The Logic of Violence - Chase Westfall Interview

Artist(s) in Focus, Interviews

December 21, 2015

The art of Chase Westfall questions quite important problems our contemporary society is facing with in this moment. You might not find his artworks “beautiful” or aesthetically perfect. But, precisely in that “absence of beauty” we can see the huge artistic potential Chase Westfall’s work has. However, it’s not only about artistic potential – when we take a closer look at his art, we can see an enormous social and political message laying behind these works. Although this amazing American artist does not explicitly explain his artistic background, I would dare to say that he belongs to the group of artists that will certainly shape the future of contemporary art in general. Chase lives in the present, he feels and perfectly understand what our societies (global society) is facing with, and through his own language, his own expression, Chase Westfall is posing the most crucial questions we (as political beings) are faced with. Do not expect you will find all the answers in Westfall’s art; no, he poses serious questions that we all need to face with. There we can identify the significance of his art – in the artist’s brave decision to communicate with the audience, instead to present what we could name the “final artworks”. His art only give us an opportunity to better understand the violent world we all live in.

Widewalls has an honor to have an interview with Chase Westfall. Chase Westfall interview gives a chance to understand what the philosophical and political background of his art is. He deals with quite serious issues – how the terror functions? The terror itself is quite complex issue – there is no a simple answer to the question how violence or terror operate. Through his art, Chase Westfall poses extremely important questions (many of those have already been posed by the masters of conceptual art and theorists of contemporary art). What is the position of artist (both ethical and political) when he/she artistically represent the acts of violence? Is it moral? Does the artist, while representing violence, participates in the “spectacle of terror”? It’s crucial to understand these questions in order to realize what the relationships are between the contemporary art and the “real world”. Therefore, you must read the answers this great artist gave to us. It’s about contemporaneity, about the logic of violence and terror, and about the role of contemporary art in our society. 101/EXHIBIT Gallery from Los Angeles organized an exhibition of Chase Westfall, entitled Terror Function, where the visitors had an opportunity to deal with complex questions the artist is posing.

Real and Symbolic Violence

Widewalls: Through your art, you are examining the societal function of violence (among other things). Many of the works presented in Terror Function exhibition at 101/EXHIBIT are dealing with terrorism and its “manifestations”. In the light of recent events (the refugee crisis in Europe, terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino shooting, just to mention a few), would you please comment on the reactions we see in the United Stated regarding these violent events? In your opinion, what is the best way to confront ISIS, for example? There are politicians in the US suggesting the country should ban Muslims from entering the country. Or do we need a more complex response?

Chase Westfall: This is a great question and my response may sound a little evasive, but for better or worse it’s sincere. You mentioned the word reaction (“what are the reactions we see…”) - my position has less to do with reaction and more to do with reflection. In a political climate that favors reaction, the gesture of greatest value that I feel I can offer is one of considered meditation. It’s my way of trying to provide a counter-balance to the cultural forces I see at work. In light of all the moral and political certainty (from political candidates, for example, and, not coincidentally, from the the terrorists themselves) my position is a calculated gesture of uncertainty - at least in terms of any political or military action. The only certainty I feel is the value of trying to offer a slower, more philosophically oriented take on what are a very complex set of conditions and circumstances.

Widewalls: In your art, you examine the ways terrorism works. In your own words: “the ultimate of the terrorist attack, then, is not calculated in terms of fatalities, but in terms of the profile (visibility) and symbolic potential of the attack.” Symbolism plays a very important role in the way terrorism works. What is your approach to this “symbolic” violence? Does symbolism as such plays any role in your art?

CW: Properly constituted, every artwork is ‘symbolic’ in the sense that it represents a distillation of bigger (limitless) realities into a finite (limited) material package. Religious observance and ritual are also built on a framework of symbolism - in fact, if you take a broad historical view of it, ‘symbolic violence’ is probably more closely associated with religious rites than it is with warfare/terrorism. To get back to your question - all of my work is, I think, symbolic in at least some sense of the term, and much of it is symbolic in very pointed ways. Untitled (Memorial) goes beyond simply being symbolic to actually enacting a model of (or proposal about) the origin, use, and value of symbols and symbolic violence.

Featured Image: Chase Westfall Lattice, diptych-2011. Oil on linen, detail

The Position of Contemporary Artists

Widewalls:  As an artist, you examine different acts of violence (terrorist attacks); some of them took place in Syria and in Spain. What is your ethical position? Do you believe that an artist should have a social responsibility towards the subject he/she represents in his/her art? Is aesthetical representation of violence “ethical”?

CW: To the question of “social responsibility” the answer, for me, is yes. When I drive a car, I’m responsible for making sure that the car doesn’t plunge into the other lane of traffic. I believe that art is (or is capable of being) powerful, and so I can’t simply let the imagery and ideas go careening all over the road. This is one of the reasons that the general public has grown mistrustful of art and artists; not because they engage with difficult or challenging subject matter, but because they often do so recklessly.

To the question of the ethics of representing violence - I don’t know! I think that’s the thing that creates the most tension for me in making the work and which sometimes leads to a kind of perceivable ‘stiffness’ in the work, where/when some of my tension/inhibitions come through to the viewer. I used to worry about it but now I’ve embraced it as something that keeps me honest and helps keep the work from drifting into sensationalism or exoticism. From a career perspective a little more sensationalism would probably do me good! : ) But, as suggested above, I think there is something valuable in working from, and representing, a position of uncertainty.

Widewalls: The famous Theodor Adorno’s view is that “there cannot be poetry after Auschwitz”, which many theoreticians understand as - there cannot be art after Auschwitz. Following these thoughts by Adorno, can there be any art that would reference to 9/11, for example? Are you, as an artist, in position to use those horrible acts of violence as a motif for your art? Can art visually represent the horrors of violence, terrorism, genocide, mass murders?

CW: The version of the Adorno quote with which I’m more familiar is “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I want to make that distinction because it points us back toward the last question about social responsibility. Art can be made (and has been made) after Auschwitz, and art can be made (and has been made) after, and even about 9/11. And much of that art has been ‘barbaric’ in that it has failed to learn the lesson of Naziism (Auschwitz) or Islamic extremism (9/11) by continuing to trade in simplistic or sensationalist rhetoric and political narratives. I believe that artists have full authority to cite and represent all things - even violence and suffering - if that act of representation is purposeful and expressed in solidarity with those who may have suffered. This is, admittedly, a very problematic, un-provable kind of criteria, but it is the litmus test that guides my personal decisions about the use of violent imagery.

Widewalls: Among other theoreticians, you cite Eyal Weizmann as someone who inspired your work. He is known for making relations between architecture, forensics and art. Speaking about forensics, and having in mind that you also use forensics in your work (for example, in your work Gate, where you used video footage and photographs from Raqqa), could you explain what influence contemporary forensics has in contemporary art, and in your work in particular?

CW: That’s a great question to/for which I, unfortunately, don’t really have a good answer. There are a lot of forensics-ish practices going on in terms of making, finding, or using documentation of events/objects to try and reconstruct those events/objects (and their narratives.) I think of Alec Soth’s NIAGARA series and Mark Dion as obvious examples… I’m sure I could come up with some better examples if I put my mind to it! : ) That said - Eyal Weizman, his work and writings, really opened up a lot of conceptual territory for me that I am really just beginning to explore.

Featured Image: Chase Westdaill - Terror Function at 101/EXHIBIT, Installation view, detail

Artist as a Witness

Widewalls: You are also interested in the position of the artist as a “witness”. That is a bit “tricky” position, since, on one hand, you problematize the artist as a “witness” as it exploits the spectacle of violence; and on the other, the position can be seen as exploitation of the victim’s sufferings and experience. But art is very powerful with its ability to spread political and social messages (“the power of image”, for example). What are your thoughts on this? How do you escape from this artist as a “witness” maze?

CW: To echo some of the earlier sentiments - I haven’t escaped from that maze. There is a Jean-Luc Moulene interview (from Modern Painters) where he talks about developing an understanding that an artwork is not intended to be a site of resolution, but rather a site of conflict. For a long time I made the - in retrospect - mistake of thinking that art was a space within which I could bring my personal contradictions into harmony - something like a therapeutic perspective. I’ve begun to embrace Moulene’s idea that art is more effective as a forum within which the uncertainty/frustration of those contradictions can be put on display.

Widewalls: In the announcement for your exhibition Terror Function at 101/EXHIBIT, we see a number of philosophers and thinkers who have inspired your work. What about artists? Could you name the artists whose works you admire, or whose art influenced your artistic approach?

CW: I’m going to dodge the “influence” thing and just say that some of the artists that I’ve been geeking out about in recent years (other than those already specifically mentioned in the show literature) would be, let’s see... David Ostrowski, Huma Bhabha, Sterling Ruby, Vincent Fecteau, Johannes Vanderbeek, Julia Dalt, Leslie Vance, Dave Hardy, Michael Borremans, Kai Althoff, Justin Mortimer…. the list goes on! From Art History, I am still head over heels for Minimalism as well as all the great figurative painters you’d expect: Velazquez, Sargent, Bellows, Beaux, and a slew of others.

Widewalls: Finally, your exhibition at 101/EXHIBIT opened on October 24. What are the impressions so far?   

CW: It's been great to hear from the gallery that people have been willing to spend time with the work and, seemingly, really meditate on the content/subject matter. I want the show to slow things down for people. The rhetoric of news media, for example, drives/encourages people to digest quickly, often making abbreviated conclusions about complex issues/events. Add to that the fact that the stories and imagery surrounding these particular issues (violence, terrorism, etc.) are often shocking/distasteful/repulsive, which is a further deterrent to prolonged engagement, and you get a situation where a set of issues that merit real consideration and discussion are, instead, simply being 'reacted' to. If the exhibition is providing a forum for a different speed of engagement then that, for me, is a success. That's not to say that everything in the show is built around a 'slow read' - certain works are more aggressive than others. For instance, Small Offering confronts people directly with burnt animal organs, referencing ancient sacrificial practices, but these kind of assertive gestures are balanced out by works like Untitled (Memorial), a very quiet, delicate piece of jewelry that offers viewers a reprieve and, hopefully, a moment to reflect on the origins of their own spirituality.

Featured Image: Chase Wesfall - Blue Barricade, detail. All images courtesy of 101/EXHIBIT Gallery.

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