The Pains of Being Spencer Sweeney


For his third solo exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Spencer Sweeney—multi-media artist, DJ, nightlife promoter—moves his living quarters and studio into his gallery, ostensibly letting us all in on the fun and magic of the creative process. If not the first to do so, Sweeney is definitely among the most committed.

The press release promises “paintings, installation, and a multimedia rock opera,” a list of elements that don’t begin to express the intensity or magnitude of the grand mass Sweeney assembles. The actuality of Spencer’s lived environment is overwhelming. The first gallery offers op art-painted walls that pulse and morph like visual feedback along with robotic parrots with suits made of carpet that sit face-to-face on matching plinths. Specially programmed to repeat each other in a continuous loop, the latter were unfortunately not working when I was in the gallery.

A low platform stage occupies most of the main gallery, which is where the actual living and working occurs. Above the stage hangs a giant figurative sculpture with tubular legs made of beer cans taped end-to-end.  At the other end, a turntable, records, and three monitors are scattered on the floor. The rest of the space is turned over to Spencer’s painterly pursuits: large self-portraits in various stages of completion, hung and stacked, and the materials to make more.

Sweeney and I met at the gallery on two occasions to discuss his exhibition-cum-theatrical experiment, and why the process isn’t as fun as it might seem:

JANE HARRIS: When we first met you spoke about the influence of Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish theater director who trained actors in the 1960s “to tear away the masks behind which we hide daily,” on your current work, and how you saw the creative act  as a essentially painful one. And in a Reichian sort of way, Grotowski pushed his actors to dig deep, to “reach an interior ripening which expresses itself through a willingness to break through barriers,” which sounds pretty painful. I’m curious to know more about how your exhibition explores, even embraces, this idea (Grotowski’s or otherwise) that the creative process involves or is borne of pain.

SPENCER SWEENEY: The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that no act of creation occurs without a certain amount of pain. I found this echoed in Grotowski’s understanding of the creative process as well. I have also found this to be true in my practice. My self-portraits appear playful but you will notice an expression of suffering on each face. I didn’t consciously depict myself in way; it came very naturally.  I feel that any creative process could be seen as half suffering and half playful euphoria. Each side is of equal interest to me because one cannot exist with out the other.

HARRIS: You also discussed another source, Douglas R. Hofstadter’s 1979 bestseller Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, namely in reference to the author’s theories of meta-fiction and recursion. I can see several elements in your exhibition that engage the latter: the self-portraits you assigned yourself to do each day affect a kind of self-reference while the twin parrots create a tautological loop of mimicry. As for the former, your work has always, in its inclusive, hybrid nature, appeared to fold in on itself, with art often its primary subject. For the current show you are living in the gallery and exposing your process through a deliberately evolving and open-ended event. It’s very generous to be so available and transparent in your work. It’s dangerous as well (there are critics who will dismiss it as unfocused, or too diffuse). Assuming you don’t care, what about this transparency and self-exposure appeals to you (beyond your interest in pain?) 

SWEENEY: I wanted to widen the parameters of the galleries function and open the exhibition up to an uncertain amount of change and activity. The gallery would become like a laboratory, conducting an experiment initiated by me but not under my control.

HARRIS: When I visited you in the gallery, you put on records and walked around repositioning things-fussing with a paint-splattered T-shirt and a pair of jeans on the floor, pushing at dead Christmas trees dragged in off the street. I felt immediately at home. You talked a lot about your need to “constantly arrange things. ” One can find this impulse in everything from your collage-like painting to your DJ work, and it also seems to function as a tool to keep things in motion; a motor, if you will (a term you employed to reference modes of thinking generated to “reach a higher understanding of existence”). Would you agree?

SWEENEY: Yes. The current work has evolved according to a process I didn’t exactly plan. I come across a concept, symbol, artwork, music or philosophy that strikes a chord. From there I choose a way to incorporate this into my practice, and thus my life. I surround myself with representations or reproductions of these ideas and works, which are the motors. They give off energy. This drives me to familiarize myself with them inside and out, and this is the fuel.

HARRIS: If the energy of the ideas you work with and your drive to study them constitute respectively the motors and fuel, how are they defined or manifest visually?

SWEENEY: Choosing a physical manifestation is when you can get creative. I decided to activate the laboratory with three large banners. One uses a portion of a figure drawing (that appears on the album Lou Reed, Live: Take No Prisoners) by Spanish comic book artist Nazario Luque Vera. Another reproduces a schematic for Alfred Korzybski’s philosophy of General Semantics and a third is a large-scale portrait of Jerzy Grotowski. Maybe the energy of these visualizations function similarly to how religious iconography in a temple helps to helps participants to focus on the ceremony’s purpose-or to a “Hang In There” poster in an office lounge.

HARRIS: Interesting analogy (makes me wonder what the art world equivalent of that sign would be) and concept. Do you see your esoteric version as enlightening/speaking to an audience in the same way as spiritual or ritual icons do?

SWEENEY: I am developing faith that however divergent these sources may appear, they have spoken to me on some level and will somehow converge into  a common greater meaning. This point of convergence is the destination. Keeping this in mind I work, arrange, re arrange, consider and try to remain open to these connections wherever they may come about. Even if the destination ends up just a truck stop, hopefully it will have showers and a good pinball machine. (I’ve never showered in a truck stop, find it fascinating though.) 

HARRIS: Me neither (sounds gross to me!).  But seriously, as much as you embrace this “whatever happens, happens” approach, the exhibition was supposed to culminate in “a multimedia rock opera” that evolved over time, which at last check features three characters who are working together to produce a musical play. It’s a meta-fictive example of the snake eating its tail—a play about a play in a process that feeds on itself. How much does this final production guide your daily production?

SWEENEY: What we have planned to do in the space is create the germ of a rock opera. We’ve created a stage in the gallery on which to do so. Maria Hasabi is choreographing the production, and I’m directing, but its an ongoing collaboration that will inevitably involve others. We plan to continue with the project and develop it into a piece of experimental musical theater—first in Berlin, and then at my nightclub, Santa’s Party House.  Throughout the show here, its been mostly in germ phase, with lots of thinking and talking about what we want to incorporate. For instance, references to Cocteau’s set design and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the Theater of the Absurd, Le Gran Guignol, Jarry’s concept of Pataphysics (which I fear I may be living out, but what the hell), Lou Reed and Bob Wilson’s collaboration called “Time Rocker,” Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Frankie Avalon’s performance of “Beauty School Drop Out” in the musical Grease. I thought of all of these things and of how to tie them together. We will present what we have so far on the stage in the gallery (the Geeb lab as we call it now) Saturday night, January 16, which will be followed by a performance by the band Endless Boogie.