Carrie Fonder: Portrait of the Artist

Carrie Fonder , OUH HUO,  2017, Stills from video, Runtime: 10 minutes

Carrie Fonder, OUH HUO, 2017, Stills from video, Runtime: 10 minutes

By Scott Gleeson

Carrie Fonder is an artist whose work is bound to fundamental questions of style and the contingent essence of the artifact in cultural discourse. Style, for Fonder, is the primary signifier of meaning and site from which the artist divests the authority of art historical narratives, in which the artist, critic, and curator have become the privileged speakers, from the ostensibly stable ontology of objects. Tactics such as camp and kitsch are reinforced by the artist's selection of impoverished, mass-produced materials and skillful deployment of craft techniques, such as airbrushing and embroidery, which bely the artist's true virtuosity. Ultimately, Fonder asks viewers to question the terms in which we define the value of artistic statements and symbolic forms of communication, generally, which rely heavily upon the cryptic and esoteric language of elite culture and academia. Bound up in these terms are related questions of representation concerning the construction and maintenance of collective and individual identities. Thus, the artist's profoundly humorous and ironic works posit critiques of power, authority, and complicity that, as curator Georgia Erger argues convincingly in her related essay, advance a model of camp rooted in political engagement. On the occasion of the artist's solo exhibition, "Poodles, Obrist, and Plenty of Camp," Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist her complex, layered iconography and how humor has come to play a dominant role in her production. 


What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?

The first work I can recall seeing as a child was a Franz Marc painting of blue horses. I must've been around eight years old. My two great childhood loves were married in that moment - ponies and art. I have graduated from Marc and ponies, but clearly I haven’t veered too far as creatures still crop up in my work fairly regularly. 


How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I knew I was going to be an artist since I was a child. However, it wasn’t until my freshman year at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design that I knew I wanted to make sculpture. That was my revelation. I had never really used any tools until then. In fact, I remember a guy, a fellow student, coming up to me in the woodshop as I was struggling to screw something in by hand, and disparagingly asking “don’t you know how to use a screw?” Nope. The truth was I was clueless and pretty terrified that someone would see that I was clueless. Maybe that was a defining moment - I was found out, and it was fine. He ultimately showed me where to find the drills and taught me how to get the job done. I think the joy in learning new things has always been my pull toward sculpture. It’s likely the same impulse that is now pulling me toward video. 


Tell us about a museum exhibition or travel experience that has influenced your practice in a significant way.

The first Tim Hawkinson exhibition I saw was pivotal for me. It was at Ace Gallery in New York, many years ago. I had been working as an assistant to Dennis Oppenheim while doing a semester at the New York Studio Program during my undergraduate experience. Dennis encouraged me to see the show, so I did. 

Hawkinson's work ticked me. It had a diversity of process, material, and concept that was absolutely engaging. It felt playful and loose at the same time it felt well developed and carefully considered. Beans and bubble wrap were given the same care and consideration as cast bronze, and all of those materials were present in varied works in the exhibition. I was charmed. The museum and gallery shows that I had seen up to that point had all felt pretty serious. Perhaps it was the material play paired with conceptual play, or perhaps it was just that particular time in art converging with my development as an artist, either way, it made an impression. I was grateful for the uncoupling of serious artists making serious work. The impact on my work wasn’t immediate, but over time, and seeing more contemporaries who used humor to perverse and delightful effect, humor began slowly materializing in my work as well.


What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

When I talk about my work thematically, I often talk about the intersection of nature and culture. Specifically, what I mean by that phrase is that I’m interested in all the strange ways in which our animal natures collide with our impulse to be civilized cultural consumers. We are weird creatures living in weird times. We accept so many things at face value that are really strange manifestations of culture. These are the spaces that I go to for content for my work.

Additionally, art history has always had an impact on me. I often think of Rococo, (that fleeting dirty little art historical moment) as being a good parallel for my work. I may regret saying this publicly. In fact, the regret may be setting in already. Partly, it’s a good parallel because I love kitsch, and use it as a vehicle for humor in my work. It comes to the dance with a knowing self-consciousness that I use with intention. Before you’ve begun to engage with my work, I’m hoping you can see that my tongue is firmly planted in cheek. It is often said that humor is at it’s best when it’s rooted in reality. That too is my hope, that my humor will hit on a more robust reality and resonate in a broader context.

So looping back to Rococo, it’s a saccharine, over the top expression of elite culture. It's titillating - but the titillation doesn’t come from the overt sexual content (at least not today in the age of the internet!) but from accessing the varied layers of content and jokes embedded in the works. So if you are an insider, your titillation might be of the intellectual sort - yet arguably, anyone can access a level of titillation on varied levels in Rococo works. 

My aim within my work is to shoot for a similar sweet spot - minus the elite audience/perspective. Even when I use jokes and content that relies on art history, I work to ensure that they will have layers that are broadly available to anyone who is interested in engaging with the work. 

My formal play adds to this. I regularly move between two and three dimensions within a singular work. The varied dimensions become stand-ins for reality versus representation and create a slippage between the two. What is real and what is represented become conflated, confused.


Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of idea?

The truth? My studio is often a mess. I’m going to say it’s by design, but that could be a convenient excuse. I work with so many varied materials, when I’m in the throes of problem-solving things can get pretty hairy. Ironically, cleaning my studio can be a great way for me to break a studio lull and develop new ideas. When I handle my scraps of ideas, organize my corkboard, and shuffle materials, good things can happen.  Sometimes the physical act of tacking this up next to that on the corkboard can be the springboard into the next piece. 

Ideally, my work comes from a space that is both physical and conceptual. So although material play can often peak my curiosity about ideas, I then need to sit down and conceptualize further with paper and pencil, and/or Photoshop. Much of my work is really labor intensive, so I want to have some confidence in my direction before I embark. Regularly the path changes as I go down it, but that’s good; that's what makes the work engaging to me. If the work doesn’t evolve in surprising ways, it often arrives feeling stale and lifeless. I’m in it for the surprise.


Tell us about your experience at an artist residency. Where did you go and who did you meet? Would you recommend the residency to others?

Artists residencies are rare and joyful opportunities - they're art camp for adults. It’s rare to have time to do concentrated work, and joyful to occasionally shirk that work to hang out with fellow artists. In fact, I am writing this from the safety of an old grain mill turned arts residency / exhibition space / studio space at the Wassaic Project in Wassaic, New York. 

Here, I am surrounded by a group of amazing artists who are all here to explore and make art. I am also surrounded by rural life complete with dogs, goats, chickens, and horses. The goats have become my muses. We’re collaborating on a piece that involves an edible piñata. Soon my collaboration with Peanut, Sugar, and Mama will be ready for primetime. 


Describe a grant or award you have received that has contributed to the development of your practice?

While on Fulbright in India, I spent some time in the southern city of Kochi where I observed the activities of the goats in the city while finalizing work on a different project.  A narrative emerged. The goats, which had a well-developed social network, were slowly infiltrating the city. With their ability to persevere in the face of hardship and adversity, wearing only a key ring, or maybe a bra, they would take over the city. Goat Contemplates its Incessant Need to be on Top was a piece that was born out of this time. However, my goat time had always felt a bit truncated, so when I discovered that I would have the opportunity to work with the goats at the Wassaic Project, it was evident to me that I needed to let them dictate the project—but not literally. They did, however, literally dictate the materials.   


How have issues of identity and identity politics influenced your art? How are individual and collective concerns addressed in your work?

My work always comes from my perspective as a feminist. Sometimes it actively engages issues of gender, while other times it plays more broadly to engage with issues of power and representation. Earlier this year, a lovely student of mine asked if I was concerned that calling my work feminist made it passé. The question was absolutely earnest and, as much as it pained me, I also appreciated it. The question helped me to recognize the hurdles that we continue to face. It helped to affirm that more than ever that the work was not passé. The comments were made before the last election, so perhaps that conversation a few months in the future would have been very different. I like to think it would have been. 

When addressing issues of identity politics in my work, I often use humor as a tool. I believe in humor's ability to open up an intellectual and emotional space in a viewer. Humor changes our physiological state, and I remain hopeful that the spaciousness created by humor can allow us to consider things that we might not be able to otherwise, even if just for a moment.