It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
Shaving his beard with an axe. Washing trash in the street. Chris Sollars does the strangest things for the sake of art, but they work. Sollars has exhibited his video, photography and sculpture projects around the United States -- including at the MOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts -- and last month was awarded a prestigious grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. A visiting faculty member at San Francisco Art Institute, Sollars, 37, spoke to SF Weekly about his creative process, why he once washed garbage and put it back on the streets of San Francisco, and why exhibiting his work at a fish market has more appeal to him these days.
Q: After I saw your work at Bay Area Now 6, I wrote that you are "a kind of clown prince, going for laughs and provocation." Was it fair to call you a clown prince?
A: I think I'm more the fool than the clown. I'm more in line with how the 20th century filmmaker Buster Keaton might approach stuff, with comedy and slapstick. Slapstick to provoke and slapstick to create problems instead of having answers.
Q: Why does this approach suit you?
A: Every idea I pursue I'm trying to be inquisitive and investigative around a subject. I like investigating the absurd, especially with the art I'm in. Part of my upbringing has been in this liminal space between heterosexuality and homosexuality. I grew up with my mom and dad, and then with my mom I grew up in a lesbian household, too. Those two things shaped how I view the world in terms of being in between spaces. I've generated a mode of investigation and looking at the world which is between things. I found with art that I could be a prankster at times with provoking stuff and provoking conversations.
Q: What are some good examples of this?
A: Some of the earliest pieces where I was doing this are "Street Clean" and "Alley Bread" from 1997. In "Alley Bread," I was putting fresh bread ingredients in dirty spaces, and then allowing the bread's yeast to be activated by the rain and the pooling water, and to become an organism, which in itself would become dirty as it cleaned the space. Then I'd retrieve the bread and dry it out -- and not eat it, but I'd serve it on the same level as fresh bread for viewers. It was an early example of a sculpture or a process piece, and also the mode of display, with the viewer considering what that information is. For "Making Bread," I served fresh bread to the viewers. I then pushed play on the tape -- this is the era of VHS tape -- and the viewers would watch me touching myself without the gloves on. I'd scratch myself, pick my nose, go to the bathroom, [scratch] -- those kinds of things. Then I'd put the gloves back on and work on the bread.
Q: What are the grimy details with "Street Clean"?
A: For "Street Clean," I would pick up trash, wash it on the street -- in a big trash can full of soapy water -- and then put the trash back in place where it was. These pieces have all been affected or changed. It's still the same on how it was, but it's all been changed. I applied these working methods to lots of different things.
Around the same time, I did a piece called "Lemonade?" I had this yellow substance, and there were two versions of what would happen to the material. One was just Kool-Aid lemonade, and the other one was pissing in the same jug, and squeezing lemons into it, and then pouring lots of sugar into it. Both things are being provocative but also reconsidering what you're looking at.
Q: You just got a Guggenheim grant, which is one of this country's most prestigious awards. In your application, did you tell them about your faux-piss project and your other push-the-envelope projects?
A: I mentioned my investigation into hair -- both sculpture and video -- that was at Yerba Buena. I also mentioned the "Left Behind" sculptures, where I made sculptures on the street in my neighborhood, made pictures and left them behind. And I mentioned this installation I did at a new children's museum in San Diego, where I turned a dumpster into a play-set. I had a video of trash raining down -- I threw a bag of trash out of my window, from the second story of my building, and filmed it from below, so it looks like trash coming out of the sky. And I did anthropomorphic trash figures that I've done in public spaces. I did a version of that in San Diego. When I was writing the application, I said I wanted to continue doing these strange public pieces that are not the norm.
The last piece I showed on that application was a piece where I exchange a dirty puddle on the street, and I jar it, and I exchange it with the Pacific Ocean. So I dump that water into the ocean and then take the ocean water and make a puddle on the street. That's the start of a body of work I want to investigate dealing with the street and the sea. I befriended a fisherman recently, and wanted what would happen in terms of an art practice by being a deckhand and seeing what ideas came to me through labor and going on excursions.
Q: In fact, your ocean-puddle project has already yielded results, as it were. Last December, you exhibited work at the Monterey Fish Market.
A: That's where my fisherman friend sells his fish. He's an independent fisherman. And he goes out on his boat and fishes. I'm always interested in different spaces for showing work in, and in that space, I did an afternoon video installation, so people would get a taste of sashimi albacore tuna. They would get a piece of that, and then they would walk into the walk-in cooler with all the fish in the market on display, with two projections in the walk-in cooler. One is documentation of our fishing excursion to bring the fish back to that space.
Q: How different is it to reach people outside the gallery setting, like in that fish market? Are people's reactions really that much different from the reactions you get in more traditional art settings?
A: In 1996-97, I wanted to move my work directly out of display inside the studio and also outside the school, to understand how it functioned within the world. And I think that started to define how I looked at art and how I looked at my own art, and where I wanted it to exist. I wanted it to exist in a very immediate way, where I didn't have to wait to display it for people to start having an experience with it. I wanted to put it into this liminal space where people didn't dismiss it because they knew it was this. I wanted them to chew on what they were looking at, and what was happening -- to think, "what does this thing exist? It doesn't fit there." That way it becomes problematic. And it becomes more memorable that way.
Q: Does art allow you to be funnier than you are in your normal, everyday life? Some stand-up comics, for example, are breathtakingly funny on stage, but off-stage are very serious and straightforward.
A: I don't know if I'm funny all the time. But I tend to enjoy and laugh a lot, and to find the humor in things quite quickly. And then I think I bring a sense of humor to daily life, to get by and understand the world. It's my nature to find the joy and pleasure in finding things funny. I don't think it becomes a larger-than-life persona. Even though my art might be a performance or something that I do, I envision these as stories of things that I've done. Like, I've shaved with an axe. My life isn't that crazy and dynamic. And I like generating these strange experiences -- these absurd moments of things that I've done, because they generate interesting stories. I feel like that, even though I came from a dynamic household, that I've led a pretty normal life. I view these as these moments to expand into the more extraordinary at times -- or at least the more strange spaces. I can be serious. And not everything I make is funny. But I found early on that, as soon as I was able to bring that funny part of me, the work just became much more mine and it became much more rich for me. As long as the humor doesn't become a one-liner - I want to be funny but still have something beyond once you laugh.