Q&A: Lauster Reflects on Mitchell Award, Career, Future of Art

Darryl Lauster, Assistant Professor of Art, was recently named one of 25 winners of the 2010 Painters & Sculptors Grant Program by the Joan Mitchell Foundation. The prestigious award comes on the heels of a major, commissioned exhibition for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as successful exhibitions in the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and the Dallas Center for Contemporary Art.

College of Liberal Arts Communication Coordinator James Dunning sat down with Lauster in his office in the Studio Arts Center to talk about winning the award, what it means to the future of his own work and how artists worldwide are adapting to changes in the global economy and public perception.

Darryl Lauster poses in front of an exhibition of U.S. Presidential race runners-up that he is currently creating for a Houston museum.

Q: Congratulations on the Joan Mitchell Foundation award. How did it happen?

A: The process is very confidential. The foundation sends a call out to museum curators and art professionals around the country to submit two names. They had 160 artists from around the country that had been submitted. From there, they were to meet and cull to 25 award winners.

When I was first contacted by the Mitchell Foundation, it was completely out of the blue.  I got a letter that said I was nominated. The letter asked me to submit 10 of my work images, an artist statement and a CV. So you get a letter like that and you forget it because you know your chances are slim and you’re competing with some of the country’s finest artists. I got the phone call that I had won in Vancouver while I was on a stint as a visiting artist and I started shaking. My hair was on end and I remember being on the phone, walking circles around the room, and I couldn’t stand still. I got all flush and had to calm down.

Q: The nomination process is highly confidential. Any ideas as to who might have submitted your name?

A: I can presume the nomination came from someone in Texas based on my work in Houston and here, but I can’t even be sure because I have work in Philadelphia and New York. I can’t really be sure who was the blessed person who nominated me. Perhaps one day, 10, 20 years down the road, I’ll be able to change someone’s career with the same kind of nomination and know that secretly I really helped someone.

Q: How significant is winning an award like this?

A: This is considered one of the more prestigious awards in contemporary American art. There are few awards that come with a monetary value larger than this; there’s the MacArthur Genius Fellowship, which awards $500,000 over 5 years, and the Tiffany grants, which are very prestigious. It’s one of the top five awards granted to artists in this country.

Q: The award comes with a $25,000 grant. How do you think you’ll spend the money?

A: The expectation is that you’ll spend your money on your art. The only stipulation [from the Mitchell Foundation] is to not use the money on purchases of real estate. For the next year I don’t have to worry about funding my work and projects. It takes the worry from the day-to-day “how am I going to get this thing off the ground?”

Q: But don’t most artists get their funding from museums and galleries? Has that changed in recent years?

A: One of the most difficult problems now is the availability of funding for projects. As budgets tighten and the recession continues, the things that get cut are arts and education. Museum budgets are increasingly turning to private money … but with private monies come different concerns than with public monies. There’s a weakening of censorship that comes with private money but there’s also a draw toward collectability and commerce. That kind of puts me in a pickle because the work I create is not necessarily the kind of work that can be bought and sold as a product or as an object. One of the more popular ways of working artistically for the last 20 years is installation-based work. You work site-specifically and there’s no one object that is autonomous, rather there’s a group of objects that are in relationship to each other in a space that creates an idea. Finding funding is more difficult in that arena right now.

Q: Apart from funding current and future projects, what else can a grant like this do for you?

A: Getting a grant of this nature typically opens doors to showcasing your work that may have otherwise not been open. There’s a vetting process that goes along with an award of this caliber. When a prominent institution or major museum sees an award like this on an artist’s resume, they understand it’s an artist who has been vetted on a national level and has achieved a certain reputation and scholarship that makes it easier for them to curate in exhibition. When curators have to justify exhibitions and costs … they’re able to say X number of these artists have achieved these kinds of thresholds that legitimize showcasing at this institution.

There’s a saying that “one grant begets another.” If you can get one grant to open the door a bit, it’ll swing open a bit easier. I’m not sure about that but I agree with the idea that these kinds of thresholds allow one more access institutionally. I hope that comes over time.

Q: Sedrick Huckaby (Visiting Assistant Professor of Art) is a former Mitchell award winner. Are you familiar with others on the winners list?

A: One of the things that make this honor even more special is that I receive it with an artist who I have been a great admirer of for many, many years. His name is James Luna. He’s a hybrid artist of Mexican and Native American descent. I’m also an artist of German and Native (American) descent. I think our approaches are similar in that we both push social and political buttons of historical nature. He’s an older artist and his career is by far more successful than mine at this point. He’s more widely recognized nationally and internationally. In a way, I look up to his practice. When I found out he was getting this award at the same time I was … it’s like an athlete watching a player on TV and suddenly being drafted to be on the same team with him.

Q: What do you think will be the immediate impact of winning this award?

A: I travel a great deal. Because my work is based in 18th century colonial history, there’s not a whole lot to do in Texas. I do a lot of my research in Massachusetts and New York. This grant will enable me to travel back to New York this summer to complete a film project that I began last summer. Were it not for this grant … I may have had to wait another year. That’s another way in which these types of funds offer one an opportunity that did not exist prior.

Q: Let’s talk about your work for a minute. You are primarily known as an installation artist and you work with a variety of media. Though your art has been recognized in academic and critical circles, do you ever worry about commercial success?

A: All artists to a greater or lesser degree have to worry about it. Most artists attempt to forget about it as much as they can so they can focus on the work product first and let the chips fall where they may. That way you’re not consciously or subconsciously creating work out of what you desire to be “successful.” For some, the definition of success is money gained from selling work in a gallery. But for others it may be getting photographed in magazines or getting articles written about you. That kind of buzz might be just as good in terms of liquidity as good sales at a fine arts gallery.

There is a tension out there. It’s much more difficult right now for galleries to continue functioning at a high level in the economy that we’re in. Galleries, by their nature, are for-profit, so they keep the doors open through the sale of the work by the artists they represent. I feel as bad for them as I do for their artists because there’s not a lot of money out there that isn’t being spent on necessities.

Museums, on the other hand, don’t have that worry to the extent galleries do. But that’s not to say that they aren’t worried. As I read through national art publications and go to museums and read press releases about major exhibitions, I see museums spending a greater portion of their monies on artists who are already recognized and have been at the top of their careers for decades. The familiarity with those artist names bring people in the door. When you see a familiar name, you’re more inclined to walk in the door than if you see a name you don’t recognize. I understand all sides of this problem … but what happens is that artists like myself feel like we’re increasingly going it alone. What it does is force us to find new venues, new avenues, new places for our expressions to become relevant.

Q: What new venues have you found worth pursuing?

A: I’ve created an ongoing autofictional web project. Now, anyone with a dial-up connection can view my work. That’s not possible in a museum. With a museum, you have to be within geographic proximity to the place to view the work. With the Internet, you don’t.  I’ve also been using video more, which can be disseminated virtually.

Q: Moving away from museums and galleries seems like a bold step. Are there pitfalls in relying heavily on new tools and technologies?

A: I often tell my students that when you’re thinking about making work, think about the problem that there’s just too much crap in the world to begin with. Maybe it’s possible to communicate an idea artistically without a physical presence whatsoever. Allowing artists to think more creatively about disseminating their voice and getting their voice out there in ways that museums and galleries don’t have their fingerprint on is the 21st century future that ultimately is coming. It’s a reality that artists are operating outside of studios. My studio, more often than not, is this laptop and it goes with me. I know a lot of artists who work in the same kind of fashion: travelling around from place to place, speaking, receiving ideas. It’s a new way of working … instead of being in a region and being defined by that region. That seems to be increasingly quaint.

Q: How does winning an award like the Mitchell grant make you appreciate all those years of hard work and little recognition?

A: I have much to be thankful for. I’m a lucky guy when it comes to my career. Not only do I get to do what I love every day, but I’m given a decent wage to do that. The old days of working out of my car as an adjunct professor, teaching one class at four different universities … it’s a reality most of us know. I’ve been able to get a more stable position here. And the support of this university financially has done a great deal in kicking my practice up a notch.

This grant and other, smaller grants that I’ve received have increased the scope of possibilities for me. It’s an interesting thing: I find that I create the kind of work that is accessible to me as a singular human being with lower middle class funds and institutional accessibility. Because the resources in my life were at a particular range, that’s the kind of range that guided my work product. Now, that scope has been increased. I can now contemplate an exhibition that might cost me several thousand dollars that would have impossible for me to consider five or 10 years ago.

Q: How does cost affect what you do on a small or large scale? Are the pressures on your work similar or different?

A: They are vastly different and I recognize the difference. In part, I still have a great difficulty putting my head around resources and funds that are dramatically larger than those I can pull out of my own bank account. When I did that project for the Philadelphia [Museum of Art], I didn’t sleep for most of it. Or at least, that’s how I felt. I would go to bed worrying there was going to be a fire at school and my piece would burn. The work became very precious because of my deep reverence for the Philadelphia museum. I’ve worked on a couple of projects both in the private and public realm and one of the pitfalls is thinking that the spending of greater funds equates to a better product. But I’ve seen work and I imagine I’ve created work wherein the amount of sweat equity spent is not equal to the sum of its parts. Those things are different entities. One of the policies I’m going to set for myself with the Joan Mitchell grant is to not equate the dollar spent to the work’s goodness or badness. The last thing I want to say is, “Well, I’ve got all this money, so I need to purchase a bunch of fancy things to make some fancy art.” That’s not the way I want to work.

Q: How would you define or categorize your approach to your work? How do you see it evolving?

A: The word “vernacular” is one that I used to describe my research interests. It’s “the every day.” Art, with a capital A, is so infrequently a part of people’s daily lives. It becomes insignificant. One of the things that draws me to vernacular art is that it’s present in our day-to-day lives so much more than a Renaissance painting.

There are people who believe that what makes Art, with a capital A, is that it’s elevated from the mundane. I’m not necessarily one of those people. The conceptual component should be elevated from the mundane, but the physical component need not be. As contemporary art has become its own discipline, it has removed itself from its purpose historically of connecting with the customs and traditions of a people or from justifying the ethics and morals of a particular community. Art has removed itself from that and become an intellectual discipline. It’s disconnected itself from the general public, for good and bad. On a personal level, I’m less interested in that.

I’m interested in turning conceptual components of familiar vernacular objects to a level of sophistication that causes us to question in many ways what our expectations of art are and why we surround ourselves with particular things. I think most people, even though they don’t own a piece of Art, with a capital A, would agree there is art in their home. What they consider art might be different than what I consider art or what someone else considers art. We decorate our homes with things and those decorations speak to one or more aspects of our identity and affinities. I’m very interested in that and in being able to play and twist with that. I like to work in that gray area where those common, often functional everyday objects suddenly are repurposed. I find that compelling. I’m interested in treading that line in the art of the everyday and the art that we might equate with museum standards and practices.

Q: You’ve worked with a variety of materials throughout your career and recently have added video, performance and web-based components to your work. Do you find it difficult to not have the same type of physical identity running through your work the way a painter or a photographer might? How do you balance the physical vs. the conceptual in your body of work?

A: There’s a struggle there but I don’t worry about it too much. I know other artists who do struggle with that. To me, there’s two ways to approach that tension. A lot of the artists I admire are intermedia artists. They’re not defined by materiality; they leap around. I’m not a sculptor. I’m a maker and communicator of ideas. If you work in that mode, it becomes very necessary that the one thing that should define your work is a consistent creative rigor. What is always going to be the thing that defines my work is this historical research interest. The physical presence or manifestation may be different, but the conceptual core will remain consistent. Most artists who work in vastly different disciplines do a pretty good job of that.

Many artists will continue in a specific process over long periods of time to really hone their skill in a particular craft because it’s very meaningful to them. Because that’s dramatically different from the way I operate, I appreciate it a lot.

Q: Does that appreciation of craftsmanship and skill of fellow artists come from your interest and love of artifacts from the 18th century?

A: One of the great tensions that exists today for me and a lot of my peers is the tension between the human made and the machine made. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t covet work made by human hands.  That being said, I also love machines.

Q: How would you best sum up your philosophy on art?

A: In many ways, honestly, it is a relief, or at best, a counterpoint to the terror of the human situation. These days, it tends be a purely intellectual endeavor. But for many artists, it can also involve function. … In the end, it’s this thing that operates on many different levels, it can transform, it can agitate, it can heal, it can wound. It’s a rich heavy soup.

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