Interview by David McLeavy
Published November 2014
Josh Whitaker uses a variety of cultural references and signifiers to portray his own personal account of contemporary culture. Using a series of methods and often through collaboration Whitaker’s practice continually evades being pinned down and categorised.
Having come across your work a number of times the one thing that initially strikes me is a level of humour and in some cases the work does not seem to take itself too seriously. Is this a misreading of the work or is the humour intended? If so I wonder if you could talk about the reason you use humour.
I've never thought there’s a gap between being serious and humour, for something to be funny it usually has a element of truth to it. Comedy often needs a straight man to operate. So the work is 100% serious all the time in me trying to make the best art I can. Its not flippant even if it plays off flippancy. The reaction I have often had to the work is that its funny, I think that’s just a reflection of my personality in the work. Humour is a pretty healthy way of dealing with the world I think. There’s nothing that shouldn’t be fodder for comedy, it’s a cathartic thing. There’s small elements of biography in some works like the 'Caganers' sculptures and drawings which are self portraits essentially. And a lot of the collaborative works are born out of the kind of chat generated by trying to make someone laugh. Like the show Tom Esam and me did together was like that. 100% Funny 100% Serious.
I think taking the piss out of things is underrated. Its one of my favourite hobbies. Making shitty situations better by making a joke observation on it. So the work functions a bit like that, the worlds a pretty fucked up place! And I love art, I believe in art as a way of changing the status quo in some way so you end up with work that operates in a piss taking fashion. I hope people see the seriousness in it though.
I showed a work recently that really confused people who I think thought they knew my work called 'Last Kiss'. I made it thinking about love and loss, quite a romantic work. Everyone thought there was some angle on it they were missing, that I was having a laugh that it was a prank or something. I was like “no its about love” hahaha! So the work ended up generating some humour even if it was just for me!
CFC w/ Tom Esam, lightbox, 2014
You mentioned how some people almost expect a level of humour from your work, do you feel like this restricts you in any way or do you feel that maybe it’s out of your hands?
Nah I just do what I do man. Each works a new game, set of ideas and references. I get on with what I do, I have my own conceptual logic that evolves a bit each time. I know people are going to see it and hopefully they have some use for it. I think it’s the artist’s job to do the best they can and not be lazy. I’ve been thinking about generosity in art quite a lot and that’s more what I’m into. I got into an argument with someone recently. They said my work was closed and for some selective group that would get it in some way. I was just like “I’ve made this fucking thing for you to look at what more do you want! If you don’t like it fine but don’t call it closed.” I don’t like jazz however I don’t think its therefore not for me. People get their shit in a twist with art. Its just stuff to look at and you need to learn to read it, just like you learn to read words at school. They should teach people how to read images at schools, a lot of people are completely visually illiterate so there’s zero ground for a conversation in the first place.
Presents for the Bridesmaids, custom pink emulsion paint, 2014 & Fakie Sister, framed iPhone photo, 2013
Do you think you would produce work even if you never exhibit it or is it important that people attempt to read it in some way? And following on from that question and your previous answer what do you think the role of the artist currently is?
I don't know really. I ended up making art because I'm kind of eternally distracted by different disciplines and ideas. Art sucks everything in. Everything is geared around making art so I don’t know what id do if I wasn’t allowed to show people it, id get all constipated haha.
I’ve been thinking I might just make works for specific people and to just be shown in their homes recently so if I couldn’t show in galleries id just do that. I like the idea of the work being lived with that its domestic and that’s its natural habitat. That works in the gallery are in an alien environment and homeless or out to play and will go back to the sitting room or kitchen after the show. Lots of art ends up in the home or hopefully it does rather then in a storage unit somewhere in a crate. So the logic is to make it for the home in the first place, not the gallery.
Some of your previous work includes certain cultural references that may be seen by some onlookers as ‘pop culture’ (I sight YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, Iron Claw Style w/ Perce Jerrom, Silver Foil Helium Balloons, Throwing Knives, 2013, as one example in its association with Wu-Tang Clan). Do you use these references as a way of deciphering the world from an artistic point of view or is there another reason you reference such popular cultural signs?
I don’t decipher the world from an artists view point, I just happen to be a artist and like hip hop so its likely it will end up in the work at some point. I'll reference anything I’m interested in, the worlds just a box of stuff to choose from and add to. I want to be part of culture. It’s an old school idea to merge art and life and it’s seen as this failed ideal, but if you engage in art, make it and help other people then it just happens. I like to think that the work can provide a level field for things to bump into one another and meet that wouldn’t usually be thought of together. Using phrases like pop culture just ￼muddies the waters for me thinking about things. It’s not helpful because hierarchies start to be drawn. I was at the V and A the other day taking some pictures of Antonio Canovas Three Graces. The work I was making kind of deals with Henry Fox Talbots photography, double pissed vision, beauty and I was listening to Danny Brown. That’s a productive situation for me to make the work.
YOU ONLY LIVE ONE. Iron Claw Style w/ Perce Jerrom (Detail), silver foil helium balloons, throwing knives, 2013
One of your more recognisable works is the light box/sign works and I was wondering if you could talk through why you make these works.
I make the light box works with Tom Esam. There’s a system to them being made which is pretty simple. We make them for a gallery when Tom and me are both invited to show works with them. The signs always refer back to the gallery’s signage, branding or some personality we see them having. They use the typical visual tropes of chicken shop signs. The first one we made was for Marisa Bellani and then we made them for various galleries and people after that. They work as the signage for the show in the first instance, and then they kind of exist as a relic of the show when they are shown again.
Marisa asked us to do a show of all the signs we'd made at her gallery Roman Road, which was really cool. We hadn’t made them with this in mind but it looked amazing, like a really busy high street down the side of the gallery. Tom and me both talk about them quite differently, which is good. I don’t think we've ever had a proper ‘this is what its about’ conversation. The signs kind of do different things depending on whose practice you look at them through. Marisa talks about them really well and Laura Mclean-Ferris wrote a really good essay in the catalogue. I like the idea of them providing a context for something literally titling a situation and then signaling the ghost of that once the show is over. Haunted objects. I’m into the idea of material being charged with meaning and that there’s an aura left around the sign.
Last Kiss, framed print, hand rolled glass, 2014
You mentioned how your interested in “material being charged with meaning”, do you feel that the ideas surrounding the artworks are more important than the physical manifestation of the work or do you feel that they both have an equal part to play in producing a successful work?
I think of them as being the same thing really. I don't divvy out the meaning from the physical stuff. It’s a whole artwork not just some things in the world and the ideas float around it like a solar system or something. That’s why I like the word charged; it runs through it and has hyper potential to go off. Art is alchemic and they are magic objects. I've been thinking a lot about ghosts recently and I’ve made a work that is a ghost that haunts the gallery. It’s a framed picture.
I want to talk about your relationship with the act of collaborating. You previously mentioned that you often work with artist Tom Esam on certain works or projects, but you also work alongside Matt Welch for certain works. Why is it important for you to work with other artists and
how do you think the artwork you produce together differs from a work of your own?
I've always just worked with other people to make things. Tom and Matt are two of the most recent but I've always done it so there are lots of other names you could add to them.
I made a whole show called Wu-tang Killa Beez at blip blip blip, Leeds, that was about solo artists making work with other people. It's not seen as something strange in music to work with other musicians so I always just followed that logic with art making.
I like to think my work is on the surface visually very different, piece to piece, so working with other people doesn't really disrupt that. And the reason for making something with another person is a shared concern and a joining up of specific points of each other's practice to make something new. It's different from my work but all my works are different from each other so it's the same as the rest of my practice if that makes sense.
It's also about friendship. I've never made art with someone I'm not friends with, don't really know how I'd do that. It would feel strange.
So what’s next for you?
Well I’m currently working on the script for a film that I want to make with my brother. Its based on a film Pasolini spent a lot of time trying to get funding for but could never make, just before he made Salo. Hopefully it will be funny and scary. Other then that just what I usually do, make art, show art and do my best.
Josh Whitaker lives and works in London. Recent exhibitions include Putt Putt #2, Turf Projects, Croydon, Guild FC, William Benington Gallery, London, Wu Tang Killa Beez, Blip Blip Blip, Leeds and Chicken Show, Roman Road, London.
If you like this why not read our interview with Robin Megannity
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