interview by GLENN O’BRIEN
portrait TERRY RICHARDSON
BANKS VIOLETTE might be described as an artist who sits astride the coordinates of Dan Flavin, Ozzie Osborne, Donald Judd, and Lars Ulrich. He looks heavy metal but he thinks minimal — and, in a way, he is a cultural product of Metal and Minimalism. But that’s just the gloss, a starting point. His track is refreshingly without limitation. A high school dropout with an MFA from Columbia University, Banks is a spectacular oddball, one who makes haunting sculptures that reinvigorate played-out symbolism, using electricity, propane, salt, plywood, aluminum, and any means necessary. In 2005, he had a one-man show at The Whitney Museum, and I’ve been intrigued by his work ever since. Banks has also shown work at The Team Gallery and Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York. I visited him at his garage studio in Brooklyn and found him having lunch with his assistants, who all seem to have as many tattoos as he does. Pieces of works in progress were lying around, as were a half-assembled motorcycle and lots of tools, including a huge powder-coating machine, which he said was for sale. I thought about making him an offer on it before we sat down and talked, in front of his big Apple screen.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What will you be showing at Art Basel?
BANKS VIOLETTE — I’ll have a large, unique sculpture, a variation of the sculpture of an upside-down American flag that I did before; a new sculpture edition, which is also a kind of variation of the upside-down American flag; and some drawings from across the board. I thought everything would ultimately look sort of consistent and of-a-piece when seen together, but it didn’t really work out that way. The large, unique piece is kind of artsy and impossible to photograph. Then there’s another sculpture, which might in turn become an edition — I’m going to play around with it some more. It’s made of the cheap, iconic, injection-molded plastic seats from American public schools. This one won the prize. It was cast in bonded salt, a material I use a lot. Each piece is cast separately and joined by hand. I did the piece before, in bronze with a black patina. It was hooked up to a propane cylinder that had a kind of a gas ring concealed in the lip so that it could be lit up. It’s essentially the same piece, from the same mold, but cast in a different material.
GLENN O’BRIEN — There’s a scene in Harmony Korine’s film, Gummo, in which they’re all drinking beer and Mark Gonzales has a fight with a chair and destroys it. I think it had this same design. I bet generations of students hate this chair. Has anybody ever tried this process of casting in salt before?
BANKS VIOLETTE — Oh, it’s a variation on a process that’s used for a lot of different things, like mimicking metal casting. I retooled specifically to use salt. The weird thing is that the plastic I use is polyurethane, which is hydrophobic. But salt is a desiccant. So you end up doing this kind of meth-lab alchemy, trying to achieve a balance. If you add too much salt, and the humidity reaches a certain level, it’ll draw moisture into itself and disrupt the catalyzing process. There’s a sort of goop in the bottom of the mold that you’ve got to scrape out with acetone, which is a really disgusting and long process, but I sort of figured it out myself.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Is it stable? Or is it something that can’t get too hot or cold, or that can’t tolerate certain environments?
BANKS VIOLETTE — It’s relatively stable. But there’s no guarantee with plastic. I can’t say what’s ultimately going to happen. The first time I showed something made out of this material was in my show at The Whitney, where I made a kind of replica of a burnt church. That was when The Whitney had their conservation department up and running. The conservators were really interested in the process. I kept saying that it was going to be made of salt. But when it was done, it looked like plastic, and they kind of winked at each other in disbelief. The first couple of days the sculpture was up, it was super-hot outside. Their climate control system crapped out at the end of one day, and by the time they came back in the next morning, the sculpture had drawn so much moisture into itself that it almost flooded the bottom floor gallery. It didn’t affect the sculpture, because salt is crystalline — it doesn’t expand. It just draws moisture in and then sheds it off. And the plastic is bonded and sealed, so there’s no capillary action wicking moisture into it. It just condenses on the surface for a time. It’s like silica gel packets.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What got you interested in salt? Is it a metaphorical thing — referencing dead seas or invoking Lot’s wife?
BANKS VIOLETTE — Yeah, but in a sort of backward, one-level kind of way. I like the really ham-fisted way it can have metaphoric resonance, but not because I find it poetically satisfying. I’m interested in things that are as ham-handed and flat-footed as possible. You know, black and white: an American flag as an icon, but strip-mined of any other value, and impossible to hold more meaning — if that makes any sense. I’m interested in the way American Minimalist and Post-Minimalist sculptors used materials as a signature. A lot of their work implies a kind of frantic relationship to one’s surroundings, and a violent, performative — or theatrical — use of space. Salt was one of Robert Smithson’s signature materials. The first time he used salt was for one of his first earthworks exhibitions, at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. He got the salt from a local mine. I grew up in Ithaca — but that mine was shut down by then. The idea of entropy in Smithson’s work is usually read as a kind of natural metaphor addressing the social context of entropy, like the lack of jobs in upstate New York, with major industry shutting down. A number of things intersect in this one material, so it has multiple resonances.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s interesting that Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is being transformed by Great Salt Lake, something he probably never anticipated. Now it looks almost prophetic.
BANKS VIOLETTE — Even more interesting is that it was explicitly designed to do something you can’t anticipate, to be part of a natural process. I don’t know all the details, but I understand that people are trying to stabilize it into perpetuity — which seems to run counter to Smithson’s intentions.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s more that the effort to conserve it has sort of a Disney aspect to it. But you never know. Its fate is tied up with the fate of the earth.
BANKS VIOLETTE — Exactly. The idea of trying to freeze it in time and remove it from the natural processes is kind of like a Disney mentality or mechanism kicking in.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you ever visit the salt mine in Ithaca?
BANKS VIOLETTE — When I was growing up, we used to break in to it and get high. It was like a spooky satanic cavern. It’s all tied up with where I grew up, and the way I grew up.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I grew up in Cleveland. There’s a huge salt mine right under Lake Erie, 2,000 feet down, and it’s really spooky — it has some strange vibe that’s due to the chemistry, or maybe due to the fact that it’s a million years old.
BANKS VIOLETTE — Well, getting back to your question about whether these things are stable or not, the Nazis stored a lot of their stolen art in salt mines. So salt has to have some kind of stability.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I think they’re storing things in salt mines out west now.
BANKS VIOLETTE — Yeah, film stuff. They have stable atmospheres, so they’re ideal storage spaces.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yesterday’s headline in The New York Post said something about the film, Titanic, because the government has brought in James Cameron to consult on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Politicians don’t think outside the box, but artists do. I was wondering what your thoughts on the oil spill are.
BANKS VIOLETTE — This is really going to sound terrible, but on some level one has a saturation point for disaster. There’s been a steady procession of apocalyptic events: Haiti, the volcano in Iceland, the Gulf… I’ve been blocking it all out. It’s terrifying to a degree that my brain can’t get around it. Maybe it’s self-preservation through sublimation. But the peripheral events surrounding it, like Kevin Costner or James Cameron riding in to the rescue, do add to the fascination.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s interesting when artists are brought in for consulting purposes. I don’t know what your relationship to Goth culture is, or if you were into it as a teenager, but I think there’s been a reaction against mainstream Judeo-Christian-Islamic cultures.
BANKS VIOLETTE — I grew up in a town whose economic lynchpin was framed by two colleges. My way of saying “fuck you” was to drop out of high school — not that I was thinking in strategic terms. It was the easiest way to express discontent with my surroundings — a teenage dialectic and the path of least resistance. Look at South Florida, where a lot of American Death Metal comes from. It’s sort of the epicenter of American evangelism. A really theatrical kind of Satanism comes out of there. Or Norway, which gave rise to Black Metal — it has a really stable relationship with Christianity, in the way that day-to-day life is lived.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I think Goth culture is really interesting — I mean, just take the question, “What is a Goth?” Goths were barbarians, the enemies of the Roman Empire. Now, Goth seems to me to be a sort of third stream culture, one not often thought about. It’s this side of your work I find very interesting. People group you with Smithson and Flavin, both of whom you obviously have some connection with, but I think your content is more romantic. Is that a fair assessment? I mean, Metal is romantic, isn’t it?
BANKS VIOLETTE — Absolutely. But I wouldn’t describe my work in terms of it being Gothic. I’ve never had a particular relationship with Goth, and I only have a relationship with Romanticism in a historical or contemporary sense.
GLENN O’BRIEN — In many ways, Metal music, especially the kind that you’ve been associated with, has more to do with classical, serious, avant-garde music, or whatever you want to call it, than it does with pop or the blues diaspora, which so many things supposedly came out of.
BANKS VIOLETTE — Yeah. The degree of basic musicianship of the people who perform it is extraordinarily high. Many of the performers are virtuosos. It has a kind of operatic magnitude. It’s a really interesting subculture, and it’s interesting the way subcultures organize themselves. The majority of them seem to distance themselves from the world. Some kind of lens is used to report information back, without being directly involved. And each new Metal subculture is a new iteration, one that attempts to distance itself while making a dramatic declaration of its ideas.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Speaking of strip-mined imagery, sometimes the most clichéd things have the deepest meaning, because they’re true. So it’s almost like you’re recharging something that’s depleted — reloading it. Is that correct?
BANKS VIOLETTE — Yeah, absolutely. It’s the principle of zombie reanimation — taking something that’s seemingly dead and bringing it back to life. But when something comes back to life, there’s usually some kind of malevolent attachment. It’s obviously clichéd, because that’s the clearest way of articulating ideas. But this doesn’t necessarily grant it grace, beauty, or poetry. But every now and then it can have these things, which is fascinating. For every hundred times somebody re-enacts the choreographed gesture of a rock star having a fit and smashing his guitar, there’ll be one time when it’s transformative, you know? That one exception is really fascinating.
GLENN O’BRIEN — This may seem really weird, but there’s a bit in an Ezra Pound book where he quotes The Divine Mystery, by Allen Upward. I’ll read it. “I was sitting like Abraham in my tent door in the heat of the day outside a Pagan city of Africa, when the lord of the thunder appeared before me going on his way into the town to call down thunder from heaven upon it. He had on his wizard’s robe, hung round with magical shells that rattled as he moved; and there walked beside him a young man carrying a lute. I gave the musician a piece of silver, and he danced before me the dance that draws down the thunder. After which he went on his way into the town; and the people had gathered together in the courtyard of the king’s house; and he danced before them all. Then it thundered for the first time in many days; and the king gave the thunder maker a black goat — the immemorial reward of the performing god.” The guy was a rainmaker. It was his job, which was part of the culture. That’s kind of where Heavy Metal thunder performances come from: deep down. Olympian Zeus. Athena, “whose shield is storm and thunder.”
BANKS VIOLETTE — In Norway, Black Metal kids created a genre of music that refers to other music. They created a text from other texts. But from those elements they conceived of a whole new genre and then believed in it. Looking from the outside, it seemed like an utterly strip-mined hack, devoid of any meaning. And yet they made it happen. There’s something really fascinating about that. There’s a weird kind of resonance within the imagery and the rhetoric that’s utterly specific to their surroundings, to a kind of romantic landscape. The album covers look like Caspar David Friedrich paintings. The sound of the records has a weird kind of echo chamber effect. These kids started invoking the past — reading Goethe’s Werther, for example. Many people committed suicide in emulation of Goethe’s fiction.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Music is the most abstract of the arts. Years ago, I asked one of the guys from Kraftwerk, “Do you consider your music to be experimental?” He said, “I consider all music to be experimental.” Despite all the incidentals — the album covers, the outfits, the words — there’s something mysterious and magical about music itself. One of the things I find most interesting about your work is that, unlike most visual art — which deals with the world, to a large extent, in a time lag — it plugs into things that are neglected in art. Your work is sort of on the borderline of abstraction. And one of the things I find most appealing about it is the way that you deal with the difference between life today and life a hundred years ago, when there was no electricity.
BANKS VIOLETTE — There’s an amazing story about Tesla and Edison battling it out to resolve the question of the ultimate implementation of either alternating current or direct current. Tesla sold AC to Westinghouse. Edison tried to discredit Westinghouse and Tesla by making the argument that AC was dangerous. He lobbied hard for the use of DC, which would’ve been totally impractical. At that time, in New York State, there’d been a couple of public executions thought to have been unnecessarily cruel. The government wanted something that would execute people relatively painlessly and so they commissioned designs for an electric chair. Edison got behind the idea of using an AC electric chair because he reasoned that consumers would not want the same type of electricity dangerous enough to execute people with used in their homes — that they’d insist on having DC. So he worked the back channels of New York State politics and they built the first AC electric chair. The first person they used it on was a criminal from a suburb of Buffalo, a nasty area described as lightless. So they electrocuted the poor guy but, irony of ironies, AC was indeed implemented for the local power grid. The first really big AC power station was the Niagara Falls power station and the first area it lit up was the suburb of Buffalo where the executed guy came from.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, Tesla understood many things we still haven’t figured out.
BANKS VIOLETTE — Absolutely. Now they think he may have been right about being able to send a beam of electrical current through the air, that he was beaming electricity out in Long Island.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He had a studio in my neighborhood, on Houston Street, I think. He caused an earthquake at one point, supposedly.
BANKS VIOLETTE — He supposedly figured out how to make death rays and a way to create resonances that would affect tectonic activity, too. It was great, amazing, lunatic stuff. I mean, who wouldn’t want a death ray?
GLENN O’BRIEN — I think the Defense Department has experimented with an ultra-low frequency weapon.
BANKS VIOLETTE — The Nazis actually built one. It was one of the technologies they tried to implement in the US after the war. It was a big speaker array that was supposed to send a wave through the atmosphere that could knock a plane down at any distance. Some of the musicians I’ve collaborated with focus almost exclusively on this phenomenon. Super-low sub-audible frequencies have also been used in demolition.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I once interviewed Ted Nugent and I asked him, “What’s your ambition?” He said, “To be killed by my music.” The big light piece that you showed at Barbara Gladstone’s 21st Street gallery is so beautiful. I mean, I don’t know if beauty is something you aim for, but …
BANKS VIOLETTE — I’m not biased against beauty. But to a large extent, the Gladstone show was a response to that particular space. It was probably the most purely formal show I’ve ever made. I was trying to think in terms of the space and how things establish an environment just by their presence. Getting back to the idea of being ham-fisted — of things making almost dead gestures — there’s a kind of theatricality involved when you put on a show in a space like that. You know, having a huge candelabra or chandelier hanging like a hammer in a space. I feel like I established a vocabulary for the sculptures. I was just kind of deploying it in a formal way to address the space. Now I feel like I’m stepping it up.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you see the show Anish Kapoor had there? It seemed like it was also made for that space.
BANKS VIOLETTE — Yeah. Out of all the shows I’ve seen there, Anish’s was the most successful. I don’t know if all the works were specifically designed for the space, but it certainly seemed like everything had been calibrated to it. It’s a weird, strange space. But that show definitely worked in it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — The art world is kind of under the thumb of speculative collecting these days. At the same time, art has more of a public than before. It’s interesting to see artists taking it directly to the public. More books by artists are being published now. Do you think you’re reaching the audience you want to? Do you even think about that?
BANKS VIOLETTE — You know, I’ve made album covers, and worked as a tattoo artist, and done things that were shaped by participating in democratic types of art. I appropriate equally from art history and from subcultures. I have gallery shows and collectors and curators, and, thankfully, a kind of familiarity with that audience. At the same time, I’ve collaborated with musicians who have no relationship to the art world and I’m exposed to their audience, some of whom end up knowing my work, which is gratifying. So I think that, to the best of my ability, I’m bridging audiences.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Some artists who make sculpture — artists like Judd — get to the point where they’re designing entire environments. They’re almost more like architectures and designers.
BANKS VIOLETTE — I’m attracted to the limitations of a space. The show at Barbara’s could only exist in the way it does because it was that space I responded to. If I had altered or recreated the space, it would have removed some of the tension of working in it. Those constraints allowed me to think of how to proceed. I’m interested in Dan Flavin and Black Metal bands in equal degrees. So to have an amazingly polished space like Barbara’s gallery is as attractive and interesting to me as showing in a shitty, rundown warehouse. They’re different environments with different constraints and different requirements, all of which sustains interest.
GLENN O’BRIEN — A lot of your works are titled Not Yet Titled. In the description of the piece Not Yet Titled (Aluminum Wall With Condensation) you listed time as one of the materials. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Some of your pieces look like they simulate ruins, as if something secondary had happened to them. They have a sort of implied history. Is this something you intended to convey?
BANKS VIOLETTE — I have a pretty rigid way of making things. Everything is based around a standard four-by-eight-foot plywood panel, two-by-two inch aluminum stock, a certain gauge of steel pipe, and a certain kind of fitting. Everything is modular. Pieces can be recombined, played with, and redeployed in different ways. I make the work the way I do so that it has this potential of redeployment. I’m interested in these things having the potential to keep on living. They can respond to a different set of circumstances. Getting back to the dictates of the Gladstone space, it’s not that what I do is site-specific. But I do respond to a particular event, a particular show, and I know I’m going to have to show my things again in another space. So I pre-engineer them in such a way that it’s possible to move, shift, and adapt them to different circumstances. Whether or not I actually do change them or shift them, that flexibility eliminates the anxiety of making something final.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Have you ever made anything meant to be shown outdoors, in nature?
BANKS VIOLETTE — I haven’t had the opportunity. I made one piece that was shown in the courtyard at PS1. That’s the only time I’ve had anything set up outdoors and exposed to the elements. But I do have a number of projects I could possibly do that with. glenn o’brien — I think it would be interesting to see your work without a spatial context. banks violette — Yeah, I’d love that, especially since a lot of the sculptures refer to performance spaces or theater spaces. But, to an equal degree, they also refer to signage and billboards, which exist outdoors.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I feel like a lot of your work deals with the line between beauty and monstrosity. Is that a valid opinion?
BANKS VIOLETTE — Well, it depends on what exactly you mean by monstrosity.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s taking something that has a form and then mutating it. You know, like Frankenstein — a mutation of a familiar image or form. A monster isn’t an inherently negative thing. Basically, it’s an unprecedented combination of forms or species. The writer Ishmael Reed developed a concept of the benign monster. Actually, Frankenstein was a benign monster. I think monstrosity is about evolution, about something being a hybrid.
BANKS VIOLETTE — I don’t want to nod my head without double-checking, but, yeah, I agree.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So Banks, tell me — why are you a monster? [Laughs]
BANKS VIOLETTE — I’m much more interested in the monster than I am in whoever made it. For whatever reason, the monster is what I’m attracted to. A broken pane of glass is interesting to me as an event, as potential, as process. I’m hardwired to prefer that approach. I think there’s a greater potential — poetically, formally, intellectually — in the broken pane of glass than in the intact pane of glass.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you have any ideas for solving the oil spill?
BANKS VIOLETTE — [Laughs] No. I’ve been looking at all the engineering and different solutions that are being put forward. I’m really attracted to the engineering, the problem solving, and the big tools — you know, once I get past the apocalyptic side of it. GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, 2012 is right around the corner.
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