Julian Montague is part of the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Click here to listen to his artist interview or read the transcription below.
Julian Montague is a Buffalo, N.Y.-based graphic designer, illustrator, photographer, and installation artist. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, he moved to Buffalo with his family when he was 11. After receiving a B.A. in Media Studies from Hampshire College (Amherst, Mass.) in 1996, he returned to Western New York and began working in graphic design.
Montague tends to create evolving bodies of work in various media around a theme over a period of years. His major projects typically explore the peripheral features of the domestic and urban environment, at the same time parodying the voice and presentation style of purportedly objective organizational systems. As Burchfield Penney curator Scott Propeack writes, Montague’s work often presents “an incredible—almost painful—taxonomic response to a question that no one has asked.” 
The first of these thematic studies began with a simple observation, the artist recalls:
“At some point in 1999 it struck me that there was an interesting art project to be done about the stray shopping carts I was seeing around my city. I knew from the beginning that if I were to just take pictures of carts in the urban environment, the work would read as fairly conventional social documentary photography (a genre I am not terribly fond of). … I decided to try to define the different states in which a stray cart could be. … My approach was to observe the stray cart in the way that a naturalist might observe an animal. … I wrote the text from the point of view of someone who took the taxonomic investigation of stray shopping carts extremely seriously. That character (the fictional Julian Montague) became more important as the project proceeded, and the conceptual space of the work became strictly defined.
“… Although it was not clear to me in the early stages, I soon realized that the project was exploration of the ways in which language and scientific systems of classification shape our perception of both the natural and manmade worlds. By establishing an authoritative voice that names the unnamed and articulates (in absurd detail) the workings of a mundane phenomenon, the project can manipulate the viewer’s perception of stray shopping carts by developing a sensitivity to them.” 
The earliest iteration of this work was The Nomadic Urban Architecture of Buffalo, New York (A Taxonomy of Stray Shopping Carts), exhibited at Big Orbit Gallery/Soundlab in Buffalo in 2002. Over the next 5 years, increasingly refined and expanded variations on the concept were shown at Real Art Ways (Hartford, Conn.), Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center (Buffalo), Black & White Gallery (Brooklyn, N.Y.), and the Light Factory (Charlotte, N.C.). New York Times critic Benjamin Genocchio called the Real Art Ways incarnation of the project "intense, witty, and laced with menace. … Montague is on to something. The show is a coup, tapping into a quirky vein of American life."  The exhibitions eventually led to a book, The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, published in 2006 by Abrams Books.
Montague next began creating drawings, fabric banners, and photographs inspired by the arachnids he found in various locations. This initially simple concept soon grew more ambitious as it evolved into a longterm project called Secondary Occupants Collected & Observed. As Montague has noted,
“In the Secondary Occupants installations I [explore] multiple aspects of animal/architecture engagement. One line of investigation examines the way in which animals (vertebrate and invertebrate) play a part in physically and conceptually transforming interior spaces into exterior ones. In an inhabited home, the presence of these animals [is] a threat to the social and psychological frameworks that buttress us safely on the ‘inside.’ In an abandoned house, the threat is carried out, and the domestic space is dismantled entirely.” 
The Secondary Occupants installations evoke a typical 20th century American home and its uninvited inhabitants through floor plans, graphics, and banners, along with traces of a now-absent human presence. Montague writes,
“I construct an unnamed fictional character as the author of the work. The aims and motivations of this author are not entirely clear. However, clues to the logic behind his thinking can be found in an assemblage of hundreds of photographs taken in the process of researching wildlife and architecture. I also present some of his reading and listening materials which seem to constitute an intellectual history of pest control.” 
The imaginary book jackets, posters, and album covers—all meticulously fabricated by Montague himself—are pastiches of midcentury modernist design. (In another of the artist’s other ongoing projects, a blog called Daily Book Graphics, he posts found book cover art from the same era at the rate of roughly one image a day since February 2009.)
Versions of Secondary Occupants have been shown at Galerie Toutou Chic (Metz, France), Black & White Gallery, the University of Waterloo Art Gallery (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), and Marion Art Gallery (SUNY Fredonia, Fredonia, N.Y.), among other venues.
Montague’s work has been featured in several books including design historian Steven Heller’s The Design Entrepreneurs (Rockport Press, 2008), Typography Sketchbooks (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011) and Gestalten's The Modernist (2011). His work has also received attention from Artnews, Art in America, Frieze, New York Magazine, the Toronto Star, BBC World Service, Dwell, and other internationally known media outlets. He has pieces in public and private collections, among them the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Martin Z. Margulies Collection at the Waterhouse, and the Progressive Insurance Company. The artist is represented by Black & White Gallery in New York City. In 2012, he was designated one of the Burchfield Penney’s first Living Legacy artists.
Montague has also worked as a graphic designer since 1998. From 2001 to 2006 he served as art director for First Hand Learning, Inc., a company that develops and markets science education materials. In subsequent years he formed Frazer/Montague Design with partner Betsy Frazer; the duo have worked together and individually on a wide range of projects, designing logos, posters, brochures, packaging, books, catalogs, and websites for a variety of businesses and not-for-profit organizations.
Montague is a founding member of Trans Empire Canal Corporation (TECC), a Buffalo-based collective responsible for the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s 2014 multi-year project “Cultural Commodities: As Exhibition in Four Phases,” informally referred to as the “art barge.”
For more information on Julian Montague and his work, visit www.montagueprojects.com.
 Scott Propeack, "Buffalo Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College," Beyond/In Western New York 2010: Alternating Currents exhibition catalog, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2010, p. 57.
 Julian Montague, http://www.montagueprojects.com/cart-project-overview/. (Accessed 11/14/2013.)
 Benjamin Genocchio, "It May Be Minimal, But It Challenges the Intellect," New York Times, November 30, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/30/nyregion/art-review-it-may-be-minimal-but-it-challenges-the-intellect.html. (Accessed 11/14/2013.)
 Julian Montague, http://www.montagueprojects.com/project-overview/. (Accessed 11/14/2013.)
 Montague, see 4 above.
Listen or read Julian Montague’s interview with Heather Gring of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, conducted on August 21st, 2012. Hear him talk about pursuing art on his own after college and finding his career path. He discusses his best-known work, “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification," and his creative process through not only this work, but other projects as well. Montague talks about how “information addiction” and curiosity affect his work. He also provides a sneak preview of what we can look forward to seeing from him as an artist in the future.
Transcription of Living Legacy project interview with Julian Montague
August 21, 2012
Transcribed by Cassandra Chu and Chynna DeSimone
HG: This is the Living Legacy Project interview with Julian Montague on August 21, 2012. Julian, what inspired you to want to be an artist?
JM: I don’t know if it was...I think it was…my father was an art historian and an artist himself—I mean, to some degree—so I grew up in a house where that was always a possibility. My uncle is a composer who’s fairly well known in England and Europe, so he was a minimalist in the sixties, and does sort of more elaborate stuff, but sort of in the avant-garde, so those are possibilities of art. It was always something that you know, was…was an option, so…and I was encouraged to do, so I guess from a young age I was exposed to things like that, and to a lot of museums and that sort of thing, so it was sort of there from the beginning.
HG: When did you make the conscious decision to be like, “This is something I want to pursue as a career choice”?
JM: Well, that was a little weirder. I didn’t go to college for art or design—or graphic design. I got accepted to Buffalo Arts academy as an art major, the high school, but I kind of had…it was not the greatest environment at the time, that school. I mean not that I didn’t enjoy it, but it wasn’t really…somehow, I like, really didn’t want to be an art major in college, or I just didn’t…wasn’t interested in pursuing that at the time. And so I went to college for like, media studies, but the entirely theoretical sort. And then I kind of realized…I became more aware of graphic design when I was in college and realized that that was something I wanted to do, but it was very…and I entered college in ’92 and finished in ’96, so the technological changes that were happening in that period were pretty enormous, you know, like the Internet really kind of arrived then, all of a sudden all these computer programs for graphic design were kind of available, so all of a sudden, to study graphic design or to do graphic design became something much more accessible. So I sort of realized everything I wanted to do right after I left college. I then started pursuing—and realized what I needed to learn for design—started kind of pursuing that on my own. I’d always imagined that I would kind of do art things on the side, and I’d done some things in college, but…not any official way. So my sort of vision was that I would…at the time, I was interested in like, writing about music and culture, I mean I was sort of in that…I don’t know…interested in criticism, I guess, to some degree? I mean that’s the sort of stuff I wrote about in college. Then I went to Hampshire, which is a very writing intensive place, and…so you have to really…and you know, very theoretical kind of stuff. But in any case, so when I realized, so…even become…probably calling myself an artist didn’t happen for quite a while, it was…once I came back to Buffalo, I spent a year in Europe, in England and Ireland, and I just worked on a lot of art, kind of illustration projects on my own…came back here, looked into going back to school but that was just too much, so I decided to kind of learn Photoshop and at the time, Quark express, like the layout programs. I took some classes, and then I ended up getting a job where I kind of learned on the job at the Buffalo Museum of Science in a…as part of a grant for this…well, designing science education materials.
HG: About what year was that?
JM: That would’ve been 1990…the beginning of 1998. And that would eventually become the only real job I ever had, I eventually became art director and that became its own entity. I worked there until 2005…or 2006. So my aspirations were really to be a graphic designer and I started in 1999, I think. I did the first version of the stray shopping cart project, which I’ll probably talk more about later, but that—and it was really a graphic design project as much as it was kind of a conceptual art piece—that kind of took off and one thing led to another, so eventually I kind of started calling myself an artist and pursuing that, but it wasn’t really my goal to start with. I mean, it was something I wanted to do, but it was a weirdly sort of organic process.
HG: What would you say was your goal when you started to do that?
JM: Well, I wanted to do something that would be kind of like an art project, but I wanted something that kind of bridged art and design a little bit, would be good for me as a designer, and just something that would promote me, like, you know. Cause my aspirations or graphic design were, I guess, and still are, you know…I’m interested in sort of the higher level, you know, where you get to do really interesting stuff, and I saw like, kind of this project as being kind of a tool to do that, in a way, so…cause also to design, designers doing projects that are like art projects but, you know, are somehow still in the realm of graphic design. But it wasn’t a very thought out…I mean, my whole journey is not really a very thought out plan. And I didn’t go to graduate school and I don’t have any intention to. It would look very good on paper, you know, but it sort of has worked out so far anyway, for me.
HG: After you moved on from the Buffalo Museum of Science, what was your next transition?
JM: Well, that transition basically…by the time I was getting ready to leave that job, I had gone to the three days a week there because I needed to write my shopping cart book, which I had gotten the contract for in March, and they wanted like, the finished files for the thing by like, the middle of June, so it was a very, very short amount of time…and I was getting married in May, so it was like, really tight. And I was designing the book myself so like, everything was kind of, you know, on me. So I went down to three days a week there, and then I had a show…I had a big solo show of shopping carts in New York, in Chelsea; ended up selling…it ended up being, like, seventeen pieces to the Margulies Collection, which is in Miami…Margulies Collection at the Warehouse…and that was kind of enough money for me to like, go out on my own and quit my job. I mean it wasn’t that much money, but it was just, you know, it was enough that I felt like I could go freelance and survive. I think there were some other sales that happened around that time, but…and then I did, I went to Miami…Martin Margulies flew me down to Miami and I installed his collection, this installation of shopping carts, with all the lines and everything.
HG: You come from a really interesting perspective from, you know, graphic design and how that melds into fine art, and so I’m curious who some of your most important influences have been.
JM: I guess it’s funny…you know, one of the shows I remember really, liking…I mean, I grew up right down the street from the Albright-Knox, like on Bird, so I went there a lot for openings and things with my parents, and I think the show that I really remember making an impression on me was this Hamish Fulton show in 1987, and he’s, you know, this sort of land artist from the seventies…or you know, he did walks, very much like…what’s the other guy that does walks…Long, Richard Long. Anyway, but he had all these things like…lots of text in the walls of you know, just these like, huge red letters in Helvetica or you know, like, words, and things that he’d seen, these photographs with text on them and he did sort of walks through, you know, hills in Wales and Chile or whatever, and sort of cans and piled up stones and things like that. So I remember really liking that, or connecting to that, and I think I’d always really been into, like, album covers and stuff like that. I mean that was, you know, a very…something that was important to me and that kind of graphic design was something I was into. And I mean, my father was kind of…like my father had done some, like, record covers for my uncle’s music and stuff like that, or illustrations, and my father taught animation stuff at one point, so I don’t know, there were other kinds of like…I guess I feel like I was exposed to some sort of…certain kinds of, like, sixties and seventies stuff, like…I remember he used to bring home, like, Yellow Submarine on, like, 60mm film from the college that he worked at and we watched it and stuff like that. I guess I was kind of aware of graphic design one way or the other even if I wasn’t really calling it that - or maybe I was, ‘cause my father would’ve known about that. But that show, as I look back, I think that one…I mean that was something that I really liked. And a lot of my other things that I ended up liking later on were in stuff, like the early Russian stuff, you know, Rodchenko and these guys who were doing graphic design and doing, you know, art, and sort of bridging those gaps. Although it’s such a different setting it’s not really a good point of comparison, but you know, I admired that kind of thing, and I admired people that did things in different disciplines, or you know, sort of churned out a lot of work in different areas. And also, I mean…just also, later on, back to album covers, I was really into Vaughan Oliver and 23 Envelope, they were this design firm that did all of the 4AD album covers, so like, in the eighties and nineties, like, that’s the label that had like, the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance and all these other bands that had this really distinctive look, which…and I don’t necessarily like as much now, but at the time it seemed really pretty cool to me. I was also exposed to a lot of, like, my uncle spent time in Poland, so he sort of had a lot of these weird, like, seventies like Polish posters and things like that, so I was very into that…that kind of thing. I was interested—I mean, my interest really was in probably like, connected to music, like that kind of design, but then I was into skateboarding as well, like heavily, so that was a very graphic design kind of…you know, that world in the late eighties and early nineties, you know, it was all about, like, magazines and graphics on boards, you know, it’s a very visual thing. And then Transworld Skateboarding, which is this magazine that I’d later find out was…art directed by David Carson, who was one of kind of the most groundbreaking designers of the late eighties and early nineties. So this guy, like—I didn’t know it at the time, but this magazine I was reading, which is kind of like the slick skateboarding magazine, but it’s actually being talked about in graphic design circles because it was the most sort of, like, forward page layout, and like, crazy graphics around, so you know, all of that, I think, went into my kind of visual world, for the most part. But the original question about design and art—if anything, like, I was more excited by graphic design and then kind of was looking for art that, you know, connected to graphic design in a way. And I’m not…I’ve never been that interested in kind of getting too into these categories, you know. For me, it’s just a very simple thing of, like, if it’s for a client, then you can call it graphic design. I mean, there’s graphic design in art, but if I’m the author of it, you know, it doesn’t matter if it’s straight graphic design and I want to call it art…it’s art, you know. And I don’t…there’s like, almost no interest in any academic debates around these sorts of subjects. And in the same way, that’s like I don’t…the way I’ve developed what I do now, I do both of these things and there’s a huge crossover, and I think it benefits me as a designer and as an artist. I mean, in a professional sense, some people try to obscure what they do, kind of, for their day job because they think it will reflect negatively on their art. Or people have a much more romantic idea about art, like some painter told me at some party in New York how you can’t do both things, you know, or something like that, and I find that pretty absurd. So I’m all about the sort of cross pollination, or kind of doing the same thing. And you know, there aren’t…there are artists out there that kind of…I guess like, maybe the most famous is like, Pae White, who you know, does these like installation pieces and sculptures and then she does graphic design and she sort of carved out an interesting role for herself as a designer-artist. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but I think I‘ve done…you know, there’s so much graphic design in what I do in my art that it makes sense that, you know…that it makes sense to people that I would, you know, have a foot in both worlds. And in a weird way, like, I’ve gotten attention from…my shopping cart project has gotten attention from the design world, like Stephen Heller, like, wrote about it in one of…or you know, interviewed me for one of his books and you know, he’s…he’s pretty much the…or he seems to be the author of almost every book on graphic design out there, so you know, I reached that audience in a way that kind of was my original intention way back, so I really appreciate that…you know, that it speaks to that world as well.
HG: Yeah, that’s fantastic. It’s so fascinating because in many ways, you know, the viewers that you might be reaching, either with your graphic design and your art, but primarily, like, people who are so into graphic design have such a keen eye for aesthetics, you know, and so you’re kind of tapping into that as well with your art. Is there anything else you’d like to say—and I know that you mentioned you’re not interested in the academic debate about it, but is there anything else you’d like to day about the difference between your graphic design work and your art, and how they mix in together or are separate?
(12:17)(Continuing on, everything edited by Chynna DeSimone)
JM: Yeah, I mean there’s a difference like, I do… One of the parts of my “Secondary Occupants” project, which is about the intersection of animals and architecture has many, many, smaller projects related to the same kind of conception – in the same conceptual space. But, like, I design these… I make these fake books that look like they’re books about… various… they kind of connect to that idea of the… animals and architecture and I make them look like vintage books designed, you know, from the 60s or 70s. And in real life I design, but you know, my real… sometimes I design book covers you know, for clients, but it’s a completely different process even if the result can be somewhat similar. But you know, I might have… when I’m designing a fake book that I want to illustrate some idea I may start… I may have the idea for the image in my head before I’ve even written the title you know, so I’m sort of like, I can make it up any way I want to or, you know, it could be backwards or forwards, or I may have the title and then illustrate it, but it’s very different from being given a set title. Even if you’re not given any art direction, you know, for anything else, for a real book it’s completely different. So the process is different in that way even if you - I mean, I guess I think of it as using the tools of graphic design, you know, to – I mean it is doing – it is functioning like graphic design, it functions in a similar way or, you know, you’re using it to express, you know, ideas and tones and moods and all of that sort of thing. But I’m using the service of my ideas as opposed to, you know, a client’s needs. I mean, that’s the main difference.
HG: Can you talk about your art and what you create and why you create it?
JM: I guess what my art is – I guess really… I do a lot of different things but I suppose that basically… really my art in the last ten-plus years kind of can be divided into two projects. The first one is the “Stray Shopping Cart” project, which essentially is a project in which I designed a taxonomy that allows you to identify shopping carts based on the situations in which you find them. So it’s… in other words there are… it breaks down in this system of, like, false strays and true strays and the sub-categories of those. And the idea is that you know, there… this stray shopping cart phenomenon, until now, hasn’t had any language to allow you to speak about it. So kind of… I mean for me, the goal for the project is… this is multiple goals but, you know, one of them is… is kind of this… well it’s this exploration of the urban environment and kind of like… illuminating these peripheral spaces, which is a term I use a lot when speaking about my work. It kind of all deals with this. So… kind of, you know, showing what’s going on in this sort of… this system or this ecology of shopping carts that’s happening in the urban environment. And the second part of that project really is this kind of cognitive thing where it’s like, what… when you name something or you make the system, then people - it makes people see things they couldn’t see before. So even if it’s ridiculous, or absurd, or a joke, once they’ve sort of seen my work then when they go places they see shopping carts everywhere. So I’m kind of interested in that – I mean - it’s a powerful thing that one has that you can almost, against someone’s will, you know what I mean? I think a lot of people like the project because they see it as a political statement of some kind, which I don’t think it is. It’s open to that… I mean there’s also - the individual photographs also have their own sort of emotional tone and, you know, it can be sad or funny in kind of… in that… so they’re open in that way. But for me, the project… I write… There’s a lot of text in the project and I write it in the character of someone who takes shopping carts very seriously. It’s like a naturalist who’s exploring – who’s observing this animal. That’s essentially how I do it. So there’s no… So it’s all written very seriously in this voice so it becomes funny because it’s so absurdly, sort of dry in that way. For me… I’m not interested in political… or making sort of statement art because that’s easy – I mean it’s easy to do. And, if anything, what this project was, was undermining the people that do use shopping carts in this sort of shorthand. I even say it in the text of the project: For too long the shopping cart has been seen as, you know, like a symbol of urban decay or, you know, just this - this sort of oversimplified - so I’m making it complicated and showing that it’s not particularly about homeless people or anything – you know, it’s so much more complicated and really rich in that and I… For me, I’m really interested in art sort of, you know, revealing nuance and stuff like that so I really – for me I find political kind of art, not that it can’t be good but it’s just such… I don’t know it’s not… It’s a weird situation because so much of it is preaching to the choir. And then, beyond that, it’s weird just because art is set up to explore nuance and subtlety and then you’re just hitting someone over the head with a hammer. Which I mean is much more… I mean graphic design is perfectly good for making statements, you know, in a clear and concise way. So I really am not interested in that kind of… In being in that area. I want some sort of neutrality in a way, or just to be removed from that. Presenting that information so you can do what you want with it. I think if you go into something even with… and even from an environmental standpoint say, like… There are plenty things I believe are important issues, you know, whatever environmental cause and everything else. But there’s no question that looking at things through that lens keeps you from seeing certain other things. You know, if you look at everything through an activist’s lens or “this is a crisis” or this is – even you’re looking at is as a problem… In my project I didn’t even see shopping carts as a problem, it’s just a thing that is. So I’m sort of interested in what is - how the world exists. I think if you’re too focused on what the problem is, then it cuts off all these different points of view.
HG: You just spoke about the first half -
JM: The first half, yeah.
HG: - Of your ten years.
JM: Yeah, so that project is still, for the most part, finished but I do things every once in a while like I’ve done some performance things where I just, like, read from the project. I guess I’ve only done that really once in Toronto with, sort of, in conjunction with this performance art theatre company, and then I still show it when people ask. There could be the right opportunity to do something new with it. Since 2008, I’ve been working on, or 2007, I’ve been working on a project that would eventually become what’s now called “Secondary Occupants/Collected & Observed” and that essentially – it started as a project about spiders and now it’s kind of coming back around to being a project about spiders again, or more work with spiders. But I basically thought that… you know I’d spend all this time in the urban space kind of behaving as a naturalist, you know, in these peripheral spaces. And I wanted to then take that into the interior, kind of explore the interior of houses and homes. And I’ve always been… I think since… When I was a little kid I was very into science and kind of naturalist stuff, but not in a rigorous way. I didn’t have that kind of discipline to pursue that sort of thing. But it’s always been like, the aesthetics of it, of guidebooks, all that stuff. I’ve sort of really been interested in that in the same way since I was quite young. So this is all where the kind of continuation of those interests. So in a way I was… you’re dealing with a shopping cart as if it were this wild animal and so then I wanted to get back to you know, proper, actual nature in a way. So I picked spiders which, you know, they’re everywhere. They’re in our houses, you know, we’re sort of there - in every room you’ll ever be in there’ll be a spider or some trace of a spider. So, I thought that was interesting so I wanted to… as I… with the shopping cart project I had this sort of fictional character that, at the core, that is this lens that I kind of look through in a way that I’m a bit removed from my own work in a sense that I don’t think of it as… for the shopping cart project there’s a fictional Julian Montague that is that, you know, the author of that book, or the shopping cart – the field guide of shopping carts. So I decided – I mean that project was very honest. Everything in my system actually works, you know what I mean? Every photograph is where I said it was, it’s not posed, anything like that. So the project with spiders, I was dealing with a subject that was already – it’s already - the taxonomy is already there, all of that stuff sort of exists. So I was going into it without… with the idea of not using as much text and having it be more visual and having my kind of character that I was operating through being much weirder, more, like, you know, opaque and you don’t really know where he’s coming from. I mean, it was essentially finding this way to give myself license to do all sorts of strange things, and somehow, for me, these projects have to have this functioning conceptual space – which I think I’ve actually kind of altered the space of this project now so it’s kind of full of paradoxes, but I’ll get to that stuff in a minute. So, the idea was I collected a spider, collected, like, killed it, put it in a jar, preserved it, then I’d look at it through a microscope, make a drawing of its face, take that drawing and make it into a fabric banner, which I made out of, like, canvas and sort of felt, and then I’d hang that banner back up where I found the spider and it would be attached to a building in one way, like, inside of a room or on the outside of a building, and then photograph that. So I photographed with a medium format camera and does a very large photograph for this sort of scene. So it would be this mundane scene with this really simplified kind of spider face against, like a black banner. So it’s the sort of magnification of the presence of this animal, and then also this kind of ironic memorial to this spider that had to die for this, you know, for me to see it well enough to kind of mark it there. And it’s sort of like, you know, spending time in the world of spiders, you know, it’s a lot of – it’s a lot about death. I mean, there’s a lot of death in the shopping cart project too where, you know, there’s sort of, like, at least some undertone of existential dread, you know, which is impossible to escape, I think. So, you know, in this sort of mangle of shopping carts out on their own kind of read in this - often read in this sort of anthropomorphic kind of… dead body kind of way. And so in this, you know, spider are, I mean… this world that’s going on around us, you know, in the corners is pretty grim. It’s this evolutionary play that’s been playing out for, you know, 20 million years that spiders have been setting these traps and catching things. So it’s… that part of it too is kind of, like, and I’m trying to make this kind of totem that’s this totemic kind of, you know, representation of this kind of life-or-death thing. So I started with that… that was the first stage. It was actually called “To Know the Spiders”, which was a kind of an adaptation of a famous – although not famous in the sense that anyone would know the reference - but there’s a book called “How to Know the Spiders”, which was an arachnology guide. And when I first saw these illustrations of spider faces where it shows a distribution of the eyes and the jaws and it kind of gave me the idea for doing these portraits ‘cause they are something that arachnologists use, depending on the species, to illustrate it. So it was called “To Know the Spiders” as opposed to “How to Know the Spiders”. So that was… I did a show in Chelsea, a black and white gallery, of that work. Which I don’t think, I mean, which didn’t really go over – well, nothing really happened. I mean, it didn’t really sell anything and I don’t think it got written up. Well it did get a preview, a little nod in New York magazine. But other than that, nothing happened. After, I went on to sort of develop the world of that project. And the next big thing I did with it was setting up an installation where it’d have, like, a map of an abandoned house out of, kind of, you know… establishing where all these animals would sort of be in this abandoned house. It was… sort of made up where it was kind of composited of what was possible, and lined to kind of come out of this and go up with banners hanging from the ceiling and I expanded it beyond spiders to be… an animal… here’s the mammals and birds and insects. So it was really about this… the way that animals exist. In an abandoned house, animals are part of this process that turns this interior space into exterior space in both a physical and conceptual way. So, you know, they’re literally… carpenter ants are taking this building apart and then, in another sense like, having these animals in your house is this way that it… is this way we’ve constructed the space it kind of violates that it’s kind of turning inside into outside. And again, my sort of character is clearly getting weirder, ‘cause… there’s a little bit of text in this one… in the installation of this where it’s kind of encouraging hints that you should be going on and doing this sort of thing, like finding things and hanging banners and stuff. But that… in that installation I’ve shown a number of different ways and spaces and it kind of can expand and contract depending on where it’s shown. One of the more recent thing I’ve done with this project is I… I have a blog that’s about modernist book covers, so for the last three years I’ve been posting a book cover, more or less every day that I find in this thrift… and it has to be from between like, 1950 to 1980 and kind of have some Modernist design style to it, or some graphic quality. So after kind of curating this blog for a year and a half, I think by the time I thought of this, I had the idea to make these kind of books… reading material for this character, you know, but imagining a kind of mid-century where people really cared about this issue of animals and architecture. So I started making these fake books and making them look very realistic and designing them, you know, as I mentioned before, and it became an interesting thing, I mean, but it kind of altered… it kept me more into the realm of fiction, you know, in a way that I hadn’t before. And I don’t know that I’ve completely resolved, like, how it shapes this conceptual space that, you know, this guy is in, but it’s just getting sort of weirder and weirder. So I also make these posters and record covers and the books have… some are only obliquely connected to the theme like I have this, like, fictional Polish playwright, you know, who has these, like… who just clearly… just uses the animals as metaphors a lot. I mean, sometimes not even… there’s one called “The Drake” and “The Paper Wasp” and like… so that’s sort of off to the side and some are more direct words like “Intuition” and “Pest Control” and just sort of hinting at the fringes of kind of like… as if there was this world really concerned with pest control in an intellectual way or in a kind of fringe-y way. So these books have… so they become a big part of the project. And now they become - they sort of exist on their own and I’ve shown them on their own. I have a show coming up of just posters and books, like, in France next summer. So… and I’ve sold a number of them. I’ve sold like, I think thirty of the books, which if I’d have known was gonna happen, I would have done bigger edition sizes, but people seem to buy them as, like, as sculptures. But for me, the most valuable thing about – I mean, I like them now – I like them in once sense that they… because they sort of are these realistic objects, they sort of exist in a strange way in the world in that they can kind of slip back into the bookshelf and disappear and the interior of the book is whatever book I decided to wrap this cover around. But in the… when shown within the installation with the rest of the work, the book is really a way to get ideas into the head of the viewer, you know, make these sort of connections. Because a closed book, even if you know it’s fake, you sort of… at least pushes you down that road of kind of having to think about what’s in it or what it would be about, you know. So it’s an interesting tool in that way and it’s... but on their own it becomes more mysterious and weird. So we’ll see what happens with that.
HG: It’s interesting because you’re, I mean exactly as you expressed it, you know, that you’re using these methods to get people into an even more conceptual space with your work, which is already pretty conceptual. I’d like to talk to you about the relationship between the characters you create and yourself and kind of how that develops.
JM: (audio drops at 27:22)…Fictional characters… I mean this is… the big thing is that people don’t understand that, like, that shopping cart… that super meticulous kind of way of thinking is not, I don’t think naturally, like… it’s perhaps something I aspire to but it’s not something that I… it’s not the way I naturally am. So that character really – I mean I’m not – people think I’m so Obsessive-Compulsive or whatever and I’m not at all. Like, if anything, I have a hard time keeping it together. And that project is a huge effort to, like, just think in this way and set up these rules to this system, you know, and follow them through. I don’t… I mean it is like being an actor or something, you know what I mean? Really like… you’re really trying to do something different than what you really are. So it’s not that they feel quite removed from that, you know what I mean, it is… I am the creator of it so clearly it’s from me. But it does not reflect upon me in the way that people often think that it does, you know. It’s more like… I’m drawn to these like… the aesthetics… I mean this idea of, like, using… or the way that science, you know, kind of is this way that explains the world or, you know, this kind of investigation. So all of my projects are investigations. All of my work is about… it is some looking outward kind of thing where I’m going out into the world and finding something… and finding something interesting about it and turning that into art. I have almost no interest in… well, not entirely true, but in art that kind of… derives its value from the way it fits into art history or, you know, speaks to other art. Like, that to me… I do not care about. Like I want to actually go address something that exists and is real and then kind of like… I mean maybe somebody’s built fiction off of that - and in any way of making references in that I do these Modernist design covers and I’m clearly speaking to certain, you know, style, I mean, so I make references. It’s very important for me that my work is not… it is about, you know, it is going out into the world. It’s an investigation. ‘Cause I mean, many other… in other disciplines in… people are very wrapped up in like… whatever painting and “what is painting?” and like, even, you know, like, for me, photography… Maybe you could look at my work and think it deals with this… I don’t think my (unintelligible) but you know, I don’t care what a photograph is on some level – or do you know what I mean like, there’s a whole set of questions, which are interesting in a way, but it’s not what my work’s about. It’s not about the medium. Like, the medium is just a set of tools to get to an idea, to get to, like, kinda… to a space.
HG: And you mix the mediums very well.
JM: Well I think I… I mean a little bit of that is graphic design kinda background too, you know what I mean, when you’re shuffling around images and graphics and you’re kind of make… you know… And in that sense I don’t - I feel weird, you know. Even though I’ve had… I guess, most of my… I’ve done so much photography, but I feel weird calling myself a photographer because I didn’t… When you hang around people that are “photographers”, in quotes, they – I don’t know – they seem to talk about very different things than I do (laughs). You know, or they’re just like… someone like John Opera, you know, his work is very academic and very much about photography, you know, and I think it’s great. It’s interesting. But it’s like… it’s not… It’s a world away from what… how I use photography, you know what I mean? Maybe there are times where our photographs may function the same way, but like, we have very different intentions, I think. And also, in a sense, I feel like photographers own a lot more equipment than I do.
HG: You know getting back to… essentially your character development for these large series that take up years. In a sense, it is this incorporation of performance art into your work.
JM: I think that’s how I thought of it in a sense that to me, for the shopping cart project, it was very important… the idea was very important that I was there going to these weird places. Part of it was the act of doing - you know, going and documenting these carts in, you know, in all these obscure kind of, you know, blank spaces in the environment. So I have like felt like that’s… that process is kind of – it is a performance in that sense. Although that almost never kind of translates into any kind of real performance-performance, but, yeah, I mean that’s part of the whole thing.
HG: So you just kind of answered my next question a little bit, which is talking about the totality of your work and some of the different themes that have emerged.
JM: I am interested in the natural world in the sense that, I mean, evolution, all these things are really… I guess the things that I think about, you know, what it means to be alive and all the rest of it.
SB: Yeah I think that it’s so interesting too that you said that you’ve struggled so much with writing, or just writing a chapter too, because I think that that’s what is really a testament that you are a visual artist. You like to get people to think differently through images and through mixing media and doing it in a completely different way than sitting down and putting it in paragraph form, would you say that?
JM: In a way, yeah. I guess it’s because you end up… you’re making these things that are deliberately hard to articulate, then you need to articulate them. Or it’s much more fun to have someone else write about you and then you can make… this very academic way even though you feel like they’re only half right or you’re not – or they’re reading things very differently than you would, but that’s… it’s a bit more fun. On the other hand, I do… I’m writing this chapter because I really think I should, and I should… it actually helps me, I suppose, to kind of think in this way and have to write this. And then, you know a lot of… I’ve written too much about my own work, but a lot of artists, clearly, in the part have written a lot.
SB: Can writing ever cut it? Can writing ever convey?
JM: I don’t know, I suppose not, I guess in this situation, like in the chapter, there’ll be images and stuff so it’ll be some window, and these days people always have access to the internet so it’s not as removed… not like the Renaissance and you write descriptions of paintings or whatever (laughs). So, yeah, but I’m just gonna do – I guess it’s a good opportunity for me to… It’s much easier for me to talk in a format like this about my ideas than it is to write them down.
HG: Have you thought about approaching this chapter you have to write as if it’s another character you’re developing?
JM: That was an idea at one point, but that makes life harder (laughs) in a lot of ways, so I haven’t. And I’m probably in for more writing too because I’m kind of co-editing this… There’s this online magazine called “Antennae” which deals the animal in visual culture – kind of the post-modern animal in a lot of ways. They did an interview with me about the stray shopping cart project years ago and know I’m kind of co-editing an issue on spiders. So I’m in the process of looking for artists that deal with spiders in various ways. So we’ll see what comes out of that.
HG: It does seem that curiosity is a big part of your work and also your background with the science museums and your perspective as a naturalist even as a youth. Are there other ways in which you see your curiosity exhibiting in your life and your work in your future endeavors?
JM: Yeah, I guess curiosity, I think, is a sort of fundamentally important thing. The downside of it is I probably spend time – Or I sort of have an information addiction with the internet (laughs), which I think is becoming a problem. And not necessarily productive information or, you know what I mean, Just this sort of endless feed of political information and things like that that I think ends up taking up too much of my brain without really benefitting me. Yeah, I don’t know where that’s gonna take me exactly. And it’s weird too because I… I’m very involved in popular culture… and music and all these other things, like I – and stupid popular culture too, reality shows and all that stuff. I mean… from a critical point of view, but as someone who enjoys bad things, and, you know like that kind of thing, but I don’t think my work really touches on that world and I don’t know why. In a way I feel like I’m drawn into this… primal reality of – in some ways that stuff is all ephemeral and, in a way, something like spiders is somehow for real, you know? Or even like the shopping carts, or… and I don’t know. I mean, even though I… who knows. I may get into a completely different area eventually, but I feel like it keeps this... the natural world draws me back. Or the natural world as it intersects with our world, more than anything.
HG: Is that maybe part of the balance for you? That you can really have this really banal sort of interests and that sort of thing in your personal life, and in a lot of your work it really is exploring and creating the languages to explore something deeper.
JM: I feel like I never really turn off that kind of thing anyway. So, in a way I’m always interested in a deeper reading of these things - of popular culture, or you know what… some - I don’t know… It’s not completely disconnected. I think it’s all connected in some way.
HG: The last thing I wanted to ask you before we move on: you had mentioned the paradoxes in your work and touching on that. Is there anything else you’d like to say about that before we move on?
JM: I don’t know. I guess I’m still in the process of figuring it out. So I’m creating this fictional – I guess this world I’m creating through this character was kind of real because I was doing these things, these acts that he was doing and now… I’m creating this fictional backstory of the mid twentieth century through these books. And it’s implying… it has all these other implications of what it means in this conceptual space. So I don’t know what it means – which maybe is fine. Plenty of people make plenty of things without thinking this hard, so I don’t know (laughs). So maybe that’s good to have it kind of be more… some sort of paradox. I guess I’m embracing that idea, or that my conceptual space is just really strange. It doesn’t all have to fit in the exact same way. Basically, I just want to do… Right now, I’m moving on to… I have done a lot of macro photography in the project. I sort of have this assemblage of research stuff, so all these actual photographs of bugs and spiders I’ve taken at very close range and kind of other things related to it that I pin up on the wall, like a hundred photographs or something. But now I’m doing these more… I’m kind of photographing web – like ruined webs as a kind of… I guess as a certain take on “rune porn” in a way - or you know this obsession with ruins that everybody has. And I have it too, but now it’s kind of getting called out being as an over-played thing. I mean, it’s only a minor part of why I’m doing this. So I’ve been photographing webs very, very closely, and then making them into monochromatic things with these blue or reds and inverting them so they have a very otherworldly and sort of structural look, but often mundane situations, like around houses and things. The first part of this project I did with… TH&B collective had a show in Hamilton where they invited people to show in this big warehouse space, sort of former textile floor. So I went in and photographed all of the webs – well not all of them – some of the webs in the building, and then had a little room that I had had a cycling slide show of these webs and then some projections with overhead projections of spider faces and things like that of the species that were kind of in that building. So I’m sort of experimenting more with projecting things and… really trying to find the cheapest possible way to make images on the wall at this point. So, I’m using a lot of overhead projectors and kind of getting… and before I was… the actual photograph or the most of these photos of the banners hanging in spaces. So now I’m like, this is a different angle where I’m going into the space and photographing it rather than blowing up these things but not... I haven’t decided – I’ve shot some great pictures of live spiders too but I almost… it may only end up being just the ruins because that’s what - it’s interesting. These webs, because the enzymes in webs, they don’t decay very quickly, or at all. So they’re always there. And sometimes they go on killing things well after the spider’s gone so it has a… it’s interesting… And they’re everywhere and they’re kind of like these structures on top of our structures. So that’s the phase I’m in right now.
HG: So through our conversations, I feel you’ve already answered my next question, which is talking about a lot of your creative process. But is there anything else you’d like to say about… I’m sure that’s a really hard question to answer because your work really takes so many different forms. Is there any way to navigate that?
JM: Yeah, I don’t know what to say about my creative process.
HG: There’s no one thing to say about what you do.
HG: And it really seems to grow organically.
JM: Yeah, well there are certain times where you get - as soon as you get an idea and wish you had that idea a lot sooner (laughs). Or “I wish I could’ve added that to that show that I did”. But yeah, so it happens in an organic way. I mean in a way now my main concern is I feel like I’m not spending… A lot of it for me is I have to sit down and just… write stuff, or make notes, and make sketches and… brainstorm, sort of. And I don’t feel like I do that enough, or I’m too caught up in doing my actual work, or the other… and my other kinds of information addiction so I feel like… Well there’s a sense in which you always have this eye. Because I work for myself and have my art career thing, you never – you could always be doing more, you know what I mean? You could always be more productive and always make more art. So I always feel like I’m trying to catch up… whether… There’s the actual creation of the art, but then also trying to move one’s career forward and, you know, make money. So, it’s not like leaving an office or whatever and then you’re done for the day, ‘cause you’re never done. So anyway, that’s the sort of thing that stresses me out, like I need to… or I think… It feels like these things happen too slowly sometimes, you know what I mean? The space in between changes in my work, or I think: “God, have I been on this project too long? Or on this theme?” But now, I don’t know, I want to stick with this theme for a while longer. I feel like I have a lot more projects… and maybe break it out a bit from being under the same title and become just something else.
HG: You did mention a little bit about building your art career and so I’d kind of like to switch gears and talk about what you had to go through building your art career. You mentioned that when you were working on the shopping cart project by the time the book came out you already had an exhibition in Chelsea, right?
HG: Could you talk a little bit about what you’ve had to do, personally, to get your career to where you are today?
JM: Well, in a way, many people’s career’s, I suppose, there’s a series of good breaks and things that happened at the right time. And the main one for me was I was in a show in Hartford at Real Art Ways in 2004, and that ended up getting reviewed in the New York Times, or the regional section of the New York Times. And that critic, Benjamin Genocchio, who wrote that, who I think is now at ArtInfo (unintelligible). Then he was asked by Black and White Gallery in Brooklyn at the time… Black and White Gallery and Lily Wei, the critic, were doing a show where they were asking younger critics to pick younger artists to be in this group show, so Lily Wei asked Benjamin Genocchio and he picked me as the artist. So that’s how I met up with Black and White Gallery, it’s a gallery that I’ve worked with a lot over the years. At the time, they were in Brooklyn, then they were in Chelsea, now they’re back in Brooklyn. So that kind of series of events led to me hooking up with the gallery, and then the gallery took me to art fairs and sort of like… I’ve had several shows there over the years at both of their locations, and that’s really opened a lot of doors to a lot of things. And then I’ve also had a number of shows in non-profit spaces and things like that as well. A lot of things have come up because I’ve been around for a while. People find me a lot of the time, but I think… I’m trying to be more aggressive about pursuing opportunities and making things happen. They seem now my main priority. Or, now looking back, I think I should have probably pushed harder… at various times. And there are also sometimes you’re at the mercy of… you’re with a gallery or something and they have a way that you think things should be done, or they think you should do this thing and you think you should do that thing. It doesn’t… and maybe those decisions turn out to be the more profitable ones. So I’m hoping now… At least I’ve done a fair amount of stuff over the years… And now I have this show in France in a small project space and I’m working with a curator there. And it’s interesting ‘cause in there, the fact I’ve shown in New York a lot seems more interesting – more impressive to them. Here’s it’s sort of a dime-a-dozen thing, but there it’s a little more exotic, so I’m hoping to maybe get into Europe more and see what happens.
HG: Yeah that was – What I was going to ask you is Europe does carry this more exotic feel to it and so is this show in France your first time exhibiting in Europe?
JM: Well I was in a group show in Moscow back in 2005 and that was really – I mean that was a bit weird ‘cause it’s a little bit - quite outside I think is the… what you would consider the normal art world in a way? It was very cool, though. My gallerist in New York is Russian, so she was working with this foundation and so a number of her artists with artists from some other places were in this group kind of meant to show younger American artists. And it was in this huge art complex right across from Gorky Park. I mean, the show itself was not huge, but I went over for the show with my dealer. And the cool thing was they used my image, which I think was an image of a TOPS cart - maybe it was a Target cart – from here, from Buffalo on top of a snow drift. But they used that as the main image for the show so it was on this huge banner on the fence outside the building. So it was really weird to see this Buffalo cart that millions of Moscow people are driving by every day right outside Gorky Park - it was really cool. You know there are many things – I’ve had a lot of these great things or… My book won the prize for the oddest book title of 2007. It was a very 15-minutes-of-fame type of thing like where… there was an AP article that went to basically every English language paper in the world talking about me winning this prize and this book. And there were a few other, like, slightly more serious interviews - or you know, not serious, but… I think I was interviewed for The Independent, the British paper… I mean there were stories everywhere. I mean, I was interviewed in the BBC World Service… and even later on, a few years later on, I would keep popping up in England and I did some other radio interviews like the Chris Evans Drivetime show, and he’s a pretty huge figure in England – and who I remembered from living in England, but I didn’t remember who he was. But it was very weird, he… I think he might’ve did some book about – I think it was some story in Britain about odd books and my book was featured in it, so somehow I kind of got on the list again to be talked to. And it was weird, you know, it’s not like being interviewed as a serious artist, it’s more it’s this very mainstream kind of thing. It’s like “here’s a guy who loves shopping carts so much he wrote a book about them!” It’s the introduction, then I have to do the work of saying what it is that I do in a funny, and hopefully succinct way. But it was weird to be standing in my kitchen and being on the radio that eight million people are listening to in England (laughs). And I also did radio interviews in Australia and stuff like that. But, you know, it’s weird because it’s a fluke-y thing that’s not… it’s not like your artwork is being appreciated (laughs). It’s more like you’ve done something totally weird and they wanna talk to a weirdo.
HG: Well, and that’s what’s so interesting, is that, I mean, what everyone else is perceiving as just this bizarre thing is your artwork. So where you were having those interviews, did you try to express it all? Like: “I’m not this crazy weirdo that I framed the book as”.
JM: Yeah, yeah that’s what I tried to do. Although I’ve never actually heard in any of my interviews, they always say they’ll send you something and they never do (laughs). Yeah, I basically go through that. I explain what the project is, and that I’m the artist, and this is what it’s about, and why I did it in as smooth a way as possible. But the book itself as a life of its own – it just keeps popping up but the weird thing is, it doesn’t… I mean that sales… I mean it didn’t sell enough to get - I still don’t get royalties from it, like it still doesn’t pay back my advance on it. But it’s interesting to see how well-known something can be without actually turning into money (laughs).
HG: I think that’s called a cult classic.
JM: I guess so because I – and I learned that too – I think a lot of people have heard about that project one way or the other. You can be borderline well known and have it not translate into book sales. It’s weird.
HG: Is there anything you hope to achieve with your art, or another way of saying that is what do you hope the audience takes away from your art?
JM: I don’t know, I guess that’s a loaded – the interesting thing is that I have my own vision of what I want people to take away from it. They’re my ideas that’s I’m trying to express and that I want, in a specific way that I’d like them to be interpreted. And I think in lot of the times they aren’t interpreted that way. So, I don’t know, I guess I want people to get something out of it or be engaged by it. In a completely self-interested way, I want them to like it in a… to buy it, or to promote it in that sense. But I don’t know, I just hope they get some sense of what I’m getting at. Although sometimes I think it’s, especially with the larger installations, it’s more about… Yeah, I don’t know what they’re getting - they’re getting some experiential kind of thing out of it. And there’s a way in which people who maybe aren’t super sophisticated about art, they end up being “oh I just love – you’re so creative” or they just love that. It’s a very positive kind of thing, but it doesn’t mean – they might not be getting what I’m saying necessarily, but they just like the: “Wow! This is weird, crazy stuff!” That kind of thing is a reaction that you get.
HG: What is interesting too is that, especially with the “Secondary Occupants”, with that, you know, in a lot of your installations, you’re taking these often ugly or scary insects that people normally react to with horror, at least… squicky feelings, and yet you translate it into something that’s very aesthetically pleasing. So I can see how that might be a response.
JM: I think so. I mean, some people have a hard time even reading the work as knowing what the hell they’re looking at. I mean, I wanted it to be somewhat abstract in that way. So, there’s that bridge to get over to start with, to even get to… whether it changes how they feel about that specific thing. And, in a way, because that kind of totemic depiction is so removed from the way that one interacts with the spider itself – how one sees it. I think this newer branch of the project where it’s webs and stuff is a little bit more… it’s something people understand. With the shopping carts, people know that object and they know how they exist in the environment, or even if they don’t. So, when they look at the work, it’s articulating something they’re already aware of, so they can connect to it really immediately. And when you’re presenting something with completely new information it’s a very different process. So I think with the webs, it’ll be a little bit more like… It’ll be an easier connection because people see them all the time, and they brush them away, and so if I’m kind of like presenting them in this sort of… kind of grand way – I mean, not grand, but it’s a different way of seeing this mundane thing. I think it’s a quicker connection.
HG: I also just thought of a question I wanted to ask you that relates to something you were talking about earlier when you were talking about your… these two major series that you’ve done. And in the first one, in “The Guide to Stray Shopping Carts”, you created a taxonomy using language and descriptions to get to that, whereas with the “Secondary Occupants”, in some ways you’ve used graphic design to create a visual taxonomy of parts that you’ve assembled into these different representations.
JM: Yeah, in a way, it’s not taxonomical in the same sense. It’s a set of representations, I think, but it doesn’t have a… and a little bit where… all the animals’ faces and spider faces taken as a whole together, they have a little bit of that – or at least a catalogue. I wouldn’t say a taxonomy because it doesn’t really do much work as far as differentiating them from one another, but it’s more cataloguing. I originally toyed, or kind of tried an idea where I would do a text-heavy thing, but I would be exploring… trying to find a way to define the spaces that are inside buildings that aren’t accurately described, or the way these animals occupy space, but it just proved to be too difficult. To be clear, it would deliberately have to be this obtuse language that… I didn’t think the payoff was enough, in a way. And when you’re writing stuff like that, if it doesn’t - if you can’t get it into these clear names that kind of connect, it’s not gonna work. So, yeah, in a way it’s not as taxonomical, but it’s still kind of peering into this other world, I guess.
HG: You’re living here in Buffalo where you were born and raised, which you also –
JM: I was not born here
HG: Not born here? Where were you born?
JM: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin.
HG: Oh, okay, cool.
JM: So I moved here when I was eleven.
HG: Okay. Do you feel that influenced you?
JM: Maybe… I guess only in the sense that it was already an academic community in Madison. So I suppose I have some influence on that, or that kind of positive feeling towards that kind of thing, or that always seemed… whatever the arts seemed important. But my father came to teach here at Buff State in 1984, so I think my really important formative years were here. So “I’m from here” is the way I think about it.
HG: Okay, so you’re from here, and yet you’ve exhibited beyond here in many ways and now your focus is beyond Buffalo. I want to ask you what are some of your needs as an artist that the larger community can help you achieve. And I’m not sure if that community is Buffalo, if it’s beyond Buffalo, if it’s the fine art network, you know?
JM: Well, there’s a bunch of different needs. I guess the most beneficial one… I guess… the Burchfield and the Albright to some degree, like what they… it’s just beneficial to put Buffalo on the map in a lot of ways, I mean it’s not an insignificant thing. And we’re much further along than, I suppose, other cities our size. But just establishing that idea that things can happen here and people can make art here that gets seen elsewhere. I’ve always been upfront about living in Buffalo when I’m out in the world, or whatever. I’m always trying to talk it up and everything - and some people don’t do that, some people like… try to pretend they like in New York, or whatever, and that sort of thing. But I’m all for it. So, I don’t know, I guess that’s the main thing – I mean, you know, what would be nice? I have pretty realistic expectations though… I don’t think there’s a great – I mean I suppose you could develop more of a collector class here, or get more average people to be interested in visual arts, so that’s doable. But I’ve never had any real aspirations to make money here from art. Even the work that I’ve sold to Buffalo collectors has been in Miami - it hasn’t been here. I mean, it’s been through my gallery, whatever, you know what I mean? So, there isn’t much… The commercial scene is very tiny here, but I don’t think that’s the strong point anyway. I think it’s much more important for having an environment for people to live and make work and to draw beyond it to some degree, have international people looking at Buffalo, I think would be good.
HG: As an artist, what do you feel that Buffalo provides you with? Why are you here in Buffalo?
JM: My original intention was to come back and move to New York once I kind of got some design skills and one thing led to another and I ended up staying. For a long time though, I’ve been thinking about moving to New York… And when I got picked up by the gallery in 2005, that took the pressure off of that or I had a way to do things. And I like living here ‘cause it’s cheaper and I have a really big house (laughs) and a big studio and all of that stuff and I really like being part of this community and I like the quality of life here a lot. But the one thing I’ve – and I’ve obviously spent a long time thinking about this – basically, the one thing I really lose out on is if I lived in New York I would just - there would be a lot of opportunities coming from meeting people in social situations, which I don’t have. I try to make up for that by going to New York and Miami and stuff, and have benefitted from that and met people and made connections and things like that. I don’t think if - even if it weren’t for the internet, I don’t think I would be here in that sense. Trying to do what I’m trying to do, I don’t think I could 25 years ago and, you know, I don’t know, I mean, I’m definitely going to stay, but I still need to reach out a lot. I have to be very active with reaching out and making things happen elsewhere.
HG: Moving forward, what is going to help you advance your career?
JM: The interesting thing about this world, or career, is that you can have some level of success and it doesn’t mean anything is coming after it. So for me, I think a lot of people have seen my work in various venues in New York and here, and like it, or like what I do, or are familiar with me as an artist, but it’s not to the… I’ve sold a fair amount of things over the years, but it’s not to the point where I’m someone who has a market, do you know what I mean? There’s not people that seek out the work, they have to see it in the right environment and buy it, right? There’s no one tracking me down to buy this stuff. So I’m clearly in this certain tier, how to get to the next one is the difficult thing (laughs). And I need to do it soon because I’m 39 now and there’s this invisible line at 40 that… Maybe it’s all fiction, but it doesn’t hurt to assume that it’s true and push as hard as possible. I have some good opportunities, and I think at this point, now looking back, I think my resume has at least got enough stuff on it that I think will help me as I go forward. It’s all unknown.
HG: So like you said, you’re at this possible invisible line, but you’re also at this midpoint in your career. What advice do you have for emerging artists? Maybe artists who are either just coming out of either their BFA, or even their MFA and are thinking about a lot of these concepts and the first steps they have to take.
JM: Yeah, and by the way, what’s weird is I don’t really feel like I’m at my mid-career, and I started pretty late, really, in the scheme of things. I didn’t properly have a show until I was 28 or something. So I in a way, I feel… I wish I’d started sooner on all of this stuff. I mean, ‘cause college was pretty much… I wasn’t doing any of this and it took me a few years to get a handle on things, and then by the time I… I still have this feeling of “I just started” even though it’s been 10… Well, my first real show was at Olean Public Library, which was in 2001.
HG: Can I ask how long you stayed in Hartford until you graduated?
JM: Oh, it was in Hampshire.
HG: Hampshire, I’m sorry.
JM: In Massachusetts… I didn’t stay there at all. I went immediately to England for six months working, and then I went to Ireland for another seven months and then came back to Buffalo and that was pretty much it. So, in a way, so it’s been like… I guess it’s been eleven years of this professionally… if you can call it that. So anyway – but in other words – I guess it is a pretty long time. You don’t know when you’re not emerging anymore, do you know what I mean? (laughs) Because…
HG: Well, you got dealer representation, galleries in New York…
JM: That’s true. It probably is my mid – or at least it is a real thing now. But my advice to these young people… I don’t know, it’s very weird because I came to things in such a weird way. I don’t know what it’s like to leave an MFA program. Although I do feel like if you’re gonna do an MFA program, do one in your interest as being an artist as opposed to just getting an MFA to teach. Then, go to a school that has these… location-wise and where you’re gonna be hooked up with good people. Because, really, that’s more important than anything, you know, is making those connections. Getting an MFA in the middle of nowhere if not really seriously – whatever – you just got to take every advantage you can. And I think there are plenty of people that go to school and want to be artists, and there are very few of them that make it even to that first tier of having kind of a career and showing stuff because it takes a tremendous amount of energy just to make something happen when you’re doing it without any money, without anyone paying for it, all of that sort of thing, and no one’s telling you “you have to do it on your own, you have to be self-motivated”. I think a lot of people, from my observation anyway, is that a lot of people just don’t have enough energy. I’ve known plenty of talented people that just don’t end up following through ‘cause it’s really easy to not do anything, and then it’s five years later, or whatever, and what are you going to do. It’s the same thing with design, too, there’s sorts of people who… you have to be really self-motivated to do really interesting, creative design, stuff like that, or to carve out a space for yourself. I think you have to be pretty motivated, like you do this stuff on your own all the time, not just waiting for stuff to happen. That being said, I feel like I’ve been too slack. I feel like I should be doing more every day (laughs).
HG: My last question, which I’m not sure if I sent to you, is there anything you wish you had known, perhaps back in 2001 during your Olean show that you know now?
JM: Yes, because that show opened two days before 9/11, so I wish I’d known. So that show got forgotten about super fast by me and everybody else. Yeah, all kinds of stuff I wish I’d known. Like I said, I wish I had started earlier, you know. I wish I’d been a little more focused in college on what I was really all about and what I wanted to do.
HG: When you say “started earlier” how many years are you talking? Are you talking like you wish you’d gone to school for fine arts?
JM: A little bit. Although I do appreciate that I went to school in a different way. I don’t know – i0n a way, I feel like I like the things I ended up doing. So, I don’t know, would I have been had that completely beaten out of me at art school? I don’t know. It would have been a completely different trajectory. Like, I don’t think it would have done… In all of these choices I don’t… I probably wouldn’t have done this shopping cart project if I hadn’t lived in Buffalo, or things like that, so it’s impossible to kind of make a judgement. I did the international studio program residence, which Hallwalls used to facilitate, and I did that very early in my career, like, where I applied for it, and I got it, and it was really weird because I was… I’ve really done that Olean show and a few other things, and it was with all these professional artists… In retrospect, if I’d known more of what I know now about that world, I think I could have capitalized on that more. I mean, I think I got a lot out of it and it was a great time to work, I was in there in New York for three months in 2002. But if that had happened a couple years later, I think I could have capitalized on it. I ended up, I think, concentrating on a little bit on the wrong body of work… So things like that, but you don’t… it’s very difficult. But as far as your original question, “how much later”, that 2004 thing was – the show in Hartford really got the ball rolling at Real Art Ways. That was a show for artists under 30 and so I think I was 29 when I did that, and that was when my break came. So, you know what I mean, not that it’s that old, but people that are coming out of Colombia undergrad, or you know, graduate school, a lot of them are four years-five years younger than me. But I’m also starting without a launch pad, like graduate school, to kind of hook me things up. So that’s why I feel a little behind.
HG: Julian, what’s your favorite food?
JM: I don’t know… my favorite food…?
HG: What’s your favorite Buffalo food?
JM: Well I really do like beef on weck – No, actually, you know what? I think the chicken finger sub needs to be elevated to the same level as beef on weck and wings. I think it’s a great creation.
SB: Any chicken finger sub?
JM: I guess I think of… I think of Jim’s Steakout, mostly.
HG: What’s your favorite pizza place in Buffalo?
JM: Casa de Pizza.
HG: Nice. (laughs)
JM: And, it’s funny, I remember when we came to our house in Buffalo in 1984, we stayed at the Hotel Lenox. And I remember eating a Casa de Pizza and my sister and I were grossed out by it because it was so saucy and… It was sort of weird to us coming from what we were used to in Wisconsin. But later, I’ve come to really love the quality of it - and I also usually watch the playoff hockey games at Casa de Pizza and stuff like that. But also when we came back to move into our house, we all stayed at the Hotel Lenox – the people hadn’t left the house yet – so we had everything in a U-Haul truck in the parking lot there and were there for five days waiting for the people to vacate with my dad looking out the window at the truck full of stuff.
HG: But Julian, thank you so much for coming in to do an interview with us with the Living Legacy Project at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.
JM: Well thank you for having me.