Friday, May 22, 2020

Interview with Keegan Bonds-Harmon

Keegan Bonds-Harmon is an artist and high school student born and raised in Providence RI, whose work incorporates painting, sculpture and video. Keegan's work will be installed in the Dirt Palace Storefront Gallery for all of May, through June 6th. The gallery is viewable from the street, so check it out next time you are walking or driving by! We did a live zoom interview with Keegan - here's a transcript of our conversation!

Pippi: Can you give us a broad overview of the ideas that you were thinking about in conceiving this project

I wanted to create a landscape related work that could be immersive to make and hopefully to look at. This work, like much of my work, came out of material exploration. Last summer I was making these figurative sculptures out of wheat paste and tissue paper. When I flattened them out and they became more like paintings, shedded skins, wilted leaves, or crusts. I was interested in their translucency. Otherwise, I kept it all pretty loose and used these ideas as jumping off points. 

Xander: You had started it before Covid, can you talk about ways that quarantine did or didn’t change the course of what you had imagined making? 

I was about one third of the way into making it when we all went into quarantine and I think the biggest shift was that I just stopped working on it for a while, which felt crazy. I’ve always been the kind of artist to constantly work with whatever time I have. So to suddenly have all the time in the world and to do nothing with it felt wrong. I went into what felt like a hibernation for about three weeks. I spent more time reading, watching movies, walking, calling friends, and scrolling longer than is healthy. But that felt like a necessary part of adjusting to the strangeness and weight of everything. 

When I started to work on the piece again I felt that I should try and stick to my original ideation of it, even though the world it was entering was vastly different from the one it was first being created. I am definitely now thinking about how my practice can adjust to this new landscape as well as my own new rhythm, but at the time it felt too soon, and that what I really needed in that moment was a distraction. 

P: How did the manifestation of the project compare to what your initial imagination was?  

Originally I had planned on making the piece in panels the exact size of each window. But as I was working the sections were drying, shrinking, falling apart, and creating all new shapes that I didn't want to control too much. Eventually I ran out of flour for wheat paste and couldn't buy any at the grocery store because there was a shortage. I ended up diluting the wheat paste and the work became more sparse. So even if I didn’t intend to shift the work it had to shift, even if only on a material level.

P: Can you talk us through the process involved with constructing the piece? Where did you gather the sticks, did you do all of the paper mache first and then and paint, or did you start painting as you went along? 

During my sort of hibernation I was taking lots of walks and found Canada Pond, this really ugly, muddy, pond in the process of being drained near my house. On these walks I would collect my favorite dead branches. Those became the skeleton for the piece. I had a lot of fun lugging huge bundles of sticks through my neighborhood. 

To start, I would lay out tissue paper in my driveway, and spread wheat paste on the paper, then lay the sticks out. On top of that I would lay out another sheet of tissue paper, sandwiching the sticks in between. Sometimes I would start with a pigmented wheat paste and then go back in and paint on top of that. The pieces were all sectioned off to fit into my basement where I continued to work on them and hide them from all the April rain.

The biggest challenge in constructing it was definitely scale. My first time seeing the piece all together was when installing it. But there was something really romantic about working on something without stepping back; or chipping away at something so much bigger than your own body. This felt intensified when I was unable to leave the house and be away from the work. 

X: Through working in sculpture, it seems like there is a relationship to a history of landscape painting. Can you talk about your inspirations, both in relationship to the natural world and/or art history? 

Absolutely, to start with the natural world, I live in Providence, off of Charles street, In the sort of Bermuda Triangle between Home Depot, Mineral Spring, and I-95 and I take walks almost every day. There aren't any real forests or anything, but there are patches of trees, and ponds, and rivers. I try to travel and work from all sorts of natural, North Eastern landscapes. But it is here, in Providence, that I spend most of my time and gather all of my natural materials. There is something really strange and difficult to place about the little fragments of the New England landscape that we get here. I find that making its way into what I make more and more. 

On a painterly level, I started working with the landscape about two years ago. I was really into painting, I knew I was interested in abstraction, but I didn't know where to start. I found that skies, trees, water, dirt, and grass could create a great framework for the painting I was interested in. Initially, the grandeur and majesty of the American landscape tradition and the Hudson River School painters really drew me in and acted as an inspiration behind some of the earlier paintings I was doing. But there is also this weaponized, and colonial history behind those paintings, as their beauty was used to promote or justify the colonization and claim ownership over Indigenous land. That dynamic has had me question and adjust the way I work with the landscape. I am definitely more interested now in the idea of being inside of, or a part of a landscape rather than to look at or represent a landscape. 

X: Yeah, I think that the tension as an artist between living inside of something versus occupying a space of representation, is a really important tension to hold because it has everything to do with subjectivity and positionality and the relationship to the thing that you are representing. So it’s really interesting to hear that that is something you're processing in a very tactile, crafting kind of way. 

P: Do you listen to things while you work? Would you be willing to tell us about what you’re listening to? Does music play a role in how you engage with your process?

To be a total nerd, Pippi, I’ve been listening to that 2017 Bonedust release Fruit of the Ash a lot and have been very very into that. That, and Kali Malone’s The Sacrificial Code, this hour and a half long album of straight up organ and nothing else. Also, Robert Rich’s soundtrack to the movie Stalker. Those two are very ambient, which is great because I can totally zone in, but I am also finding that my decision making gets more free and interesting when I’m barely paying attention to what I’m doing. Especially if I’m doubting it or becoming overwhelmed in some way. So for that my friend has had me start listening to the sci fi novel Dune on audio. I can already feel that working its way into things.  
X: You’ve spent the year applying to school and making plans for your year. How has all of this affected your thinking about the future? About planning? About the potentials and limits of artmaking as a communicative medium?

This past year I’ve totally been in a weird state trying to plan for and anticipate the future. I was trying to make work without thinking too much about it which proved to be impossible because it was all I could think about. 

I ended up getting into Cooper Union, and decided to go, which I am ecstatic about. I also decided to take a gap year in hopes that NYC/the world can adapt and begin to recover before I move into such a new and already fragile part of my life. So for the first time in fourteen years I’ll be living completely outside of school. I’m realizing I need to be living and making work in ways that are more present. For so long I’ve felt like I'm working towards or waiting until the next thing, whatever that may be. Now no one knows what’s next and all we can do is take things a day at a time. That is definitely what I need to do right now to stay sane and I also know it’s what's best for art making. 

It definitely has me questioning art as a means of connection as well. My practice has been a great way to learn to spend more time with myself. But even before all this, I was feeling a need for more shared connection and ritual-like activity in my life, and that art could be a place to seek that out. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about work that exists in the physical realm and could promote both shared experience and distance. Possibly something mailable, tradable, and zine like, or some sort of quasi-public sculpture made for others to visit and contribute to. I'm brainstorming!
X: Your paper mache in this piece, as well as your other work has elements that feel both ethereal like clouds or sea foam, but then there are other aspects that are carcass-y or like dried out flowers in a bouquet that’s been on a desk for longer than intended. In this there is an allusion to both time and the body. Can you speak to this? It also feels like when you make references to death or the remains of plant/animal life, there is a reverence. The gestures are quiet, rather than violent. Is there an ethics around representation that you’re working with explicitly or feeling your way through? 

For sure, I've definitely stumbled into these areas. I had this really great critique maybe two years ago when I was making paintings of friends in fields of flowers. I felt like the work was really joyful and all about friendship but the cold read I got from others was all about how the figures were either zombies or they were hiding from zombies. This initially felt like something I could ignore. But as I continued working I realized how present birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth were in my work. Maybe not in a “zombie” sort of way, but definitely in a way that hints at some larger narrative or cycle. 

I am trying to examine these themes and make work that can move fluidly along those cycles rather than getting stuck on one end. Like for example, I made a lot of sculptures this past year that have corpse-like elements and sit or lie on the ground. More recently I have felt that it is important that the sculptures begin to stand up or have some sort of responsibility to themselves, like to point at a spot in the sky, or to carry water. I hope something in those actions lend themselves to a greater, more hopeful, and generative narrative, rather than just an ending. I certainly want there to be hope in each piece.  

P: What things feel most hopeful to you at this moment?

Knowing that we’re not going back to normal. Which is difficult and feels a little empty to say because we have no idea what that is going to look like right now. We know there will be great change, and much of it will be upsetting for a while, but I am optimistic that there will be positive and unexpected shifts to look forward to. 

X: As a young person circulating in ideas and images and culture as a field, are there things that feel visible to you that you think may be blindspots to practitioners of other generations? Concepts or values that you don’t think are relevant that you’d like to see let go of? 

It totally goes without saying, but just being inundated with the sheer volume of ideas and images we are is immense and at times cacophonous. We’re navigating more tools and information than we know what to do with. It's difficult to see exactly how that's impacting our work as young people, probably because it’s still and always unfolding. But what I am seeing right now is a breaking down of boundaries on social, personal, and informational levels. Some of this is excessive and leaves us raw, but when it comes to access, there's an advantage to having so much in the open. I think we are navigating access more intimately now. To pick the most obvious example, we have memes: these easily disseminated images, dense with meaning and connection, that can be experienced by tons of people. I am excited to see how these values could push our artwork and draw greater attention to the hurdles placed around art. And that's not to say there isn’t value to the more intimate connections that can be made in art, or that everything must be widely experienced to be successful. I don't think all of the solutions will be found in dematerialization, digitization, or making work that is as easy to digest as a meme. But, I am definitely hoping we can invest ourselves more in access and heart clarity, and less in over-intellectualization and total obscurity. 


This project was made possible through support from the City of Providence, Art Culture + Tourism Department