Fear, Punishment, and Boredom: Whitney Claflin at RFA
Whitney Claflin recently concluded her third solo exhibition at Real Fine Arts in Brooklyn. The exhibition, Just Disco, is a strange mix of turn-of-the-century bohemia and freegan aesthetics set to a soundtrack by early aughts indie band Built to Spill. Topical Cream Director Lyndsy Welgos spoke to Claflin about the show.
Lyndsy Welgos: For this exhibition, you’ve taken the gallery at Real Fine Arts and blacked out the windows with domestic curtains, hung paintings salon-style, as well as included objects of comfort, which also happen to be staples of an artist’s studio: alcohol and music. Was it your intention to recreate a studio-like atmosphere in the gallery for this exhibition?
Whitney Claflin: I blacked out the windows as a way to control the lighting and atmosphere. I took black paint and rolled it out over free newspapers. The paint was from a free pile: some was matte and some was gloss. I taped the paper over the windows and used a contractor bag to black-out the door. The sheer black curtains sort of balmed the light peeking through any cracks in the paper. I have been working under colored lights in my studio for so many years now, and I’ve shown works with colored lights before, but not as intensely as this time. I wanted to recreate the lighting conditions the paintings were created under. I also wanted it to feel like a space where you can forget about time. Like how there is no natural light in a casino, or some bars, or the middle of most museums. The atmosphere I’m trying to conjure isn’t any one thing in particular, but it grabs from different spaces. It’s like a dead lounge in the sky or something.
The Cointreau came about as I was constantly sipping it at room temperature over the summer, listening to Keep It Like A Secret, this album by Built to Spill, and sort of feeling bad about everything. Like, listening to this macho languid indie while everything is falling apart and it was so hot out, problems were everywhere. So I thought to write about that, and call the piece Built to Spill and Warm Cointreau. But, I felt it was better to have it be really IRL.
I hung the paintings kind of low, so the pieces on the ceiling would have enough room. I wanted to give it an odd interior vibe, so you could get closer to the works. It’s a little bit scattered, because that’s how we receive most things most of the day.
In your performance series, you created a minimalist stage with a white plank board. Within this space, you performed the domestic task of “grilling” cheese sandwiches. Is this the first time you’ve included a type (albeit a casual type) of domestic labor in your performance?
The stage came together in a really chill way. I was given this crazy handmade table as a hand-me-down during a move, and it was stacked disassembled in my studio for a long time. One day I realized it would make a wonderful plank-like stage. Its dimensions super suited the space. I like how it looked like a diving board on the floor.
I made this new song called “Raised In A Jail,” and the sessions where I am making grilled cheese on Sunday afternoons are sort of live music videos for that song. I was having a lot of uncertainty about how I would put together the visual aspect of the Sunday afternoons and began to think about one of the first performances I did. Basically, I was making bologna sandwiches in a really melodramatic manner, like wearing a beret and telling some stories about frustration and confusion. Now I’m making these grilled cheese sandwiches, which have all this baggage for me personally, but the audience doesn’t know the specifics. Kind of like the paintings, like it’s got some unpleasantness, but you don’t really know the source. But what’s nice is grilling the sandwiches brings a really good aroma to the show, especially because it kind of compliments the Cointreau. Since I’m using orange cheese the whole space takes on a smokey orange feeling. I think this is just a really good atmosphere to be in.
Do you feel the text in your paintings and your performance work is cohesive, unrelated, or at odds?
All the writing is shooting out of the same world. Everything starts in the same place, but then gets studied and assigned a form. I write down or assemble whatever the notion is, then read it and say it and figure out where it should be. Sometimes, it has its own cadence in a very strong way, so it immediately becomes something to be sung or read. But other times it’s unclear where the message needs to be, so I let it sit around until the right place calls out.
For Just Disco, I let control, fear, punishment, and boredom be the guides and aligned all the text to follow.
I feel like your paintings could be described as an unborn love child between Paul Klee and Remedios Varos. Would this type of description be totally out of the question for you?
I can’t resist impersonation when I’m working. I’m always talking to myself and making jokes in my head, so when I am painting, I try to only partially articulate that stuff. This way I can affect the look of the work quickly and staunchly. I need to have these kinds of divisions and dead-ends in order to protect myself. So, sometimes the paintings will super intensely or low-key conjure other paintings, but only for a moment, like an escalator in a parking garage.
But I’ve sort of lost interest in working like that. The paintings in Just Disco were made over the course of a couple years. Most of them were made on top of previous works, sanded down, and re-worked. They had a lot of time to move around and like literally travel before they stopped. I really just spent a lot of time sitting with them all around me in a circle, working with them to see what they wanted to become.
Recently, Christie Chu of Artnet noted that Just Disco was a kind of “mind map:” on the ceiling you’ve added a faded cloud sphere as well as finger paintings that read “Save Abortion” and “Forget Marriage.” Were these wall pieces intuitively added to the exhibition during installation?
I love cloud ceilings so much. I think they are one of the most beautiful things; each and every one is so beautiful. I used to work at a shoe store that had an enchanting one. I made this one a circular portal. It’s funny now that people are talking about living out in space. That’s sort of what this is, like a way to jump out of the room and into the ether, but also it’s the total opposite kind of ceiling treatment to the lighter burns. I was digging this combo, like ABC Carpet & Home kitsch and crash-out kitsch. The sky is also a reminder that there’s sky out there, since all the windows are blacked out, so it’s like this blunt control stuff.
Lyndsy Welgos is the founder and the director of Topical Cream 501(c)(3).