• Perpetual Art Machine – Leah Oates

    Date posted: October 2, 2006 Author: jolanta

    Lee Wells is a NYC-based video and installation artist and independent curator. Wells was named the Independent Curator of the Year by the -scope Art Fair, has exhibited around and has organized exhibitions nationally and internationally.
    Leah Oates: Please speak about your background and how you became an artist.
    Lee Wells: I moved around a bunch as a little kid and for the most part grew up in the country on a horse ranch outside a small college town in central Ohio.

    Perpetual Art Machine – Leah Oates


    Perpetual Art Machine Installation photo.Split Film Festival, Split Croatia. Photo by Ivana Marinic Kragic. -scope New York Art Fair 2006

        Lee Wells is a NYC-based video and installation artist and independent curator. Wells was named the Independent Curator of the Year by the -scope Art Fair, has exhibited around and has organized exhibitions nationally and internationally.
        Leah Oates: Please speak about your background and how you became an artist.
        Lee Wells: I moved around a bunch as a little kid and for the most part grew up in the country on a horse ranch outside a small college town in central Ohio. I started oil painting at home in elementary school (Paint-by-numbers), would watch Bob Ross on PBS talk about happy trees, and graduated from art instruction school in fifth grade. By late high school, it was pretty much all I wanted to do and spent about half of everyday in the art room. I thank my art teacher Bob Hollen for making it a fun experience and encouraging me to pursue it. He taught us the basics and gave us the freedom and the materials to create. He was my track coach and friend as well.
        At the time, I was very interested in the visual effect of Constructivist Soviet worker murals, Surrealism, Picasso, album covers and a love for the grid and masking tape that I still have today. I saw the Warhol Retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989 and I think that locked it in for me. My parents were not too jazzed about me going to art school but I attended the foundation year at Columbus College of Art and Design with the promise that I would go into advertising. That didn’t last too long and I wanted to change to fine arts. Needless to say, I ended up joining the Army to put myself through college. I got lucky and didn’t have to go to Kuwait, but was stationed in Germany for two years. I traveled a lot on the weekends and found Amsterdam to be a home away from home. After getting out, I attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I consciously started making political work, was painting a lot and got into social activism. I studied painting under Phyllis Bramson, Julia Fish and Kerry James Marshall and printmaking under Steve Campbell of Landfall Press. They were all great instructors and kick-ass exhibiting artists in their own right.
        LO: What are you currently working on conceptually as an artist? As a curator?
        LW: I’ve been working on trying to understand color better. How to create a painting that has the power of a feature film. How to create video with the flesh and integrity of a painting. In general, I’ve been thinking about the concept of newness in the face of progress and history. The relativity of time, trends, communication, community, the future in general. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to develop an art community online and how that can be implemented into praxis in physical space. In January, through a collaboration with the artists Raphaele Shirley, Aaron Miller and Chris Borkowski, the four of us created the PerpetualArtMachine.com, or PAM. It’s a free online community portal and interactive video installation that, through a touch-screen system, allows the viewer/user to select from more than 500 videos from over 300 artists through an non-linear folksonomic process of keywords. It’s a work in progress, but since January we have had over one million hits on the website. PAM will be making its second showing at the -scope Hamptons art fair in July.
        LO: Who are your favorite artists and why?
        LW: Maria João Salema is this really wonderful Portuguese painter that I fell in love with and married. Stewart Home for creating the Neoist Alliance and writing about it. Miroslaw Rogala for the questions. Mondrian for keeping it simple. Joseph Albers for his color. Leon Golub for taking the time to speak with me about making political art. Raphaele, Aaron and Chris for their undying love for PAM and the over 300 artists that make up her data body. The list could go on and on. Two really great young artists to watch out for are Stephanie Lempert and Hackworth Ashley.
        LO: What was your progression as an artist? Many artists begin with one media when they are beginning their education and, after being an artist, streamline their process and have completely different ideas as well and medias. Was this the case for you?
        LW: Although I still primarily consider myself a painter, I guess you could say I’m a general artist at large. Photo, video, performance, music, it all comes into play. I like to ask the question to myself: What is painting? I think it has so much more to do with than just what comes out of the tube. It all depends on what needs to be said, not being afraid to make a mistake or to try something new. The video stuff took off for me in the late 90s and I have had a couple museum installations in Italy. I guess I’ve found myself working on the computer a lot more over the past few years. Although I am not really a sculptor, I look forward to the day that I can realize my life-size replica of two Brachiosauruses mating.
        LO: How did you begin as an independent curator?
        LW: The first show I did with a friend and we just got a group of like-minded artist friends together, rented a space out and had a show. I have been curating ever since.
        LO: Was it a similar progression for you?
        LW: Yes, it was a similar progression. A bunch of us got tired of “galleristas” brushing us off because we were students. I thought, “Ok, well we can do it ourselves.” I like to say I’m more of an organizer that a curator, I’m very hands-on. The first thing I put on in Chicago was at a loft I lived in on Lake St. with the artist Jeff Kruse, we threw a party, called it the “Bomb Show.” Mostly students from UIC. I guess it was your typical art party.
        It really began in the fall of 1995 when I moved into a 2,500 sq. ft. corner storefront on Ohio St. and opened Imperfect Fluids Arts Collective/IF Gallery with my friend, the photographer Morgan Zvanut. It was a pretty exciting time. There didn’t seem to be that many rules and, for the most part, it wasn’t too pretentious or competitive. We tried to be as supportive as possible to each other, most of us were still undergrads. I guess we kind of created our own scene. Lots of group shows and happenings with over 200 artists. For most of the artists it was the first place they exhibited their work. I closed down the shop in September 2000 to move to NYC. Now IFAC functions more as a concept than a gallery.
        The Around the Coyote Art Festival was also a major influence. Although some galleries participated, it was the artists that ruled the show by opening up their studios, temporary spaces. I first showed in ATC in 1994, by 1999 I became the first director of new media, in addition to organizing children’s mural projects in the neighborhood.
        LO: How is the urge to make art different from curating a show? What do you think goes into both that is similar and also different?
        LW: For the most part, it’s a totally different thing. To make art is not really a choice I have, it’s what I need to do. I went to a psychic once and she said if I ever stop painting I will die and I took her word for it and haven’t stopped.
        Curating allows me the opportunity to create juxtapositions between artists, allowing artwork the opportunity to take on new meaning. I’m a big fan of the open call for art. I like to see what’s being said and try to make sense of it. Sometimes putting together shows is like creating a piece of art in itself I guess. Kinda like a ready-made.
        I think there has been a major shift in the past six years. The world in general has changed for good and bad. Opportunities run amuck and the market unfortunately makes people not always follow their intuition. The boom of art fairs and biennials have changed the dynamics, and the artists and galleries are struggling to afford the active international circuit. Sam Keller of Art Basel has really been a powerhouse on that front. I think there are eight art fairs in Miami in December.
        Since last summer I’ve been curating video and new media for the -scope Art Fair. I think they are trying to do something different, it’s like a fusion between a fair and a happening. Alexis Hubshman, -scope’s founder and an artist himself, is taking the concept to an entirely different level by not only bringing together some of the best international emerging art galleries but also setting aside free room for people like me to put together exhibitions that you would normally only find at the biennials and museums. We aren’t going there to sell anything except ideas for now. In the big picture, I like helping people that work really hard and believe in what they are doing.
        LO: I always like to ask this as I’m obsessed with the web research, but what are some good websites for artists and curators to look at to find information and inspiration from?
        LW: Here a few: perpetualartmachine.com, video.google.com, rhizome.org, tank.tv, dvblog.org, weblogart.com, park4d.tv, ctheory.org, media.mit.edu, bluebeauty.org, rocketboom.com, lumpen.com, and scope-art.com.
        LO: You began as an artist and curator in Chicago and are now in NYC. What do you think about the NYC art community and scene?
        LW: My opinion shifts depending on how the wind blows. New York is the center of a wonderful cross breeze of everything but sometimes it stinks. Chelsea is not one of my favorite places in the world but it’s a place to do business. It’s kind of like an art mall with new and used car dealers. I’m much more a fan of the downtown galleries (the East Village, the Lower East Side, SoHo) and Brooklyn in general. The best scene is by far going on out in Greenpoint. I’ve lived in Brooklyn since I moved here. I love it. It helps give a nice perspective to Manhattan. Chicago though, is a much better place to make art, I think, and has a better sense of community.
        LO: This is your official brag space. Let us know what you have coming up in terms of projects or shows both as an artist and curator.
        LW: The next year or two will be very busy and there is a bunch of stuff going on. I am part of a collaborative artist project called “Transvoyeur” in the upcoming Liverpool Biennial in September, then spending a couple weeks in Lisbon before going back to the UK for -scope London in October. They have a huge space in the East End down the street from White Cube. The PAM project has really taken off and we have been invited to the Digit Festival up in Woodstock in August. In April next year we’ve been invited to present our project at the Museums on the Web Conference 2007 in San Francisco and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus. There are a couple more projects in the works that have yet to be officially confirmed.
        I’m going out to LA this summer to meet with some people to integrate PAM into the bigger scheme of the internet. I’m looking to find ways to promote artists in ways that have not been thought of before. Through all this I will find the time to paint and prepare for a couple of exhibitions coming up next year.

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