The closing exhibition for 2014 at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Hollywood, California is a grand finale collaboration of fifty-six artists for Temple of Art.
A temple is only a building until there is a congregation that has come together with a conscious purpose above their individual agendas. When we communicate within a commun-ity we realize that as we contribute to the greater body of the community, the individuals of that community contribute just as much to our individual self. We are therefore as much a community as an individual as we are a part of the community as a whole. Likewise, our bodies are temples.
A congregation of artists has come together in collaboration with photographer Allan Amato to contribute individual pieces that manifest one greater art piece known as, Temple of Art. The project started in 2012 when Allan began asking the artists he photographed to interpret themselves through their own artistic medium on the portrait canvases he had shot of them. The end result is an artistic conversation expressed through a fusion of photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture—and poetry. Exposed intimately to the varied creative processes involved in this collaboration Allan was inspired to document the behind-the-scenes of artistic creation by developing a Temple of Art documentary film. As he explains in the interview below, he intends for this film to be a “spiritual art school.”
Two years in the making, this project is a three-headed beast – the artwork, a published book by Baby Tattoo, and a documentary film. Friday night’s artist reception included the opening of the exhibition, the Baby Tattoo book launch, and a live reading by poet Grant Morrison who made the ultimate photo op by reading before an empty frame on a blank wall. Curated by Matt Kennedy, by whose grace and hospitality allowed beautiful.bizarre the opportunity to photograph the event and conduct interviews, the Temple of Art show runs until December 28, 2014.
This is beyond a gallery show, this is an entire project. What phases have you already taken and are still going to take?
I would say that it started as a dual phase in that I approached Matt Kennedy and Bob Self from Baby Tattoo simultaneously. Matt agreed to do a show, even though at that time it was a year and half behind and ended up being two and half years. But he instantly agreed to the show and Bob instantly agreed to publish, which was great. At the time I had only had five or six artists, but I think the idea struck them as something that hadn’t been done and was interesting enough to commit themselves very early on without me having an awful amount of data or art to actually show them. So those two things kind of happened in tandem. And then right when the work was wrapping up and the book was getting made and laid out I had been kind of obsessed with the idea of sharing everything about the creative process that I’ve learned from all the artists that I’ve shot, because that’s what I talk about on the shoot. I talk about my process, why I’m doing what I’m doing, how they do what they do, how it’s different from mine, the difference between fine art photography, illustration, and all that stuff. And everyone had a different answer to my answer and to each other’s answers and it got to a point where I thought, man if I was an emerging artist, or up and coming, or looking to do this with my life, these would be the conversations I would love to be a fly on the wall for and no one gets to be. That was the start of phase three, which was the documentary, which we got funded for in August. I’m about half done with that now.
You said that you started with 6 pieces…
I didn’t even have pieces. That was the odd thing. Surprisingly, considering Baby Tattoo and the La Luz circle are pretty prestigious. The good thing is that I had a relationship with Matt and a relationship with Bob nothing more than they just liked my photography. But Matt would say photography isn’t a thing we do. So I was on their radar but when I approached them with, “Hey this is an idea I have and it’s my photography, but it’s allowing the artist to reinterpret my portrait so that each photograph is a one of a kind,” they both said, “Tell me where to sign.” Sign the dotted line. It was pretty effortless initially.
What initiated this whole concept?
An artist named David Mack weirdly initiated it. I photographed David in February 2012, and it was for no good reason, not anything for anything, it was just for the sake of we met and I thought it would be fun to shoot some pictures. It’s an enjoyable experience when I have the opportunity to meet somebody that I like for the first time, whose work I like, and actually get to do my work on them, for lack of a better term. When we were done I played around in Photoshop and I added some Photoshop brush strokes to his piece. And I said, “If I was going to do a portrait of you, being that you are an artist, this is how I see it, because I would like it to seem that the photograph was actually an extension of a fine art process. And when I showed it to him he went, “Could I paint on that too? Could you print it and have me paint on it?” And I went, “Of course, that sounds great.” And then as soon as I printed it and that moment I handed it to him I went, “You know any other artists? This would actually be fun. I know some artists and you know some.” And he went, “I’ll bring a couple artists buddies to your studio.” And the two artist buddies he brought were Bill Sienkiewicz and Kent Williams, who were both really high level. And I shot those guys and then I had two or three friends and I shot them and then all the sudden I had six or seven people. But I think what really sold—I don’t know for sure you would have to ask Matt and Bob—but I think what really sold them was the first three people I had in the show were David Mack, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Kent Williams. So the level was pretty high already, and there were people that were all artists that those two guys (Matt and Bob) wanted to work with. So I think I was fortunate in that I began at one of the higher levels and then kind of dotted around lots of artistic disciplines and ended up with all kinds of different work. But it’s always helpful to have a few big pieces of artillery to go into it from the get go, without even realizing it to be honest with you.
Most artists are very attached to what they create. You’ve literally done what would probably be a nightmare for most other artists in handing over your work for someone else to totally just do their own interpretation of what they feel it should be. Were there any difficulties in letting go?
No, actually, I think this has been a lot harder for them than it has for me. I think by virtue of the discipline that I chose artistically I’m not precious with what I do. What I do is infinitely reproduceable, it’s not a one of a kind thing. I’ve actually had this conversation on the Uber ride on the way here with the co-producer of my film. Because she marvels at how quickly I can put work out and do the next thing and put work out and do the next thing. And for me that is the nature the particular dragon that I sort of chose to fight. Which is I take pictures of someone and I put it out in the world and hope that people like it and then two days later I’m taking more pictures and putting those out. I actually don’t have too many opportunities to stop and go, “What the hell am I doing? Is this good? Do people like it?” I don’t actually think, “Oh my god do people like what I’m doing?” I’m too busy actually shunting it out into the universe. Whereas artists can sometimes spend days, weeks, months on just one thing. And in this case it was me giving them a picture of themselves and saying okay, interpret that. So I had quite a few artists take a lot of months, some took more than a year. They said they would stare at it and not know. They would stare at it and see themselves staring back and not know where to put the paint because they’re confronted with their egos or confronted with their ghosts or whatever it is. There were a few artists who found it really intense, where as for me I’m used to not being precious. I do the best photograph that I can of you and I interpret you in the way that I want. And then I feel like Gambit from the X-men and I just whip the photos out there and go “Do with it what you like”. And sometimes they came back and I was blown away. Sometimes they came back and I was surprised by what I saw. It’s been really exciting by what they do. Sometimes they would paint over the whole fucking thing, which I think that was the only time when I was like, “Oh man [laughing]”. There were four or five cats that painted over everything, which they’re totally cool for doing that, but that was the only time my ego I think crept in the tiniest of bit, where I went, “Ah, but now I don’t feel like it’s me anymore.”
Why do you think those artists painted over the complete portrait?
Two of the people that I asked said because they were so racked by seeing an actual physical representation of themselves so they felt they had to cover it. So I kind of like that. But at the time, the egotistical side of me said, “I want to be out somewhere. I want the thing to show, so if you paint over the whole thing then what about me? Poor me, poor me.”
You said you learned about other artistic processes. What are some of the things that you feel that have carried over that you feel will become a part of you as an artist from now on?
I think the biggest one, which is what spawned the movie originally, was a photoshoot I did with a guy named Baron Storey. He’s an artist’s artist. If you ask artists about Baron Storey they’ll fall to their knees and start kowtowing. He taught Dave McKean. He taught Kent Williams, David Choe, David Mack. So I think he’s the oldest guy in the show, in his early 70s, so he’s kind of the grandfather of a lot of these disciplines. When I was photographing him he just started teaching me a little about his process and instantaneously it fed into how I was shooting. So to date he is the only person that I’ve photographed in my entire career that altered how I was taking my pictures in real time. He was talking about a thing called emotional memory where you allow yourself to get angry by thinking of something that happened to you in the past instead of trying to think of being angry—instead of being, ERRR this is my angry face, this is my sad face. And he actually got it. He got this really aggressive face and was like, “Fuck you and fuck your work. Why am I even here? I don’t even like being here. I hate being photographed.” And he was super pissed and I went, “That was super intense,” and he went, “None of that’s true. I was actually thinking about how my cat took a shit and I had to clean the shit up this morning, and it was really frustrating. So I tapped into that. You see what I did there?” And I went, “Actually yeah, that’s kind of amazing.” And then I kind of goaded him and kept poking him to do that. And as he was doing that it improved the quality of the portrait. And I’ve been doing that, not every photoshoot, but I would say ten times in the past eight months I’ve pulled that out of my bag of tricks. I shot an MMA guy and he looked so placid and I went, “Just find a thing that just happened to you in the past week that made you mad.” And he thought about it … and I was like YES! You want the MMA guy to look pissed off. That was the moment when I thought this—I don’t know how to do a documentary. I’ve never made a film before. I need to make a film. This needs to be out. People need to see what he just did with me. Because he just changed how I operate. He changed my creative process with his creative process. So what if you do that with sixty other people? What I’d love to see is this film being spiritual art school where you get the opportunity to see how to tweak things—not about how you put paint on paper, but about how you approach opening the can of paint, or setting the can of paint up, or about thinking about what you’re going to do. There’s nothing to do with making marks. That’s your own technical discipline. But it’s with how you approach what you’re doing. Why is it spiritual? Why is it necessary? Why do we do it?
It sounds like an alchemical process.
Art is alchemy. Everything about art is alchemy. We think something and the few of us who are good enough to tactically do something, we think it and we just start making marks on paper and all the sudden this thing emerges, which is for me just sort of bizarre and beautiful. What I do feels a little bit more antiseptic, but I mean people have paid me that same compliment because it’s just what I do. So for me I think, “Well what I do isn’t anywhere near as cool as painting.” And then my painter friends say, “What I do isn’t nearly as cool as taking pictures.” Everything becomes less precious when you’re the one doing it.
Have you taken a picture of yourself and done what these artists have done?
Oddly enough I haven’t, but what I have done is decide that I want to actually learn how to draw and paint, which is bizarre. I’ve had occasional inclinations when I was younger to draw stuff or paint stuff as I imagine most of us do, but I have this weird desire to try and get better at that discipline even though I have no interest in pursuing that as a vocation. I love what I do, but I’ve been really moved to actually try to learn how to tactically make marks and see if that changes my creative process. I think what this has done for me more than anything else is made me realize that the creative process is a really malleable thing. It’s that singularity in that Interstellar movie where it’s like gravity, and you want to keep spinning it faster and faster, and you can pull more things into your orbit. And the more things you pull in, the brighter the light show gets and the more beautiful it is. I think that’s what it made me do more than anything else, is broaden and expand upon my own process.
So after the gallery show you’re going to be doing post production on the film?
I’m still filming. We have another fifty percent roughly, maybe forty for actual people to interview and then it’s starting to cobble the shoes together one by one til we have a product.
As a photographer are you taking control of the visual aspect of the documentary?
There are of three of us doing the entire thing. It’s a really small crew. We got funded and it was wonderful but for making a feature film what we got funded for was an infinitesimal amount to what we actually need to make a featured length documentary. I’m directing, producing, DPing and first camera. And then I have co-producer, sound designer and editor. And then I have a composer who is the final element. He is the only person who hasn’t gotten to be as day to day as we are. But he’s the sound mixer, masterer, and composer. His is going to be the last thing. He’ll probably elevate it from good to epic, or crappy to good.
This sounds like a lot of learning all in one project.
It’s a fun learning curve. Another thing that this project has done for me is push me in a whole new direction that I found very unexpected.
You said you did three or four collaborations with Allan for this project.
In here I did these two pieces of Allan’s portrait of me and then there were a couple of other pieces out there of my portraits that other artists did work on. And then artists Bill Sienkiewicz and I also collaborated on portraits of Neil Gaiman that Allan had shot. We just mixed it up with all the different artists.
Your experience in this is unique because most artists just did a portrait of themselves, whereas, not only did a portrait of yourself but you also got an extra layer by having other people doing a portrait of you.
That was really interesting to see what another artist projects onto an image of you that’s also a photographer’s portrait of their lens of how to see you. And then working with Bill Sienkiewicz on the Neil Gaiman portrait, Bill was a guy I’ve worked on other projects and even when I was a kid he was an inspiring to me in my formative years, so it was great to kind of jam on something with him. Even just seeing the photos, I think Allan is such an amazing photographer because he takes photos of people that look real. His photos of you are like how you want to think of yourself.
What was the psychological play that happened when you did these works?
The biggest psychological thing was that he gave me these portraits he took that were absolutely beautiful photographs and my first thought was that they were finished already. They look amazing. They’re great photos already, I just don’t want to screw them up. I probably started a little bit more tentatively because I felt like it was already fascinating work that Allan had done, so I tried to dance around it a little bit to not obscure too much of what he did but try to preserve the interesting things about what he did and add something else to it that was supportive to it.
What have you taken from this project?
The coolest thing about this project for me is seeing the ripple effect that it had, which was having it turn into such a big exhibit. It was just going to be a dozen people maximum and now it’s such a bigger exhibit with so many other artists being a part of it, and it’s also a book. He was so interested in the conversation of artists and talking about their process and about making things that that inspired him into making a documentary about the act of creating artwork, and making things, and the artist’s process. So he’s making the Temple of Art documentary, which he’s been flying all over the world. Just that ripple effect from that early conversation he had with that first photo shoot he did of me in February 2012. It’s evolved quite a bit.
Is there a title to this?
All is One.
I’ve noticed the hermetic message in your work, “As above so below.” How did you apply that philosophy to this photograph?
Yes, it is hermetic. I thought the image was very powerful and goddess-like and so I wanted to incorporate the state of oneness and unity.
Part of the hermetic philosophy is transformation. What process did you go through to create this art?
I’m going through a massive change in my life so I wanted to incorporate that into the image. I’m going through a bit of a Joseph Campbell journey and so hopefully I’ll come out stronger on the other side. That’s what was going through my head when I created that.
How was this different from anything else you’ve done?
The collaboration was interesting. Allan Amato is such a spectacular photographer. It was almost intimidating to play with his image. I had to figure out how to combine what I love with what he captured.
Did you feel like this was more of a collaboration or that you were just going over his work?
It was absolutely a collaboration, because he gave me something to work with and then I had to bring it life on top of that.
What did this collaboration bring up for you?
All is One is really powerful to me because the moment you realize that we’re not separate—that if you’re kinder, if you’re softer toward other people, things become more transparent and understandable. Things make more sense when you realize we’re all connected, and whatever I do to you is going to influence whatever you’re going to do to the next person.
Now that the work is finished, what do you feel you’ve taken away from it?
Just to be a part of something way bigger than myself.
Temple of Art
December 5 – December 28
La Luz de Jesus Gallery
4633 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Adnohia, Allan Amato, Barron Storey, Bill Sienkiewicz, Brian Thies, Christiane Shillito, Christine Wu, Dadushin, Dan Quintana, Danni Shinya Luo, Dave McKean, David Mack, Dongyun Lee, Dorian Iten, Greg Ruth, Gail Potocki, Grant Morrison, Hueman, Jasmine Worth, Jason Shawn Alexander, JAW Cooper, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jenna Gibson, Jensine Eckwall, Jim Mahfood, John Malloy, Jon Burgerman, Junko Mizuno, Justin Volz, Kyle Stecker, Karen Hsiao, Kellesimone Waits, Ken Garduno, Kent Williams, Kozyndan, Kurt Huggins, Marc Scheff, Mark Buckingham, Matt Kennedy, Matthew Bone, Matthew Levin, Megan Hutchinson, Molly Crabapple, Neil Gaiman, Nicole Maloof, Rebecca Guay, Roman Dirge, Rovina Cai, Satine Phoenix, Scott Fischer, Shaun Berke, Soey Milk, Stephanie Inagaki, Teresa Fischer, Vincent Castiglia, You Jung Byun, Zelda Devon
Photography courtesy of Ambrose Gardenhire.