Interview by Ana Briseno
John Feodorov is an artist, musician, and teacher born and raised in between Los Angeles and the ‘White Horse’ region of New Mexico. I had the privilege to interview John last month. We talked about responsibility, desperation, and funny art.
100% Hybrid #1 - Mixed media on paper, 50 ” x 30 “, 2010
100% Hybrid #2 - Mixed media on paper, 50 ” x 30 “, 2010
Ana Briseno: My first encounter with your work was at a lecture you gave last May at the Portland Art Museum. I still have the flyer for the event pinned on a wall near my desk to remind me of things you talked about. It was fascinating to hear you speak about spirituality, appropriation, and being a Native American artist. There is certainly not enough discussion or consideration of those types of topics in the art world. I would like to begin with a question about that lecture:Your consideration in talking about responsibility and ambiguity was very interesting to me. Since the lecture I have continued to think about those subjects and my ideas on those issues constantly change and shift. Have your thoughts changed or further developed on the topics of responsibility and ambiguity within your work?
John Feodorov: I don’t completely remember the context of my statement, but I’ll try and clarify what I think I meant. I feel that artists not only have a responsibility to make work that is more than merely self-expression, but also to understand their subject and their relationship to that subject. Unintended ambiguity is simply the result of ignorance, or worse, laziness. That said, ambiguity can be a useful strategy in allowing the viewer the opportunity to engage with the work, without feeling preached to or accused. I think the best strategy is one that results in the viewer’s self-incrimination because I believe this realization is much more difficult for the viewer to ignore. True, it may not happen in front of the artwork, but Art has a funny way of sticking with people. I guess I prefer planting seeds to pointing fingers. So the ambiguity I’m talking about is not really ambiguity at all, but a well-planned strategy disguised as ambiguity.
AB: You talked a bit about ‘art as problem solving’ in the lecture and in your artist statement: “The installations, assemblages and video works on the other hand could be interpreted as representing failed attempts to resolve the contradictions between a desire for connection and growing global capitalism—again, they are acts of desperation.” I would like to know more about your process of making art, outside of problem solving, and what it means to create works that represent failed attempts?
JF: Well, the nice thing about Art is that when you fail, nobody dies. I suppose all my works are failures by necessity. No body of work is going to resolve the injustices of the world. But as a thinking person, I often think about them. Like many people, I often feel helpless in the face of tragedy. I think all of my work is simply a way of making my thoughts visible and then ordering them, critiquing them, and taking control over them. But they don’t change anything. The best I can hope for is that affect someone who might participate in making change. I’m too much of a thinker sometimes when thinking may not be the most appropriate reaction. That’s one of my weaknesses. SO, the work is a failure because it doesn’t fix anything. But to not make work that responds to the unfixable seems like digging one’s creative head in the sand. I think artists, and others, need to keep ramming their heads against that wall, even when it doesn’t move. I tell my students that my take on political art is we are like fleas on a dog—the goal isn’t to become the dog, but to make sure the dog never gets too comfortable.
AB: Your work to me is both hilarious and serious at the same time. It is fascinating that those two qualities could be made ambiguous. Could you talk about that particular type of ambiguity, between serious/funny that exists in your work?
JF: This is hard for me to talk about because it’s just how my mind works. I am not particularly trying to be funny, but I’ve always loved the absurd because it can make a biting point so much more effectively than agitprop. It’s the planting seeds thing again. Maybe not “planting”, so much as implanting. While I may think the work is funny, I will not allow a work to be merely that. Perhaps it’s the difference between The Three Stooges and Charlie Chaplin. A pie in the face is funny, but that’s all it is. After all, some people think farting is funny. I hope my work is more than simply a gaseous exclamation.
AB: In your series Collectibles, I love the use of your old family photos. How did you weigh the decision of using your own family’s photos instead of using anonymous photographs?
JF: I feel it gives me more credibility in that I am not addressing some abstract notion of stereotype/romanticism. And since most of these photos were taken either by me as a child or by members of my immediate family is important as well. Maybe that these are personal snapshot images instead of posed Curtis-like photographs give the viewer a sense of voyeurism. At least I hope it does.
AB: Also from Collectibles, the faces in the photographs are covered or censored. The censorship of the photographs evokes the most emotional reaction for me because not only does it point to erasure and silence on one hand but also to privacy and respect. Could you talk more about your decision to cover the faces and did the use of personal family photos affect that decision?
JF: You are absolutely correct and I really can’t add anything to that.
AB: About Collectibles you write: “While the idea behind these prints is simple and direct, the sight of these advertisements has always stirred a complex ambivalence within me since they simultaneously act as both a strange compliment and a slap in the face.” Can you write more about that complex ambivalence? What made you want to start making art about those complexities?
JF: When I was younger, I read somewhere that the Navajo people were the most studied people on the planet. That statement gave me the same ambivalent feelings. On one hand, we were considered interesting enough to study. But on the other, we were specimens, likes apes in cage. Those advertisements do the same thing. Our heritage serves as a screen for some people to project their spiritual/erotic hang-ups on. While the Bradford exchange is perhaps the Kitschiest example, there is a long tradition of this type of hegemonic projection from Hollywood films, literature, visual art, and music. This isn’t just a Native American thing. After all, Orientalism was a big deal in Europe. So while its nice to be liked, it’s annoying to be re-defined by the fantasies of your admirers and sometime stalkers.
AB: You mentioned political art in a previous answer. Do you feel the artwork that you make is political?
JF: When I was younger, I made an effort to make political art. However, I never felt comfortable doing this. Partly, or mostly, because having grown up Jehovah’s Witness, political pacifism was expected and demanded of its adherents. I was brought up to distrust all politics and patriotism. However, when I began making art that was more honest to my own experience, I realized that it was in fact quite political. When I left the JW’s, I wanted to become Bertolt Brecht. That wasn’t honest either. In other words, I think that I’m political by default, though I do strive to not make art that is ornamental and decorative. So, am I political? Me, I don’t think so. My art… maybe.
AB: As a professor, does being involved in helping other people make art effect your own artwork? Was teaching something you always wanted to do?
JF: I always thought I would be a good teacher, but when I was young I thought I would never be given that opportunity. I often question my own intelligence. In fact, I think I’m a bit thick sometimes. That said, I love teaching. I don’t know if it helps my own work though. Sometimes it feels like it drains my creative energy. But, I know working with students forces me to know what the hell I’m talking about and that’s good for my own self-critique. I am much better at conceptualizing now, so that’s probably due to my teaching.
AB: What are you working on currently? What art/ music are you looking at that makes you excited?
JF: I’ve become a bit of a hermit lately. I’m not looking at much new art that excites me. In fact, I usually get angry when I go to galleries nowadays. The emphasis of so much contemporary art is on a kind of young smug cleverness. I do love Wendy’s work though. She is probably the last artist who’s work I’ve really responded to.
Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
JF: Sometimes I think of myself that way, but I don’t think I was ever embraced by those Native American Art gatekeepers out there. When I was young, I didn’t think I was Native enough to call myself a Native American Artist because there were already such good examples like Jaune Quick-To-See Smith and James Luna. However, I began to see that my experience was very much a part of the Native American experience as well, even if I didn’t grow up on the rez or spoke my people’s language. Still, I think that Contemporary Native American art still isn’t taken seriously within the larger Art World context. Part of that may be the saturation of Post-Colonial writers who talk about hybridity as resistance. Of course, for the Native American situation, hybridity equals cultural extinction — the blood quantum system of tribal identity is a built-in method of extinction. To identify ourselves as Native is survival, but much of the discourse in the art world is about the elusiveness of identity. Our existence therefore contradicts the current views of the contemporary art world. So, I believe calling oneself a “Native Artist” is a ticket to the margins of the broader art world. While I don’t really call myself a “Native Artist”, my experience and identity can’t help but influence the work I create and the way I think. Of course, there are also those that just “Love” Native Americans and that is just as irritating.
WRS: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
JF: Oh man, I think you know more than I. You might contact my colleague at Fairhaven College, Tanis S’eiltan, She is a Tlingit artist doing very political work.Thanks Ana!
BIOGRAPHYBorn in Los Angeles of mixed Native and European American heritage, John Feodorov spent summers at his grandparent’s homestead in the “White Horse” region of New Mexico. This time spent between the Navajo reservation and the California suburbs of Whittier continues to have an important influence on his work. Feodorov often utilizes pop culture detritus, as well as sound and video, to create what he considers contemporary “sacred” spaces in order to question ideas of spirituality, identity and place. In addition, his paintings and drawings are experiments in creating hybrid mythical iconographies.
Feodorov was featured in the first season of the PBS television series,“Art21: Art for the 21st Century”as well as in the companion book published by Harry N. Abrams. He has served as an Arts Commissioner for the City of Seattle and currently teaches as an Assistant Professor of Art at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham Washington. In addition, he is also a musician and songwriter. To hear John Feodorov’s music projects, please click here.
ARTIST STATEMENTMy work reflects my interest in the relentless human search for meaning and identity. While my works do not embrace any one belief or theory, I see them as artifacts of contemporary desperation—a search for a Something, an Other, that may or may not exist. The 2-D works are pictorial experiments that are meant to act as iconic catalysts for the possible creation of new mythologies. Intentionally ambiguous and dreamlike, they imply a meaningful narrative that does not exist outside the mind of the viewer. The installations, assemblages and video works on the other hand could be interpreted as representing failed attempts to resolve the contradictions between a desire for connection and growing global capitalism—again, they are acts of desperation.Several years ago, I visited the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, near my family’s land in New Mexico. This was during the much-hyped Harmonic Convergence when people were gathering at numerous traditional sacred sites around the world. Along the inside perimeter of one of the large kivas, a throng of tie-dyed spiritual enthusiasts formed a circle while sitting in lotus position. At the axis, they had erected a plastic totem pole, an object possessing no significance to the native peoples of the Southwest. Their act, while well intentioned, seemed more like an act of spiritual despondency than of connection. It is this kind of sincere yet misguided event that interests me as an artist.