On this episode of the n+1 podcast, we feature Jonathan Griffin, author of the book On Fire, in conversation with Paper Monument editor Dushko Petrovich. On Fire explores the phenomenon of studio fires and how artists recover in the aftermath. This interview was recorded at an event hosted by Rachel Uffner Gallery and Night Gallery in May 2016. Read an excerpt from On Fire here.
Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Dinosaur L, Anna Domino, Talking Heads
Malcolm Donaldson: Hi and welcome to the n+1 podcast. On this episode we feature Jonathan Griffin, Paper Monument contributor and author of the new book On Fire. He was joined by Dushko Petrovich in conversation about his book, which explores the phenomenon of studio fires and how artists recover in the aftermath of such a transformative event.
SEGMENT 1: Jonathan Griffin reads from On Fire
SEGMENT 2: Interview with Jonathan Griffin
Dushko Petrovich: The first question I have is about where the fire, so to speak, came from. Where did the idea come from, and how did it change once you started working on it?
Jonathan Griffin: I think the first person I spoke to whose studio burned down was Brendan Fowler. I did a studio visit with him in the months after he’d relocated. His narrative was very much about this awful disaster and how he’d kind of moved forward from it. And at the time it seemed that there was something there because of the nature of his work: he’d long dealt with erasure, or with these representations of destructions, these mise en abymes of destruction upon destruction, represented and broken again. So, I had this feeling that it was weird that a fire should happen to him of all people. And I sat on that, and I met Matthew Chambers, who’d shared the studio. His work is less obviously related to those themes, but he’s obviously still dealing with that as well. And then Brendan was very keen to tell me about all the other people whose studios has burned down. For him the really uncanny, significant one was Christopher Wool. His work at the time was really indebted to Wool, and he had the book Incident on 9th Street—a collection of documentary photographs of his studio fire for insurance purposes that Wool then published as a book. So Wool was already thinking about the aestheticization of this event—it was an uncanny event for him. And it seemed like there might be a kind of genealogy here. A year or two passed, and I got to know the artist Anthony Pearson pretty well—my friendship and professional relationship with him was very much based on studio visits. In Los Angeles—I can’t speak for New York, but compared to London, the studio visit in LA has a very different kind of status, and it’s easy and pleasurable to go and spend an afternoon shooting the shit in somebody’s studio. And it’s not even necessarily about their work, but a place, as studios should be, in an ideal world, where we’re not all frenetically busy and exhausted, a place for—
DP: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
JG: Exactly. You should come to LA. Anthony in particular, loves to be in his studio and look at his own work—he has this clean studio that he’s set and that he installed carefully. He spent about eight months building out a new studio—the ideal studio. He designed it himself and he’d been talking a lot about it, and the day that he moved the contents of his old studio into this building . . . his assistant drove a U-Haul truck through the roller doors, and they were exhausted, so they went home. And the new electrical—which had been horridly put in by the careless landlord—caught fire. In fact it wasn’t even the landlord’s fault. The guy he’d gotten to do it had used a nail gun to fix electrical conduits to the wall, so the nails had gone through the wires. He showed me this empty lot, and it still had some of the walls, and you could see the ducting. It’s like a forensic scene, with all the charring.
DP: That one was particularly tragic—just the fact of moving all your stuff into the new space and . . .
JG: Anthony’s a photographer—an analog photographer—but his work is very much about unique prints, so he had this archive of negatives and unique prints, which didn’t take up very much space. It all fit in the back of a van, and it could burn pretty quickly. So after that happened, he stopped working that way and—I don’t even know how consciously—he began to make sculptures from Hydrocal and bronze, which is kind of impervious to heat. And he often treated them with this black pigment. I don’t think—and he didn’t claim—that he was making representations of destroyed work, but it was obviously having this effect on his work. So I think that was the point at which I thought, there’s something here. And in the meantime I’d begun to hear about people that it had happened to. So I sort of envisaged an essay—which is what I came to you with—about some of these stories, and I’m so grateful and very glad that I was able to turn it into this short book format because, as I said in the intro, I was able to write a separate chapter on each artist’s story and not to try and shoehorn them into an artificial narrative—which, frankly, maybe doesn’t exist at all. Maybe there’s no sense to this happening. Maybe a coincidence is simply a coincidence.
DP: I do like the weird way that it creates this kind of fellowship of loss. I don’t personally know people who’ve had studio fires, but I’ve had the experience of telling people about your book, and very quickly someone says they knew someone or knew someone else, and it brings out the stories.
JG: It’s so strange. Every single person I’ve told about the book has had exactly the same response: “Oh, I assume it includes . . . XYZ.” And about 90% of the time it doesn’t. It was never meant to be an authoritative survey—the point is that sadly, it’s this ever-expanding category of tragedy. But when Anthony’s studio burned down, he called Brendan the next day, and though Brendan isn’t someone he knows terribly well, they naturally bonded over the trauma, and they also shared advice over how you practically deal with something like this. The insurance fallout from some of these events is painful beyond belief and drags on for such a long time—it kind of consumed Brendan. Every conversation I had with him was about trying to find this resolution, which was not even about getting money back—it was just not being totally out of pocket.
DP: Not to generalize too much, but as a group, artists tend to learn about how to do something right when we need to learn about how to do it, and we count on these oral histories and connections among artists. “What do you do when . . . whatever thing happens?” Your book reminded me of that, and also the weird way in which the supernatural, the random, and the paranoiac bump up against the legalistic, the bureaucratic, the financial. The way that clear, focused questions come into contact with very broad, almost impossible ones—like “should I even be doing this at all?” and “whose fault was this?” and “what did I do?” That must have put you in a pretty difficult position as a writer. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you decided to present these stories once you started getting into them.
JG: I found it very difficult to find answers to the questions that the book threw up, as did the artists, but the easiest answers actually came in the form of these supernatural or superstitious intuitions. Like when Anthony says, “How else could I interpret this other than a sign? I was clearly not meant to make this work anymore.” That’s much easier than saying, “should I have had better insurance?” As Brendan points out, even if you have insurance, there are different levels of insurance, and you end up paying so much money that you feel it’s not even worth it. Or you’re paying so little that it doesn’t cover you, and you don’t feel fully protected anyway.
DP: The insurance company has always thought more about insurance than the artist has—one of the laws of the universe. On Fire also made me think about the fact that all artists are these solitary—or sometimes two-person—operations. An artist has to function like an organization. One has to archive one’s own work, protect one’s own work, insure one’s own work, find a workspace that works, and so on. And these stories bring out some of the fragility of that arrangement. The loss is felt personally, but I do think that with the artists you’re dealing with, there’s a certain amount of shared loss that happens when we lose a whole archive of someone’s work, or someone’s early work.
JG: It’s something you have to come to terms with, especially as a creative individual: unless you’re working collaboratively or as a collective, you’re responsible for your output. For most artists, you want to be the singular author.
DP: As a writer, did you feel like, “Oh I’m really glad I don’t make things”? The analogous thing with writing is losing your computer, or losing your hard drive. Did you feel glad that you didn’t have this physical vulnerability?
JG: The opposite, weirdly. I don’t think too much about the danger or the fragility of writing. One of the nice things about being a writer is that once you get it out there, it’s kind of impossible to destroy, really, and with the internet, it’s fairly resilient. I totally envy people who make objects, and I used to be an object-making artist myself, which is perhaps why I enjoy being in a room looking at a thing with the person who made it so much. But what did come out of the book is that even artists who have lost their work are not so terrified of losing it all again. What they’re terrified of is losing the space to work, or the capacity to make work and the freedom and the resources to do that. That proved to be very vulnerable in a way that I didn’t expect, but it’s recoverable, and it’s even more recoverable than the work. Anthony will never be able to recover those photographs, but his studio now . . . it’s bitchin’, you know? And he’s making work that he would have never envisaged making previously.
DP: I also wonder, in terms of the more metaphorical or symbolic register of fire . . . it struck me that the project of criticism is a kind of a controlled burn—a burning that occurs around someone’s work. I was wondering if you thought of criticism at all in kind of pyrotechnic terms.
JG: No, because it’s not my responsibility to burn out somebody else’s crops. At the very most, I might suggest an area for them to attend to. But something that does come up in the book is artists destroying their own work, and there’s plenty of examples of that for various reasons. But no, that’s not the way I think of criticism at all. Another analogy might be a kind of a careful medical procedure or something, which may hurt in the short term but is ultimately beneficial, but then, who am I to say what is beneficial to the person making this stuff? As a critic, I can only make my own suggestions.
DP: I’m just baiting you in a way, but I think that one of the really remarkable things about the book is the level of sympathy that you have for these artists. When you came to us with the idea, one of the things that was appealing to us was that not only was it a story about artists, or a series of stories about artists, but it was also the kind of story that artists can’t bring up themselves or tell themselves. It would be impolite, or it’s just not exactly the kind of thing that people want to bring up on their own. But you did a really good job, I thought, of bringing these stories into the world and acting as a kind of archivist—and also just a sympathetic ear for what they went through. I wonder how much you thought about it in that way, in terms of a kind of . . . I don’t know how to describe it, but for lack of a better term, a kind of community project. Or a kind of responsibility to the memory of a group of artists that was in your circle.
JG: I felt responsibility, but that wasn’t a motivating factor. What I was thinking about were the stories or the narratives that artists allow to enter the discourse. I’m increasingly aware of the very limited amount of things you can allow into writing like press releases and catalogue texts and art magazine features and reviews. And we all know that there are plenty of examples of artists who build their own narratives around biographical facts or incidents—the gallerist will repeat them to anyone he’s pitching the artist’s work to. What I was interested in was something that wouldn’t really enter the literary discourse about most of these people, and I understood when people said they didn’t want it to, either—there are plenty of artists who had these tragedies happen and who were wary of them becoming the way their work is read. But I’m really interested to see if anybody else refers to “Anthony Pearson, whose studio burned down in 2011” or something, whether it becomes something that is known about these artists, something repeated. Or whether it’s a kind of cul-de-sac and a curiosity. I don’t have ambitions for it to become part of their narrative at all—I’m happy for it to be a curiosity—but the art world works in strange ways, and part of what was attractive was that it was kind of transgressive to even air these things.
SEGMENT 3: Jonathan Griffin reads from On Fire
Malcolm Donaldson: Thank you to our guests Jonathan Griffin and Dushko Petrovich. Thanks to Rachel Ossip and Dayna Tortorici, Roger White, Rachel Uffner Gallery, and Night Gallery for hosting the event. The podcast is produced by Emily Lyver, Malcolm Donaldson, Aaron Braun, and Eric Wen.