The Mistake Room is a non-profit organization in downtown Los Angeles that functions as an international hub to commission artists, which for the most part live outside of the United States. In the organization’s first conversation series, Cesar Garcia, Founder, Director, and Chief Curator of The Mistake Room, sat down at NeueHouse Hollywood with artists Jim Shaw and Daniel Guzmán, who have both become pioneers of contemporary art in the United States and Mexico, respectively. Covering everything from music to collective creation, the artists offered an insider’s insight into what it was like to not only live through periods of artistic revolution, but also what it was like to be part of shaping its outcome.
Cesar Garcia: A few months ago I was speaking with Danny Guzman and he said, “My ultimate dream would be to have a conversation with Jim Shaw,” so I sent an email and here we are! Thank you Jim and thank you Daniel for being with us tonight. I wanna start off by talking about your upbringing prior to art school, because both of your practices really merge together the historical and the biographical.
Jim Shaw: I grew up in Midland, Michigan which was the home of Dow Chemical until they merged with another chemical company and then it all fell apart. It was a nice little town to raise your kids, so it was boring. I think when you get a bunch of people with advanced college degrees a lot of them fall somewhere in the Autistic spectrum, and I’m probably a part of that spectrum. I had three older sisters who are all academically better than me, and parents who kind of withheld approval if you didn’t do well.
Artwork: Jim Shaw
When you have older sisters you don’t know how to be a boy, so I’ve always been intimidated by masculinity and entering that world was hard. I liked monster movies and comic books as a kid, but we also had The New Yorker and all these advertising materials, since my father was a package designer. There was also a pretty great modernist architect in town, Alden Dow, so there was always an exposure to good architecture and occasional art shows. When I first saw articles on Pop Art it was like a wonder world because I didn’t quite get cubism or abstract expressionism as a 10-year-old.
CG: What music did you listening to growing up?
Jim Shaw: Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, The Beatles, and the big Michigan bands – The Stooges, MC5, The SRC. My sister was roommates with some of the founders of the SDS when she was in University of Michigan back in the ’60s. When I was in ninth grade she had a protest poster that was reproduced in Life magazine, so that really impressed me. The Dow Chemical would have annual stockholder meetings, which out-of-town protesters would show up for, so we would go and hang out with them.
By the time I got to U of M the whole protesting thing was kind of winding down, but I remember how exciting it was to watch the Chicago Convention on TV as they were beating people up and being mean to people with long hair. During that time period there was a real cultural cohesion due to the draft and the Vietnam War, so as soon as they got rid of both of those things, it all dissipated into these separated units of people whose whole connection was that they smoked pot or had long hair; it no longer had the youth culture cohesion that it had. I came to California to go to CalArts just as people were starting to exit the States due to the failures of the American Auto industry.
CG: Daniel, you came of age in Mexico City in the ’70s and ’80s, which was also a very particular moment, as it was was after the 1968 student movement. Can you tell us about your upbringing during this time, where there was a huge cultural shift in music and literature?
Daniel Guzmán: I was born in the center of the city and lived with three sisters, as well as with my mother and grandmother; I had no men around except for my father and my uncles. I grew up in a working class neighborhood, so my experience was very different because I didn’t have a lot of education. My father, who is from Veracruz, and mother, who is from Oaxaca, are both working class – my mother is a secretary and my father worked in a factory, so I didn’t experience going to museums until I was almost 11 years old.
My father bought Mexican comics, superhero type stuff, and sports magazines, which I loved. My parents loved football and boxing and they also heard a lot of Mexican music and romantic music. I lived in a small collective space surrounded by similar spaces, so when we would play in the streets you could hear all different kinds of music, particularly romantic and tropical music. When I discovered rock n’ roll it was because a friend of mine had a big collection of The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad.. especially of Grand Funk Railroad. It’s amazing because nobody wants a big collection of the Grand Funk, which is a band from Michigan.
I saw many popular Mexican movies about wrestling or comedies, and my father had a lot of love for James Bond, so I got to see all of those with him, as well as Beatles things. In Mexico, on Saturdays, you could buy one ticket and stay all day at the cinema, which was great because they projected many movies and you could see as many as you wanted.
Artwork: Daniel Guzmán
There were only two art schools in Mexico, so I decided to go to the University of Mexico (UNAM), which is the oldest university in the city. It was a really different world for me because I found this relation and connection to music and literature. I was really lonely during that time, so I read a lot, especially fiction. In school, I discovered a lot of authors, like Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar.
CG: After 1968 there was a huge countercultural movement in Mexico City as a result of the protests against the government, ten days before the summer Olympics, which resulted in a brutal and grotesque student massacre. Those were the same Olympic games during which Tommie Smith gave the black power salute, and there was a huge shift – particularly amongst the youth. Were you aware at the time of the extent of events happening in the country?
DG: Not really. For me, the political experience was different because in my house we never talked about politics. On the other hand, I was lucky because the friends I made in art school had a lot more experience with that kind of stuff, so they showed me the things I hadn’t seen at home…books and other media about the political movement in Mexico.
CG: You both had really interesting and formative experiences in school. Jim, you were at CalArts when people like John Baldessari, Laurie Anderson, and Douglas Huebler were teaching. How important was that particular time period in the formation of your practice and the friendships and communities that formed outside of school?
JS: I remember in the 70s there was a new car factory that was opened in Ohio. They had all these college educated line workers who went on strike, and I think that’s the moment when the power structure decided, “We made college way too affordable. We gotta start making it harder to get a college degree because it’s a waste of money to give a degree to someone who’s going to be working in an auto factory.” But at the time I went to school, it was relatively affordable. University of Michigan was $600 a semester, and now it’s about $23,000…and that’s a state school.
I was supposed to go to Cooper Union in 1970, but I freaked out in New York City because they didn’t have student housing, and I had no friends there…so I went to a junior college back home for a year and a half, and then U of M, where I met Mike [Kelley] and the other members of Destroy All Monsters. It was the first time I met an adult and functioning artist whose work I liked and could understand, because the work of most of the artists, except for [Gerome] Kamrowski and a couple other people at U of M, was kinda depressing. It wasn’t something that made you want to go out and be an artist and be part of an art world; but there wasn’t really an art world then. Nobody was getting paid to sell art, so we didn’t have any expectations. Life was cheap. You got out of school and you could get a cheap job and live for cheap in L.A.
Seeing Laurie Anderson and some of the artwork of the artists that taught at CalArts was important. Baldessari was important because he basically let the students do all the talking. And then you got out of school and you hung out with these people because who else did you know? It was a place where everybody was broke and we’d find some part of the film industry to work in.
Once Reagan came in, things started changing. There were a few bums downtown before Reagan came in, and then suddenly there were just encampments of homeless people from closed down mental hospitals. Then other things happened; they started sending work to other countries – first down south, then further south to Mexico, and then finally to China.
CG: Daniel, you also had an interesting and almost similar experience, when you were at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In the late 80s and early 90s there were a group of artists there who have now become common names in the international circuit, like Gabriel Kuri, Damian Ortega, and Abraham Cruzvillegas, who were getting together with Gabriel Orozco every Friday to have an informal workshop where they were looking at literature, reading critical theory, and looking at music that was not being taught in the university curriculum. What was your experience in school like?
DG: Staying in school was great, because I found a new world where I could relate to young people. I didn’t see a “career” in front of me at the moment, only the opportunity to share music, books, and experiences about life with people I found in school. With Abraham Cruzvillegas, Damian Ortega, and other young artists, we founded an artist space in Mexico City, called Temistocles 44. It was a run down house in a really rich neighborhood in Mexico that woman shared with us for free. We worked there for four years, inviting many young artists of all mediums who would make special projects. We shared this opportunity to have an independent space and opening the door to different experiences.
CG: In the early art years of Mexico City there were a lot of these communal establishments for artists, which became precursors to a lot of the more popular spaces available now. Was that always a way of working for you?
DG: Yes, because I feel isolated when I do my personal work, and I felt alone in my career at that time. I was really lucky to find other people who had a similar interest to share space and knowledge to make art. That was the reason to make the collective.
CG: The drawings in both of your practices have a really interesting connective thread, in that they both bring together history, biography, music, literature, and religious and spiritual beliefs into an assembled universe. They introduce us to very complex narratives and characters that sometimes recur in other bodies of work. What role does drawing play in the studio and in your practices?
JS: It’s pretty much the basis for everything I work on, except for music. If I’m going to do a painting, I have to do a drawing beforehand. When I’m working on pre-existing theatrical backdrops I can’t make too many mistakes, so I have to know what I’m doing beforehand. I’m also a perfectionist, which is too bad, but, I used to do a lot of large drawings. I don’t know if my body can take that anymore with pencil. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with ink, like this last cartoon piece, and getting into the whole difference because I’m so used to using shaded drawing in pencil. To do things in ink, to simplify forms, to tell the story as easily as possible, is a whole different ball game, but I’m sort of using the DC comics of my youth as a model – the work of people like Wayne Borring and Dick Spring.
Artwork: Jim Shaw
DG: When I was in school I had a teacher who showed me many crafters like Rembrandt and Matisse. When I discovered drawing I really loved it. I didn’t have the passion, at the time, to paint, because I didn’t have the compatible materials to prepare for a painting. On one occasion my friend Abraham Crurvillegas, asked me what I did as a child. I told him I made copies of my father’s comics, and he told me, “Maybe you can recover all of these activities…this past is your personal heritage. This is a part of you.” When I was in school the teacher told me to forget about what I was doing before and start from zero. But when I stopped to recover my past of drawing, I also recovered the comfort and the joy of it.
CG: Where does text come into your drawings?
JS: I’ve been a little fearful of text because I understood I wasn’t the best writer in the world. Doing the comic books is a way of forcing me into coming up with a storyline, and then characters start to form.
CG: Do you think drawing is still a viable medium?
JS: It’s gotta be. It’s the easiest thing to produce. You can make it anywhere.
DG: I think that’s right; you can draw on whatever paper you want. When you buy tortillas in Mexico they give them to you wrapped in a very rough, cheap paper, and I would draw on it because I loved it and it was accessible. I know the way paper works with different drawing materials, and I had a marvelous relation with that paper because of the heritage of my Mexican culture. For me, drawing is one of the best experiences in order to connect with life.
Artwork: Daniel Guzmán
CG: What does the production process look like in your studios?
JS: I’ve got an assistant who traces stuff, and paints things white, and does the simple stuff, while I do all the rendering stuff, for the most part. Once I get in front of the painting or the drawing, it’s as if the world disappears and I get sucked into it. If I didn’t have deadlines I’d overwork everything to death. The thing about making music is I’m a terrible musician and I have to collaborate. I have an over-educated wrist, so I can draw and paint pretty much whatever I feel like, but with music it’s a whole other world.
DG: In the studio, I work alone and make almost everything. I share technical problems with a school friend of mine and he helps me come up with a solution, but in the drawings, I do everything. For me, with my band creating is totally different and collaborative, which is kind of a liberation from my personal activity. I have no responsibilities because we share all of the responsibilities together. When we’re playing on stage, it’s a completely different experience, and I’m really in another world. I feel free.
You mentioned the collective. The collective is more about making art. It’s a shared responsibility to create a new world, and it’s an anonymous thing.
CG: The work you’ve produced functions as a really interesting portrait of the underbelly of society, in many ways. There are a lot of human fears, desires, and anxieties identified within both of your work. I think it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t ask what you think about the current polarized state of this country.
JS: Well you know, I’m a baby boomer from the midwest, so I can understand where all these people who are voting for Trump are coming from. All these people who entered the workforce were supposed to have a job that lasted until they were 65, and then they were going to retire to something nice, but if you lose your job now in your 50s or 60s, you’re sort of shit out of luck.
A lot of people are blaming Mexico or illegal and undocumented aliens for their lack of a job, which is absurd, because they’re doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do, like field and agrarian work. The world has also become totally dominated by white European stock. There was a change in immigration law in the 1960s, where they allowed Europeans to immigrate here before changing it to allow the whole world an immigration opportunity. The face of the nation has changed ever since then, and they haven’t gotten used to that.
I’ve lived in basically Mexican migrant areas most of my time in Los Angeles. As far as Trump goes, I’d be more scared by a Cruz presidency, personally. I don’t really think he means everything he says, but it’s crazy. I was really shocked that he hasn’t dropped out, because he did the last time he ran. He seems like Sarah Palin; he doesn’t really want to work that hard, but he loves getting all the attention.
CG: Daniel, from somebody who lives in Mexico, what do you think?
DG: It’s strange, because a big part of the population in Mexico aren’t well informed about who Donald Trump is or what the reasons are for his ideas about Mexican people occupying the workplaces. I think it’s a dangerous thing, because you see a lot of news outlets and media who don’t have hard information to share with the people, and so there is a degree of not taking people like Trump seriously.
Photography: Shane McCauley for NeueJournal