'Art21' Spotlights David Altmejd & assume vivid astro focus

5.4.2012

By Jerry Portwood

New season of the popular PBS 'Art in the 21st Century' program includes two great gay artists as subjects

Pictured: Eli Sudbrack behind a mask in a scene from Art21.

So often contemporary art seems inaccessible to people who happen upon it in a gallery, on a street corner, or in a museum. The beauty of the PBS series Art21 is that it allows viewers to break through that hurdle so that they can connect (sometimes in incredibly intimate ways) with artists, as they show their connection to their work, their practice, and the extraordinary commitment and confidence to create despite the many reasons to give up along the way. The sixth season of Art21 premiered in April and includes amazing segments focused on world-renowned artists such as Marina Abramovic, Catherine Opie, Ai Weiwei, Lynda Benglis, and Glen Ligon. The final episode is May 4 (and there will also be a Art21 Telethon streamed live on May 6).

I've been a huge fan of the series for years and credit it for allowing me to comprehend for some quite opaque work in new and refreshing ways. So I was eager to get a chance to interview both David Altmejd, a Canadian-born artist who currently lives in Brooklyn, and Eli Sudbrack, a Brazilian-born artist who is one of the founders of the assume vivid astro focus art collective, about their involvement in an episode.

David Altmejd

In Altmejd's segement, we see the artist hard at work in his studio in Long Island City, Queens, in preparation for a 2011 gallery installation at Andrea Rosen gallery. He's constructing an elaborate sculpture inside a Plexiglas box that includes plaster casts of hands and ears, along with a multitude of other materials. In one quirky moment, we see Altmejd with a plaster cylinder smashed to the side of his head so he can make another ear mold. If that doesn't show you the scrappy way that art can be made, I'm not sure what will.

I wondered if Altmejd's sexuality figured in any way to his process of making work. "I think that my sexuality made me feel extremely different growing up, feeling alone. And I think everything I do comes from that moment as a teenager that feels different from the rest of the world," he said. "I'm sort of trying to find ways of turning this feeling of being different into something positive rather than negative. How can I make something great and positive and meaningful by being different."

One of the things that is most compelling about Art21 is seeing the confidence and perseverence that artists must have to complete a body of work. Altmejd's approach seemed to echo others when he explained how he begins a project. "It starts in an idea that is really abstract, the act of sketchig out the idea feels like it’s coming out in the real world," he explained. "It excites me, and that’s when I start working. That excitement comes only when I go from my head to the paper. So it’s just something that gets me excited about starting to work."

At the end of May Altmejd's showing work in a London gallery and also has a solo show scheduled for Salon 94 in New York City.

Watch a portion of the David Altmejd segment here:

assume vivid astro focus

Eli Sudbrack is one half of the assume vivid astro focus art collective. As is shown in the segment on the group's process, although the group's work has involved large-scale installations over the years—as is shown in the segment with the Deitch Projects event, Absolutely Venomous Accurately Fallacious (Naturally Delicious), in 2008—often Sudbrack is working alone and it can get lonely since his main artistic partner, Christophe Hamaide-Pierson, is based in Paris, France.

Sudbrack admitted that having them both agree to do the TV show was a turning point, and seeing past episodes helped sway them. Up until recently he protected his identity and would even wear masks (as he's pictured above) to discourage people from knowing who he was.

"I was doing it, trying to remain a normal person. People tend to deal with you as celebrity. It’s annoying. I started wearing masks as I was working with other people. Best way to 'efface' myself was to wear a mask and we’d all be the same," Sudbrack said. "At one point everying in our work that was somehow being hidden by that attitude—but I stopped it because the personal connections are imprtant when you want people to understand your ideas. Somehow with the masks, I was being very pretentious and detached from people. And I realized I needed people to trust me, to hear me. that’s when I thought it was a different way of seeing and trying."

Assume vivid astro focus has several shows expected around the world—in Toronto, Sao Paulo, and the Netherlands—but up next is something called "Obama Ladies," which has potentially controversial imagery and subject matter (ladies in black costumes, big lips, big breasts and penises) that is related to their previous "Cyclops Trannies" that are featured in the Art21 video. 

When I asked Sudbrack about the potentially polarizing language and images, he seemed unaware that there might be people who take offense. Which is part of the beauty of being a successful international artist.

Watch a portion of the assume vivid astro focus segment here:

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