In the Studio: Collaborations and Collectives

by Rachel Cook February 2, 2005

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the unique studio practices of different artists in Texas.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the unique studio practices of different artists in Texas. The first three articles will interview and interact with Texas-based artists using collaborations within their work. The series itself is meant to be a curatorial exercise, in addition to presenting some Texas artists to the larger community.

Artists who work together in pairs or groups go about the business of making art in uniquely interactive ways. In his book Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud writes, “These days, communications are plunging human contacts into monitored areas that divide the social bond up into (quite) different products. Artistic activity, for its part, strives to achieve modest connections, open up (One or two) obstructed passages, and connect levels of reality kept apart from one another. The much vaunted ‘communication superhighways,’ with their toll plazas and picnic areas, threaten to become the only possible thoroughfare from a point to another in the human world.”[1] Whether or not the advent of a new generation of artistic collaborations is a response to the perceived increasing isolation of human beings these days, there nonetheless are a growing number of artists working together in a shared practice.

I Love You Baby is a collective in Houston that gets together every Wednesday to paint in the Commerce Street studios. The group has an interesting story partly because they are just beginning to show professionally (although some of its members have a shared history going back over ten years). Paul Kremer and Will Bentsen met at school and bonded over what seems to be a shared sense of humor. In Will’s own words, “So we had been in school for a couple of weeks… maybe longer, I don’t know. Anyway, we were in typography class or something like that… and the professor would let us bring in tapes to listen to during class. I put in a mix tape. I didn’t really know anyone — plus I was 5 or 6 years older than the rest of the students and nobody really knew each other. We were still trying to figure out who was ‘cool,’ who was ‘talented,’ who was ‘full of shit,’ and who didn’t belong. Paul and I were sitting across from each other and making small talk when The Cure song Kiss me, Kiss me, Kiss me came on and somewhere at the end of the song the word ‘fuck’ was part of the lyric. He heard it… he looked right at me and said ‘I really hate it when they say, “fuck” in songs.’ I thought I had totally offended this new possible friend. It had to be written all over my face because he looked at me, smiled, and started laughing. I knew at that moment I had found a friend in Paul Kremer.”

Soon afterwards, Ralph Elliott (whom Bentsen met through mutual friends who worked on Hal Hartley’s film Trust) joined the ILYB gang. Ralph said, “I had been out of college for about a year and was living in Houston. When I met Will, I was so excited because he was the first person I could talk to about art.” Later, Ralph’s brother Rodney (the third core member), was introduced, and Will remembered his first encounter: “We walked out of Kroger on Montrose when the Westheimer Arts Festival was just shutting down. When we walked out, there was Rodney with some blonde girl, and they were sitting on the tailgate of his pickup facing the parking lot. We asked him what they were doing and Rodney said, ‘We’re here to watch the festival.’ Only Rodney could gain pleasure by watching people walk away from a street party.” Eventually, the idea of “let’s go over to my house, hang out, and paint” came to the table. Paul remembers when it became a regular practice: “Early 2002, from what I remember, Rodney invited us to come over to his studio and paint. At that point it was Rodney, Will, Sean Flournery, and I painting together. I remember Sean would bring in old artwork and velvet paintings for us to paint on top of them. Rodney suggested we paint together every Wednesday…only this time, in order to keep all of the artwork in one place, he asked us to agree to leave everything we painted in the studio. We thought this was a great idea and started painting on separate paintings. Sean painted a painting that simply said ‘I Love You Baby…’ and it stuck”.

Over the course of the next few years, it became an on-again off-again relationship involving “painting while getting drunk with friends.” The idea is not new: Tom Marioni, a conceptual artist from California, whose 1970 installation called Drinking beer with friends is the highest art, involved a bar and table set up with beer for viewers to imbibe. While this is not a new idea being brought to the table, there is something pleasingly naive and sincere about the way I Love You Baby organizes their evenings of painting. The rules are, everyone is free to participate but no one can be upset if someone paints over something he or she painted. They hang pieces of canvas, paper, and fabric on the wall, on what really appears to be a performance area, scattered with paint buckets and one large bucket full of dirty water for all the brushes. Andy Warhol’s Factory operated under similar principles. So did the crew of Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollack, William de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. The writers and artists who came to Gertrude Stein’s house in Paris in the 1920s created a safe refuge for all sorts of interaction to occur between writers and artists. It seems there is a desire amongst artists to join forces and have weekly interactions with each other, sometimes in a set location. This communal impulse drives movements within the arts, sometimes permanently altering the art historical landscape.

Notable collectives and collaborations in the past century include the Fluxus and Dada movements, amongst many others. Even in Texas, there have some influential communities, from the Good/Bad Art Collective that came out of Denton in the early-1990s, to Mark Allen’s gallery projects in Houston. Recent collectives elsewhere include the Royal Art Lodge (Winnipeg, Canada), and Forcefield and Paper Rad (both from Providence, RI), which have had a direct impact on their respective communities.

No matter what the nature of the collaboration is, each person in a collective has a role, and is generally expected to contribute something. There also seems to be a necessary mix of personalities to ensure success: typical roles include the calming agent, the challenger, the spokesperson/cheerleader, and the businessperson. Artist groups seem always to start with these roles; and the exchange of ideas often draws out those aspects of one’s own personality that you forget were there.

I Love You Baby has formed a collaborative space that nurtures each other while maintaining separate interests outside of the collective. Paul Kremer and his wife run a graphic design studio, The Speared Peanut. Will Bentsen is a “man of mystery” and full-time artist. Rodney Elliott plays in the band J.W. Americana, and has also made music with the artists Daniel Johnston and Ralph Carney. Christopher Olivier makes work under his own name and the assumed name “Bexar.” Dale Stewart makes conceptually-based artworks in various media. Mark Flood is an established artist and also works at The Menil Collection. Andrea Chin, niece of artist Mel Chin, designs and makes clothes. There are also the occasional “regular visitors” Betsy Odom, Jack Massing (one of The Art Guys), Julie Boone, Vicki Fowler, and Ed Golemon.

The following are some of the later members’ first memories of attending the Wednesday night painting adventures. Chris Olivier remembers, “The ILYB energy was coming from every direction. I felt as if I was being stalked by its allure. One evening some friends of mine were having an exhibition at Commerce Street. That night three different people asked me to come on by and see the painting at studio G. They told me all were welcomed and that I need only bring beer as entry to the party. One night, I think it was a Wednesday, with beer in hand I walked to the red door and promptly walked away. I got to the front of the building and went to the bathroom, as I was nervous about the whole situation. I kept telling myself that it was okay. I went to the red door again and again I turned and walked away and went back to my truck and got in. I told myself that I was crazy and that I needed to get over it and just knock and go in. They said every one was invited, I kept telling myself that as I walked up and reluctantly rapped on the door. They invited me in and said ‘I remember you. You brought beer, come on in, grab some paint.’”

Betsy Odom, who also makes her own work, remembers her first encounter with this rowdy bunch: “I came around when I first moved into Commerce Street some [when ILYB was transitioning between Commerce Street’s studios M and G]. My main motivation was that studio M shared a wall with my bed. Plus, by this point, “iloveyoubaby” had gained a reputation for beer drinking and rowdy-boy hijacks. I love rowdy boys. Like brothers, I mean… love ’em all like brothers…Course, at some point, paint-explorations got co-opted by domestic duties, and my attendance waned. After three absences, they called my mom and told her I’d been skipping. Pretty soon, my frequent absences got me expelled, and I was forced to attend a parochial paint club, where groups of nuns made us delinquent communists, creating Madonna murals while guzzling communion wine. Although I gained much discipline from this period of my life, I am grateful that “iloveyoubaby’ adopted a new “no stinking artist left behind” policy when they moved back to M.”

I Love You Baby’s oeuvre consists of “group paintings,” a beautiful website that catalogues their weekly adventures, and some offsite projects. My own first experience with the work was going to the studio and seeing them paint on two different canvases simultaneously, whereas now they all paint on the same canvas, leaving more things up to chance. While one person painted, others would stand behind him or her, sort of poking at the painter. This was also the time they told me the story of how Dale Stewart got the nickname Yellow Dale. In Dale’s words, “One night when I was still pretty new to the group, I was standing around watching and listening when Rodney walked over to me and said quietly, ‘Hey, I dare you to paint that whole painting yellow.’ I’m pretty sure he was kidding, and because I was new to Wednesday nights, I’m almost certain he didn’t expect me to do it. At that time I didn’t have a clear sense of what iloveyoubaby was all about. What I saw were a bunch of people hanging out making sub-stellar paintings, and nobody really seemed to care what they looked like (the paintings, that is). It was really just about the “act.” So in keeping with that, I thought, ‘That’s a great idea. I’ll go paint the whole painting yellow and everyone will crack up.’ Almost everyone. Ralph had been working on this painting and I think it was just coming together in his mind when suddenly this new guy completely destroyed it. In a panic, Ralph grabbed a rag and tried to wipe off the yellow paint. He mostly succeeded, but the painting was left with a fuzzy yellow glow. So now I’m ‘Yellow Dale.’”

Stewart’s story illustrates how far the participants in ILYB get pushed towards embracing a process of chaos. Having spent more time with them, I started to see the work as more of a performance, and was less interested in the paintings as objects in of themselves. Julie Boone, another active participant who has contributed her sewing to the group and has since shown them at Plush in Dallas, remembers her first encounter: “I first came across this band of hooligans in the summer of 2003. I was recently separated from my husband and was on a mad search for new friends and new things to do. My new boyfriend (now fiancé, just part of the proof of the magic worked by ILYB) Ed suggested we check out this “paint party” that some of his old pals threw once a week at CSAW. ‘Paint party…hmmm’ — but what a revelation! I have always been a person who loves to create, anything from a painting to a grilled cheese sandwich, but this was something totally new to me — making art as a group. ILYB opened my eyes to a whole new level of creativity, saddled with community and fun. As I have gotten more involved with the group, the more fun I have had, and the more focused I have become. Not only on ILYB as a group, and in my own artistic pursuits. There is something about the communal vibe, our ease with one another that makes art fun for me again…making ILYB one of the best parts of my week, and one of the biggest gifts in my life. Hey, is this too sappy? Well, fuck it, it’s the truth.”

As for the website, it features works such as the Barry Manilow Project (June 2004), wherein members recreated a drawing of Barry Manilow found on the Internet. A cross between a drawing party and performance piece, the interaction between the group and the well-meaning creator of the original piece pushed the experiment into the realm of farcical appropriation. Over the summer, I Love You Baby showed at Negative Space gallery in Houston, and it was a well thought-out show with paintings, sculptures, and a project involving lost and found posters that were put up around town. This piece in particular reminded me of a friend’s project in school. He created “lost posters” of himself, which he then hung in places he would frequent. The idea was that he would be standing next to a poster of himself while waiting for the bus, and people would recognize him in an ambiguous moment of personal exposure.

This show at Negative Space showed I Love You Baby taking themselves more seriously, but still having a sense of humor about the whole process of making work together. As one of the members says about I Love You Baby, “[John] Cage and [Marcel] Duchamp let chance play a pivotal role in the creation of their work. This contrast with the familiar artist-as-control-freak, who thinks the work, is all about expressing him or herself with as much precision and grandiosity as possible. ILYB has two edgy qualities, and one of them is the collaborative nature of the work that functions a lot like chance, and definitely messes with ego and self-expression. The techniques themselves, paint slop on canvas, graffitti/ Basquiat-ness, etc, even when it gets pushed to include glass, records, gas heaters, etc, has all been done and done and done again already and before. The other edge is the publicity, i.e. the site, which is part of the work.”

More recently, they have begun to have multiple exhibitions at Mackey Gallery, currently at HCC Northline gallery (a hilarious and beautiful storefront in the Northline Mall, worth checking out on the ILYB website). Upcoming projects will be seen at DiverseWorks and Holocaust Museum Houston. It seems the spirit of the work has begun to infiltrate the community. Chris Olivier sums up this spirit of I Love You Baby perfectly: “You know, Paul, I was thinking that I Love You Baby is like a band. You know how in a band each member creates a sound that harmonizes with the others to create a song. You know, the Velvet Underground would play for hours in a random fashion. At points in these hours of playing would be great synchronicity and they would go back and repeat these harmonies. ILYB does this same thing in a visual way.”

1. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du Réel, 1998. (English translation 2002). p.8 [return to article]

Images courtesy of I Love You Baby and the editor. Special thanks to Laura Lark for the video.

Rachel Cook is the editor of Glasstire.

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