Adam Void and the Legacy of Black Mountain College: a Contemporary Take on Art History (Part 2)
I was sitting at my desk trying to think up a keyword, or a phrase to start this post, one that best represented a starting point for talking about Adam Void (also known as AVOID pi). I went through a couple terms, like "nomadic," "documentary" and "blatant," but what I landed on was a little softer yet harder to pin down: honesty. But then, inevitably, I had to ask myself what the hell honesty means in art. Is there such a thing as dishonest art? (Ahem.) Or do I mean, by honesty, that an artist pushes their work past the point of prettiness to that of life, or social or political statement? I'm pretty sure that's what I mean.
But I also don't think it's a coincidence that I landed on this word, although when I had my little "a-ha" moment, it felt like one. "Honest" was also a word of choice for painter Josef Albers, art teacher and rector at Black Mountain College for more than half its lifespan, who used it to describe how he wanted his students to approach their studies in his classes: "When we are honest - that's my saying - if we are honest then we will reveal ourselves." Adam Void, who I mentioned in the first part of this two-part post, comes and goes about his work as honestly as one probably can. If life informs the art, and art can infiltrate life to the point that life is legitimately lived through the art, then I'd say we're being pretty damn honest.
Originally from South Carolina, Void moved to New York City in the mid-2000s, where he was a founding contributor to the Brooklyn Street Art movement, for which he is best known. While in New York he took an interest in the avant-gardes of the mid-twentieth century such as Robert Rauschenberg, or Jasper Johns, who was also raised in South Carolina. In 2010 he relocated to Baltimore to pursue a degree at MICA with instructors painter Frances Barth and sculptor Alice Aycock, where he continued to study and discuss the American avant-garde and how the art world of today differs from that of several decades ago.
When Black Mountain College was established in 1933, it had only been two decades since the paradigm shift of the center of the art world from Paris to New York. The International Exhibition of Modern Art (commonly called The Armory Show) of 1913, largely credited with cementing this transition, put the Parisian salons permanently in the past. From then on, modern art was almost synonymous with New York, and for decades it was a marvelous, frenetic center of creative experimentation and collaboration.
Is it still? Certainly not to the concentrated extent that it was between the 40s and 60s. Due to the prohibitively high cost of living as well as the ever-expanding globalization of the art market via the internet, there are now art centers all over the place, and each one is trying to do something just new and different enough from the last. So there is still an important role for the underground art scene -- street art being an obvious example. Graffiti artists may be showing work on white gallery walls, but by definition they defy the mainstream. Often portrayed as anonymous loners, there are in fact vast networks and communities of like-minded artists and creators, and Void is a fine example of one who has transferred his knowledge and aesthetic from the streets of Brooklyn to the less predictable landscape of the rural south.
When Void graduated from MICA in 2012, he settled -- I use this term loosely -- in Asheville, North Carolina, where he could rekindle his connection to the region while maintaining ties to the city and the art world. He, along with his wife, artist Chelsea Ragan, and numerous others, comprise a collective called Vagrant Space which they describe as a new generation of Outsider Artists:
Coming of age during the transformative years of globalization, internet proliferation, and social media, these artists share the affects traditionally ascribed to social outsiders: many of them don’t utilize contemporary social media skills, eschew the responsibilities of “maturity”, and most importantly, genuinely reflect the homelessness that is hallmark to this era of twenty- and thirty-year-olds.
Vagrant Space is comprised of creators who choose to subvert artistic and social norms to pursue what could be considered the ultimate freedom to live and create. They hike and hop freight trains, allow place and experience to inspire them, and make site-specific works in neglected places. Some of this work no one else may ever see. Void and others allow the art to literally take them... anywhere they can hop a freight to. As he explained to me in our correspondence, he and Ragan "opened our home up to our traveler artist community. We have had over 50+ artists visit and produce work in the area in the last three years." They openly welcome fellow artists and emphasize the importance of collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
Void's move to Asheville was a means of balancing the positive influence of land and space, and his connection to the art world. He explained that he wanted to stay especially connected to the avant-garde tradition, and one place he felt that he could do that was in and around Asheville. I see notable comparisons between Void's work and the avant-garde style, such as the cardboard collage paintings as a nod to Rauschenberg's Combines. And I glean a little bit of Johns and Twombly in Destroy Wall Street (Void was an active member of Occupy Wall Street), in which he rather seamlessly melds a mid-century modern aesthetic with contemporary, blunt political and social overtones. However, the most exciting thing about Void's work is that he experiments a great deal.
The artist works in many mediums that range from photography to painting, printmaking to video--and of course, graffiti. He paints with both the NGC and MOMS crews, both with members that span the nation. But I mean, what the hell does graffiti have to do with an eighty-year old college in the mountains? Perhaps not a lot in general, but in the hands of Adam Void and others in his circle, start with geography, and an appreciation for history. Stir in a longing for community, a taste for the subversive, and a rich understanding of the art world. Mix well.
They are not such strange bedfellows after all.
Void's style is instantly recognizable, particularly by his style of writing, and his commentary on society: "Stop staring at the screen." "Your part is to be here, mine is to paint." "Do I have a voice?" His unique lettering style has a runic look about it, instantly suggesting a symbolic meaning of some sort, and causing the viewer to ask what the artist is trying to say. Street art and the freedom to roam, and to create, gives Void and others the ability to make work not just the way that they want, but often. The artwork/lifestyle is an ongoing (much applauded) snub to the extraordinary excesses of the art market, with art available to everyone who might come across it, made by artists who see the value of art as a tool and a mode for conducting themselves.
Likewise, Black Mountain College provided a progressive educational alternative to students who did not fit well in a traditional university setting. It is refreshing to look at Void's practice as well as Vagrant Space, and the transitional, nomadic nature of the artists involved in this circle, as a new interpretation of BMC for 2015. It is the anti-college. And by encouraging and inviting collaboration, the artistic possibilities open wide. BMC was the same.
Void wrote to me, "I find an affinity to these 'transitional artists' of BMC. Producing work that has folk leanings, paired with experimentation, collaboration, and just enough knowledge of the artists that came before." His connection to Asheville and BMC is more than some wistful desire to stroll through the past; instead, he absorbs it, and perhaps allows it to absorb him. By exploring the grounds, taking photographs, making relief prints of objects and plaques, and creating temporary site-specific works, he gets a feel for Black Mountain quite unlike most can. He explained that he is currently in the research phase of a project involving other artists for which he intends to recreate famous images of and around the college.
What resonates with me is the correlation between Void's practice and the way that Black Mountain College functioned, and there are a few other words that come to mind: experimentation, collaboration, and community.
Outside of New York, seventy or eighty years ago as well as today, the pressures of the city are minimized. At Black Mountain College, the resort-like atmosphere of the campuses imbued the school with a relaxed, intimate, communal quality (with varying levels of success) that was a far cry from the noisy, rushed feel of New York. But faculty and students took their work very seriously, and with a large, unprecedented mix of European and American artists and luminaries, BMC was ripe for creative collaboration and crossover. For some, it became a way of life. I like to think that the fundamental correlation between Void and BMC are that art and life become one in the same. The pursuit of one is the pursuit of the other. Doing it nomadically, with an eye on the past but both feet planted firmly in the present, Void and others like him work against the grain. And they do it very, very well.