Interview: How Can You Build A Ruin…Much Less a Noble One?

June 15, 2017

“Every morning when I shave, I greet my noble ruin. It is my most honest memoir.” In this interview I explore and explain my current show “Building the Noble Ruin” being presented at Anderson Ranch Art Center.

“Building the Noble Ruin” is actually two series of new works melded together. As you created each series through the years, did you always envision presenting them side by side?
No, I didn’t. I really worked on them separately for a while—until I began seeing them talking to each other. I view the “Upon Reflection” series as a look at nobility before a ruin, and I view the “Ruins” series as the aftermath, and the opportunity for more nobility.

How can you build a ruin…much less a noble one?
Ruins offer a doorway into the past. At that portal we ask, “What manner of stones and what buildings?” We imagine what once was, prior to the fall or the push. Taking a breath in that past moment, without the awareness of what comes next, we supply the missing elements. There was a tower. There was a baths. Listen for the roar of the crowd. Catch the spark of that disco ball. Smell the sweat of liberation. And perhaps, standing among the ruins, we can see the nobility that rises from the ashes—a nobility that might not have been realized otherwise.

When I say nobility, I don’t mean the nobility of status. I mean the nobility of action. I’m talking about the nobility of an ethical, moral stand—the nobility of authority, courage, honor, energy, sacrifice. I mean liberty, freedom, pride, and love. This is nobility to me.

As cultures, as people, we’re in a constant state of disintegration and decay. We’re in a non-stop fall from innocence. We walk on the ashes of our ancestors and provide the footpath for our descendants. Here among the ruins there is really no return to “normal.” There is no escape. To deny this, it seems to me, would be a lie. So what to do? If I don’t want to participate in this noble lie, I must become the noble ruin. Every morning when I shave, I greet my noble ruin. It is my most honest memoir.

Both series were initiated during your time as an artist-in-residence at Anderson Ranch in the fall of 2012. Why do the starting dates attributed to these long-gestating individual works precede that?
My art reflects more than a single moment. It reflects and addresses the experiences of a long and rich life. I say “long” because I never expected to live more than 18 months past my HIV diagnosis. That was 30 years ago. Many of the folks in my life were not so fortunate. I look at each of these pieces as a recording of time. My time. These are meditations on the people who have taught and touched me, the cities and sites around the world that have of filled my senses, the art that has made me cry and so on.

Part of what each work investigates is how time and moments overlap each other into the present. And so, each of the pieces in both series reflect the moment in time that the work is about—or, for me, what the work itself is about.

It’s most obvious with the photographs, because each image was taken at a very specific moment in time. For me, that’s when those works begin, when the process begins, when the story begins.

Each ceramic piece is tied to a moment in my life where a personally significant event happened. Every piece starts with that experience, with each added layer being a diary entry, or a story that gets told time and time again, changing with each retelling.

Since you’ve decided these two series are to co-exist, tell me how “Ruins” and “Upon Reflection” are similar, how they are different.
Both offer ways of looking—and, for me, of talking about—the past, the present, and the future. They are ways of considering how a moment, a place, or a people exists, degrades, comes into existence again, and degrades again. It’s the same for an individual or a community. We develop a surface, a skin, a presence. It shows the marks of our experience, the colors of our lives. Then, it’s shattered, damaged, or we simply shed it… The new skin that develops shows all the marks of the past, like a patina. At the same time, it offers a new canvas to capture new experiences. Each piece in either series starts with a foundational moment, and then each of those moments is built upon through time and through experience.

The chief difference between them is that the “Upon Reflection” series builds on a communal experience—a moment in the gay community—whereas the “Ruins” series builds on my personal experience. “Ruins” are chapters in my memoir. Here, the fires of time bake and capture it into a solid form. It is for someone else to break them open. “Upon Reflection” releases the moment frozen in a photograph. I want these men to breathe, to interact with the viewer and the elements.

Tell me more about your fascination with layers.
Layers represent moments in space and time, and I think they provide us with a literal as well as a metaphorical way of examining and understanding these elements. I think the contemporary American view of the world is not one of layers but one of trajectory—a much more linear perspective. But layers are not linear, they don’t exist independently of one another. We build our histories on the backs of our ancestors, for example. It’s not as though our ancestors are gone. They continue to live within us. I am here living my life as a safe, openly gay man because of my ancestors. That’s a way of layering. It’s a way of melding and blending the things that we have learned and the times in which we live. And it opens the door to the question, “What am I leaving behind for my descendants? How strong is my back?”

There came a point in my life where things became so difficult because of HIV. Between work and friends, home and health, it had taken over my entire existence. I was living in a world of loss upon loss. In an effort to understand, I started reading and studying history, studying the foundations of world literature. What I found is that things were rarely very different than they are in our current place and time. The way we treat each other, good and bad, has been the same pretty much throughout our recorded history.

About 12 years ago, I realized that “living in response to HIV” had taken over my life. At the time, I was doing AIDS-related work in Africa. I had been positive for 20-plus years. My professional and community work was all about responding to crisis. At some point, it all became too much. I severely burned out. I got physically sick. I was so psychologically exhausted that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read. I had to change my life.

I stepped away from my business. My partner and I moved to Italy. And as I started to feel better, I thought, “How do I understand what just happened to me? How do I engage it in a way that’s helpful for me?” I decided to go back to the beginning. I started reading Homer, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, Dante, and “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” This led me to reading more about world history. It all helped me understand that the times in which we live are not that much different from other moments in the history of humanity. Good things and bad things have been happening for as long as we’ve been recording them. This gave me a window through which I could view my l own life and times—a window that is not centric to my moment in history or my culture.

The other thing is that people in my era suffered a great loss of our community. In the ’80s, I probably lost 100 friends and saw death all around me, which got me reading about the plagues of Europe, Asia and Africa. I tried to understand what happens to individuals and cultures when there’s a big loss like that—when a generation of people disappears, when infrastructures collapse. This led me to the idea of time and stories being layers.

This awareness gives me comfort because, while my particular experience is my experience, it’s not that unique, not that different from the experience other people have had. By saying, “Well, this is not unique in humankind or humanity,” I find a way to deal with the challenges in my life. I can see how other people dealt with these challenges, how other people throughout history have dealt with and tried to understand these things that went on in their lives. In a way, I get to engage all of humanity’s and history’s efforts to deal with trauma, catastrophe, joy…all the things that make up life. If every layer lies over the preceding one, then I can reach back through those layers and have access to all that wisdom and all that intelligence.

As you apply and excavate layers, do you have a theme or goal in mind, or is it much more organic, where you let the river take you where it wants you.
It’s either. It’s both. The pieces in “Ruins” are made from layers and layers of clay laid on top of one another. I make a layer, then I mark, paint, or write on it. Then I put another layer on top of it and repeat the process. Over and over again. Finally, I grind back through the piece with a diamond grinder. When I grind through it, I generally know what every layer consists of because I’ve photographed it and documented it as I added the layers. I know what’s four layers down. So I can reveal things we would not see on the surface. It’s the same idea as layers of time bleeding through.

But sometimes it’s the serendipity of what’s beneath the layers that interests me. So I don’t pay attention to what lies beneath, and instead, I just excavate down and see what comes next, see how one layer integrates with another or how it doesn’t. There’s great pleasure of discovery within that.

Is there method to your creative madness—when do you know a layered piece is done?
I think the challenge for any artist is to know when the apex has been reached. Because certainly, I’ve had the experience—and I know other people have had the experience—of going too far, of not recognizing that moment. If you go past that perfect point, the work starts to get muddled, it starts to lose focus. I try to be aware of when what I’m doing and what I’m trying to say has reached its peak.

With “Ruins” in particular, because I really am adding layers and then grinding back through them, it becomes even more literal in the sense that adding one more layer could kill it. Grinding down a little deeper, I might just go right through it. I think it’s the combination of being aware of what you’re trying to say on top of a visual aesthetic. It’s sort of like answering this question. I’ll say more and more words, but it won’t make more and more sense. The idea is to try to cut it at that very moment when you know it’s at its most relevant and at its most aesthetically pleasing. When all those things click at the same time, that’s the point you need to know when and how to stop.

You are many things—among them, Italian American, gay, HIV-positive, a survivor. How does each of these affect your process, and how do you see them co-existing?
My initial response is that they’re all just part of me, so I don’t really see them as separate. But I do see the variety of impacts they have on me, and the variety of ways they inform how I see the world. I’ll try to break it down in a couple of different ways.

One, the aspect of being a survivor and being HIV positive has made me keenly aware of mortality, mine and other people’s. The result is a constant reminder to cherish every moment and every person, and to pay less attention to things and more attention to people in the moment.

The thing about the queer identity—besides the personal experience of prejudice, and the personal experience of being an outsider and looking at the world from that outsider perspective—is that ours is a make-do culture. It’s not a culture that survives or thrives on what you’d call a strong theory—like Marxism or Modernism—which poses itself as an answer for every occasion. Queer culture, identity, and queer art are about creating out of necessity and creating in the moment. I also think one of the aspects of “queerness” is that you need to be observant. You need to be aware of what’s around you, aware of how to be in the center, and aware of how to be on the fringe. You have to be able to communicate with other people on the fringe and those in the center.

Tell me the why and how of using vintage, sometimes iconic, gay imagery as the basis of “Upon Reflection”?
One first has to answer the questions, “What is iconic? And to whom?”

Stepping back from the question a bit, I need to say that when I’ve shown some of these works to people who are unfamiliar with gay history or gay iconography, they don’t even see gay men in those pictures. I—and other members of the gay community—see iconic queer images. But these other people don’t at all. Rather, they see cowboys, bikers, workers, or just guys hanging out in a bar. For them, it not only is devoid of a specific time and place, it’s devoid of a cultural identification or history, which I find fascinating because, for me, these images represent such a specific cultural moment in time. They are so clearly iconic.

For example, my source image for the triptych Fraternitas Misericordia in pace prima del diluvio /At Peace Before the Deluge comes from a 1964 Life magazine article called “Homosexuality in America.” It was the first mainstream article that discussed homosexuality in a not entirely negative way. The tone of the article was, “Things are changing. These people are gathering. Despite their sad, pathetic existence, they not embarrassed. Surprisingly, they are sharing support and comfort in the face of hatred.” The article was a warning to Middle America. But this photo, this article, told gay people across the country that there were some places that offered community, safety, and identity. It served as an unintentional recruiting poster. It said, “Get your butt to a big city!” The Stonewall Riots happened five years later—almost to the day. Many gay men would agree that this is a very, very important image to gay culture and to gay history. But individuals outside of our community would not see it that way. So, that’s just a side I found fascinating.

I took that image—which is of the Toolbox, a long gone bar in San Francisco—and rearranged it in the style of an early-Renaissance sacred triptych. I’m intrigued by the early-Renaissance practice of placing patrons, theirs ancestors, and saints from a mix of times as watchers or vigilantes into sacred fresco. Rather than allowing a special moment—in queer history, in human history, in my history—to be set into a nostalgic amber, I want to pull it through time into the present. Pulling people from the past into our present allows us to step into the past.

Part of how I started this project was by going through photographs at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco—combing its archives of images people took of their friends, groups of men in different settings. These particular “Upon Reflection” images were taken primarily in a bar setting, but I have other pictures for the series of guys at the beach, guys on motorcycle runs, guys hanging out together in ways that were supportive and secure and important in the development of the community. I specifically selected pictures that communicated a combination of the camaraderie, sexuality, support, and engagement that these environments provided at that time—in particular, when it was not as safe to be a gay man, and where being together was much more important. I wanted pictures that captured a time before AIDS.

You use multiple media in creating each piece—ceramic, painting, projection, photography. Why do these seem like natural bedfellows to you?
I think of myself as a storyteller, and those different media are different words, different languages, basically. I’ll use whatever medium is relevant to me to tell my story—in whichever way I think I can manipulate it, whichever way I can enforce or reinforce the story I’m trying to tell. I’m not bound to a particular medium. In fact, as an artist, I’m a procedural deviant. I’m interested and engaged with how I can use media in ways that are not traditionally used. How can I push our perception or our ideas about what we’re seeing by combining media in ways that are unusual or not expected?

If I think of it as a writer, I want to figure out how to combine words that are unique and that capture the attention of the listener. As a visual artist, I’m trying to do the same thing with materials. I want to stop people—stop them for a moment and get them to pay attention to whatever it is I’ve created. Perhaps they will be captured by an aesthetic beauty of balance, light, color and composition. Or their response may be intellectual. I try to embed questions into people’s heads to make them stop: “How did he do that?” “How did that image, that thing I’m seeing, come into being?” Combining materials is one of the ways I can do that.

I think part of my personal philosophy in general, but also as an artist, is about approaching and honoring history—history in terms of its content and its relevance, but also in terms of its materials. I’m not particularly attracted to—don’t feel I need to engage in—choices of materials or techniques simply because they’re new. In fact, I’m more interested in artisanal techniques that have a history. For example, in ceramics or woodworking or stone-working—all those artisanal techniques and materials carry with them millennia of people using them. I’m very interested in taking advantage of that history.

I think of ceramic as the alpha and omega of art materials. The very first examples of art in existence are in clay. And clay will be the last thing providing clues of our existence long after humanity is gone. As a material, it holds all the memory that we put into it. It is as close as humans will ever get to holding, in our hands, the concept of perpetuity.

With “Ruins,” I wanted to embed memory into them. These are my memoirs. These are my noble ruins. I was recording my own life. The things you create—memories, stories, images—bleed through. They’re present and not present at the same time. I put the two bodies of work together out of a desire to speak with a variety of words. I felt like they were close enough to being in the same paragraph.

Not to mention that part of my interest in making art, and my interest in communicating, lies in juxtaposing the new and the old in order to complicate our assumptions—using old materials as a way of looking at the new, or using new materials as a way of looking at the old.

I find it interesting that, in the “Ruins” series, sometimes you present the ruins themselves, sometimes you present a photograph of a ruin, and sometimes you show us both.
After making each piece, I photograph it with a high-powered camera that gives me a 700-megapixel image of a two square inch section. The resulting close-up allows us to go into the ceramic and into the ruin itself in more detail than the naked eye can. So it allows us to engage in a much deeper and ultimately more intimate level. At some point in time, the ruins of Pompeii were just the wreckage of a disaster. Now they are treasures. I wanted to present my ruins both ways—one as a high-resolution detail that can take you deeper into the experience, and one that’s very tangible and that you can rub your fingers over to make it not at all abstract but very literal.

A couple of these ruins are mounted directly on the wall. Others are embedded in steel and lead. When they started removing those frescoes from Pompeii, they embedded them in plaster or concrete. Because these are contemporary ruins, I wanted to present them in terms that honored the tradition, but also in terms of the fact that they are contemporary. I didn’t want them to look like antiques.

Are there outtakes that were left on the cutting room floor, or have all these pieces been slated for the show quite intentionally from the very beginning?
There are certainly many pieces that didn’t make it to this show, or any other show. Making art and presenting it is an editing process. There are always works that are either not ready for prime time, or that may not be right in a particular environment. I approach setting an exhibition like a theatre piece. I think about the viewer’s experience from before they walk through the door until they are at home thinking about what they have seen. You can checkout additional works in each series on my website.

Here’s a fairly precise question about one of the works in “Ruins.” When I look at the piece “When You Love a Man Enough,” I see thighs and an anus. Is that what you see? Are these works supposed to be Rorschach tests for the viewer?
That’s interesting. I’d have to go back and look at it because I don’t recall seeing that in there. But it’s wonderful that you do. That’s fantastic that you do! There are other instances where people have said something similar about what they see or what they assume, and to be honest, I don’t see that.

For me, I don’t think I distinguish—especially with the piece you mention—between the abstract and the figurative as directly. If I go back and look at it, I may see it, but to be honest, if I had seen it as directly as you’re describing it, I might not have chosen it for inclusion in the series. Not for any censoring purposes, but because I don’t want to be as literal as that.

I saw what I saw, and then, when I discovered the work’s title, it all made sense to me. I certainly equate giving yourself to a man in that way as a testament of love. The image and the title worked together in my mind. So it’s awesome that that’s not what you intended at all.
To me, that’s the goal. I might give you some sign posts. Perhaps the title will set you in a direction. And then you take it and say, “Here’s my literal interpretation of this.” What could be a better conversation?

My intention is for you to have that experience of finding yourself in the work. Looking at the piece again, I see that now, and I’m curious to see if others will see that as well. But that title comes from the Nina Simone song where she says, “When you love a man enough, you’re bound to disagree, ’cause ain’t nobody perfect, ’cause ain’t nobody free.” Sorry to pop your bubble. But that’s what I love to hear. Part of what I’m trying to do is put the elements there, and the statement I make to the viewer is “Here are these things, you take them where they go next.”

Take the work انا احبك / I Love You, Dude. It refers to my introduction to Sufism, an esoteric branch of Islam, by the first man I fell in love with. I was 21 and curious. He was straight, loving, and not at all homophobic. It was my first bromance. He allowed me to safely move past my youthful anxieties about having feelings for another man. He opened my heart. Sufism opened me to new spiritual dimensions. Now, that and my love for some of the other Muslins I’ve had the honor of knowing is what that work is about for me. The typical viewer will know none of that…and it’s not important that he or she does. I can only infuse the works with my feelings and experience. What I’m trying to do is put the elements there, and the statement I make to the viewer is, “Here are these things. You take them where they go next.”

What other kinds of conversations do you want to ignite/incite with your work in these two series?
There are conversations with me—like we just had—that are about what the work means and what it is. And much of what we’ve been talking about is the conversation I want to incite in people.

In addition, one of the issues that I’ve been thinking about and working on in the past few years is the gap between generations of gay men—the gap between those who were active and engaged in the world, the community, and the arts prior to AIDS, and those who came afterward or during. The tradition used to be one of older gay men mentoring and helping younger gay men figure out how to survive in the world. And then, for a 15-year gap, with the loss of a generation, I think that tradition of mentoring younger gay men was broken. And so part of my work, especially in the “Upon Reflection” series, is to engage people of either generation into conversation about what that time was like, what was going on before the epidemic, what was the culture about, and how is it different now?

I think the problem with how we generally look at history is that we build it around big moments in time, around the assumption that those big moments in time were somehow anticipated. But look at the people in those pictures. They had no idea. They were not living their lives knowing that an epidemic was forthcoming, that their lives would be disrupted in the way that it was. Who were they? What were they like? What were they experiencing at that point in time? I think it’s very hard for us—especially for people who didn’t live through that moment—to imagine a time when AIDS was unimagined. So a big part of my goal is to stimulate the idea of what was going on with our people, what were they talking about, what were they doing, what happens next in those moments? Those guys standing around together, were they dishing about the hot man who just walked into the bar? Were they sharing quiche recipes and talking about what they saw on TV the night before? What is happening in that moment just beyond the frame of the image? What happened next?

You have a long history with Anderson Ranch. What does it mean to be back there?
It’s an honor to be invited to exhibit at the Ranch. I was approaching 50 when I decided to really take making art seriously. Anderson Ranch—the people there, the teachers, and especially Artistic Director Doug Casebeer—were among the people who said, “We respect that, we appreciate that, and we understand what that means and the challenges that that might present. We are a community that encourages and supports all kinds of artists.” It holds a very special place in my heart. That was in 2008, and I’ve come back every year to do workshops in the summertime. And then, in 2012, to do a residency. Again, the people that have funded, worked at, and are the community of Anderson Ranch have created an environment where artists like myself can really dive into the practice of art-making without the distractions of the outside world. So the opportunity to come back here and have my art presented in this environment—part of it is just as a “thank you” to the people at the Ranch, and part of it is hopefully to encourage artists of all different kinds to not be bound by what they may believe their limitations are.

The Artist’s Reception is at the end of the show rather than at the beginning. How will that impact you?
Since I’ve been coming to Anderson Ranch and to this area, it’s made me aware that when one lives in San Francisco—which is a remarkably unique environment for gay men, for gay people—it’s easy to assume that that everyone else has that experience, or even wants that experience. So my other reason for wanting to do a show here was to engage in conversation with the local gay community, on its terms, about some of these issues. Having the Artist’s Reception at the end of the event will give people an opportunity to see the work and then engage with me.

As a matter of fact, AspenOut, the LGBT organization here in the valley, is hosting an event with Anderson Ranch for the local gay community. I really wanted to do a special reception just with them. Hopefully, my art speaks to everyone. But there are some conversations with “family” that can be very special.

Any last thoughts?
Just one: The “Upon Reflection” piece Tonight, forth ripple messages in code started with a photograph of an early ’80s gay bar that no longer exists. I find that viewers interpret some things they see—in this case, visual distortion—through the technologies they’re most familiar with. Older viewers compare the distortion in this piece to an old television that has lost its horizontal control. But people who are more familiar with computers see digital manipulation. The truth of the matter is that the image was made projecting the archival photograph onto a wooden staircase.

Last month, a gay couple bought this image. They both found it powerful and moving, but had entirely different takes on the room and the distortion. One, who was out and active and engaged in this community during this time saw a barrier to a wonderful time he couldn’t get back to. He had celebrated in that place and time, but the changes in culture, in the community, meant he couldn’t return. It’s all gone. The other one, who is about the same age but didn’t come out until 10 years ago, saw it as a place he never got to go. “Had I come out,” he said, “I could have been there. I fantasized about being there, but I never got to join the party.” What I love is that they were both so impacted by it that they purchased it, but for entirely different reasons.

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