Adam Stennett: Artist Survival Shack
On August 1, 2013 hyper-realist painter Adam Stennett embarked on a month-long endurance performance in a 6.5 x 9.5 foot survival shack at an undisclosed location on the east end of Long Island. Following is a two-part interview with Stennett regarding the development and deployment of his Artist Survival Shack. Part 1 was conducted at Stennett’s Brooklyn studio on August 22, 2012. Part two was conducted on July 28, 2013 over the Internet with Stennett on location in the Hamptons and the author in Portland, OR.
Stennett’s performance will culminate in an exhibition featuring the shack itself, related paintings and artifacts. The exhibition opens September 7, 2013 at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in East Hampton, NY. Glenn Horowitz Bookseller will schedule discreet weekly visits to the Artist Survival Shack during the month of August, 2013.
Part 1: Adam Stennett’s Studio. Brooklyn, N.Y. August 22, 2012.
Adam Stennett: So, this is the Shack. It’s fairly small but it also has everything I need to make work and to live. It is six and a half feet by nine and a half feet which is a bit smaller than the Unabomber’s shack. His shack–Ted Kaczynski’s shack–was ten by twelve. Not a ton bigger than this but a little bit.
Gary Wiseman: Like a prison cell or monk’s quarters.
Stennett: Hopefully more like a monk’s quarters. I mean, I do think about my studio as a cave or something like that. A place that I can hunker down and not be distracted by anything. This will actually be the most public working space that I have worked in. So, people can watch, I mean, part of the piece is the performance aspect but I am also very serious about making work and that will be my main focus.
Wisteman: Are you worried that people will bother you or interrupt your concentration?
Stennett: I don’t think so, I mean, I think I will be able to just ignore–I don’t plan to interact with people a lot.
Wiseman: So people will come and look at you through the door while you work?
Stennett: Yeah, I mean, it’s so small in here that maybe they could step through the door. You know, I’ll probably have a chair here [indicates towards the center of the Shack] and this is my painting wall. This is an 160 watt LED light that that is used for video usually.
Wiseman: It’s color corrected?
Stennett: Yeah. I have different screens. This is 3200 which is what I usually paint with. And, you know, I’ll have different sized panels that I can put on here if I am working on bigger pieces.
Wiseman: When you paint with a certain light do you show it in the gallery with the same light?
Stennett: Not always. Usually when I am painting I will light it much brighter than I would ever show it so I can see all the flaws. So, when I am painting I am probably making everything more perfect than it would ever need to be [for] a gallery setting or a collection. It’s probably not good for the painting to be under that bright of light when it is being shown. Yeah, so, this is where I will paint and this is where I will sleep [indicates a cot at the rear of the Shack]. This is my Zen archery set which I got on ebay of course [removes set from cot and sits down] it is called Kyudo.
Wiseman: You use really small brushes.
Stennett: Yeah, fairly small brushes and every mark is a decision, like every object that is in the Shack is a choice. I looked at hundreds of different things before I chose a certain object. When you are trying to distill things down to the minimum necessary and trying to get rid of what you don’t need, every ounce, every curve of something–those choices become really important. This is my sleeping quarters which is an army cot. This is actually the army cot that I have slept in in my studio for years [lays down on cot]. When I was in between living situations I would sometimes paint all night and then crash on the army cot and it’s perfect for me.
Wiseman: I’m noticing a lot of Zen or Buddhist elements in here. Like the prayer flags.
Stennett: Yeah that is something that I added recently. I was looking at them and I was thinking of Mt. Everest. You see them flying at the peak and there is that expedition quality–but then I also like the Buddhist Zen idea.
This is a parabolic mirror and it focuses the sun’s rays. So, if I set this up with the sun behind it at the right angle it will focus–almost like a magnifying glass but stronger–on this cast iron teapot and it will boil water. In nature you may have to tweak things a little bit to make it work but this is kind of everything you would need to make coffee. This is my pot holder which is an old army shooter’s glove so that the trigger finger is free. You boil the water, put some coffee in here, and filter it into the cup. I’ve tried to set [everything] up so you don’t need to buy anything ever. That’s kind of the idea–zero expenses once you start and everything that I begin the performance–or theoretically, life–with in the Shack never needs anything to keep running.
Wiseman: What’s the initial expense to set everything up?
Stennett: Most of the things I am buying on ebay and usually I will watch ten different variations of something close to what I am looking for and watch the auctions. If it goes beyond–I try not to spend more than ten dollars. Sometimes it goes a little bit more [or] less on any one item. The idea is I wanted to build this thing as inexpensively as possible. Ebay actually became one of my best resources for that because I don’t have to go anywhere or spend money on going to the store, taxis, subway, getting here or there and all that stuff–it just shows up and I can also get very good deals. I am making aesthetic choices on ebay. Ebay is an excellent resource for readymades. So I looked at, you know, fifty vintage cast iron teapots and chose this because of the size, color, how it would react with the sun, you know, how it would heat up, but I was also thinking about how it would look in a painting or a photograph.
Wiseman: You are selecting things for quality and longevity as well.
Stennett: Yes, and a timeless quality–not everything because there is some technology involved–but I want everything to look like there is sort of a pioneer spirit to this whole project too–that it could be something that was used hundreds of years ago.
Wiseman: In our previous interview I was struck by how highly disciplined you are with your work. I have recently been reading a book about Robert Irwin. A lot of the things you talk about reminds me of the things that he would do such as spending days alone in the studio staring at a canvass.
Stennett: The preparation is really important. I mean, this project [The Artist Survival Shack] has been four years in preparation which is weird. Because the way that it’s–I haven’t really pushed it–because, um, I have been working on other stuff in and around it and I felt like it needed to grow organically. But now all of the sudden it feels like it has momentum and maybe that’s because it’s grown into something and kind of has a life of its own.
Wiseman: It seems that a lot of the work you have been doing previously is like a series of preparations leading up to this.
Stennett: I think it actually is very related and it’s funny because it’s kind of a different type of thing for me. Normally I’m known for my video art or my painting. I’ve done a little bit of installation stuff but not a lot. But this actually feels like it is very related to everything I’ve done up to this point. It’s kind of in a way what I’ve been training for and now I’ll get to see if it works.
Wiseman: It’s a compelling synthesis of installation and more traditional art making and performance. It’s bringing a lot of different things together. It’s kind of–I’m thinking a little bit about Paul Thek. He did these performances and made these objects and even did some two dimensional work but it was all interrelated.
Stennett: I’ve always thought it was important–I used to do some writing too and, you know, a good writing professor will tell you to write what you know–and so with my work I always try to bring all of my experiences to the work–try to pull the work out of my life experiences. And so this piece is really a synthesis of what I have learned as an artist making art in a studio and how–moving to New York and trying to survive and trying to beat the system in a way so you can work less and paint more, make art more. New York is a really tough place to survive and so you have to be very disciplined and you have to be very serious about finding ways to need less or to have more time. In a way this is sort of an artist escape pod.
Part 2: On-site at the Artist Survival Shack. The Hamptons, N.Y.
July 28, 2013.
Wiseman: So, How are you feeling since we last spoke?
Stennett: I feel pretty good. A little overwhelmed thinking that this is going to start in just a few days. I have been living and working in the Shack since the 15th [of July] getting set up but I’ve been able to take trips to the store and get supplies if I don’t have something. I haven’t been needing to be completely self sufficient so far. Oh, there is a helicopter going overhead.
Wiseman: I wondered what that sound was. I thought you were in the middle of nowhere.
Stennett: I am in the middle of nowhere but helicopters fly over a lot.
Wiseman: Somehow that seems appropriate. The last time I saw you was about 11 months ago. I was on a layover in NYC and you were kind enough to invite me over to see a new project called the Artist Survival Shack you had been working on for about 3 years. Is that correct?
Stennett: Yeah, I’d been thinking about it for that long. At that point I’d been focusing on it, for about a year and then two years of fairly focused work to get to this point.
Wiseman: When we last spoke it seemed that the material aspects of the work had predominantly been realized. You were beginning to turn your attention towards finding a place to show it and perform with it which is something new for you. This has since happened. You set the Shack up July 11-14, 2013 on the grounds of the Bridgehampton Historical Society in cooperation with artMRKT Hamptons–a 96 hour test run. How did it go?
Stennett: It went well. I think it was good to do. It’s the first time I had it outside. I built it in my studio. It was a good opportunity to get it outside and troubleshoot any major problems or things I didn’t think of and also a good teaser for the performance. The reaction was pretty good. There was a lot of attention, people seemed compelled by the idea.
Wiseman: Where was it situated within artMRKT? Was it in a fairly public location?
Stennett: It was on the grounds of the Bridgehampton Historical Society. There was a kind of white picket fence around the grounds and you went through the entrance on main street–Highway 27–which is where everybody has to drive through to get to the Hamptons is right in front. The Jitney is like a luxury bus that goes from New York City to the Hamptons that a lot of people take. There’s a stop right there so a lot of people were waiting for the bus standing probably about 100 yards away. The Shack was in the middle of a field–more of like a lawn I guess–much more manicured than the location I’m in now. The entrance to the show went under this covered walk way on the other side of the building so most of the installations–there were a couple besides mine–I was off to the side under this beautiful 150 year old tree as far on the outskirts as I could be because I wanted to be a little bit isolated. I didn’t want it to be a circus. It worked out well. People had to kind of know I was there or have heard about it to come search me out I think. The gallery Glenn Horowitz Bookseller–Jess Frost is the director there–she really helped me with a big part of the logistics of all of this. She had a booth in the tent that had a couple of my paintings and a couple of photos and if people were interested she would direct them to come see me outside.
Wiseman: So there’s the dichotomy between the self aware critical irony towards these extreme ways of thinking and behaving and the more serious side in which you are actually utilizing some of these same strategies and methodologies in creating the work. I am curious about what appears to be a kind of dialectic at play here. You seem to be taking a middle path. Perhaps this relates to Zen practice? You mentioned that your process has been informed by Zen. I bring this up because in this country we live in a very polarized political climate and I wonder if this project is also a lens through which to examine that as well. There are many dichotomies here and by examining ideas that would usually be immediately rejected by the average person and asking how you might incorporate them into your life in a beneficial way you create a compelling scenario for us.
Stennett: Being able to examine your surroundings and experiences and see them through clear eyes is difficult now with all of the filters that we have. I guess it’s been difficult for a long time. A lot of the research I did early on with this Shack project involved civil defense and Cold War stuff, propaganda, fear, paranoia that the government pushed to feed its military industrial complex and to achieve certain goals that it had, and things like that continue to happen now. The Shack in a way is as much about mental survival as it is about physical survival and being able to detach from that circus of images and news and ideas and things we get caught up in and thinking are important and distilling that down to what really is important and what you need to survive physically and spiritually and to have ideas that are clear and are your own–to create a space for that to happen. So I guess I would say in a way it has a political angle. So much of our lives are controlled by . . . politics and propaganda, fear and paranoia. You know, we are jumping through all of these hoops and running in circles because we think we need to I guess. Meanwhile we’re missing out on a lot of stuff that could be fulfilling. So, the idea that the Shack is 6.5 by 9.5 feet and I focused on making it the smallest possible footprint and still be functional is that idea–thinking differently about what we need and what an artist needs to live and work and how that can be made by thinking outside the box.
Wiseman: I suspect more of us are going to have to think along those lines as time goes on.
Stennett: Yeah, it’s pretty . . . I mean, there have been some challenges but I have to say that in the evenings and in the morning I just sit outside the Shack in this beautiful field and it’s really pretty idyllic and I’m like, why would you need much more than this? I could be pretty happy living and working like this. It’s a bit tighter quarters than I expected once I got all my stuff in here. It’s definitely a little bit like being on a boat but it’s also really beautiful and nice at times beyond the challenges.
Wiseman: The purpose of all of this is to make paintings?
Stennett: Paintings and other things.
Wiseman: Did you get much work done in the test run?
Stennett: Not a lot. I did work on one painting well during those four days and I did kind of finish that painting–there wasn’t a lot to do on it–but mostly I was talking to people. There was a steady stream of people coming in and I was telling them about the project and the gallery had a press release about the project and the upcoming longer [piece] so I didn’t have to be a complete informational guide. A lot of tweaking with the Shack and making sure that things were working. I actually did learn a lot during those four days that I have used and been valuable in getting set up out here.
I expected that it would be hot as it is a greenhouse but it became pretty quickly apparent that shade would be really important. Luckily I had planned for that by bringing some materials along that I could customize to the Shack. The sides of the Shack that are South facing have this reflective insulation material otherwise it would be pretty much uninhabitable. I’ve also removed some panels and replaced them with screens so I get a nice breeze through.