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Meg Cranston Interview for OMAG

May 8, 2014
Spotlight Category: Faculty

Keeping it Simple and Fresh

Cranston reveals her favorite museums, the book she would take to a desert island, her thoughts on art and media, the pinata, and more.


Why is teaching important to you?
In Los Angeles, teaching is a normal part of an artist’s career. That isn’t true everywhere but it is definitely true here. Initially, I taught for the same reason most artists teach—to support my work. What I found out was that teaching not only provided financial support but it also informed and energized my work. Teaching forces you to constantly reevaluate your own ideas and as a result, your work stays fresh. You have to stay relevant to the students, and that helps you stay relevant to a wider audience.

L.A. is a great place for an artist to teach because you are in such good company. The list of artists who teach or have taught here is a who’s who of the art world. Otis plays a crucial part in that with an amazing number of world-famous artists who have taught/continue to teach including Paul McCarthy, Carole Caroompas, Alex Slade, Mike Kelley, Steve Prina, Chris Williams, Frances Stark, Liz Glynn, Laura Owens, Jack Goldstein, Alexis Smith, Monique Prieto, and Jorge Pardo. We take risks by hiring young artists whose work we believe in, and it pays off both for the artists and for the students.

L.A. art colleges have produced an enormous number of artists and trained the teachers who have gone on to develop international programs. What we might call collectively “the L.A. method” has been imitated in colleges and universities around the world. Otis has a central role in making L.A. the most important city in the world for art education today.

What do you find unique about Otis students?

Artists love teaching at Otis because the students are so cool. Our students are more independent and empathetic than students at other schools where I’ve taught. I think L.A. has a lot to do with that. We are a metropolitan art school so our students live and work in the city. That gives Otis students a more informed perspective on life, and makes them more cosmopolitan. They deal with a broad range of people, and negotiate life in one of the greatest
cities in the world.

Describe your collaborations with John Baldessari

Over the years, we have collaborated on a variety of projects with a shared objective of mixing thing up—always wanting to try something new. We work together mostly because it’s fun to see what you generate when you work with another artist. We have curated a few shows together, including one for the Santa Monica Museum on the work of Norm Laich, an L.A.-based artist and sign painter who has worked with many important artists. Curating is a thankless job for artists. You definitely don’t make any friends, but John and I do it because we feel it is important for artists to show the world the exhibitions that artists want to see.

Last year we finished a book that took seven years to complete. More Than You Wanted to Know About John Baldessari is an anthology of John’s complete writing, from his days at Otis in 1957 to the present. I coedited it with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, a curator and codirector at Serpentine Gallery in London.

Last year we did two sets of paintings using texts from John’s early writing. The colors came from Pantone’s forecast for the top women’s fashion colors for 2013. We wanted to juxtapose older texts with the latest fashion colors. For one set I selected a short text that is my favorite bit of advice:

“Whatever you decide to do, remember to keep it simple, keep it fresh, and have some idea what you are going to do.”

We showed one set of these at Galerie Michael Janssen in Singapore. That went well, so we made another set based on texts from 1968 for Michael’s gallery in Berlin. These related to subjects that John said he could not paint: sad doggies, squint-eyed tigers, and ladies in gypsy costumes. In ’68 it was impossible to paint those things. By 2013 things had changed.

How does your anthropology background influence your work?
My anthropology major at Kenyon College provided a good foundation for art making because anthropologists see meaning as relative, conditioned by cultural context. In art it’s very similar. You have to understand the context you are working in. In art you wouldn’t say red necessarily means love. You’d say, in a certain context, shown in a certain composition, presented in a certain way, red might connote love. Artists need to be very sensitive to the time and place in which they are working to be understood. Like anthropologists, they have to understand everything about a culture—religion politics, economics, etc. Cultural conditions manifest belief, and belief gets manifested materially in art and design. Art and design are 100% about belief. They both reflect it and generate it.


How does art reflect current media? (or how does YOUR work do this?)
Current or mass media uses exactly the same set of skills as art though art and mass media are valued differently. Art traffics in rarity and, at least superficially, profundity. Mass media, by contrast, is almost purely a numbers game. It gathers meaning and importance by the number of times it is reproduced and by the number of people who engage with it.  In social media (and increasingly, all mass media) value is established by “likes.” Mass media is very direct and democratic in that sense. Like all artists today, I can’t ignore mass media. I don’t want to. It is a language we all use and understand. I use a lot of popular imagery in work. I don’t use an image in the way it was originally intended but I do, in a sense, borrow the power it gained in mass culture. I never wanted to separate myself from the larger culture. I am an optimist. I say yes to everything.

What were the most compelling exhibits you saw in L.A. last year? Elsewhere?
The Caravaggio show at LACMA included only eight Caravaggio paintings but that’s a lot because it’s very difficult for museums to borrow the paintings. Caravaggio’s work always looks contemporary. To me, the paintings look like advertising. He knew how to sell a subject in way that is totally understood by contemporary viewers.
The other show that really impressed me was in New York. Thomas Hirschhorn is favorite among L.A. artists and Otis students. He did project at a housing project in the Bronx dedicated to the philosopher Gramsci in which the residents were completely involved in every aspect. They created a radio station, a café, a lecture series, and a garden. It went on for months, and was just really fresh and exciting. Hirschhorn’s attitude is that the purpose of art is to generate energy. Everything else is secondary. I totally agree with that.

What do you see as the difference between L.A. and N.Y. art scenes?
I encounter the N.Y. scene mostly through galleries and art dealers, and less by hanging out with artists. I go to N.Y. primarily to do shows. From that vantage point, N.Y. is all about the market. Dealers like David Zwirner seem to make the news more than their artists. People talk about auctions because the big auction houses are in N.Y., and auctions have increasingly become central to art.
L.A. is different. It’s a place where many great artists choose to live and work. A lot of artists work here and do business elsewhere. That is certainly true in my case.

What's your favorite place in L.A.?
I really admire what (Director) Annie Philbin has created at the Hammer Museum. It is a good model of the museum as social space. There is so much going on, and it really has revitalized Westwood.

What are you reading?  What blogs do you follow?
I recently read Uncreative Writing by poet Kenneth Goldsmith. He argues that creative writing lags behind visual art in the sense that it remains for the most part locked into the self-expressionist model. Long ago, visual artists experimented with using neutral information or strategies to create works that were interesting but had nothing to do with their biography. He argues that writers should be influenced by visual art and the freedom visual artists have to borrow or appropriate from whatever sources they choose. To that end, he made a text using transcripts of weather reports and another using transcripts of 911 calls. Basically the idea is that ordinary “uncreative” sources produce novelty and a new reinvigorated idea of creativity.  Goldsmith also does the site, a fantastic resource for film and video, writing etc. I’m also reading Tenth of December by George Saunders. It’s so great that a really good writer has become a best seller.

What do you think about Vern Blosum?
I think it’s funny and totally fine. It was done as a hoax I guess but if the paintings are convincing who really cares why someone made them? I don’t think they are the best paintings but I have no problem with prank. Art is full of pranks. So what?

Dave Hickey, in a recent talk, asserted that "Artists are narcissists and should stay so." He talked about art world people at the top (the folks with “silver bowls full of cocaine”) and people at the bottom, stating that those are the only two positions on the spectrum that could cultivate creative work, and dismissing everything in the middle. He also expressed surprise that critics so rarely write negative reviews, since he so rarely sees artwork that makes him excitedly wonder "what are they going to make after this?" Agree/disagree?
I don’t always agree with Dave Hickey but I appreciate him as a writer and gadfly. He writes very well. That’s important. Ultimately, critics are persuasive because people enjoy reading them, so writing well is critical. I don’t agree that artists “in the middle” can’t do anything. A lot of artists come from ordinary middle class backgrounds and stay more or less middle class. Despite the pose, it was same for many white rock and roll musicians. I agree that few critics seem interested in writing negative reviews. Audiences do like an occasional scathing review but critics have to be pretty certain they’re right.

What are YOU working on now?
I am working on a series of painting for an exhibition in Berlin. I am also on my way to Afghanistan to do a project. A group of L.A. women artists are collaborating with women weavers to design carpets.

If you had to choose one work of art to take to a desert island, what would it be?
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, primarily because it is over 1,000 pages long.

How did you choose the piñata as a means for self-portraiture?
There were two ideas. The first was that having a piñata of you in Tijuana is the ultimate measure of fame. Jeff Koons might be famous but he isn’t piñata famous. No artist is. The second idea came from a famous ethnographic film by Timothy Ashe and Napoleon Chagnon called “Magical Death.” It shows the Yanomamo tribe practicing ritual warfare. They did that to lessen the occurrence of real fighting. The idea was that my effigy would undergo ritual violence so that my actual self wouldn’t have to.