Click here to take a virtual tour of Curtis Mann's studio
"Confusion" is a word that the artist Curtis Mann is fond of using when describing his work, and indeed a destabilizing blurring of boundaries—between art and journalism, for instance, and between photography and sculpture—is at the heart of what he does. A former mechanical engineer by training, he has gained acclaim recently for the raw and provocative yet ravishingly beautiful works that he creates by using household bleach to scramble images of Middle Eastern conflicts he finds on the Web. Included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Mann, 32, is a rising star in the international art scene—he has two concurrent solo shows opening in Italy this fall, one at Luce Gallery in Turin and one at Milan's Monica de Cardenas Gallery—and we are proud to dub him Artspace's second Artist to Watch.
To learn more about his work, we spoke to Mann about his unusual path to becoming an artist, the unexpected factors that draw him to the Middle East, and the new directions he's taking his art today.
You studied science in college and worked for a time as a mechanical engineer. How did you come to art?
Where I went to college, the University of Dayton in Ohio, you worked full-time every other semester, and then my last year I worked for an engineering company for the whole year while I went to school. They made probes, and I was working with machines that could test whether these probes were working or failing, and I also did everything from designing the structure of aluminum pieces to assembling them to figuring out the computer code that could improve on them. I liked it there I and enjoyed some of the problems I solved, but it was very structured and it just didn't give me the chaos that I need in my life. I think in the end I got also bored with this idea that I was always looking for the right answer, and that if you didn't find that right answer you were either fired or you lost money. That end of it didn't appeal to me. When I moved into art that was one of the key things that felt different for me, that felt interesting.
What was it that drew you to photography in particular?
I signed up for a photography class as an elective in my final year of engineering, and for some reason I ended up doing well in it. From the beginning I was attracted it to it because it's a very numerical medium and there are a lot of technological components to it, and there was one teacher who was interested in what I was doing and encouraged me to begin manipulating imagery, which is something that would never have occurred to me. But I just jumped into it and my brain started working with this medium in a way it used to do with engineering projects, and it was an exhilarating feeling. And at the same time I was surrounded by these kind of weird people who were artists, and it just made such a difference with how I interacted with my life that I felt it pulling me away. I stayed and kept auditing classes at the engineering school and then I finally decided to quit my job in engineering and went to art school in Chicago and that was it.
Let's talk a little bit about your process. Instead of using a camera to capture your own images, you work exclusively with preexisting photographs. Can you explain this process?
Well, in the beginning in school I was working with photographs of my family that I had found, and then for my first major projects I began principally using found images that I found on the Internet or eBay and things like that. For me it freed me up from having a preconceived relationship with what the image was of and what the image was supposed to do, and that experience of what the image was depicting or was supposed to convey. And for me that just presented a wonderful element of confusion that sparked my curiosity, because I was missing that link to the person who pushed that button. It was a different approach to the process of image-taking, which is one of the fundamental issues of how the medium functions, and that's what I became really interested in with my early work. I'm starting to confuse that state now by using some images I've taken myself, and to be honest it's very difficult and a very different experience. One of the key differences is that with a found image that's already taken that I've pulled off the Internet, it has a very specific utility that it was made to do, like communicating news or protest or documenting a life event. If I take a picture-no matter how hard I pretend—it's utility is always going to be to use it in an artwork, from the beginning of its existence. That's one thing that's difficult for me about taking my own pictures. I'm beginning to become interested in the different aspects that it allows me to talk about, but it just makes clearer why I use found images. What I like about them is that they have that initial chaotic moment where I can't control them and I have to change or alter or move their utility around a little.
How did you go from using family photos to found photos off the Internet?
Well, I used the family photos because I knew they were there—they were just a material for me. But in the end I never managed to escape the nostalgia of them and create works that communicate on a larger, more universal scale. Then I went to hear a talk by Vik Muniz at the Art Institute of Chicago where he said that whenever he would run into a problem and sort of stall out he would just do the complete opposite, and I thought, well, if I can't use pictures that are close to me why don't I find pictures that are completely from the other side of the world from me, not only physically but culturally and politically. The first set of images I came across on eBay was of these people traveling throughout the Middle East, and I knew that was it. I had no clue what they really meant. But I was bleaching photographs then, and the heat from the process began to communicate with the heat of these places and their conflicts in such a different way. And from that moment I began using mostly pictures from the Middle East and its conflicts for five or six years.
When did you begin to bleach the photos?
I had been using the family photographs as sort of the science experiment to find out how to use the materials, so I was bleaching those photographs, burning them, tearing them—anything I could do to move the surface around. And I would show these bleached family photographs to people and they would say, "Oh no! What happened in your childhood?" They just looked so distractive and chaotic mixed with this sort of banal, suburban feeling and you can't help but read into it—but it was completely off base from what I was interested in. But as soon as the bleach and that act of erasure touched these pictures from Israel and Palestine and all these different Middle Eastern regions, it just created such a tension between that process and that content that was undeniable. I didn't know what it was saying, and in the beginning I was very scared about what it was saying because it's very sensitive subject matter to be erasing. But I knew there was a tension there that I couldn't walk away from, and [the artist] Dawoud Bey was a teacher of mine and he basically pinned me down with a hammer and said, "You need to figure these out." So I had to fine-tune the process and become comfortable with not understanding the pictures but making that part of the process of bleaching and erasing and confusing what those images were saying and how they function.
In the 2010 Whitney Biennial you had a very powerful mural-sized piece where the bleach created these fiery blots on the photographs that gave the work a hellish effect, as if it showed someone walking into an inferno. Can you talk about how you made that piece?
That was from Beirut actually, from that brief 2006 skirmish when Israel had gone in over a couple of days and bombed parts of Beirut to root out these militant groups. It was a collection from one guy who was just walking around and photographing the debris the day after, and it gave a very vernacular sense of what was going on. I used every picture he had taken of that event.
How do you feel your work with the imagery has changed your perspective on the region's conflicts?
Well, that's a good question… I'm not sure it's changed them, but as we move through life anything we do alters the way we look at life. The work is about challenging myself to be confused by these pictures and to think about them, but I don't know if I was ever actually trying to understand them in a deeper way. I was becoming more cognizant of the abstractness of what those events were, and when I saw them I would think a little longer historically about why these issues were happening instead of just reacting to the images. The image has the power to make you react instantly—that's the power of the photograph—and I'm trying to kind of deface that power and encourage a longer, deeper look at these things. Politically, I'm not interested in changing people's views about who is right and who is wrong, but it definitely made me think on a deeper, almost metaphysical level, and I began paying so much more attention to where these images were coming from and following the events in the news. But it's not like I had always paid attention to what was happening in the Middle East before, past when the Iraq war started. As a young American we tend to isolate ourselves, and the work sort of broke that down for me, I think.
You were featured in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, which also showed the work of the photojournalists Nina Berman and Stephanie Sinclair that graphically showed the ravages of war with pictures of burn victims, disfigured veterans, and other harrowing imagery. There was an interesting tension between your work and their. How do you think your work relates to journalism?
Well, I thought that was a pretty awesome juxtaposition between us. You know, Stephanie's work was right next to mine, and so we met, and it was an experience that opened up the way I look at my work. For me, I think photojournalism plays its role and the way it's done is really interesting, but I would never have the idea that my work would supplant any kind of photojournalism. I kind of look at it like an extra finger on that hand, offering not a new way of understanding photojournalism but a way of dis-understanding it, or misunderstanding it. I like the idea of both believing in it but also knowing that you have to question it and look at it from different viewpoints no matter how compelling that image is. Obviously, when I'm looking for images I'll come across a lot of images by people who are really good photographers, but I find I can't really use them. If you look back over my work, most of the images are very loose images that are made by people who are not very good photographers. I remember the times I've tried to alter images by good professional photographers and I found I just couldn't change them—they're so well designed and well made to say a very specific thing and make a certain point, so that even if I erased 95 percent of that image I couldn't alter the understanding of that image or what it was supposed to do. The other interesting thing is that with Stephanie's work, she was actually there in Beirut on that day, taking those photos, putting herself in danger. It's the traditional idea of the photographer in the heat of the battle, and meanwhile I'm holed up in a studio in cold Chicago trying to deal with things. The experiential differences in how the things are made are interesting. And when she got the invitation to participate in the Whitney Biennial, her reaction was to say, "The Whitney Biennial, what's that?"
Last year, though, the New York Times Magazine commissioned work from you to illustrate a serious piece of war reportage by Robert F. Worth titled "Yemen on the Brink of Hell."
Yeah, so then it kind of comes full-circle. But I don't think that's something I would be interested to do as, let's say, a job. I've never approached my work that way. But that one I did because the New York Times Magazine has wonderfully used artists in interesting ways for as long as I've followed them, so it ended up being a really good fit and an interesting challenge.
Your more recent work involves the tearing and manipulation of the photographic paper, creating almost sculptural compositions. What ideas are you exploring there?
Well, the bleaching and the liquid act of destruction is such a loose, chaotic moment, which is what I like about it. But I noticed that sometimes the bleaching also started to warp the paper in a sculptural way, and I love sculpture and physical objects, and I've always wanted photography to be a physical object. Relative to traditional photography my work is very physical, but relative to other kinds of materials my work is pretty flat. To me, moving into the tearing and folding was about breaking through the dimensions of that surface in a much more sculptural way. I love the constant battle between photographs being truth and photographs as fiction—it's the most fundamental, never-ending, cliché understanding of what photography is. But as soon as you fold that thing, or tear it, it instantly becomes fact because it's a physical object that could either stand or sit. You know it exists in space—it's not just a flat illusionistic photograph. That's where my trajectory has been going recently, though I'm still confused about all of that, which is good. And there's a lot of interesting and quite beautiful work being done on this border of sculpture and photography.
It's worth pointing out that you're concerned with printed-out photographs at a time when the majority of people consume their photographic information online or on television, where the images no longer have a physical property. What do you make of this technological transition?
It's funny, because I like to print things out and deal with things in a physical way. It's the way my brain works—I follow my curiosity by touching things. But at one point I though, "Oh my god, this doesn't even make sense anymore." I mean, I'm taking these images that were taken with a digital camera and uploaded on Flickr to be shared via the Internet forever, and I'm printing them out as C-prints-so it's almost like ripping them back to prehistoric times in a way. Nobody prints pictures anymore unless they're doing it for art, really. My parents will maybe have them printed, but not even anymore really. And I think there's this anxiety about the idea that there's soon to be this complete loss of physical photographs—it's not long in coming—when you'll never have a physical photograph to deal with, and it's hard to say how it will change our relationship with images when you're only looking at them on a screen. How does that affect our ability to resolve a photograph's truthfulness or factuality?
Who are some of the artists that you admire?
Larry Sultan is a photographer I became interested in early on. Robert Heinecken is someone who didn't used to show up in a lot of photography history books, but I came to be really interested in him. I like troublemakers a lot and the mischievousness about how they approach their medium, so Gordon Matta-Clark is someone who is really exciting to me, just unabashedly destroying things. I've been using a lot of torn-out pictures from some of his books and building collages on top of them.
Do you see yourself more as a photographic artist or a conceptual artist?
I think it changes [laughs]. In the beginning I was always very adamant that I was a conceptual artist—I don't know why, maybe it's cooler than to be a photographer in the art world. But the attention I pay to imagery and the syntax I use is so based in the photographic world, and for me photography itself is the subject matter for me a lot of the time. But I've been taking photographs in my studio lately—I have this really nice new digital camera that I spent tons of money on and I mostly use to photograph my dog—and it's funny because even the other day I thought, "I don't think that these are good photographs." The photographers I know from art school have so much more ability with using light and the medium in general than I can even pretend to have. So I don't know if I'm really a photographer—I guess I'm still a conceptual artist.
Click here to take a virtual tour of Curtis Mann's studio