Clothes are a powerful medium. Imbue them with bigger meaning and they become electric – it’s when fashion goes beyond a bit of cloth, however nice that may be. When conceptually loaded pieces step off the catwalk and hit the streets it’s a performance, albeit subliminal; one where life and art collide in the most direct way.
For Californian artists Brian Roettinger, Dylan Riley and Sarah Rara and Luke Fischbeck (aka Sumi Ink Club), the body is an additional exhibition space this season: they were among those who contributed the artworks that punctuated Hedi Slimane’s Cali-themed autumn/winter 2013 menswear catwalk for Saint Laurent, from t-shirts – a perfect canvas, figuratively speaking – to such haute items as one-off handpainted biker jackets and a hand-beaded couture cape.
There has been a history of dialogue between art and fashion at the Parisian label ever since its founder put a Mondrian on a shift dress in 1965. What’s interesting about these artists is how their practices have a bleeding-edge rather than compartmentalised nature. For instance, Roettinger, Fischbeck and Rara also play music on the side – and Roettinger has a long-running No Age collaboration as well as providing concepts/art direction for bands such as Liars and Beach House.
From the dead rats of Riley’s work and the dense punk imagery of Sumi Ink Club to the paint daubs inspired by photocopying of Roettinger, this west-coast dream team make hands-on art that inspires. We asked them what drives their creativity.
Brooklyn-born Brian Roettinger, whose “Licht Und Blindheit, no. 86, 2013” leads this article, grew up in Newhall, a suburb of Los Angeles, and spent the mid 90s skateboarding and playing in “a half-rate punk band.” He later started designing record sleeves for friends and labels and founded his own music imprint, Hand Held Heart, with money he earned working in a post office. Today the majority of his design work is in the form of printed media, from album artwork and books to posters for cultural institutions, galleries, artists and architects. “It’s a very collaborative process and one that is defined by being hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech,” he says. “I also make a lot of work as a fine artist which is totally separate from my design work, but at times they merge. They’re sleeping with each other, but not dating.”
Dean Mayo Davies: How do you feel about the role of the exhibition? Do you prefer more tactile media – records, sleeves, prints – to gallery shows?
Brian Roettinger: I guess that’s the difference between art and design, right? Design is usually for a larger audience, and art is for a limited audience. Both are produced in most cases for profit and are attached to a commercial enterprise. I do enjoy the fact that album covers, books and zines are entirely accessible and can inspire as much as, say the permanent collection at MOCA. We live in a physical world so it’s still important for us as humans to have intimate relationships with physical things. As much as books and records are going away I think they will never be dead, it’s just impossible. They could become the new art, and be produced for a limited audience and live in the gallery for six weeks. Can you imagine if an album was produced as an artwork for a gallery setting and could only be purchased and heard at a gallery for six weeks? I don’t think we’re far from that happening.
DMD: Is your abstract work shaped by accident or a more conscious breakdown of information?
BR: As a visual thinker, I tend to feel conscious of all aspects of the thinking and making process. I always embrace accidents and the unknown but am very aware of these moments occurring. It’s really about having unexpected expectations. Design should in most cases take a back seat to content. Abstraction can be subtle and allow for new ideas to be represented, devoid of the literal. Understanding abstraction allows the viewer to develop their own ideas and answers and in the end it can educate the viewer or allow them to form an opinion. Is that harsh?
DMD: Imagine we’re curating The Ultimate Brian Roettinger show. What would be in it and where would the exhibition take place?
BR: It would be a travelling roadshow following the path of the sun, and would include:
1. No Age: Everything in Between (LP/book).
The book and the record have a symbiotic relationship. They co-exist and couldn’t live any other way.
2. SCI-Arc autumn 2007 lecture poster.
The printer was in utter fear, as I was crumbling the posters as they were coming off the press.
3. In the Good Name of the Company (book/exhibition).
Los Angeles has a history of destroying its history. The Colby Poster Company existed in Los Angeles for 64 years. This is a celebration of the posters and the city.
4. Liars: Sisterworld (CD/LP).
I’m still looking for this portal.
5. Collage Culture (book/exhibition with companion soundtrack by No Age).
It’s now never impossible to make something devoid of influence.
SUMI INK CLUB
Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara, who between them work across sound, video, film, photography and performance, are the creatives behind Sumi Ink Club, a non-hierarchical, in-the-moment communal drawing group generating conversation among strangers. With micro-memories embedded in each piece, the works are used as material to be translated, layered and contextualised in books, textiles and prints. Rara and Fischbeck also play music as Lucky Dragons, working with a humanistic use of digital tools and software that reads sound from visual patterns. Their new album is released this autumn on the Teenage Teardrops label.
Dean Mayo Davies: What have been some of your favourite creative exchanges of Sumi Ink Club so far?
Luke Fischbeck: Finding out about new groups meeting as Sumi Ink Club is the ultimate creative exchange for us, because it shows that the open-source design of the club is really working. There have been dozens: schoolchildren in Brooklyn and India, art centres in the UK, Canada and Indonesia, even other groups in LA that we didn’t know about.
DMD: Does a Punk/DIY mentality drive you?
Sarah Rara: I’m a punk and always will be. It’s a way of framing things and guiding one’s intentions. Punk is diverse, so I would never speak for punk as a single worldview, but my personal take is that it involves transparency, clarity, agency and a commitment to non-violence – ‘no’ to hierarchy and inequality, ‘yes’ to attempting things that are difficult or violate norms, envisioning and creating a better place to live, helping the community and providing platforms for others to share their work.
DMD: Imagine we’re curating The Ultimate Sumi Ink Club exhibition. What work would be in there?
LF: The ultimate Sumi Ink Club wouldn’t have any work in it yet – it would just be an ideal situation for meeting and making new work. In the Club’s drawings, you can see the desire to become a purely open and always-expanding cloud with endless space for all voices. In practicality, this means always starting over: make a new drawing, move on. Punk imagination is infinite territory, immaterial trash.
Land-artist Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown opened the door to modern and contemporary art for Dylan Riley, shaping the way he’s come to view and make work. “I think a lot of us derive pleasure, masochistic or otherwise, from the creation of art,” he explains. “For me this includes working out the logistical aspects as well as tackling the more hands-on issues throughout the process.” He recently launched dylanpriley.com, and his last series worked birds-eye images of LA into a series of filtered, abstract drawings.
Dean Mayo Davies: How is your work evolving?
Dylan Riley: It’s rather difficult for me to anticipate where my work is going but looking back I can see a fairly coherent arc. A majority of my work comes from an obsession with repetitive action. Tedium, for me, is the easiest way to tap into the self. It’s a selfish and probably masturbatory way to make work but something about an obsessive process and the occupation of my body allows for freer introspection. A lot of my struggle as an artist lies in maintaining that cathartic aspect of creation while creating a visually and conceptually interesting piece.
DMD: What role does the cultural mythology of the West Coast play in your work?
DR: The west has a pretty romanticised place in the American mythology. In an almost kitsch manner, it represents a new start. It is the American adventure. It is a place to set out on your own, to follow your dreams, and to leave behind your apprehensions, fears and shortcomings. In the literal west, in places like LA and San Francisco, that mythological escape route does not exist. And it’s a bit of a driving thing. When you grow up there, or when you are there, there is a need for things to go right, for everything to work. There is no further west to escape to if you stagnate – there is just the ocean.
BRIAN ROETTINGER, SUMI INK CLUB (LUKE FISCHBECK AND SARA RARA), DYLAN RILEY
INTERVIEW DEAN MAYO DAVIES
ARTWORK COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS
DAZED & CONFUSED, OCTOBER 13