Sampling order from chaos


Last Word, Darryl Moody

I had a fun conversation with Darryl Moody last week at Viridian Artists. The closing reception for his solo show on the 12th—tomorrow, as I’m posting this—and the show goes down the next day. He holds a BA in Graphic Arts from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he studied design with Bauhaus artists who had fled Germany in WWII. He went on to get an MFA in sculpture from The School of the Art Institute in Chicago. He has written “Photography as a Psychological Narrative” while working at Indiana University.

You take photographs in various cities of what people have posted and painted on public walls: street art that has been covered with other street art or printed matter. What’s interesting is how you capture the passage of time in the way these layers accumulate and then decay either because of the weather or as people successively alter what’s there. How did you get started doing this?

Ten years ago, in Baja, Mexico, a combination of things caught my interest. When I looked at street art there, I noticed how things that were posted usually deteriorated much more slowly than they would here. In New York, a lot of the imagery here disintegrates because it’s being attacked by people. The other thing that happens in Mexico, even with graffiti, they will use sharp objects, often on glass, and they’ll scrape on glass surfaces or hard surfaces in general, but they also scrape on metal. So a lot of things that were interesting initially weren’t just graffiti but the fact that they were on top of older imagery, even from the 40s. Occasionally when they would use a sharp object and write on metal, the oxidized metal would bleed through (and it would expose the older layers of material.) Also, there’s something about the light on the West Coast. When it’s a clear day, you get light that’s almost blinding. The intensity of the light made the experience much different.

You’ve been spending the three weeks of your show at Viridian wandering around taking a lot of photography in New York City. How did you get drawn to New York?

I got to New York in 2004, when I was doing a residency at Cooper Union. I was beginning to have questions about when and why does certain art become significant in art history. Where’s the edge of art criticism and how does it intersect with history?

In other words, how does art in a given period get legitimized and recognized as art?

Yes. How we arrive at determining what is art to begin with and what do we recognize as art over time? The whole idea of the “signature value” of a given artist’s work, and how we edit some things out and focus on others, with a particular work. For some expressive souls, this whole thing becomes an exclusionary process—they can’t go into a gallery and have their work evaluated by critics, which is how work emerges with a provenance and becomes a part of art history. Some people just blow that off, and they say forget it, I have to express this. They post all this stuff out on the street. There was something about the street as a place to observe this that intrigued me, because you had interesting people emerging who say that as their venue. It wasn’t about graffiti. I was never that big on “hey let’s get a can of spray paint and deface a train in NYC.” I did have some experience with gangs in Chicago, and so I understood what tagging was, and I had been taken in by gang consiglieres who would bring me into their community to see the work they’d done. They have walls where they create their art, and for them it is a story.

Memorials, right?

Some of these people are dead or incarcerated and the art marks their time on the street. I understood how that worked with people like the Latin Kings in Chicago. I was also interested in how it was all falling apart. In New York, all of these interests started coming together. I thought, these are conceptual artists aside from just the graphic elements of the work: they were making intentional and conscious statements. You could see what happens in that environment, and that it isn’t being preserved, but the beauty is that it isn’t being preserved—there was this human interaction taking place over time (new statements on top of the earlier ones).

So you were questioning what art was and trying to find a place for what you wanted to do in this environment?

I wondered, am I just photographing someone else’s artwork? This was something I talked with Peter Schjeldahl about, when he came to talk at Cooper Union. The framing (is mostly where my work happens). You can look at this immense environment we live in, and you choose what to include in the frame of the photograph. There wasn’t any cropping. It was all done in the viewfinder. We had to look at what inspired us to capture something and we had one shot in which to capture it. No cropping.

It’s interesting that you happen to be wandering around shooting street art during the month that Banksy decides to come to New York and do his thing on the walls here.

I live this kind of life of synchronicity. I love coincidence. It makes me reconsider what’s happened. Part of the work I do is simply being drawn to a certain place at a certain time and being there to see it. The pictures become my take on what I see. I take ownership of it.

In a sense, you’re redefining what’s there.

Yeah. It isn’t just duplication. Pop artists would be derivative, they would almost duplicate things in a one-to-one way. A comic strip. A Brillo box. It raised the question of what’s creative, and where is appropriation taking place. If something is being appropriated one-to-one, what makes it a work of art?

That’s what Arthur Danto focused on. Lichtenstein and Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Why is it art?

Shepherd Ferry was an appropriation right out of an AP photograph. AP brought a suit against Shepherd Ferry. My aesthetic intent is that, in that process, through my training, in the viewfinder to create the image, obviously not just to duplicate what’s there.

It’s like sampling in hiphop. You’re seizing a fragment of what’s actually there. After you capture the image, how much do you do with it?

I shoot it in fine JPEG and RAW. I take a look and often try to make some kind of note about what the light is or where I am. I was asked, how do you remember where you are when you take these? I’m not sure. It’s part of the aesthetic experience. I was drawn, coincidentally, in time and space to that particular spot and took that frame of it.

So your experience is the art, more than the image you derive from it. The show I just went to yesterday, it quotes Welliver saying that his paintings were just tracks in the snow behind him. He hardly cared about them once he was done painting.

Well, I care about the images very much. I talk about his when I lecture, how I see an image, it’s there, I capture it, and then it’s dissipated. One of the street art pieces, for example, is a building I’ve photographed a number of times. It was a candle factory, three stories, on Spring St. When I first saw it, it was so incredible. People had been posting things on its walls for 15 years. I started shooting it four or five years into that, and then it was bought and the architect who bought it took the outside and reworked the outside, making it exactly the way it was in the 19th century except for a piece of glass. It’s three condos now. I shot it many times over the years.

You are seeing an order in the chaos, aren’t you? Or imposing an order by selecting what will be in the image?

Design brings order out of chaos, but I’m also letting chaos have its voice.

It isn’t just a mess. What you’re showing has some coherent form.

You come back to it, and there’s a formal order.

You’re seeing some kind of order there in the chaos. You aren’t just imposing it.

Working with the viewfinder. I’m seeing it.



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