WAX Magazine: Issue 2, Curtis Mann Interview

We’re stoked to announce a new content partnership with WAX MagazineWAX is a bi-annual print publication exploring the intersection of art, culture and surfing in and around New York City. They believe that beauty and meaning can be found on sidewalks, boardwalks, skyscrapers and beaches alike. And so do we. So we’re happy to host one article per issue right here on the KTV blog. 

Each WAX issue is organized around a unique theme. The theme for issue 2 is Structures and this interview with Curtis Mann explores that theme through discussions of abstract photography, the paradox of surfing in the Midwest, and the transitions that artists go through during their careers.

You can purchase the the current and back issues in their store here: http://store.readwax.com/.

“Curtis Mann,” from WAX Magazine Issue #2: Structures
Interview by Carmen Winant

The artist Curtis Mann, despite growing up in a landlocked state and attending graduate school in heart of the mid-west, managed to become a fervent surfer. This required, among other pursuits: moving for short stints to Hawaii, sleeping in a van by a Starbucks in southern California, and surfing a near-frozen lake Michigan for the better part of decade. Mann is most well known for his appropriation of found, politicized photographic imagery, the surfaces of which he carefully effaces using bleach and varnish (a giant grid of such photographs appeared in the 2008 Whitney Biennial). However, his new body of photographic work deals in near monochromatic abstraction. Here the artist talks about the curiosities that led to his more formal shift, the current trend of young abstract photographers, and surfing in the shadow of refineries and casinos.

CW: So you grew up in Dayton, Ohio. My first question for you is: how did someone in a landlocked state become such an avid surfer?

CM: I was a strong swimmer from an early age. But you’re right, I didn’t grow up close to any body of water and surfing was in no way a part of the culture. I didn’t really know it existed until I was thirteen or fourteen, until my whole family went to Hawaii. I rented a bodyboard and boarded at The Wall in Wakiki, a pretty famous spot, although I didn’t know it then. That was it — I really became hooked.

CW: But then you returned to Ohio. How did you manage to surf from there on out?

CM: I didn’t. We didn’t go on a lot of vacations when I was a kid, so I wouldn’t surf again after that trip until the time I went to college. When I did finally get to college, I took a couple semesters and went to University of Hawaii, living there cumulatively for over a year.

CW: How did you learn to surf once you were there? Was it trial by fire?

CM: That was before the “teach yourself everything on the internet” era — in 2000 or 2001 — and I didn’t know anyone I could ask. I never took a lesson, instead I just taught myself. My swimming ability helped me a lot; I never felt like I was going to drown. But it took me longer than it should have to feel comfortable and in control.

CW: I am sort of amazed that you were possessed enough by one experience as a young teenager that you were willing to move far away from home to a totally unknown place to pursue it again. You hadn’t surfed for six years.

CM: I think any surfer will tell you that that sensation takes hold right away. Especially in the beginning, that first time — catching and connecting to a wave feels incredibly weightless. And the speed is a huge rush. I was attracted to the challenge, to the water and to the unpredictability of each and every wave. That feeling never goes away, and many of those notions are traits that I also find in the processes and ideas I gravitate toward in my work.

CW: Speaking of that, you moved to Chicago to get your MFA at Columbia College when you were twenty-five. But before we talk about your work, I have to ask: did you arrive there planning to surf in Lake Michigan?

CM: You know it’s funny — I thought I was giving up surfing by going to Chicago! I wasn’t even aware that surfing was possible in the Midwest. Actually, it had been two years since I’d surfed at that point. Art was at the center of my life, and my driving focus at that point, so I wanted to make my decision around it and nothing else.

CW: How did you discover that surfing was indeed possible in the Midwest?

CM: Through Paul D’Amato, a photography professor of mine at Columbia College. He discovered that I used to live in Hawaii, and that was that — he took me straight to surf in a great spot on The Lake. To get there we had to walk a mile and a half straight into a 30 mile-an-hour, 40 degree wind. I was hooked again.

CW: For those of us who surf on the coasts, I think Lake Michigan can be a bit of a mystery. What are the best conditions for surfing the lake, and how does it most substantially differ from ocean surfing?

CM: The principle difference is this: surfing The Lake means surfing directly in the same storms that are creating the waves. Ocean waves come from storms hundreds of miles off the coast. That’s why, as opposed to lake waves, coastal waves are able to spread out a bit and have a little more power and shape. I surfed the southern end of The Lake, and the best season was the fall when big cold north and northwest wind are blowing down from Canada. It usually takes a good six hours of sustained winds to create a decent swell. You then just have to find a protected spot and a thick wetsuit. The water temperature varies quite a lot; during the summer, it can be quite warm, but in the fall and winter temperatures drop to 35–45 degrees. It’s basically surfing in a big, polluted slushee at that point.

CW: I imagine those conditions form some solidarity.

CM: Yes, surfing Lake Michigan is still kind of an outsider activity. So the core surfers you meet are all pretty awesome in their own special ways. Of course, that’s true of any surf community, but there is a certain grit and reality to that group which you just don’t get from surfing consistent ocean waves. These minds were specially shaped by years of frozen feet, windblown slop, the occasional offshore day, tons of stoke and probably a touch of lead poisoning.

CW: When would you surf? I can imagine that while the schedule of a graduate school student and professional artist can be demanding, they also both have some built-in flexibility.

CM: It would definitely be tougher with a nine-to-five job. The window of swells is much shorter than surfing in the ocean — sometimes the waves will be good for two or three hours. But the frequency isn’t too bad — during the fall and winter, I surfed all the way up till ice freezes over the shore break. But I would usually surf forty or fifty times a season, at least once or twice a week. But if a storm comes in for three or four days, we would surf the whole time, all day, no matter what. There isn’t the luxury to know when the next one is coming!

CW: You mentioned surfing the southern end of the lake. Do you have special spots?

CM: Because we surf in direct storms, you have to find any nook and cranny that will be protected from intense winds. In parts of the world where there is nature, that’s a tree-lined cove. In northern Indiana, it’s usually in the shadow of a large casino or near a pier made by an oil refinery. They make for a strange industrial backdrop.

CW: So around this time, right when you discovered lake surfing during your first semester in grad school, you began to experiment with alternative processes in photography in the studio. What was the moment in which you transitioned into a more exploratory, and physically destructive, method of making art? Was it hard to let go of the intactness of surface, and treat photography like any other plastic medium?

CM: Actually, I had experimented with manipulated photographs from an earlier age, before moving to Chicago; my training before that point was as a mechanical engineer, and I had long been interested in how structures — physical or chemical — functioned and broke down. Columbia College is a pretty traditional photography program — lots of well-made, large, beautiful prints everywhere. In my first semester Barbara Kaplan was my professor, and she really encouraged me to experiment. I tried everything! Scratching, burning, bending, tearing. It was sort of wild, and I didn’t always know what my own motivations were. I was flying blind.

The very next semester I had [the photographer] Dawoud Bey. I was still trying, sort of desperately, to use every tool in the toolbox, and my attention-span was waning. I started applying bleach and a little bit of varnish and Dawoud encouraged me to work exclusively within that method. In fact, he wouldn’t critique the drawings I brought in the following week on that basis, and that gave me more incentive. That work ended up becoming my first major project, and led to the piece in the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

CW: Your newest body of work is soon to be shown in Torino and Milan in October at Luce Gallery and Monica De Cardenas, respectively. It’s recognizably yours — dealing in strategies of obfuscating and erasing information of surface — but is also a marked stylistic and conceptual departure. For one thing, the imagery you’re using is not political… if anything, they are flirting with abstraction. For another, the colors are muted into near monochromes. Previously they were a sea of reds, oranges and yellows. They seemed hot to the touch.

CM: I was definitely interested in paring down the work, and minimizing — and eliminating — possible variables. I consciously stepped away from the political imagery, and have been testing my own relationship to the formality of the medium. I am still very much interested in the ways in which I can alter the expectations of a photograph or photographic paper… I’ve always been really curious about the physicality of the paper itself, how it functions and what it connotes. More now than ever, I am interested in tactility, and how our perceptions of relative flatness can be altered and affected. All of those elements were layers to my earlier work, but now I want them to be at the fore.

CW: This body of work has also been made in a new location, right?

CM: Right. This summer I have been working in a studio in Rhode Island; this whole body of work has been made here. I’m in an old mechanic’s garage, and all concrete inside. I love the drabness of it, and it definitely influenced the monochromatic sensibility of this new work. The space has had a more direct influence as well: all of the photographs were made in this empty garage, this sort of non-place, and all of the collaged pieces of paper were left-over scraps and debris collected from when I was making the images, recycled and sprayed with bleach. The process sort of folded back into itself.

CW: And they are much smaller.

CM: I tried to make them large at first, but they were far too overbearing. Most of the prints now are 11×17 inches. I see them as fictional plans for sculptures, so the shift in scale is more effective — it’s hard to tell if they are miniatures or monuments at first glance.

CW: So this is the first time you have made your own photographs in a long while, correct? Despite still using some bleach, and collaging over and affecting their appearance…

CM: I haven’t made original photographs since my first semester of grad school in 2005. Shooting my own again has made me realize why I have been using found images for so long!

CW: Why?

CM: Found images present a fixed problem that I have no control over. The successful manipulated photographs are the ones that change or affect that very problem, and shift their own purpose. With this new work, I initially had to work through my feelings that I was too self-consciously making an art product or making a photograph to make a collage, that just felt so alien to me. Slowly, I began to find a way to work outside of my initial experience of making the images, and allow them to take on a new life of their own.

CW: Do you see yourself as part of this group of young, burgeoning photographic abstractionists?

CM: I think this current wave of photographers who are dealing with photography as an abstract and even sculptural practice is exciting. It’s interesting how the cycles and trends change; when I first started studying photography there was much more constructed and narrative-based influence. But also I think that it’s important to step back and recognize a long history of artists deconstructing “the veracity” of photography, which itself has always relied on illusion. The current influx of photographic abstraction, and photographic disruption, can perhaps be attributed to a new generation of people who have had to deal with more images than anyone in the history of the universe. I include myself in that group. It’s our way to push back, to question what we really glean and expect from not only a single, iconic photographic image, but a million, highly accessible photographic images.

CW: You are traveling a lot for shows now, most recently for shows in Belgium, Paris and now Italy. Do you ever get to surf on work trips?

CM: Not often enough! I wish I had more shows closer to the water. It might be possible during this upcoming show in Torino, if I drive three hours south. Where and when I can, be it for work trips or family vacations, I try to surf. As a result, my surfing experiences are a big, assorted collage: I’ve surfed in Rhode Island, where my wife’s family lives, Hawaii, Miami during the art fairs, Lake Michigan…any time I can get it, I will.

CW: You sound like someone jonesing for a fix.

CM: I know! Not far off.

CW: You also plan trips specifically for surfing, correct?

CM: Yes, I’ve been traveling to Encinitas and northern San Diego county or Santa Cruz for the past few years just to surf. I try to go at least three times a year, and for about two weeks at a time — a benefit of a flexible career. It’s not hard to find a cheap flight and rent a cheap minivan. I surf during the day, and sleep in the van by the water at night. I have a few spots that I like to go — near the Starbucks, for instance, there is free wi-fi all night.

CW: You and your wife Brooke are moving to Los Angeles after eight years in Chicago. How much of the motivation for the move was related to your career, and how much was related to surfing?

CM: We are in Rhode Island for the summer, and are aiming to head to LA by early November. I’d love to live closer to the water and in a smaller city, but we have to negotiate that desire with our life and work needs. Generally speaking, we’re eager for a change of scenery, both geographic and cultural, after living in Chicago for so long. But I’d be lying if I said that surfing didn’t affect our decision a little bit.

Image captions:

1. On a heavy Northwest wind over Lake Michigan, Whiting, Indiana lights up. November 2011. Photo by Peter Matushek.

2. Lake Michigan, Hammond, Indiana. January 2009. Photo by Mike Killion.

3. Paper fragments (paper), 2012. Laser print, glass, bleached chromogenic prints,
oriented strand board. 51.5 × 36 cm framed.

4. Paper fragments (split), 2012. Laser print, glass, chemically altered chromogenic prints,
oriented strand board. 51.5 × 36 cm framed.

5. Paper fragments (towel sculpture), 2012. Laser print, glass, chemically altered
chromogenic prints, oriented strand board. 51.5 × 36 cm framed.