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In Jean Genet’s 1956 play The Balcony, Irma, the madam of a brothel, frantically seeks to build and maintain the fantasies of her clients against the backdrop of a revolutionary uprising in an unnamed city. Central to the play is the delicacy of these dalliances; they are vulnerable to shifting and shattering at a moment’s notice. While multimedia artist Elliott Hundley’s past work has focused on ancient Greek theater, including references to The Bacchae and The Illiad, his latest exhibition at Regen Projects took inspiration from Genet’s work of deconstructionist theater. One of the highlights was a wall-length collage entitled Balcony (2021), for which the artist limited his intervention on the canvas to only where his arms could reach, leaving the upper edge empty. With this constraint, the piece highlights the play’s intertwined themes of physicality, intimacy, power, and performance.
Entitled Echo, the exhibition investigated the conditions of both art-making and art viewing as Hundley transformed the gallery into a simulation of his Chinatown studio. This gesture emphasized the open-ended process by which he creates his densely composed work. Large sheets of purple foam affixed to the gallery’s walls became ad-hoc workspaces for Hundley’s extensive archive of images, which he pinned to the foam in enticing groupings alongside standalone artworks. Hundley’s images are often sourced from pop culture and advertising media, but he also includes intimate photographs of close friends and family performing staged scenes from classical theater in his studio. The artist meticulously cuts each figure out of the photographic prints, often abstracting them into a tangle of limbs and props. Sometimes, the images repeat, alluding to a seriality or narrative that never fully forms. At Regen Projects, the purple foam backdrop served as a connective tissue, linking together the studio archives, collages, sculptures, and paintings. The fluidity among these diverse media immersed the viewer in an atmosphere of ongoing artistic formation. On a long shelf in the gallery’s eastern hallway, Hundley arranged a collection of found knickknacks, many set within individual plastic vitrines. Intermingled with potted plants, drawings, and ceramics, the grouping felt random yet deliberate, as if the objects took on significance simply by their placement next to each other. Nothing felt permanent.
Though Echo highlighted more than 20 years of work, Hundley’s installation allowed disparate works to bleed together, emphasizing the messy process of creation. This messiness was best expressed in the sculptural work Echo (2022), which gave the exhibition its name. Echo is also the name of Hundley’s pet African grey parrot, who, during the process of creating the show, would constantly chew through the purple foam while the artist worked. Hundley chose to see these parrot-chewed scraps of foam as a new material instead of a burden.
In our recent conversation, Hundley and I discussed the importance of his studio as more than a production site for art, the relationship between preserving memory and openness to the future, and the central role of community in his practice.
Sampson Ohringer: Can you talk about your relationship with the studio and how it may be different from that of other artists? Or how your studio takes on an artwork-like quality of its own?
Elliott Hundley: I mean, the first thing is I insist on living in it, and I can’t see another way. Whenever I’ve had a studio that’s separate, I end up working in my home. I think there’s something about the way that the things I put in my head… like right now, I’ve got two dogs on my lap, a bird. When I was working in the gallery installing, I noticed a lack of warmth that made me more self-conscious. Whereas the way that I work in my home, [making work is] seamless with everything else I do. It just doesn’t feel like work. I think there’s something about decorating, the idea of nesting and creating a space around yourself—I think of [decorating] literally, like it generates objects.
SO: In Genet’s The Balcony, which you reference in one of your work’s titles, the brothel is described as a “house of illusions.” At the recent press preview for your Regen show, you described taking on the role of the “madam” of your studio. I’m curious how you understand that role as a figure of authority who is running the show without necessarily exerting control.
EH: Irma in that play is orchestrating [the liaisons]—she has a little tool that she uses to see every room. But she’s scrambling the whole time. She has anxiety about what’s going on outside [of the brothel]; she’s constantly nagging everybody to do what they’re supposed to do. She actually doesn’t have that much control, she’s more like a shepherd. I like to think of myself as a shepherd or a gardener. I try not to be scrambling. If the effect of my art is anxious, the process is the opposite. The process is a way to keep me quite balanced and calm and happy.
SO: My understanding of The Balcony is that it is about the relationship of this performance, or illusion, to power, and attempts to claim or legitimize that power. In some ways, there’s a very cynical dimension to how the play understands what illusion can be used for—it shows how people crave illusion and performance.
EH: It’s like Baudrillard’s simulacrum; [performance] gives us the illusion that things are comprehendible. It gives us the illusion that there’s a structure.
SO: Your work doesn’t often get discussed in terms like “power” and “simulation.” Can you expand on that?
EH: My work is a simulation. It’s a simulation of experience and memory. It’s trying to tap into someone else’s experience and memory and then, in the disorientation, practice discernment, interpretation, and make meaning. We’re all making meaning constantly. By that I mean, gathering information, collating it with the past, and creating narratives about the future. A lot of us do that thoughtlessly. I think that’s why doing drugs can be good for people because it disrupts their patterns of thought. I’m not a big drug user, but I try to make my art another means to do that.
SO: How do you understand your audience and their involvement with the work within this studio or “house of illusions?”
EH: Well, the first audience is the subject of the photograph[s]. They see me photograph them and they understand my direction, and there’s a certain attitude and autonomy and authorship that I want them to feel.
When I do that, I do not think about the audience. I don’t really think about the person looking at the artwork until deep into the process. It primarily exists for me in the outset.
SO: It seems that because your studio is so much a part of the work itself—it’s not just a room to make a painting in, for example—you’re always aware of how the space presents.
EH: For me, it’s an invitation. It’s as much for other people as it is for me. I invite everybody to my studio and I do exhibitions for other artists in my studio. I think that when people see how I live, they understand me and my values more. There’s theatricality to it, certainly.
SO: The artist Kurt Schwitters and Merzbau (1923–37) (his home and studio, which he turned into a live-in sculpture) come to mind as a touchpoint for how you are thinking about your space.
EH: I really disdain domestic spaces. I don’t want to live in a house. Kurt Schwitters was undermining the bourgeois idea of the home. He was choosing something else.
SO: Another way of living.
EH: Why don’t we all create our own Merzbau?
SO: A significant part of your work, and a significant part of Merzbau, is the primacy of process and change. There is a porousness that is not about the objects themselves but the relationship between them. How do you balance that with the importance of collecting and preserving objects in your work?
EH: Because the archive is not porous?
SO: Or it often becomes fossilized.
EH: What’s funny is I originally started putting objects in my life in vitrines because they were like barnacles on my life. For me, putting the object that I couldn’t get rid of—basically, my archive—in a vitrine was a way to carve it off my body to keep it from weighing me down, so that I could become a new person. I didn’t have to be defined by the sentimental attachment to the object.
But I will not let go of it. A lot of people let go and reject, but for me, that was not an option. I would rather be many people than forget who I was.
SO: I’m interested in this idea that the meaning accumulates with time. I’ve heard you use the phrase, “detritus of empire” to describe your use of found objects. There’s a very real political dimension to displaying the stuff our society has discarded.
EH: I love Mad Max because it’s about bricolage and repurposing… We live in an age of material excess, there’s no doubt. It is beyond what it’s ever been and it is not sustainable. That’s just the environment I’m making art in. I’m trying not to contribute. I rarely buy new things. But it’s just where we’re at—peak oil. So to make art that doesn’t acknowledge that would be humorous. Or delusional. It’s not so much the subject for me as that I’m just a parasite on it. I’m just a scavenger.
SO: But also the fact that you save all of these found and personal objects is really meaningful—I’ve heard you say that you are “susceptible to nostalgia.” Can you explain that? How do you ward it off in your work?
EH: How do you honor the past and stay in touch with it emotionally without longing for it? I don’t want to long for another time. I don’t think that’s good. But I want to honor every experience I’ve had. That’s just the key to successful living. How do you genuinely stay in touch with everyone you’ve been and honor and accept those experiences in the present without longing for the past or the future?
Nostalgia is intrinsically conservative because it honors what is known rather than what is unknown. And I am too intellectually invested in possibility to be nostalgic.
SO: I think that presents in the work in terms of this openness to contingency—
EH: And possibility and speculation.
[Echo interrupts the conversation with smoke-alarm-like chirps]
SO: This might be a good time to ask about Echo’s relationship to the exhibition. I know he participated in making one of the pieces, as well as gave the show its title.
EH: He was tearing up the foam while I was working on it. I thought he was just mocking me. And then I thought, “You know, I’m pretty much that simple.” I’m just tearing up material to nest. I just enjoyed thinking, “What if it’s just that simple?”
SO: Your work is as much about a way of living as it is about what ends up in the exhibition.
EH: I’ve changed the way I think about my work with this last show. I’ve started to think that maybe the subject of my work is creativity. It’s about anxiety, it’s about issues of scale, it’s about power. But after I saw my last show [at Regen Projects], the culminating theme was the power of creativity.
For example, I try to do two studio visits with other artists a week. Or I have these shows in my house [for other artists]. Because for me, it isn’t just about my creativity. My interest is all of our creativity. If I have somebody over to the studio, when I talk about my work, because I have to, it’s much more interesting to hold it in relation to somebody else’s art for a moment, and then, the next time they come, to hold it in relation to somebody else’s art, so that the conversation broadens. I think it’s enriched [me] instead of staring at my navel and expecting everybody else to be interested in what I’m interested in.
SO: Part of creativity is about relating to others.
EH: I think so. I think about it as generating ideas—and more than generating ideas, generating questions. Even the idea of generating a bond socially is a creative act where something didn’t exist previously. I also think the more I study creativity, [the more I think] that pretty much all artists are good. They just aren’t understood. It always happens that the more I learn about an artist, the more I understand the depth of their ideas.
SO: They all require their own models of thinking.
EH: It’s up to me to change my mindset. It takes an adjustment, it takes time.
Elliott Hundley is a multidisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. He was recently included in the 5th Prospect New Orleans triennial (2021) and has been the subject of major solo exhibitions at Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. His work is held in museum collections including The Broad, Los Angeles; Colección Jumex, Mexico City; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk; and Museum of Modern Art, New York; among others.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 32.