPING, drawing, video, pdf distribution, and pick-up basketball. Born in New York, Bienko received a BFA from the University of Buffalo and an MFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Drawing at the University of Tennessee’s School of Art.

Sheilah Wilson: Was this show something you’d been thinking about for a long time, or was it more spontaneous?

Joshua Bienko: Well, whether Piper was here or not I would say that seeing the documentation of her two shows, The Show, and what’s the name of the other one, Piper?

Piper Brett: Psyhcic Punctum.

JB: Seeing that documentation, it’s been on my mind for a really long time. Similarly, there are pieces of Layet’s, Keith’s and Andrew’s that just won’t let me be. That’s not to say I thought all of their work would make sense together, its just there’s little things you get onto, and you can’t get off of. I thought about their work for a long time, maybe not together.

SW: So the opportunity to have a show gave you a forum to let these ideas out and see what happened?

JB: Yeah. You know its weird because I had so many pieces in mind, so many along the way. The show was about 10 different things but slowly it became about skin and flesh because that’s what was resonating between the works, but that wasn’t the case at the outset. In one of those emails Piper said something to the effect of ‘it didn’t happen by accident, but that doesn’t mean I can explain it.’ I thought that was a poetic and efficient way of describing making work, or how I like to think about my own work. You may know how but not why; that reveals itself over time.

PIPER BRETT: The Black Frank White, 2011 – KEITH J. VARADI: Marathon, 2013.

PB: That was specifically about the small abstract painting and the image of Biggie. At first it was kind of like ‘that’s wrong,’ but then it was right because it was so wrong. I like those pieces together even though it’s strange. I think about it a lot. I still like it though. I‘ll probably like it tomorrow.

JB: It’s funny because the first time I saw your Biggie Smalls picture I was like ‘No, you can’t do that, totally not allowed; that is so wrong!’ But that was why it worked, kind of like both of these giant vaginas. It’s like, ‘what?’ But then YOU can do it.

PB: I work with bad ideas.

JB: Yeah, you do! (laughs)

PB: That’s my thing. If it’s a bad idea, I’ll do it.

SW: So the title, Bad as I Wanna Be……

JB: Yes. (laughs)

PB: It was Keith’s idea.

JB: Yeah, it was Keith’s prompt. We were cycling through things and he suggested the title from Dennis Rodman’s book. I guess it was like everything else; it was like, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ But then it was like, ‘Yeah!’ There’s a spot at the beginning of the book, where he’s explaining something like he was playing basketball with an adopted white family…am I saying that right, Piper?

PB: Yeah, I think so.

JB: He was walking the streets and he is basically a no one, and he walks around putting quarters in his ears. There’s nothing significant about doing that, except that it is totally weird. And he said that the little kid he was living with asked him, “Why do you put quarters in your ears?” and he was like “I don’t know.” As an artist, I was so envious of that. It’s like you wished you had more moments like that. I feel like it’s a theme even in my teaching; if a student does something intuitively and sincerely and its terrible, that’s fine. Its’ like Bad as I Wanna Be, it’s perfect. It’s this sincere thing.

SW: So there’s a level of sincerity in your choice of a title.

PB: I honestly have respect for Dennis Rodman; he has a critical philosophy against the NBA (which I love, but [it is] also a fucked up corporation). He talks about that stuff; he’s not just a big, tall guy who blocks the ball or some crazy guy who wears women’s clothing. I mean dude, the guy wears women’s clothing!

JB: Yeah!

PB: A professional athlete. That’s pretty awesome! Wearing a wedding gown! In public! It’s nuts. It’s so nuts.

SW: In your way of thinking, two things that don’t belong together can in some way be liberating – there emerges this conflation of different kinds of marks in the show. Particularly because of how the show was hung, it seems like sometimes you are asking the viewer to make equivalencies of marks and surface.

“Bad as I Wanna Be” Curated by Joshua Bienko. Install shot, 2013.

PB: Mentally, the first thing I think of when you say that, is the The Subject, The Glitter, and Painting (Layet Johnson’s photograph of raw bacon), The Black Frank White (the photograph of Biggie Smalls) and Keith J. Varadi’s Marathon, Layet’s Can Kim (Bright Sun of the 21st Century) and Flower Mound, the one where he has the spray tan sunburn. I see what you are saying, but it’s not like this = this, straight across the board. They do go together, but maybe they’re each holding the same weight but weighing different things.

LAYET JOHNSON: Can Kim (Bright Sun of the 21st Century), 2010 – KEITH J. VARADI: Blank Driver, 2013.

SW: I agree, it is more nuanced than this = this. It did, however, make me think about how we evaluate marks. I started to see them as carriers or vessels, I guess. In a way, then, the viewer is the third element because the viewer is the activator. I don’t know if it was exacerbated because I was looking at the images online, but I really had this feeling of being intensely aware of the shame implicit in being a viewer.

JB: Andrew Ellis Johnson’s Clutch encourages that unease. In a torture chamber in Pristina Kosovo, British paratroopers found a baseball bat inscribed with the label “Mouth Shutter.” Clutch is part of a series of bats that antagonize the gaze, the viewed and the viewer. The bats have vertebrate eyes embedded into them. The object preserves a double ontology as a tool to commit torture (abuse of flesh), and a tool that records or views such abuses. It’s in conflict with itself. The proximity of the bat to image of the pornographic image on the floor is very difficult. That image has this North Korean association next to it, which just sort of complicates the relationship of each work. They effect and change each other in a purposeful way.

PB: I think the bacon is what kind of…honestly, when I saw that my heart stopped beating. But then I get it and bacon’s awesome. But in this case, it isn’t even about bacon but where he [Layet Johnson] is coming from. He is having an inside joke about painting. It really has nothing to do with bacon.

KEITH J. VARADI: Blank Driver, 2013.

SW: I am thinking about what both of you said, and the slide from pornography to torture, and the line between flesh and meat, and the uncertainty of knowing an image yet having its meaning re-assigned. Is that an awkwardness of context? I am using that word intentionally, since it was one that was used to describe your work for an upcoming show, Piper.

PB: I don’t think of it as awkward. Maybe I am asking you to reconsider the images and how you feel about them. I’m doing more a synthesizing of this stuff from my life and maybe I’m asking you to look at it differently, and I think that’s what Joshua did pairing these things up. I look at my work way differently now, and I hope that Keith, Layet and Andrew do, too. We all have such different practices.

JB: I never wanted to put this in the press release, but I wrote like 8 pages about the show and so much of it had to do with parallax view – an object from one perspective that looks like something, then you change your position and it becomes something else. The object appears to change, but it doesn’t, your relationship to it changes instead. That’s what I was going for with the show. It’s not about seeing how the work is similar; it’s about seeing how the work is different.

SW: I have to admit to a real skepticism of skin. I was wondering if you share this, do you consider the work a warning or a celebration?

PIPER BRETT: Flower Mound, TX, 2013.

PB: Are those the only two options? If so, I will go with warning-celebration. But, I don’t really think about what the audience will think.

JB: Liar, you are a liar! (Laughs)

PB: (Laughs) Okay. So maybe my intention is not to piss people off and I am sincere about that. But, maybe if I step outside myself and scan my personality over the years, maybe I am a bit of a button pusher and can be confrontational – or, at the very least, not scared of confrontation. Maybe I’ve just lost my grip on reality. But the other side of it is that really I just see something that has an effect on me, and it pierces me. I fall in love with these images. I really do look at them formally. I think that is what attracts me to them. I am not uncomfortable with them because I am in love with the part of the image I have seen. It is like how Roland Barthes uses the idea of punctum to describe the thing which pierces you, or somehow makes you be somehow emotionally affected by a photograph.

JB: Keith’s work really relates to this idea as well. He’s removing his hand through an involved process which is really attractive to me. And I think it relates back to what you said with regards to this idea of the suspicion of skin, or surfaces, even as it is the skin of painting. So he makes a painting and then sort of smooshes it through another canvas so his hand or brush has never touched the surface.

PB: I think that ties back to Andrew Ellis Johnson’s bat. Keith’s paintings are really beat up. Even Layet’s work responds to that idea of tormented flesh or skin under some kind of duress, as well.

JB: Yeah, totally. I mean, talk about the skepticism of skin – it’s spray tan! The thing that is not spray tanned, the truth I guess you could say, is a moniker for Kim Jong Il. It’s so much about the façade of ideology. You know, there were sixty-one titles for King Jong Il! Some of them are like Party Center, or like Perfect Illumination of what a leader should look like, and the one that Layet picked was Bright Sun of the 21st century. Such a simple stroke. It’s so perfect.

LAYET JOHNSON: Can Kim (Bright Sun of the 21st Century), 2010. Print by Justin Plakas.

SW: So that fake light/bright light that is our contemporary culture, the sun, can’t be trusted to be real. It all withers and dies, including the skin that holds us, whether it is fake tan or not.

PB: What do you mean by that?

SW: I guess I mean that since the imagery and response is so steeped in the now, culled from the excesses of information and image that symbolize politics or porn or disaster… like Joshua said; the façade of today’s ideology. How can you get sincerity out of that?

PB: At first when I started making art, I was trying to make the nicest thing possible. And then I started to think about the idea of used images. And there is always a disconnect between what it is and where it is, when you are seeing it. That’s like bulletproof plexi on top of the vagina, there is always a transfer.

SW: Is this why you continue to make work? The possibility of creating a transfer of meaning?

JB: It’s like the example from Introduction to Aesthetics, where an early man carves a Bison out of a piece of wood. So, instead of consuming the bison, he contemplates it. The act of making stops the cycle of consumption, replacing it with a small space for contemplation… So, why keep making images? This is precisely why. The goal is to carve out a little space for contemplation. Art, by its very uselessness disrupts the social order. That is reason enough for me to keep making things.



Bad as I Wanna Be was on view at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Ridgewood, NY from August 24 – September 22, 2013.

Ortega y Gasset Projects (O y G) was launched in May 2013 as a gallery and curated project space in the Bushwick/Ridgewood neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. Formed by artists living in California, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, O y G operates as a cross-country collective and an incubator for dialog and artistic exchange.

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