Art Seen: Chicago


In Conversation with Ruslana Lichtzier

— Part I —

Surface-Level Obsessor

Philip Vanderhyden’s current show, Volatility Smile, at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, caught me by surprise. I came to visit it, assuming that the space will feature Vanderhyden’s well defined paintings, but instead the artist chose to exhibit a 30-foot-long video wall sculpture. In an attempt to settle my mind from what I see as a cardinal shift in his practice, I decided to invite Vanderhyden for a virtual, textual interview, in order to discuss with him the borders of materiality, the relationship between the economics of images and commerce, and the recovering of historical ghosts.


Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile (still), 2014
Wall sculpture consisting of a 15 minute, two-channel video loop on nine flatscreen televisions, 25.5 in x 324 in x 27 in

Ruslana Lichtzier: Ok. Let’s start. Do you describe yourself as a painter, or an artist? My question aims to tackle, what I describe, your condition as a surface-level obsessor. I see you as an artist that focuses on surfaces. For a painter, this condition is understood, even expected. But in your current exhibition at Andrew Rafacz, your medium shifted to video—is it the first time?—and more specifically, it is a video installation. While we can assume that in the painterly sphere the question of surface is essential to the medium, do you see this intrinsic link in video installations as well?

Philip Vanderhyden: You’re absolutely right about a preoccupation with surface.  For Volatility Smile, sculpture more than video or painting was central. I come from a background in painting, but I would hesitate to call myself strictly speaking a painter, at least in terms of framing what I’ve been working on over the past three years. Prior to that, the discourse and history of painting was a way for me to think about history, memory and presence. To be more specific, I made paintings because on the one hand, the experience of a painting is local and “present tense”, but it is also historical. I liked the way that one could unify those two things into a single moment. The images in the paintings would often evoke a historical motif from modernist painting, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin, etc., but the surfaces would change the presence of the motif to create a meaningful contradiction.

Volatility Smile works sort of similarly. Many of the forms that float across the screens evoke Judd and Morris—but they also can evoke their contemporary offshoots in consumer design. They look just as much like paperweights, mirrors, serving platters and phones as they do paintings. The televisions that display them are part of the same conversation: they are arranged like Bloomberg terminals, which in their concave “V” shapes try to contain the field of vision. Our desks are mini-immersive environments. I like these seemingly uncanny unities.


Philip Vanderhyden, Untitled, 2008
Oil on canvas, 33 in x 38.5 in

RL: With this being said, would you then define yourself as being drawn to the objecthood of things? And further, if that’s the case, what would be the difference between the object and the screen—is it the surface?

I find it interesting to question anything inside a screen and if it can call to mind, today, the work of Judd and Morris for example; especially, when you consider the monitors as televisions. Am I reading too much into it?  

PV: One way to think about it would be to say that both a minimalist sculpture and a screen are designed to interface with the body, by way of scale, the field of vision, etc.  With a screen by itself, we gradually lose a sense of the physical weight and presence of the object as we get drawn into its pictorial depth. In Volatility Smile, I wanted to position the screens and coordinate the visual information on them so that one wouldn’t get totally sucked in, but rather held on the surface, between the interiority and exteriority of the screens.

RL: How do you tie the material end and the immaterial end of your work? What I mean by that is that your work as a painter is that of a skilled trickster. It exists, both in its production and experience, in the material world. How do you see, in this regard, the production and the experience of the video installation?

PV: In the paintings, there is a sense of presence and absence. One thing that carries through almost all of the paintings is that I wanted them to be difficult to take apart. If a painting was too direct in its process I would throw it out. I would keep throwing things out until I got to a solution that prioritized the pictorial, despite the dense materiality.  They were a bit like process paintings using 18th century rules of space and surface.  I know that sounds like a horrible idea, but it ended up creating some very disembodied, ghostly, forms.

The production of the videos is very much in line with this. In the software that I use to create the surfaces of the sculptural forms, these 18th century spatial principles were adjustable in a much more intense way. One can actually adjust the refractive index of a surface, which is something that some painters spend years fucking around with mediums trying to achieve. I don’t pretend to know how to do this very well, but that’s not really the point. The point is that in the programs I like the most, the language of surface, form and representation is very codified and extremely plastic. Perhaps most importantly, this language is part of our vernacular. I watched a ton of tutorial videos on digital product photography: most companies nowadays build images of all of their products in 3D modeling programs, because it’s easier to fine tune the image and bend it to their will.

RL: I love how you say that you “prioritized the pictorial, despite”—and I will add thanks to “the dense materiality.”  Tell me a bit about the technique of the video. How did you do it?

PV: Although I have made videos in the past, I didn’t really know anything about how to make them until this spring. I started out working in Adobe After Effects, manipulating found video. If you know After Effects, it’s a great way to manipulate existing footage, but it’s not the best program to use if one wants to generate form beyond two dimensions. So, the technique felt incomplete. The big discovery was learning 3D modeling software. I spent most of the summer teaching myself how to use Cinema 4D, which immediately felt like exactly what I was looking for. I would create 3D models of sculptural forms and animate them. In the program, one can also give objects any kind of surface. I would give the objects a mirrored surface and have my After Effects cutup videos playing next to them so that they would be the reflection on the surface. One of the most important things that I figured out was that in the compositing process, one can make certain elements within the scene visible only in reflections.

RL: I feel like the video is not silent but on mute. Do you have the same feeling? I think I get this sense because the video’s concern, among other things, is in the anesthetization of the experience of data avalanche. It featured iPhones resembling thin objects, moving in a kind of an assembly line, which reflect moving forms of different logos, and some of them are hard to pin down. By the way, what is the specific importance of KCG being featured in the video?

Philip Vanderhyden, People in Pain, 1989

Philip Vanderhyden, People in Pain, 2014

PV: The funny thing is that I actually edited the video to music, so that I could sustain a pace and rhythm. My friend Stuart Argabright, who wrote most of the soundtracks for Gretchen Bender’s work, wrote some music that he described as “halftime” music. I had it playing in my studio for most of the summer, much to the frustration of my girlfriend.  But, I didn’t include it in the piece, because I wanted the viewer to feel a bit more in limbo about how they should address the pace and mood. It’s a more liminal experience without music.

KCG was the parent company of a financial services firm that is now defunct called “Getco”. Not that anyone would know that! I hoped that someone would try to figure it out and look up some of the companies whose logos flashed across the objects. All of the logos that I use in that portion of the animation (KCG, LTCM, and Island) are financial services companies that either no longer exist or have been bought-out by other firms. All three of these firms were in their time were pioneers in financial engineering and had a future leaning posture. They viewed themselves as either beyond volatility, or thrived on volatility. In the financial world, volatility is a measure of how unstable things are: the higher the volatility, the more uncertainty and movement.  LTCM (an acronym for Long Term Capital Management), famously claimed that it had created mathematical models that could tame volatility. They believed in their models so much that they overleveraged and blew up in spectacular fashion in the late 1990’s.  KCG Getco was a pioneer in high speed trading: they would frantically trade, so as to create volatility, and then they would play the spread. Island was perhaps the best, if only because of its name. They were the first really successful online trading platform and were supposed to be an “island” of cheap, frictionless monetary movement. They were eventually purchased by NASDAQ. The point being that all of these firms held the very human belief that they could not only control risk, but tame it and make it serve their purposes.

RL: What drew you to feature these companies that are no longer what they were (as you say, now they are merged, collapsed)? And further, what position do you take by viewing, and exhibiting their logos? While initially I assumed you take the critical and lefty approach, now I hear a cord of fascination, and perhaps, an admiration?      

PV: I have always had an interest in finance. My dad was a businessman, so it was often dinner table conversation, but my own interest probably started with Marx.  Nowadays I read every pop-finance book that I can get my hands on: Michael Lewis, Roger Lowenstein and Scott Patterson, I’ve actually re-read multiple times. Roger Lowenstein’s “When Genius Failed” is a very intricate account of the rise and fall of LTCM. In the case of Michael Lewis, I actually made a book where I reprinted a quote from an essay he wrote for the New York Times about LTCM. Both accounts of LTCM talk about the minds behind the company, many of whom were MIT trained PHDs in physics, that saw their company as an experiment in truth and reason, but who ultimately failed because their models couldn’t account for the market’s lack of reason.

The fascination actually runs even deeper than that though. During the last few years, I actually funded much of my work through gambling in the stock market! I know that sounds messed up, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to try it!  In fact, the reconstruction of Bender’s work in the biennial this past year was in part paid for by that speculation.

Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile (still), 2014Wall sculpture consisting of a 15 minute, two-channel video loop on nine flatscreen televisions, 25.5 in x 324 in x 27 in

Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile (still), 2014
Wall sculpture consisting of a 15 minute, two-channel video loop on nine flatscreen televisions, 25.5 in x 324 in x 27 in

RL: I wouldn’t consider it “messed up.” I prefer this complex position toward The Market, rather than the aloof-and-shallow-lefty-radical artist that is being fucked by the market with no complaint or is actually…an ignorant capitalist pig. Maybe, you are actually onto something. Maybe you can teach it to other artists as a way of escaping the mental coma caused by the 9 to 5 and maintaining a studio practice.

PV: I don’t know if I would recommend it! It can be a white-knuckle experience to watch your account balance go frantically up and down. But on the other hand, I am pretty accustomed to watching money vanish from my bank account (as are most people), so maybe it isn’t that big of a deal nowadays. As Michael Lewis said:  “[you] don’t mind betting the ranch, because, fuck it, it’s just a ranch.”


Ruslana Lichtzier is a Chicago based artist, writer, curator and educator.

Volatility Smile will be at Andrew Rafacz Gallery through January 16, 2015.

Interview continues here.

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