February 26, 2019
Interview with Amanda Ross-Ho
Amanda Ross-Ho's current exhibition HURTS WORST is on view at Kunsthall Stavanger through March 17, 2019. Below, the artist talks with us about her background, her mediation of objects and images, and how she retools her working process for each new project.
I've read that you're originally from Chicago, the daughter of two artists, and that you later went on to receive your BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later and MFA from the University of Southern California. Can you tell us more about your background and if/how this influenced your choice to pursue art as a path of study and career?
Yes, I grew up in Chicago in a house with artist parents. My mom was a photographer and my dad a painter and a photographer… but I also have a lot of other artists in my extended family. My early childhood experience was sculpted by these creative blood relations being around, but also by the general conditions of the early and mid-seventies—my mom was an activist and helped start several alternative galleries in Chicago and was also involved in a women’s collective that practiced collaborative parenting as a sort of pedagogical/social experiment…so I was also influenced by many super smart radical feminist co-parents who raised me and a group of women who I still consider my siblings to this day.
To support his painting practice, my dad photographed artist’s work in addition to working at a commercial photo studio, so as a child I was constantly in artist’s studios, or on a set where they were producing product photography for large Midwestern companies like Sears. This embedded a fascination with ‘behind the scenes’ environments in me from a very young age. As a child, I was instilled with a sense of pro-active, inventive living. Our family house was comprised of spaces of making: my parent’s studios and workspaces—a photography darkroom and a painting studio, a woodshop and a huge playhouse and an extra bedroom that my parents jokingly called my ‘studio’.
I was also a competitive figure skater from age 5-17, which involved training heavily and traveling for competitions and ice shows. This experience taught me how to have a practice, as well as how to combine discipline and expression into one form. I think the influence of my performance background instilled a deep sense of staging and theatricality in my work, and my parents’ role as photographers made me think about all life’s activity somehow always being sensitive to the lens. I ended up quitting skating and going to art school in the mid-nineties, where I studied in the Sculpture, Photography, and Fiber and Material Studies departments at a particular moment within identity politics. I think you can still see the influence of this timing and these departments in my work to this day. After school, I lived in Chicago for about six years, making and showing work in the very active alternative space scene there, and for a little while, playing drums in an all female band. I moved to LA in 2004 after a big break up and also out of a desire to leave Chicago, which had become small to me by that time. I went to USC at an amazing moment in its development, right at the juncture where the school had just reinvented the MFA program and brought on a lot of new faculty and real estate as a result of a large endowment. I studied with Frances Stark, Andrea Zittel, Sharon Lockhart, Charlie White, and many other influential characters there. I’ve been in Los Angeles ever since.
Though you work across a wide range of disciplines – textile, stagecraft, photography, performance, sculpture, painting and installation – your work is often characterized by outsized recreations of everyday objects such as clock faces, shirts, and tote bags. I've heard your working process described as a "mining of everyday images" for the inspirational material for your work. If such mundane objects can be elevated to art, how do you make decisions about what objects and images to work with? Are you looking for something specific, or are you intuitively drawn to certain objects?
Almost all of the work I make stems from some initial point of contact with form, through direct observation or memory. This can take on various metabolisms and manifest as either a long drawn out relationship, or love at first sight. This means the origin of any given work may be something I have lived with for many years, something found on the street, or that crosses my desk in some search for something else, whether it is the internet, a vintage book, or a business card tucked under my windshield. I always say that I cast a wide net in terms of what I allow into my field of vision, and from there I sort through the pieces looking for gems that contain something urgent or eternal. Usually, the things I eventually choose to elevate, amplify, or call attention to are things I have developed some form of intimacy with through one of these channels. The amplification is a ritual celebrating that intimacy. The procedure of recreating something with anatomical accuracy is a method that fosters cellular understanding of the form itself. For me this is a forensic approach like an autopsy or a dissection—a way to totally know but also celebrate a sustained relationship with something. But it’s also romantic.
Your exhibition at Kunsthall, titled HURTS WORST, is the first presentation of your work in Norway. Can you talk about the title and describe the inspiration behind this body of work?
The exhibition HURTS WORST emerged from trying to negotiate a simultaneous experience of acute personal grief and stress combined with the feeling of widespread collective anxiety. Over the last two years, I spent a great deal of time helping some older family members deal with some critical health issues and big transitions as they moved into the late phases of their lives-- basically helping them begin the process of negotiating their deaths. We don't really talk about it much as a culture, but death is a process, a phase, not an event. Anyway, engaging in this intense way with my family meant that I have been spending a great deal of time in medical environments such as hospitals, intensive care units, urgent care facilities, doctor’s offices, and nursing homes, grappling with the fragility of the body and the mind, the temporality of aging, and talking very openly about pain and death. At the same time, America slipped into a fugue state trying to cope under our cruel and systematically abusive new leadership, and all my conversations seemed to center around how to manage the continually sustained and grinding trauma of it. I think this taps into feelings of victimhood a well as the guilt that comes with witnessing horror that you feel powerless to stop, or at least are not efficient enough to end the consequences of. The experience of trying to negotiate this dual consciousness—a personal and collective pain-- is what ultimately necessitated this work. I think the sensation is acute but complex and all encompassing, and the artwork aims to embody these same structural characteristics.
So within these medical environments, I started regularly seeing what is called a Universal Pain Assessment Tool, or Pain Scale, or Pain Measurement Scale, which is a graphic tool originally devised by a pair of American nurses in the early eighties. They devised this scale to help children communicate the complex sensation of pain by creating a set of expressive cartoon facial ideograms that each display a different level of pain from No Pain all the way to Hurts Worst. Soon after, it became clear that this tool could extend to bridge other limitations of communication and help patients with disabilities, language barriers, or simply provide some point of reference to pinpoint and quantify the feeling of pain, which is ultimately, abstract. So many versions of this scale followed, each using a different illustration style and adding elements like text descriptions that use visceral, flowery language like crushing, tearing, breaking point , and a numerical system, rating the pain from 1-10. To make the works in the show, I isolated the most extremely pained face (HURTS WORST, number 10) in 12 different found scales and translated them faithfully into large scale textile works.
I made these myself with an industrial sewing machine. The construction of the pieces is very direct and hand hewn, and the works hold together with a tentative provisionally. Fabric edges are left raw and fraying, threads hang loose all over the place, and there are even moments in which the pieces look like they have been repaired or mended to add a sense of history to each piece. This is intended to be theatrical. I wanted the sensibility of an individual hand and the maker to be very exaggerated and visible in the works to contrast directly with the crisp and utilitarian anonymity of the graphic origin. This friction enacts the mixed company of the personal and collective perspectives.
To that end, this work is also about positionality. I think I became interested in the slippery perspective and recursive relationship between the viewer in relation to the artwork, and the manner in which the source material diagrams a looping subjectivity. In its original iteration and conventional usage, the pain assessment tool is made for the subject in pain, offering an opportunity for them to identify with the most accurate reflection of their suffering in an image. On the other hand, the tool is also meant for the third party, the observer, allowing them an entry point into the abstract subjectivity of the subject. I guess these dynamics of expression are interesting to me, and are relevant in terms of how you might interpret or experience these art works as a viewer in yet another point of perspective in the equation. I think in a conventional sense, we ask artworks to bear the burden of expressing something on behalf of the maker. I guess I challenge this notion, as it seems insular and ultimately myopic. I think I’m interested in a more complex and inclusive system of communication reception. So, while some may see these works as me, the artist, expressing my own pain through the work, I am actually more interested in a more confusing outcome. For me, these works are at their most interesting as outward facing measuring devices, proposing measurement of the diverse origins of pain that all viewers are most certainly—must be!-- feeling, or at least have the vast capacity to feel. The works accommodate an assumed position of global pain.
These artworks were previously shown at Mary Mary in Glasgow, and I know that you have reinvented previously made works before – going so far as to disassemble and relocate your studio walls into the gallery setting. Can you speak to the process of adapting work for specific spaces? Will the artworks shown here change in anyway from their original presentation?
I’m always looking for ways to make sensitive instruments, meaning, it is my hope that everything I make, regardless of its material vehicle, is hyper aware of the conditions of the context, architecture or setting in some way. I actually think of this as a performative implication giving the work a form of stage presence.
In the UK version of the show, the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations in addition to the conditions of American politics made for an interesting context to view this work. I also responded directly to the architecture of the gallery in this iteration of the show, which had two distinct spaces separated by a long hallway. I kind of liked thinking about these two spaces as a waiting room and examination room, referencing the medical source of the work.
At the Kunsthall, the work accommodates the four-room architectural layout of the front spaces, creating a different sense of duration, suspense, and dare I say, comedic timing. By gradually building up a logic and seeing the works more slowly and in repetition, there is a progressive ratcheting of the emotional contents that is different than being confronted with all of the work at once.
In much of your work, you talk about the translation of images, or "pulling images through" from one context into another, sometimes through multiple iterations. Can you elaborate on this process?
I think through my foundation in photography, I have always thought through gestures of mediation, which means the forms I end up being most interested in are secondary to the source. I habitually operate through the secondary document, notions of translation, and the act of shifting the status of know quantities of materiality, context, authority, or meaning. This means taking a form from one realm and pulling it into another where it is a foreign body. The work is a record of closely accounting for the generational losses and gains that result from these transactions. I think it comes from a deep desire to endow things with life, pushing and pulling them through an accelerated history and recording the impact of their time travels. When I say it like that, the acrobatics I subject forms to sounds cruel, and to some degree it is. I guess studying how form and media responds to extreme gesture is a way of testing human limitations and thresholds. I guess in this way, the work is diagrammatic or maybe ritualistic of systemic relations of language, power, agency, and maybe even trauma.
Your work has been compared to contemporary painting, the history of photography, and the work of other artists working in outsized sculpture such as Claes Oldenburg. Do you see yourself working in any specific artistic lineage?
There is an obvious Oldenburg connection, but I actually think it is the most obvious and the least significant. I think I operate in conversation with a legacy of artists who practice conceptual world building, recursive discourse, and in depth material investigation. I am indebted to artists like Mike Kelly, whose rigorous investigations into human pathos, memory, trauma and vernacular culture manifested in myriad material vehicles and forms, massively influential writings, and a gargantuan legacy of mentorship through teaching in Los Angeles. Other artists that consider production, labor, and the performative dimensions of artmaking that have shaped my thinking are Dieter Roth, Fischli and Weiss, Anne Hamilton, Janine Antoni, conceptualists like Bruce Nauman, Al Ruppersberg… materialists like Gordon Matta Clark, Haim Steinbach, Cady Noland, Annette Messager, Lynda Benglis…some of my teachers like Frances Stark…
In a previous review of your work in Frieze, Dan Fox writes, "Art occurs in fits-and-starts; it’s made across periods of boredom and excitement, compressed into moments of intense activity and stretched across spells of necessary dormancy." Can you tell us about your creative process? Do you in fact work in bursts, as in the case of your frenzied month of painting at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, or is your practice generally more consistent?
I re- tool and re configure my working methodology every time I make a work or a body of work. It’s kind of impractical, but necessary. I think this is a sensibility informed by my background in performance and my experience working in spaces of production, where you are entering into a new project of world building for each outing. Of course, sometimes these phases are long, or overlap, so as I do this, my muscle memories, skill sets, and former works inform new gestures, and there is a collective psychic residue of all of my work that lingers from one piece to another.
This means I sometimes restructure the physical layout of my studio, tools and equipment, engage in collaborations, call upon specialists and technicians to consult or to play a direct role in the production of something. Sometimes producing the work involves tons of people, and sometimes I am alone, making things directly with my hands in solitude. I like this shifting and elastic methodology, and while I like being productive, I try to resist creating too efficient of a manufacturing model in the studio. It ruins ideas and the conditions I need to maintain the work as an intellectual project.
Do you have any other upcoming projects or works in progress that you can share with us?
I have a couple of projects I can’t speak about yet, but that I am excited about. I can say I plan to continue the HURTS WORST series, and hope to evolve the works into something quite different for the next outing that I present them in. Stay tuned. I have also become obsessed with the idea of making books, and have started a collaboration to produce a publication which I can hopefully announce soon. I have also started doing some extended research looking at vintage Sears catalogs that I am buying on Ebay, which contain photographs taken by my father in the 80’s and 90’s. I also have a lot of my father’s photographic archives and I am thinking about how I can do something with this strange form of family history, and what it means to look at the creative labor of my family member and the ways it extended into public space and reached a large audience in such a major way. There’s a confusing provenance to the images which I am super interested in, because they are incredibly personal as well as public domain. I’m not sure what it will become yet, but I’m excited about working with the two conjoined archives. I’m also busy in my role as a professor at the University of California, Irvine, where I teach graduate and undergraduate students. This has become more and more integrated into my daily life, and I am thinking more about how pedagogy is a form I’d like work with beyond classroom teaching, possibly manifesting in more performative dimensions. It’s beginning to inform my work more significantly because iit has become so intimate: it is the community and language of exchange I am close to on a daily basis. This isn’t a surprise. I always end up absorbing and transforming my immediate surroundings a primary material.