Home > Article > Reassembling the American Landscape: An Interview with Michael Phelan

Reassembling the American Landscape: An Interview with Michael Phelan

United Artists Ltd., Marfa, TX

United Artists Ltd., Marfa, TX

I was introduced to Michael Phelan when he bought a sculpture made by a friend of mine. In the work, a tiny, handwritten message on a stick is propped on a concrete block resting on an old piece of linoleum. I considered it her best work to date and was glad to know that someone else appreciated it as well. Over the following months, and after bumping into Michael around Chelsea on several occasions, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was originally from Texas, that he planned to return there to open an exhibition space in Marfa, and that his beer-bottle-balancing carved wooden bears shared a similar wry sense of humor with my friend’s sculpture. Intrigued by his approach to art making, his desire to have an exhibition space and his experience growing up in Texas, I conversed with Michael about these topics as well as about his time spent touring the country with the Grateful Dead and how that influenced his recent series of tie-dye “paintings.”

SEAN HORTON: As an artist, you are concerned with what you refer to as the ‘contemporary American landscape.’ In a place as vast as Texas, especially in contemporary society, there exists an immense array of ‘Texas’ experiences. Are there aspects of your upbringing in Southeast Texas or memories of the landscape there that you credit with your continued interest in a place’s cultural surroundings?

MICHAEL PHELAN: Growing up in Texas definitely played an important role in my artistic and conceptual development. As a kid, I was particularly drawn to its ‘larger than life’ sensibility and the ersatz veneer that often accompanied this. Two particular Texas ‘monuments’ stand out in my mind. The first is the Houston Astrodome, which was billed as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ by the Astros owner Judge Roy. It was the first ballpark to have a roof over the playing field and it could fit an 18-story building within its space. Initially it had real grass. During the first Astros exhibition game against the Yankees, however, the skylights made fly balls too difficult to see. As a result they were painted over, and the grass subsequently died. To remedy the situation, plastic grass was installed, which we now refer to as ‘Astroturf.’

The second ‘monument’ is the Shamrock Hotel, which I called home for several of my childhood years. Back story: Conrad Hilton, who owned the hotel, had befriended my mom when she was a young actress in Hollywood. When my family came into financial difficulties, he was generous enough to put us up. The 18-story, 1,100-room hotel was the largest built in the US in the ’40s and was one of the most extravagantly mythologized symbols of Texas in the ’50s. Edna Ferber made it into The Conquistador in the novel Giant, and it was featured as such in the film Giant , which coincidentally was filmed in Marfa. The pool itself was repeatedly described as the largest outdoor pool in the world — so large that it could actually accommodate exhibition waterskiing (which I would watch from our window during monthly conventions). Another perk was the fact that the Air France stewardesses would sunbathe topless.

In terms of art, my earliest (and most poignant) recollection is of paintings of the Wild West — forged Remingtons that lined my grandmother’s wall. Of course she had no idea they were forgeries when she bought them. I was completely fascinated by this concept of authenticity, or lack there of, and subsequently was the only one who asked for them upon her passing.

Installation view: Peter Coffin, Anne Collier and Eileen Quinlan.

Installation view: Peter Coffin, Anne Collier and Eileen Quinlan.

SH: One aspect of the American landscape that is particularly evident in your recent series of tie-dye ‘paintings’ is the ‘Western’ appropriation and perversion of history and culture, especially foreign culture, for a popular sensibility. In your opinion, as someone who grew up touring extensively with the Grateful Dead, what is it about the use of the tie-dye motif that has been so welcomed by the 1960s hippie movement and more recently by middle-class suburban teenagers and even in some cases their parents?

MP: Being drawn to the American landscape early on, I understood that I wanted to contribute to its makeup in some way. Consequently, I applied and was accepted to a progressive arts boarding school in the Northeast. Upon my arrival, I discovered students listening to bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream and so on — ’60s psychedelic and ‘Peace’ and ‘Free Love’ music, which at the time I was completely unaware of. I had grown up skating crappy half-pipes in friends’ backyards (my first board was a Powell Peralta) and been weaned on Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Judas Priest. This idea of upper-middle-class kids in the late ’80s appropriating a Vietnam-era sensibility (tie-dyes and all) totally blew me away. As it turned out, I ended up designing and producing a line of psychedelic-inspired T-shirts (think Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin), which I would sell during my summer breaks, traveling across the country with the Grateful Dead. I had a whole system worked out where I would have my screen printer ship the shirts to every stop along the way. After selling the entire load out of my trunk, I would keep 10 dollars, which was enough to get into the next parking lot and buy gas, and then send the rest back home to be deposited into a savings account (stir-fry, beer, etc., could all be bartered for). This put me through both high school and college. All the while, I tried to view this phenomenon through a critical lens.

I’m pretty sure the Day-Glo colored patterns of tie-dye had a great deal to do with their appeal … think psychoactive substances — they are always good for ‘visuals.’

SH: When considered in the lineage of American abstraction and landscape painting, your tie-dye paintings evoke the work of artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. Why was it important for you to translate tie-dye to the gallery context? What is your process — do you submerse portions of the canvas in more of a traditional tie-dye process or is the color applied with a brush on a pre-stretched canvas?

MP: As you noted earlier, the tie-dye paintings concern Manifest Destiny, and the absorption and perversion of historical and cultural modes and models for a popular (decidedly Western) sensibility. As a friend and fellow artist Jonah Freeman once noted: ‘Only in America would we take a traditional beverage such as a cappuccino and turn it into a ‘Triple Mocha Frappaccino’ with whipped cream.’ The gallery provides a critical context for the work, in this case the history and manifestation of tie-dye … and the target. Tie-dye: from Batik and Shibori in Central Asia, Africa and India, to the ’60s hippie movement, to today’s reemergence of tie-dye as worn by suburban housewives purchased at such retailers as the ironically titled Banana Republic. And the target: Johns, Noland … Target.

As for the technical process, the motif — which is consistent throughout (barring chance and accident determined by the inherent quality of dye) — and the color scheme are first composed on a computer. The ‘blueprint’ is then executed onto linen by a ‘professional’ tie-dyer (or hippie) in the traditional manner of tie-dye: folding, tying and dying.

Michael Phelan, You Complete Me, 2006...Dimensions variable...Dyed bamboo, rope and silkscreened silk.

Michael Phelan, You Complete Me, 2006…Dimensions variable…Dyed bamboo, rope and silkscreened silk.

SH: Matthew Brannon, writing in the ‘Best of 2005’ issue of Artforum, characterized United Artists Ltd. as a ‘retreat to provide artists a place where works need not be explained and all absurd concepts are entertained.’ Do you agree with this characterization of UAL? In other words, did you set out to create a retreat for artists? Do you get the sense that the artists who have been included in your project thus far feel a sense of creative freedom that they might not in another context?

MP: While I didn’t set out to create a ‘retreat’ for artists, it certainly fits one of UAL’s many bills. The project came about more or less in response to the state of affairs of the current art market as seen through the proliferation of art fairs, market speculation and a focus on younger and younger art. I was interested in providing an environment for the production of new work and critical discourse free from the narrow confines of an illustrational or thematic rubric, outside the commercial context of New York, Los Angeles and Europe…an environment where the artist’s creative processes are not dictated by market expectations. In that regard, I do feel the artists included have felt a sense of artistic freedom.

SH: Even though the artistic climate of Marfa has evolved over the years, it’s sort of impossible to consider UAL without considering the model of Donald Judd. On the surface, there seem to be some similarities: like Judd, you are a New York-based artist who has purchased space in Marfa with a desire to create a non-New York context for works of art. Do you feel the burden of Judd’s legacy upon your project? Beyond a shift in locale, what context are you hoping to create for the artists whom you involve?

MP: Marfa would not exist without Judd — his legacy is one of the most important and significant contributions in the history of American art. I was fortunate enough to be invited to do a site-specific installation at Ballroom Marfa, wherein I had the opportunity to visit the town and experience its art, architecture, design and landscape. I immediately understood why Judd was drawn to this region of West Texas (as I’m sure anyone who visits Marfa does). I also appreciated its sheer inaccessibility — a five-and-a-half-hour plane flight with a layover (since there are no direct flights) from New York to El Paso, followed by a three-hour car drive … longer than it takes to get to Europe. In terms of context, I felt this ‘Western’ backdrop provided an appropriate setting for a critical focus on the ‘contemporary American landscape’— that of UAL.

SH: A noticeable difference between UAL and the Judd model is that even though you are a practicing artist, you have yet to exhibit your own work. Instead you’ve opted to exhibit the work of other New York-based artists. How much of a role do you play as the curator of UAL and do you plan to exhibit your own work in the future? Do you feel the need to make a distinction between your artistic practice and your curatorial eye?

MP: I consider my role not one of curator, but rather that of host — inviting guests based on their ability to instigate discussion. I’m concerned with providing an environment that allows for a dialogue between artists whose work, in my mind, is tied together by a common conceptual thread. In terms of my own work, I consider UAL to be a continuation of my own artistic and conceptual concerns … so in that sense, I feel it would be redundant to exhibit my own work.

SH: Speaking of her project in Joshua Tree, California, Andrea Zittel said, ‘ …the area and its history represent a very poignant clash of human idealism, the harshness of the desert climate and the vast distances that it places in between people….’ Do you feel a kinship to her desert project, specifically its examination of the rhetoric of retreat as a sort of failed idealism ?

MP: In 2003 I had the opportunity to take part in Zittlel’s High Desert Test Sights #2.

It was an amazing experience — artists meeting up in the desert to take part in a much larger experience than is possible in the commercial art world. UAL does not necessarily have the same aims as Zittel’s HDTS, as it is concerned more with the idea of retreat as an open stage / platform for unscripted events to play out as they will.

SH: As a gallery, UAL doesn’t seem to adhere to any one historical model — the exhibitions aren’t themed, and there’s no evidence of sales strategies (the gallery is rarely even open). Does the gallery operate as a commercial gallery? How are the expenses covered? What other plans to you have in the future for UAL?

MP: UAL is not a commercial venture (although we do place work in appropriate collections). It is funded from the sales of my own work. The works that we do place help fund the project (basically the same overhead as a commercial gallery). For now, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing as long as it seems relevant and financially feasible. At the culmination of every fourth project (one year / 12 artists / four writers), UAL will publish a catalogue chronicling the year’s projects, with contributions from the invited artists and writers.

SH: I remember reading that when Judd first moved into Marfa, the townspeople were certain that he was worshipping the devil or engaging in occult practices behind the walls of his compound. What actually goes on behind the walls of UAL?

MP: What happens in Marfa, stays in Marfa.

Images courtesy the artist.

C. Sean Horton is an artist living in New York. This fall he opened SUNDAY in a dilapidated storefront on the Lower East Side.


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