Maurizio Cattelan: Since your show at Daniel Reich’s apartment I have seen you shift media and styles often. Artists who work in many media tend to take a bit more time for viewers to understand. Do you feel that your work needs that time or are you aware of the links while making your work?
Christian Holstad: I think it takes me a while to see how I use materials metaphorically. It’s a building of vocabulary. For example, I have been using hair, mostly human, since my second show at Daniel’s. In that show I made a hyena out of lavender human hair wigs. Hair is something I keep coming back to. After working with it for a while I have come to a better understanding of it. I think people are afraid of being animals. We are scared of our instincts. It is the part of us that we spend our lives rationalizing. For me the hair is a direct link between the animal and the intellect. At the moment everything is tweezed and groomed. I am hoping for the furry look to come back. Hairy breasts and foreheads for all. People seemed to be confused when forced to think for themselves. If it’s not in Wikipedia, then they don’t have an answer. People with fucked-up hair excite me. Not the groomed fucked-up hair, but an unruly mass. Lately I have been learning the lost art of Victorian hairwork. People would make flowers out of their dead family members’ hair. Kind of like a family tree. I have been making flies and poison ivy with the same techniques.
MC: Where did you learn how to do this? Is there a school?
CH: On a road trip I passed through Independence, Missouri. The country’s largest collection of hairwork is housed in the back of a cosmetology school. The owner of the museum is incredible. The license plate on her Cadillac says “hair.” She told me she could do any hairstyle in history. She looks at clippings in National Geographic magazine, searching for newly discovered prehistoric corpses. Hair preserves very well, so she can study the hairdos. I loved her enthusiasm. While touring the museum I got a quick “ how to.” The rest I learned by studying the photos on eBay.
MC: Do you get a lot of your training from eBay?
CH: I usually find stimulation outside of the art world. I go where I am inspired. I need something to keep me feeling part of the regular world. I like going to vogue balls. They have changed so much since Madonna used them as accessories. They are much more violent now. It’s like a cross between a cockfight and Martha Graham. From an elegant whirlwind, extensions, eyeglasses and clothing bits are flung. But more importantly, not once do I question someone’s sincerity. Hair plays an important part in it. They pull on their own hair as part of the dance to show realness, be it realness of a woman or to show dedication to being a full time woman. Are you a weekend warrior or living it. I love that their rules are completely their own. There are categories based on being as faggy as you can be. The biggest sissy wins. I don’t know where else this is true. I think it is the only place I can go and have any connection to gay pride.
MC: What other events inspire you in a similar fashion?
CH: The only other thing I have seen in terms of performance in that realm is a band called Tunnel of Love. They are a three-piece band from Brookline, Massachusetts. It seems like they are barely capable of keeping themselves alive, and when they play it is like watching a last thread of existence on attack mode before it dies, in tights.
MC: I find that I rarely witness things that are genuinely honest. Everything seems so calculated and thought out.
CH: Except on YouTube. I love YouTube for that reason. It’s incredibly honest. I think someone should organize a show of people doing the same things from their videos, but live. That’s its only downfall. It lacks the smells. For me, it has hammered the last nail in television’s casket.
MC: Strangely, it makes me think of Kienholz. Maybe it’s the way the camera moves through the space.
CH: I have been thinking a lot about him lately. I am realizing I got more out of being around Kienholz’s work than I was aware. He works with Americana like no one else. For me, Warhol is a bit too distant from life, but I am a huge fan for other reasons. Kienholz, however, also taught me about storytelling and space. In the process of producing catalogues, I have realized, like Kienholz, I am often attempting to create a space with my work. Both a space where something has happened or is happening.
MC: Will you talk about your jukeboxes?
CH: For Performa05 I staged a show at McDonald’s. I transformed a jukebox into a simple vignette. In New York, it is illegal to dance in establishments without a cabaret license. It’s an old law, which as of late, has been used to close down places the government finds threatening. The images used in this piece were broken handcuffs, Manhattan skylines, musical notes and dancing shoes. The music I chose were all songs I don’t hear in commercial zones. Each song represented a person who has given me strength. The music of the jukebox was played through McDonald’s sound-system rather than what is usually piped-in. The opening was surreal. Normal clientele, collectors and art people were all eating value meals and awkwardly standing around unsure what to do or how to act. I feel like I built a small part of the set, and the performance was enacted by others.
MC: Similar to your show in New York last spring, could you talk about your interest in using that kind of space?
CH: I decided to make Leather Beach a while ago. When I was younger, I would find neglected spaces in the Midwest, contact the building owners, and rent them for a spell. It was very inspiring for me to work with the life that was left behind. Much more so than a white cube. I got the abandoned deli from an organization and began installing. I had two weeks for installation. I made work that I could adapt to different locations. I wanted something near Third Avenue and the upper 30s, as this is where most of the original leather daddy bars were located. The night of the opening, I was afraid someone would fall down the stairs and I would get sued. I remember little else about the event.
MC: Your installations often seem both active and desolate. Can you talk about this?
CH: I was possessed by estate sales as a kid. Especially the dirty ones. Tables full of semi-organized beautiful junk. We have so much stuff. When it’s laid out in categories it starts to make you see what your interests are. I would create narratives about the households that were up for grabs. I remember walking into a room of dolls. They were hung up with clothespins by random parts. Many of them were burnt. Many missing limbs, clothing and heads. This particular estate sale company used different colored dot stickers for pricing. Blue, 50 cents; red, 25 cents, etc. There was nothing on the floor. Just rope across the room with semi dolls dotted with neon stickers and clothespins. I sat and watched excited shoppers’ faces melt as they entered the room. I am also an advocate for apartment/house viewings. I was looking at places upstate and realized I wasn’t ready for it. I spent all of my time getting lost in the Ikeaesque furniture, Home Depot moldings and the seller’s personal belongings. They are really little contemporary art shows. Everything is placed with direction of the real estate agent. Great thoughts are made into making rooms seem bigger and friendly, basically sellable. Like galleries. Their homes are groomed into sets. I wasn’t really able to get myself out of this mode of looking and decided I should not commit myself until I could.
MC: You mentioned Kienholz earlier… What else made an impact on you?
CH: I was lucky enough to have the Walker Art Center nearby when I was a young boy. Mostly, in that my mom and aunt would take me there fairly often. I freaked out at a Jenny Holzer exhibition. My aunt Susan took me and we watched for hours. It was like standing too close to the source. Plus it’s really optically disorienting. I think I was 16. I had to lie down in the grass afterwards. I realized then that when I am confused, I am more open to learning.
MC: What is challenging your present learning process?
CH: The further along I go into the commercial art world, the louder the critical voices become while creating. At one point I realized that I heard the voices of what critics, my boyfriend, my dealers and nemeses were saying about the work before I had even started. It was making me feel truly schizophrenic. I left New York for a while and went camping in Romania with a friend. I needed to get back to my instincts and do something to strengthen my voice. Camping is good for me in that way. Nature doesn’t lie. It doesn’t have ulterior motives. It may be harsh and dark but the simplicity in its truth is refreshing. Backpacking, in particular, is good when I am feeling manic. While camping, I am too busy thinking about falling, bears and eating to think about other things. It makes your problems seem like a luxury.
MC: The mind is a terrible thing.
CH: There is something about an experience that is undeniable. I recently drove across the country with a friend. We were touring Frank Lloyd Wright houses along the way. It was helpful for me to tour many of them in a three-week span. I started to see all of the methods used in hiding corners. You can’t really get this in books. I stayed in one for a few days. I thought I would appreciate it because I tend to like small dark spaces. Instead, I found myself feeling trapped. I would sit on the floor to distance myself from the low ceilings, looking beyond the structure. Wright’s intentions were to force you outside. It works.
MC: Do you consider yourself an outsider artist?
CH: I think I am an outsider who got let in. When you’re a minority of any sort your perspective always has an element of outside. The majority’s perspective is held up as a dream or goal. “The good life.” For most people it is a carrot held in front of your face. People rarely have the luxury of sitting back and deciding whether they even want it. It’s hard to do when society is stirring up as much fear as possible. It’s there just to distract us from thinking or feeling anything else. We need to dislocate to get some perspective. If we don’t, we exhaust ourselves. The struggle can embitter you or make you more compassionate to others. I also think the borders between lines are always shifting. Since I have been working, I have seen art made by outsider artists and contemporary art merge. I never understood how they were separated. One person didn’t go to school? I went to school for ceramics. I became aware of other mediums while there but rarely felt the freedom to explore. I learned much of what I do from working on freelance jobs. I had to pick up as many skills as I could so I could stay employed. The rest I taught myself. I was too intimidated to draw when I was younger. I started making drawings backwards. My eraserhead drawings are made by erasing newspaper images, and then drawing back into them. The first markings I make are taking away pigment. I learned how to shade by seeing what an image looked like once it was removed. The earlier works had much less drawn into them because I was scared that my drafting skills sucked. Now I am less afraid.
MC: Are you pro or anti-schooling?
CH: Anti. They are becoming increasingly geared towards the art market. I did get some good things from it though. I think it depends on who is teaching. Once I took a workshop with Linda Montano. She told me to give myself what I needed through my work and that I couldn’t expect it from anyone else. As I am an over-giver (who then resents the takers), this advice didn’t sit well with me at first, as it felt selfish. I later realized that if I needed something, that it probably wasn’t available in my immediate surroundings. If I made it, then it would be there for the others in my environment and therefore it wasn’t as selfish as I had thought. I think this was the most important thing I have learned about my practice so far. My work can be very personal. I use it to figure myself out. I have learned from experience that if I don’t find a place to work things out, then something else, usually less kind or productive, will figure it out for me. Montano also made my favorite art catalogue. On one page is a photo of the performance with a description. The page facing it is a section from her diary from that time period. Showing that what she was working on was directly related to her personal life. It was the source for the work. I look at work I have made and see how much of it is dictated by my immediate environment. Performances have always come out of a need to immediately connect with others. I don’t really perform anymore. I don’t have the same needs. I have chosen to connect with people in other ways.
MC: Is there any other medium you won’t work with?
CH: The only thing I won’t do is painting. I think if you do this, then you are going to get stuck doing it forever. Paintings are what most collectors want and will often refuse to buy anything else. The rest of your work becomes secondary. Many people who are primarily painters make other great art works and are rarely encouraged to do so. I had people early on telling me to stop all of this and make paintings. This was the worst thing anyone has said to me relating to my artwork.
MC: Do you regret making anything?
CH: No. I am a huge advocate for making and showing everything. I hated seeing the slickness of gallery art when I came to NYC in 1994. I think galleries fed things into a machine and put them on a wall. It made it easy for museums to buy and assimilate. Conversely, I feel that galleries function best as an extension of the studio. It is the museum’s job to assimilate what artists are creating, not the other way around.
MC: Are there any contemporary artists working in the gallery system that inspire you?
CH: Once I saw a performance in Brooklyn that I recall often. The artist was Heidi Hilker. She creates characters and becomes them for a while. This piece (Das Pfaschion Aktion) was a loosely based autobiography told in the guise of a fashion show. It was based on the idea of an Otto Muehl commune child (who is mentally challenged) creating a line of clothing. I loved the chaos mixed with incredible craftsmanship. I think she was able to mix a sincere love of fashion with an interesting concept. There are very few artists/designers who do this successfully. I also like the designer Carol Christian Poell for this reason. I think he is doing a lot more than making clothing for stores. I also loved Rob Pruitt’s new work. I think he is working in this gray zone. He filled jeans with concrete. The way the concrete filled the jeans was like cellulite. They were arranged in configurations that resembled both old Gap ads and a suburban women’s circle gathering. They were just the pant sections of the figures. I love that there was room in his narrations for other interpretations. I imagined a bunch of 27- to 50-year-old normal-shaped women, topless, arms raised with huge smiles on their faces. But they are selling something, probably microwaves or blue toilet self-cleaners. But in the guise of personal freedom.
MC: Your last show was for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami. It featured a large pack of donkeys, eraserhead drawings, and a jukebox consisting only of Nina Simone 45s. Why donkeys?
CH: Originally I was collecting nativity donkeys. I wanted to show a room full of them. I was thinking about how there are no longer any Marys, wise men, Jesus or Josephs. Just donkeys. Just stubborn load bearers. They also have sadness to them. I was at a point in my life where I was relating to them. I decided to make them from gray pinstripe suits. I have always loved what costumes can do to transform. Then I increased their size so they were more human. I also wanted to make the donkeys a bit smaller than actual donkeys with the intention to give the viewer a sense of power. In retrospect I think I was reversing the roles. There is something undeniably cute about the sculptures, a bit of a “poor, exhausted me” look, often the role the underdog takes and tries to use as a power. I put the suited donkeys in this position so I could treat them with a bit of compassion. They are beasts of burden. I need to remind myself that those in power need compassion and an approach to bettering things through some kindness mixed with kicking. Not so much a tool of manipulation, but rather because this is how I seem to respond best. I tend to have opposing viewpoints within one artwork. A lot of times, I am using common objects in polarized ways to draw in new ideas and audiences. My grandmother wouldn’t have wanted to look at pornography, but smothered in a blanket she will take the hook, hopefully finding herself connecting to it before shunning it away.