TriBeCa, Manhattan, NYC
On a remarkably blustery Wednesday afternoon, in a Tribeca basement filled with gold-spray-painted iPhone boxes and immense stacks of coffee cups, I sat down with Artsicle artist Mike Neff to learn more about his scattered but strikingly cohesive body of work. Mike’s work varies tremendously in medium, subject matter, presentation, but is unified by the notion that aesthetic value may be lurking in easy to find but often overlooked places.
We'll start with the hardest question, what inspires you to pick up a camera and get out there?
I am interested—in all of my work—in the inherent aesthetic value and intrigue inherent in things that are around us in every day life, that are easily overlooked.
Some of the stuff that is on Artsicle are pieces form my senior thesis at RISD, which was a series of photographs taken at big box stores in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I was interested in this thing that people look at as almost a blight on American suburbs, these big box stores, Home Depot, Target, Costco... I was coming from a super aesthetic place where every day I was literally living and breathing art at school, and with big box stores the architects hated it, the painters hated, it was this horrible, ugly stuff. I was interested if I could find something of aesthetic value in these banal, definitely ugly, certainly marginalized places.
Are they bleak or beautiful?
I don’t necessarily think that they are mutually exclusive. It was an attempt to find something enjoyable in something that is not inherently intended to create joy—unless joy is finding the best deal on a barbecue or get the cheapest Chinese lumber you can find. So yes, it is absolutely bleak, but I also find it really interesting. There are definitely some photographers that have influenced my photographic works, Lewis Baltz is one—he did a lot of beautiful black and white images of industrial parks and offices.
What else are you working on?
There’s a whole other side to what I do that isn’t on Artsicle because not all of it is ready to hang. There is a series of photographs of chalk outlined shadows that I’ve been working on. I had this moment in the West Village, when I lived there. Whenever I was walking home from work or going out I would come across these shadows that were really interesting—and I wanted to share them in some way. This is a whole other aspect to my work—I don’t make the art and then try to keep it to myself, it’s more like pointing out things that are really interesting. So rather than just taking pictures of shadows, I wanted to figure out a way of demarcating them so that people could see them on their own. On the one hand I wanted to share them, and on the other hand I wanted to keep a record of them. I was using a transient medium to document something inherently transient, and in New York where the building super washes the sidewalk every morning, chalk doesn’t last for very long. Given the temporary nature of the shadows and the chalk, the photography is very important to me. If I wasn’t going to document it then I would use a more permanent medium like paint, but I’m also not trying to piss people off.
These things that are around are all packaged goods (pictured). Again, I’ve been looking at the beauty and interest that can be found in things—these are all just packaged goods, cartons and packaging that have been unfolded. I’m still trying to figure out how best to make my point. These are the packaging from staples, vanilla extract, tea, these are just the things that are around me. I started by spray painting their silhouettes then started to make one-off prints. I’m not sure where it's going, they're still very experimental.
So you’re headed up to Vermont shortly for a Vermont Studio Center residency—what do you plan to work on up there?
I plan to continue working on this series I'm calling Packaged Goods, where I am unfolding cartons and boxes. I have made some paintings and prints by mounting them on a support and painting around them or inking them up and running them through a press to achieve relief prints. A pair of those prints are included in the upcoming IPCNY New Prints show.
In much the same way I’m working with security envelops to create cyanotypes. I have been collecting them for the past few years and have made some contact-printed cyanotypes from them. Both short exposures that render a blue background and white silhouette of the unfolded envelope, but also some that are really long exposures so you get all of the writing, printing, the security pattern all captured photographically. I did a suite of drawings based on the patterns for a show in 2011, but I've decided that rather than just point out the interesting patterns and shapes they make when unfolded I want to address their intended purpose—to prevent you from being able to hold them up to the light and read what's inside. These really long exposures thwart the security, but imperfectly. They feel a lot like blue x-rays. Part of what I plan to do at my Vermont Studio Center residency is to go make a ton of envelope prints.
I’m also going to lay out a book that I’ve been meaning to sequence since July. When I got my first iPhone a couple of years ago, I had this moment where I started taking all these photos on maximum zoom. Since the iPhone has no zoom, its all digital zoom, so it takes these really whacked-out grainy images, where there’s jpeg compression fighting with uprezing grain—so I took a ton of full zoom pictures while driving on the freeway last summer. LA is a really weird place where the landscape is very flat, but this flat place is punctuated everywhere by these tall skinny things: palm trees, telephone poles, light standards—everywhere. It was actually hilarious, I sent these out to my printer and they called me concerned that I had blown them up too big because of how grainy they are. When I upgraded to the new iPhone iOS I was actually really pissed, they took out the zoom! I went out and found a zoom app, but this will probably be the only time I make work using this medium because the zoom app just doesn’t look bad enough—making it less attractive to me. I think if someone was advising me they might tell me to stop making such different work...but I don’t really care.
I noticed the fancy name-tag on your door, what’s NSFW Magazine?
NSFW is a magazine that my friend Mark Valasquez and I started. He’s sort of a nudie model photographer, I guess intellectual pin-up is a better way to describe his work. He and I went to art school together for a year at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. We had an art history class together from 8–10 at night in this little attic space, so it was really hot—it was brutal. To keep each other awake, we would draw cartoons back and forth for each other. We've remained good friends despite not being in the same state much over the past 10 years. About a year ago we finally started a magazine. It’s quarterly and issue 5 will be out at the beginning of February. It’s a combination of sexy girls and thought-provoking articles. We brought a friend of mine in who is a professional writer by trade. He is the editor now, and we’ve got some really exciting contributors. This next issue is about hope. We’ve got a girl writing about the etymology of the word hope, we have a woman who did a photo series about guys who have “real dolls”—the lifelike sex dolls that are really expensive. The magazine is a cool project: it makes no money, but it’s a lot of fun and its an excuse to hang out with my buddy a lot. It will be interesting to see where it goes.
We'll see you when you get back from that residency- sounds like art camp... we're jealous.
Text and photography by Dan Teran for Artsicle.