Hometowns. Interview in American Suburb X
2017 - By Dania Shihab
John MacLean’s latest book “Hometowns” is what he calls a fantasy documentary exploring the hometowns of 25 artists whom he refers to as mentors-by-proxy and an exercise into the anxiety and ecstasy of influence. From Robert Rauschenberg to Bridget Riley to Ed Ruscha, John retraces the steps of these artists where they spent their formative years, by inserting himself in the works and questioning the ever-present artistic dilemma of embracing the influence of our predecessors or “erasing any areas of overlap”.
Dania Shihab: Why did you choose the hometowns of these artists as a subject? What was it about the hometown in particular that interested you about the artist’s background?
John Maclean: I had reached a point where I felt increasingly aware that every new photograph I made was, in fact, an accumulation of other images I’ve seen throughout my life. It wasn’t an unpleasant realization but one that started me thinking about what we mean by originality. What is originality and how much of what we call originality is a re-energizing of existing ideas? I have a collection of artist’s books but there are thirty to forty that I go back to again and again—when I’m looking for inspiration: these books are by the artists I revere most—artists who fondly call my… ‘mentors-by-proxy’.
So, I wanted to try and untangle the strands that connect me to these artists, and ask myself the question, ‘why do I feel a strong bond with these, but not others?’ What is it that they manage to encapsulate in their work that keeps drawing me back to it? What makes their work so ‘magnetic’? I thought photographing their hometowns might be a good place to start—this was the place where they spent their formative years—the place where as children they were wide-eyed and open to absorbing everything in their environment. It might offer a means of both sifting through and acknowledging my artistic influences.
In a sense I was trying to complete a circle: I travelled to the neighbourhoods that had some bearing on the childhood development of my art-heroes and consequently on the art they made as adults, and then I tried to photograph these places through the ‘afterimage’ of the artistic influences these works had imparted on me. Sound complicated?
DS: You touched on my next question, you chose 25 artists, but what were you looking for? Was it what they were influenced by? Or where you hoping to be influenced by the same thing that they were influenced by?
JM: One question that fascinates me is: what makes us who we are? By going to these artists’ hometowns I was hoping to take photographs—admittedly in a spirit of willful naivety— which might help me dream a little more about why these artists chose, what you might call, ‘the road less travelled’. They left their hometown in an unusual direction, one that not many people take, towards a career that takes an incredible amount of stamina to maintain.
DS: Some of the works, for example, the photograph you took of Bridget Riley’s hometown—the sky sort of has that geometric stripe-like pattern, was that something that when you saw it, triggered your connection with that artist? Or is this a work that was post processed? Did you insert new elements into some of the works?
JM: In that case there is an intervention and it took place in post-production. I think of Hometowns as a ‘fantasy documentary’, it’s not a search for concrete evidence or scientific conclusions… I’m just looking for visual clues that I can embellish in some way. I’d put a chunk of biographical research in place before I travelled to Bridget Riley’s hometown; I’d read about the walks she took as a child, going down to the beaches in Cornwall, collecting shells and seaweed… allowing her imagination to rule over the skies—skies which have a particular quality of light on the West Coast of England. So I took these snippets of biographical information and then tried to photograph her hometown vicariously, whilst also adding some of my own photographic eccentricities into the mix.
DS: When I was reading your introduction, you talk a bit about art being a spectrum, as a lineage, as a construction through inheritance. You were saying original art is, in part, an encoding of the past. This book touches on encoding. My question to you then, is what makes art original if it’s just that, we are building on our predecessors? And what differentiates the great artist and a good artist, if art is merely just an amalgamation of our predecessors?
JM: I don’t think the encoding of the past is insignificant. I think the accumulation of culture is incredibly important—it’s like a huge, underlying geological structure— which forms a foundation from which every artist works. Perhaps originality is something like a fault line running through that geological structure; an artist takes existing ideas and re-energizes them by shifting them, pushing them and pulling them. What I’m suggesting is there is no such thing as a truly innocent gaze and that’s fine! Because the overlaps, the shared ideas and the interconnections are there to be celebrated.
DS: Then what makes something a great piece of work though, if it’s not … You talk about originality and I found that concept quite interesting, and, talking about the innocent gaze as well. I’m curious to know what you think is a great piece of artwork?
JM: I think great artists are able to put something of themselves into their work and I think that enables the viewer to connect with the artist through their work. That’s not an easy thing to do because it’s achieving something that runs deeper than surface values. Good artists might be able to act as conduits of subject matter—they get subject matter into their work, but great artists get their hopes, fears, personal values and so on in there too—their work becomes an extension of their worldview. So when we feel a strong connection to a particular work of art, that work is saying something about who we are too.
DS: Okay. Good answers. Good job, John. I think this is the most serious conversation we’ve ever had.
DS: When I was reading your… Is it an introduction? It was at the back of the book. Do you refer to it as the introduction? The text that you wrote?
JM: Yes, it’s an introduction but it’s placed in the back of the book for good reason. I want the viewer to read the photographs first then if they feel intrigued enough to read my text… they can go back through the book again and look at it through the filter of my personal interpretation… and with some knowledge of my process.
DS: Okay. When I was reading your introduction, you talk about the anxiety of influence. I was reading up about it and the term was originally coined by Harold Bloom in 1973. It was actually a literary term, referring to poetry. He talks about anxiety of influence as a misinterpretation of your predecessor’s work. It’s forcing artist to distort the work of their predecessors in order to create something revolutionary or innovative. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that.
JM: I think every artist comes to a point in their development where they reach a kind of crossroad. They recognize junctures where their work meets with that of other artists—stylistically or conceptually… or whatever. At that crossroad, we make a choice either to process these artistic influences in a positive way or to… well, the other extreme would be to try and somehow erase these areas of overlap. Rauschenberg solves this quandary beautifully in ‘Erased de Kooning’. I attempt a similar approach in my playfully erased photographs of John Gossage’s hometown.
In my text, I talk about the agony and the ecstasy of artistic influences. Artists often have ambivalent feelings about their art heroes and they feel the need to find some kind of resolution—often they try and achieve this through working. In Hometowns, I felt as though I needed to ‘travel’ backwards in order to move forwards. I was looking back at the work made by my formative, artistic influences; I was looking through old books and old notes—but this was a strategy to try and move forwards; to try and clear new ground for new approaches. I think I was trying to reframe an anxiety!
DS: Lastly … I’m interested in the idea of yours where you believe artists must have a strong enough innate personal vision to override influence. Was this book an exercise in overcoming influence? How did you insert your own personal vision into the work?
JM: I wouldn’t say ‘override’ because that suggests that good artists are able to push their influences aside. I’d suggest that artists who have a strong, personal vision are able use their artistic influences as an asset not a hindrance. They are aware that they haven’t developed in isolation and also know that their development would stagnate if they built a wall around themselves.
I did feel as though I was walking a fine line with this project though. I was concerned that I might be making photographs that would betray a central artistic principle—by producing images that were cloying imitations or… mere genuflections. So, I tried to avoid this betrayal by adding some of my own artistic quirks into the process, adding some ‘twists and turns’ of my own into the photo-mechanism which entwines these places, biographies, artworks and ideas. For example, my educational background is in science not art, so that often gives a different slant to my work, and I try to make work that is funny and a little irreverent… but I guess that’s subjective!
DS: Other texts I’ve read suggest your project is about the hometown being the central influence on each artist’s output…
JM: I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. The hometown and the experiences it contains is more important to some artists than others. I hope the work isn’t always read in such a simplistic way but some journalists feel the need to explain a project in one sentence.
Often the place I was photographing felt incidental to what I was trying to achieve—it was just a means to an end. As I say, this is a fantasy documentary: I’m not seriously suggesting that the stack of tires I photographed at the end of Robert Rauschenberg’s childhood street somehow shaped a sculpture he made sixty years ago! But in previous interviews, the interviewers have been desperately looking for concrete conclusions. It’s photography’s insecurity complex at work, I think…that everything has to mean something! I’m against fixed interpretations like that and I’m also wary of making claims that my images can’t back up—so are these photographs about the agony and ecstasy of artistic influence? All I can say is that I was at that crossroad when I made this work. I hope it’s a book of engaging, entertaining photographs that encourages the viewer to investigate further. I’d be happy with that.
DS: Yes. I think it makes a nice story if you went to these hometowns and you saw something and you were like, “Bingo! That’s what so and so felt and now I’m absorbing all their artistic powers!” Do some people want to believe that maybe with the book? I don’t know.
JM: For me, the most successful images in the book are the ones with more oblique references, where I’m trying to convey something about the spirit in which an artist worked, rather than referencing something formal. I feel a little uncomfortable with, for example, the photograph of Ed Ruscha’s hometown that shows the word ‘Softball’ against a blue sky. I was reluctant to do that—but in the end… it was irresistible…