Art Seen: National

PROFILE OF THE ARTIST PT I // DEB SOKOLOW

In Conversation with Joshua Michael Demaree

Part I

Deb Sokolow is the closest thing contemporary art has to a private eye. Her drawings, like a good detective, lay out the plots points of a mystery and allows the viewer to put the pieces together. She has a masterful grasp of the interplay between the visual and the written, pulling both elements together to create work that is as invested in intrigue as it is in the artistry of drawing. Based in Chicago, Sokolow has received national attention for her work and is included Phaidon Press’ second volume in a seminal collection of international contemporary drawers, Vitamin D2: New Perspectives in Drawing (2013).

Sokolow recently traveled to Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art as part of the institution’s ICA@50: Pleasing Artists and Publics Since 1963 series of microexhibitions celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. The series asks artists to reflect on the ICA and its past exhibitions in a series of new peformances, exhibitions, and programming. Sokolow’s contribution to the show includes four new drawings that trace several mysterious occurences in the institution’s past: surreptitious donations from the cheesesteak industry, beaucratic battles over flooring updates, scenes from Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976) ending up on the cutting room floor, and the possible drugging of artists with inflated egos.

Able to deftly combine conspiracy, humor, and art making, I was able to speak with Sokolow about the microexhibition and to get some insights into her practice.

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Press Image for Deb Sokolow, ICA@50: Pleasing Artists and Publics Since 1963, curated by Anthony Elms at the ICA Philadelphia, 2014.

Joshua Michael Demaree: I think I first saw your work at the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I thought it was fantastic this play on the  archive, the desire to connect all the pieces together, how you playfully make the pieces up but the work (though humorous) takes itself seriously. I think of you as contemporary art’s (postmodern) private eye. How do you see yourself and your work? Do you see yourself more as a sleuth or a trickster as an artist? A mixture of the two?

Deb Sokolow: Let me just say that I love mysteries and television show procedurals, so I would probably think of myself as an amateur detective. I think I’m a pretty good detective, but I’ve been told by my life partner that I’m the worst detective ever. He tells me I’m always focusing on the wrong thing while ignoring the elephant in the room. We’ve been conducting a long-running stakeout in recent months to catch whoever it is that steals our Sunday morning New York Times, without much success, and we bicker a bit on how to do it and who’s doing a better job of it.

Still, I think of myself as more of a detective than trickster. And maybe more of a writer-artist than an artist-artist. I always have big dreams of making abstract drawings and collages without any kind of text, but when I sit down to attempt it, I can’t seem to do it. The text always ends up in the mix. But I would never go so far as to say that I’m a writer-writer. I have a ton of respect for writer-writers, and I have neither the skills nor the patience to just write.

JMD: I read a New York Times profile that called you “zany.” Silliness is a huge theme within contemporary art that is rarely written about. Maybe because it is so easy to appear degrading when you say someone’s work is silly. How do you envision the humorous qualities of your narratives? Do you see your work as “zany”?

DS: I never think of the work as “zany,” but if a critic for the New York Times wants to call what I do zany, I’ll take it. I’m incredibly flattered that anyone from the New York Times would want to review anything I do. And “zany” is definitely better than “whimsical.” Whimsical is the worst. Whimsical implies that the work is light and airy, and I think of it as the exact opposite. Maybe “zany” also implies this, but to a lesser extent. As humorous and ridiculous as I might make the story or the thought process of my narrator, there is always a darker layer in the work, a suspicion or distrust for an institution or a system or for the true motivations of people with power or for my narrator and for the facts that he/she uses to tell a story.

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Source material from Deb Sokolow’s personal archive, a shot of Rocky’s gym.

JMD: I can only imagine your process akin to those tortured ex-cop bulletin boards that use strings to connect all the plot points. That’s what your work feels like underneath. Then the drawing or book is a distillation of your own web of interests. Like in these four drawings for the ICA that link Rocky to cheesesteaks to the ICA—all Philadelphia institutions that haven’t (but, as you suggest, should) be connected.

DS: Oh yes! I love those bulletin boards that connect individuals and entities. I don’t have one in my studio, but maybe I need one? Maybe this would make the work easier to make? As it is, all of those parts are in my head, and every time I have to do a project for an exhibition, I practically have a brain aneurysm trying to connect the dots in my head. I usually end up figuring out those connections while I’m washing the dishes or taking the train. Any kind of “aha!” moment like that hardly ever happens in the studio when I’m really trying to make it happen. And yes, your words, “the drawing or book is a distillation of the web of interests”… this is a perfect description of what I’m trying to do. If only I had an actual bulletin board, I might be able to do it better.

JMD: You create a wonderful kind of hypertext narrative; one that creates several connections between each drawing in the series as well as connecting to moment’s throughout the city’s history and the viewer’s own knowledge. Do you view your work as interactive and performative? It is a special quality that is not always associated with drawing.

DS: I do think of the work as interactive and performative, at least I am always hoping it will function this way for a viewer/reader. I know I haven’t made a good piece when people refuse to engage with it. I know people don’t usually want to read art, so that’s always the challenge- to make something that someone would actually want to read. Success for me is when people will read it. I love the way a slow reader will navigate through one of my larger pieces while a fast reader will have to impatiently walk around the slow reader. And then maybe one of them will laugh out loud and the other one will want to know which part was funny. And then it becomes a group read situation, especially if there are others that are attempting to travel through the piece at the same time. And there’s always someone who will start at the end and read it backwards, which I think is great. I once made a piece that worked its way across a series of walls from right to left. A very angry graphic designer wrote a review about that piece, calling me out for not understanding the rules of laying out a linear narrative.

JMD: Have you ever read Jorge Luis Borge’s “The Garden of Forking Paths”? He was invested in hypertext as well. How one text can connect with itself in a variety of ways that isn’t just linear cause-and-effect.

DS: I’ve never read “The Garden of Forking Paths” but will. Any other recommends I will gladly accept. I just plowed through everything Kafka wrote (which isn’t that much!) so I would be in the right frame of mind to write work about an institution (for the ICA show). Now I’m into the short stories of Lydia Davis, hoping these will help me write some shorter excerpts of text for small, disparate drawings.

Pt II of this interview will continue on THE SEEN.


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Deb Sokolow’s microexhibition, curated by associate ICA curator Anthony Elms, will be on display alongside a bi-weekly growing collection of works in the ongoing ICA@50: Pleasing Artists and Publics Since 1963 through August 16.

Joshua Michael Demaree lives in Philadelphia where he works at an independent book store. He is both a licensed driver and a dedicated taxpayer.

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