Over the last few years, Jordan Bernier has established himself as one of the hardest working artists in Baltimore. His work has been shown at Nudashank and the Current Space, he's designed posters and merch for Future Islands and Beach House, and he's had installations commissioned for Artscape and the Transmodern Festival. He's made many of his drawings available in zines, released through his own self-operated Kitty Cat Press, and his ambitious experimentalism led the City Paper to award him Best Visual Artist in their 2011 Best of Baltimore. I talked to Bernier via email.
SPLICE TODAY: You came to Baltimore in 2001 to attend MICA. What sort of work were you doing before that? Did you take your art seriously in high school—or even before that? Did you know this is what you wanted to do?
JORDAN BERNIER: I didn't take art very seriously, but I had a feeling that art was something that I wanted to do. I figured it was one of the only things I enjoyed academically so perhaps a chance to move to a city and make art had potential.
Honestly, my passion in high school was skateboarding. I never spent the time to take a critical eye to skateboarding, but in retrospect, all of the things that make skateboarding interesting were exactly the same things that make art interesting. There is reinterpretation, social engagement, repetition, style, process, creativity; I was able to link skateboarding to all of these things over time. Art and skateboarding share a lot of concepts, and while I was urged not to attend art school by some people, I can't imagine having studied anything else.
ST: I guess that explains the wave ramp exhibition. Have you worked on any similar projects, or do you have any in the works? I know that skateboard art has carved out its own sort of niche, have you thought about designing skateboards?
JB: Steve Santillan, Eliezer Sollins, and I have been thinking about a new ramp, though nothing is concrete. As far as skateboards go, I actually am part owner of a small skateboard company, Booyah Skateboards. I haven't spent much time on the project in the past year, but in general, my duties are to design and screen print skateboards. I also make videos for the company. I've made some board designs for gallery auctions, most notably for Skatistan, a non-profit organization trying to get a public skatepark made in Afghanistan.
ST: It looks like a lot of your drawings and prints—even your installations—from the past few years are very stylized, often very colorful, all with recurring geometric patterns. Can you talk about some of your influences here? Am I wrong in thinking that your work harkens back to some earlier abstract art—Kandinsky, for example?
JB: The color thing is actually something I'm trying to move away from, but in general you’re correct. There is a lot of attention to color and pattern and shape. Many of my works over the past two years have been about, among other things, play. Enjoying process and art-making was something that I had lost for some time after college, and many of the recent works were simply an attempt to regain the enjoyment of process, of making. These works were not overly concerned with concept or perfection, but rather attempts to obtain an enjoyable process.
In terms of influences, I started by looking at a lot of early American folk art and Islamic art. There is an aesthetic correlation between those two very different cultures that I have often found to be interesting. There is pattern and shape and symmetry; all visual elements that are used quite similarly. In terms of early abstract artists, there have actually been more of an influence now then in the past two or three years. A friend let me borrow a book of Jasper Johns' "Grey" paintings and that has been pretty inspirational. There are also aspects of Agnes Martin's work that I find to be very smart. While I do appreciate the early abstract artists, I think I find more resonance with modern artists at this moment.
ST: "The color thing is actually something I'm trying to move away from…" Could you expand on that a bit? What sort of approach are you more interested in now? What can we expect in the next year or so?
JB: I wanted to reduce a little and get down to the essence of drawing. I found color to be another decision that was making my intentions a bit unclear. Over the past six months, I have become more and more interested in simply making marks. Graphite has been my most recent medium of choice, and while I'll certainly move back to color at some point, right now I'm focused on making fewer decisions.
ST: To what extent then do you plan out your work? Are we talking about automatism here, are you just marking the canvas without any consideration of what the finished product will look like?
JB: Reading and listening to interviews with John Cage has informed some of my most recent drawings. I began thinking about what was really important to a drawing and I think I found process to be what I was ultimately trying to show people. While making a purely "chance" work is almost impossible, I set out to provide myself with some parameters for the drawing at hand.
Each work in my show is an example of setting parameters, essentially creating an algorithm for the work. Each piece has a resonance in algorithms, whether it’s a drawing, video, programming work, etc. Some explore aleatoric methods more profoundly than others, but they all relate back to process, line, parameters/arguments.
ST: What was the curriculum like at MICA? Was there a sort of shared aesthetic you found? Or maybe a shared philosophy? Do you think MICA helped develop your art or was it really just your friends, Baltimore, etc.?
JB: MICA is like any other undergraduate education in that it will push a student through a foundation that is, at times, not very critically engaging or relevant. While I did enjoy many classes and learning about art and having a community and an audience at school, I believe that most professors lack the critical pedagogy one needs to be a successful educator. While I disagree with some of the practices at MICA, there were some amazing professors who challenged the way I saw art. There were also some students who brought new perspectives to art and process; these were the people with whom I tried to associate.
In terms of Baltimore and my early influences, when I first entered Gallery Four it was quite a wonderful experience. To know that artists who weren't associated with MICA were producing work and showing that work in warehouse spaces was something of an epiphany. Having the combination of an art school that introduced me to contemporary art and theory along with a growing community of artists and musicians from different neighborhoods made the conversation more relevant and engaging. MICA, at least when I went there, was not engaged in the question of contemporary art in Baltimore, so it made sense to look outside of Bolton Hill to find more ideas and a more relevant community.
ST: Have you ever taught any art classes, or would you be interested in it? What do you think of the standard workshop approach? I've been in fiction and poetry workshops where things got fairly heated: was it like that at MICA, or was there more of a sort of blasé encouragement, like, "no one's art is better than anyone else's," that kind of thing?
JB: I was an art teacher for a few years. I taught full-time at a school for dyslexic students, Friendship School, from 2006-2008. I also taught some summer courses at The Walters a couple summers ago. Right now, I am a teaching assistant at Towson University in the printmaking department. I would eventually like to teach full-time on the college level.
In terms of philosophy of teaching, I have found John Dewey and George Szekeley to be of enormous influence on my perspective as an educator. I am really interested in the process of teaching, so it's been really important for me to assess what being an art teacher entails.
In regards to MICA, like any school, some classes were awful, some were forgettable, and others were amazing. The courses which provided the most critical dialogue were the most memorable to me, with Michael Rakowitz's Intro to Sculpture course being the most conceptually and critically-based. This course involved six-hour critiques every other week, sometimes every week. The discussions were long and critical, though always engaging and thoughtful. This was also the first time I had the pleasure of taking a course with someone who was a contemporary artist, with interviews in Art Forum, shows in Berlin, an apartment in New York. Being 19 and taking a class like that was awesome; it changed the way I look at art so much that I reference it almost 10 years later.
On the other side, there were the typical courses which involved memorizing a slide or crafting something to specification. Over time, I found those classes to be of less value, less substance.
ST: Let's say MICA approached you and said you could design and teach your own course, what would it be and how would you structure it?
JB: I enjoy teaching screen-printing just because it is the medium which I have the most experience with, but if I could teach anything, maybe a course about mass production: zines, posters, newspapers, etc. In a digital age, an age of information, those tactile forms of information become somehow more important. This is maybe something that I need to flush out a little further, but I figure it's something I'm interested in, so it makes sense that I would be able to teach it more effectively then perhaps a life-drawing course.
ST: You formerly ran Kitty Kat Press, so a lot of your work has been featured in limited-release zines, and you've done a lot of show posters for Baltimore bands, some of which can be found in Elena Johnston's book Paper Kingdom: What's the appeal of showcasing your work in this kind of DIY fashion?
JB: Mass production has always interested me. When taking book-making courses, we would learn very craft-oriented, intricate book-making techniques, but I was always more interested in simply producing lots of something. This comes at the cost of craft, which I totally advocate. Screen-printing was the same way, it only made sense to design, print, and distribute without restriction.
I don't think that there was an appeal in showcasing my work in a "DIY" fashion, it has been the only way to inform others of what I was doing. It made sense to use my craft as a print maker to promote my friends who play in bands and make art.
ST: What's interesting to me about mass production and the show poster stuff is that you're taking something that's typically not art—you know, basically it's a flyer, it's informative: date, time, etc.—and turning it into something artistic, something collectible; now you'll see posters right there at the merch table next to CDs, and what I thought was so wonderful about Paper Kingdom is that some of the posters, yours included, are in fact more art than anything else—you know, sometimes you're looking at a poster for a minute or two before you even figure out that it's advertising something.
JB: I've always seen posters as being more about the art than about the information. Lately I've been trying to worry very little about the information and concentrate most of my efforts on the image. With bands advertising shows on Facebook and Tumblr, it's actually easier now to discard information on posters; less people see them, if anyone. This fact has possibly given artists more freedom to experiment with new ideas in print media that were not possible or practical 10 years ago.
ST: For you, what makes for a really good show poster? Are you often kind of hastily putting something together or is there a process to it?
JB: My latest show posters are put together quickly and with less and less attention to design or aesthetics. I hope to explore the medium in different ways; I've been more interested in experimentation in screen-printing then with making a poster that I think people will like. I'm no longer concerned with people being able to point out my posters. Often times, posters are asked to be made within a couple weeks of a show, which means that there is only enough time to sketch something out and put it on a screen. Sometimes people will contact me with an idea and I will have to work from that, but most of the time I use the opportunity to explore a new idea. Also, since I live at Floristree we always need posters, so I use the opportunity to try new ideas.
As for what makes a good show poster, that's a really difficult question. Of course, I'm always going to give more attention to screen-printed or letter-pressed posters. I never took a design course nor do I read design blogs or anything like that, so I'm pretty ignorant as far as the elements of design are concerned. And so, I'm not really sure what makes a good show poster, or at least how to verbalize it. I think that as long as people stay away from clichéd cultural elements, then it'll probably be fine. For instance, sexy girls, faux screen prints, Sheppard Fairey, comic sans; just to name a few.
I've always been a fan of making the audience work for their information; we are force-fed information via TV, Internet, magazines, blogs. If an audience has work a little more for their information, perhaps they will retain a little more of it.
ST: You talked earlier about how exciting it was to study under an acclaimed artist like Michael Rakowitz. How important is fame to you? Obviously I don't think any artist would turn down an interview in Art Forum, for example, but do you worry a lot about whether you'll ever achieve that kind of recognition? What did the life of an artist mean to you when you were younger, say, before MICA, and what does it mean to you now?
JB: At the time I was studying under Rakowitz, his work was not commercial, which I always thought was important when thinking about intent. Coming from MIT, his work was very academic, very conceptual, yet it was speaking to people across the world about contemporary social issues. He developed a “Parasite” to evade NYC law and allow people who slept outside to have a safe place to rest. It was a social commentary, and while he documented the work and showed the sculpture in galleries, the Parasite was free. This experience was expanding my conception of art; thinking about the Brillo Box of the future.
Leonard Bernstein talked about the 20th century's Faustian culture and our modern existence; fame and fortune. Those thoughts resonate with me. In terms of recognition, narcissism and subjectivity are part of every artists' dialogue. Stridency is perhaps more relevant to the conversation, but that seems to be a matter better judged by others in regard to my work. Noam Chomsky talks about the human capacity for intense creativity, proven merely by the fact that we have language. Cory Arcangel has this wonderful perspective that everyone should always be congratulated for creating just because it is such a profound act in itself.
As a teenager, I thought being an artist was a pretty easy decision. I'm somewhat surprised that everyone didn't choose to make art, regardless of medium or concept. It was the same with skateboarding. When I found out that you could roll around outside on this thing and jump over stuff, I was wondering why everyone wasn't doing this awesome thing. With art I find it to be even more apparent. Why would anyone want to do anything but make art and think about art all the time? Why think about anything else? To me, it seems the most logical way to fulfill Chomsky's notion of basic human function.
ST: You've done a few group shows. You did the Flatlands exhibition back in 2010 with Justin Lucas, etc. Can you talk about a few of your favorite current Baltimore artists, and what draws you to their work?
JB: Caitlin Cunningham, Steve Riddle, Hermonie Only, Alex Ebstein, Seth Adelsberger, Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, Elena Johnston, everyone at Floristree, Open Space, Penthouse, Gallery Four, the Soft House Beth Hoeckel, Armacost Planck, Molly O., John Bohl, Liz Donadio, Gary K., Lola Pierson, Chris Day, Tony Lambright, the guys in Future Islands...
There are many more to be added to this list of course, but the basic concept I'd like to get across is that all these people contribute, they make Baltimore an important space. Some of them contribute through curation, others through collage, some are responsible for bringing artists from other places to Baltimore, others are bringing their work from Baltimore elsewhere. It's important that this list continue to grow.
ST: I don't know how involved you are with local politics but I'm wondering if you think Baltimore could do more to support local artists like yourself—even given its limited budget. I know you've had works commissioned for Artscape but are there projects that the Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA) aren't funding that you think they should, anything like that?
JB: I was reading an article in Art in America and it discussed how Berlin's version of the NEA is almost four times the size of America's NEA. Dang. I know people at BOPA and I know that they work really hard for the artists. Gary Kachadourian surely worked hard for artists when he worked for BOPA, as do Kim Domanski and Jim Lucio in their current positions. These people are artists and they know the difficulties that artists face in Baltimore. There are many more people that have the artists’ best interests in mind, though there are significant budget restrictions. I can’t list specific projects that they could fund, but I'm sure they would like to fund hundreds of more grants and projects if they could. They work hard, but the resources are not always in their favor unfortunately.
In general, I think it would be great to see more funding to artist-run spaces. I think grants, small and large, to artist spaces could be great for Baltimore. The people that run these spaces can do amazing things with $100. They are incredibly industrious.
ST: Well, how would you like to see Baltimore's art scene develop over the next five, 10, 20 years? And what sort of role do you think city-run organizations like BOPA should play?
JB: That’s a really tough question, one that I consider from time to time, but have never come to much of a conclusion. Good and bad things will happen. For instance, areas like Station North and the Seton Hill (H&H) are much more vibrant and engaging then they were 10 years ago, but will the Copy Cat still be artist housing in 20 years? The history of other cities (and Baltimore) tells us that these places will gentrify. Places like Portland totally suck because you go to the old artist districts and they are filled with another Whole Foods and an Urban Outfitters. This isn't anything you haven't heard already, but it's a concern nonetheless. I'd like to see more artist-run spaces, of course. I think this will continue. BOPA's relationship with all this is hard to say. They will continue to work for artists as best they can.