The Dialectics of a Long-Distance Collaboration
An interview with the art collective Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman
Q: What’s the “elevator version” of your collaboration?
W-P+P-W: Two distinct individuals, both art historians, come together in a single creative persona that exists in the in-between of their professional lives and their creative output, bridging geographic distance and bringing balance to their personal lives.
Q: One of you lives (mostly) in Maine, one of you lives (mostly) in Texas. How do you negotiate the challenges of long-distance collaborative art making?
W-P+P-W: Funnily enough, in Italian, to have a commuting relation is called “fare il pendolare”—as in a pendulum swinging, which corresponds pretty well to the Summer MAJ’s theme of balance. So we pendulate, as it were, between urban Austin and rural Fairfield Center, steamy Texas and snowy Maine.
Q: Do you have fundamental differences of personality that you balance in your work?
W-P: I have no sense of irony.
P-W: You have no sense of irony. And you take your work far too seriously. And you tend towards a certain grandiosity.
W-P: [Sticks his tongue out at P-W]
P-W: I mean you’re always saying, “This drawing is going to hang in the Metropolitan Museum!” “This is our greatest drawing yet!” “I think we’ll sell this one for $3000!”
W-P: There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re doing good work.
Q: Wait, I thought I was asking the questions here. How do you balance your artistic work with your lives as art historians?
W-P+P-W: The intersection between our professional and artistic activity is critical to what we do. Our artwork often incorporates allusions, sometimes rather obscure and recondite ones, to other artists and works of art. This is more than just name dropping: it’s an act of deep homage to artists who feel close to our hearts, who are even parts of our lives. We’ve made references to figures as diverse as Gustave Courbet, Jan van Eyck, Jackson Pollock, Hilma af Klint, Robert Rauschenberg, Max Ernst, Barbara Kruger, George Grosz, Joan Miró, Blanche Lazzell, Lucio Fontana, Apelles, Rockwell Kent, Leon Battista Alberti, Joseph Beuys, Pablo Picasso, Sigmar Polke, Michelangelo, Piero Manzoni, and Jean Dubuffet, just to name a few.
Q: Are there any other artists whom you would call your “patron saints” or “totems”?
W-P+P-W: Plesch-Waldman has done homage to Kiki Smith because they both share the nickname Kiki (and they have similar long, graying locks); she made a drawing that brought together portraits of the Hungarian photographer and graffiti scholar Brassaï and of her Hungarian vizsla of the same name. There is a drawing that affirms P-W’s desire to be W-P’s nana—“chick” in French slang and also the name of Nikki de Saint-Phalle’s iconic female figures—done in Saint-Phalle’s style.
Q: I know that Art Brut is also very important for you.
W-P+P-W: Yes. For instance, having read Jean Dubuffet, we appropriated (and adapted to W-P+P-W) the words of his pleonastic definition of Art Brut and encased them in a drawing that borrows motifs from the most famous Art Brut artist, the early twentieth-century Swiss schizophrenic Adolf Wölfli.
Q: Vincent van Gogh also seems to loom large.
W-P+P-W: Definitely. One of us in particular—Waldman-Plesch—has had a lifelong obsession with van Gogh, so that has inspired a number of works.
Q: It seems like you experiment with a lot of different styles.
W-P+P-W: Yes! The fact that we are art historians obviously plays a role as we try to “adopt” the styles of the artists we reference—and we have learned a great deal by emulating them. So there is variety in our styles and also a certain balance between some of these “high art” influences that find their origin in our professional selves, while we deliberately cultivate a naïve approach, for instance when we pay homage to Bob Ross or do not shy from an unflinching and unironic cuteness and a folk approach. In a way, we maintain a balance between erudition and plain fun. This heterogeneity in our work and working process is allied with Surrealism (one of us teaches a course on Surrealism), which is an artistic movement characterized by the absence of a unified style. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why Surrealism didn’t get more of a foothold in the States. (The fact that that it had a very important literary component—in French—and that its members were close to the Communist party doesn’t help matters.)
Q: You have made forays into performance art, installation art, street art, and video. But why is drawing your preferred medium?
W-P+P-W: Because of its place in the hierarchy of art as an ancillary medium compared to painting and sculpture.
Q: Your subversion of hierarchies must then explain your frequent use of “low art” or “kitsch” materials such as glitter and stickers.
W-P+P-W: There was this night when of us went into the Skowhegan Walmart and came out with, like, thirty dollars worth of glitter. The other one practically blew a gasket, but ironically enough went on to become our most enthusiastic user of the medium. The same thing happened when one of us started buying and applying stickers—over time they went from being a strange intrusion to becoming an essential part of our visual language. We now have an obscene amount of stickers in our studio.
Q: Stickers have themselves become a popular art form. But I notice you don’t generally use “artsy” stickers but rather fairly ordinary ones. The kind kids would collect and elementary school teachers buy to put on students’ papers.
W-P+P-W: Exactly! We buy most of our stickers at the supermarket, where they are kept next to the greeting cards and gift wrap. There have actually been times when we’ve gone shopping at night in the sticker aisle and have gotten into a conversation with schoolteachers about our favorite kinds of stickers!
Q: Can you talk about the dynamic when you are together, in the same physical location, working on the same drawing?
W-P+P-W: We have all kinds of different MOs. When we first started, we tended to draw together—at the same time together on the same sheet. Often, we would start out with one of us drawing a little thingy in one part of the page, then the other would enter the conversation, as it were, and draw something else, until at a certain point we found ourselves drawing simultaneously at the same time on the same page, adding details until the page was filled. It was an approach that encouraged a certain degree of horror vacui. You can see that in some of those drawings the imagery and writing is inverted in places: that’s because one of us was sitting so that the paper was upside down from the viewpoint of where they were sitting.
Q: What other working methods have you used then?
W-P+P-W: Well, when we spent some days on Monhegan two summers ago, we packed smaller pads so there wasn’t room for two people to draw on the same drawing at once. We changed our way of working: each one would simultaneously start a drawing, and then we would switch pads. This had an effect on the art we made. The results were a different kind of drawing, a simpler statement of a single specific theme.
Q: Do you ever disagree about where a drawing is going?
W-P+P-W: No. Yes. Sometimes. But mostly not. We encourage each other a lot and each gives the other a lot of compliments! Because most of all we love to be surprised by the unexpected turn the other brings to the drawing.
Q: It sounds like you create works very spontaneously. Is that true?
W-P+P-W: A lot of the time we’re very spontaneous, even to the point of automatism—our drawings often come close to being cadavres exquis. But some are more planned. We also combine elements drawn from nature with others that are freely improvised. Similarly, we might produce areas of intense painstaking—and perhaps fussy—patterning and also fluidly relaxed watercolor washes.
Q: You often combine imagery with signs that are personal and emblematic. The LoVe for Louis/Véronique. The lover’s knot. Clouds. Fiddlehead ferns and whoopie pies. Vizslas and tuxedo cats.
W-P+P-W: Let’s not forget all those anthropomorphic cupcakes wearing glasses or hair ribbons…
Q: There are lots and lots of hearts, some bleeding, some on fire, some hanging from clouds. The near-echolalia with which you repeat your own name, Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman.
W-P+P-W: Actually, we combine a lot of semiotic systems. And many different languages too. Indeed, we have developed a repertory of iconographic motifs, some of which based on observed reality but that have become icons of sorts, symbols that are meaningful to us.
Q: You seem to enjoy the insistent repetition of these motifs.
W-P+P-W: It’s a ritualistic aspect of our work. But there’s also something that feels incantatory, realistic. Comforting, like any ritual performance. There’s also the satisfaction that comes from having a set of symbols that belongs to us alone, like children who invent a private and secret language.
Q: I’m curious about the fact that you live in different places for most of the year. How is it possible for you to collaborate long-distance?
W-P+P-W: Obviously, we make some of our work when we’re together: during the summer and school breaks, and we try to meet at scholarly conferences. But there are seven or eight months out of a typical year when we’re not physically together, that’s true. During those times, we make drawings in different ways. Quite often, one will start some drawings for the other to finish later: often leaving bare beginnings for the other to figure out what to do with later on, or else, when we are reunited, we’ll ask the other to add the finishing touches to drawings we’ve done while alone. Other times, we’ll talk together about the subject of a drawing we want to make, and one of us will go ahead and execute the actual drawing. And there are drawings that just come into existence from just one mind and one pair of hands—the other doesn’t know anything about it until it’s a fait accompli. Those are often drawings that are made by one of us to express something to the other, who might see it for the first time when it’s posted on our website or our Facebook page.
Q: If some of your art is made by one half of your collective individually, do you consider that work truly a collaboration?
W-P+P-W: At first, we had trouble with that. But in time it became clear that even drawings made by one of us for the other represented part of our collective enterprise. Even if they’re not by both of our hands, they certainly reflect (and even cement) our relationship, our ongoing dialogue together, our common obsessions. And we always sign our works Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman and often include statements about W-P+P-W. In other words, when we make these works, we think about the other, or better still: we work as W-P+P-W.
Q: Are you working for each other, or for a broader audience?
W-P+P-W: At first, it is undeniable that we worked for each other; after a while, when we started posting online our drawings and saw friends react very warmly to them and even look for our posts, we realized that they did have a public appeal.
Q: Is the content of your art mainly personal, or do you feel you’re commenting on the world outside you? Are you political?
W-P+P-W: Actually, this is one point on which we don’t entirely agree.
P-W: One might say that our graphic practice is first and foremost aimed at each other, and although it’s shared with the world, it’s essentially about private matters. But hey, since after all the personal is political…
W-P: …but that’s not to say we aren’t engaged. Some of our drawings have commented acerbically on the current political situation.
P-W: That’s true. Our drawings are about what touches us deeply…
W-P: …and that includes politics! I always say we’re the Goya of the 21st century.
P-W: Faut pas exagérer!
Q: For two individuals to create a work of art together you obviously need to strike a balance, a give and take.
W-P+P-W: Our drawings are always a means of communicating, but sometimes they reveal things to the other. As mentioned above, one of us is a huge fan of Bob Ross but this was first disclosed through drawings.
Q: Tell me more about how making art keeps you in balance as a couple.
W-P+P-W: The back and forth of our working process is both a metaphor and a tool for communication between us. Our individual personalities, of course, inform our distinct personal artistic styles and to see them married on the page invites us to reflect upon how we can work towards a harmonious balance in our couple. By the way, have you noticed how our chiastic collective name is another expression of balance?
Q: I had noticed that. A bit of a tongue-twister, no?
W-P+P-W: You might remember how it all started. In the spring of 2018, we serendipitously created an installation at the L.C. Bates Museum’s summer exhibition, and that’s when the art collective was born. [For more information, see: http://maineartsjournal.com/birds-of-a-feather-waldman-pleschplesch-waldman/]
Q: And the name?
W-P+P-W: The name was both a joke and very serious. We never expected people to have to pronounce it, but at the same time, the conjoining of our names meant a lot to us. The specular placement of the hyphenated surnames, in which each one takes the other’s, and the + sign as hinge, expressed a wholeness no other name could have achieved.
Q: Thus the + sign is…
W-P+P-W: …a point of balance, a fulcrum. Creating equilibrium between separate entities while uniting them.
Q: Speaking of + signs and addition, the number 55 that you use as an alternate signature relates to the theme of addition.
W-P+PW: Exactly. It represents the sum of the number 5, which in Roman numerals is V, and 50, which is L.
Q: Apart from the idea of addition, the + sign reminds me of the cross of the Swiss flag.
W-P+P-W: Yes, well one of us is a Swiss citizen! But also the cross of the historic Duchy of Savoy. And, of course, the Red Cross—which anyway was created after the 1859 Battle of Solférino by Henry Dunant, who based it on the Swiss flag. Did you know that?
Q: [Impatiently] Let’s get back to your artistic activity. How does drawing help you keep a sense of balance in your personal lives?
W-P+P-W: The practice brings closeness despite the physical distance and allows us to work out things among us. On several occasions, we’ve had big fights about something or other, and when it’s over we’ve done a drawing together, which created a sense of closure and helped us move on. It’s kind of like makeup sex! Seriously, though, these drawings tend to focus on celebrations of gratitude for the good things we share together, or sometimes on lessons learned as the result of a clash. One of the drawings that move us the most, when we think back, is one that one of us tore up in a moment of chagrin and the other put back together and completed.
Q: It seems like your drawings establish a certain balance between images and words?
W-P+P-W: That’s at the heart of everything we do. We’ve rarely ever made work that doesn’t incorporate writing or at least a textual dimension. We might be a bit like medieval illuminators, decorating, elaborating upon, celebrating words. In many cases, the writing is actually the predominant visual element in a work.
Q: That reminds me, on a similar note, how many of your works have extremely long titles. Almost a paragraph long in some cases! Actually, some of your works have what must be the longest titles in the entire history of art.
W-P+P-W: By using such long titles we’re doing several things. It’s largely about the desire to foreground the relationship between the work of art as an object and the work of art as embodied by its title. As art historians, we’re very conscious of two important facts. First, before the 18th-century works of art rarely had a title in the modern sense of a single, specific name that was chosen by the artist and that belonged to it the way a person’s name belongs to them. People would refer to an artwork by whatever name they felt like using. The second point is that until quite recently—we’re talking mid-20th century—people rarely ever gave fixed titles to their drawings; they were second-class works compared to paintings and sculptures. In addition to our concern with the relation between artifact and title as different signifiers, there’s our desire to break down conventions of titling and to subvert the traditional hierarchy that assigns more value to the visual content of an artwork than to its verbal components. One more thought—
W-P+P-W: Our titles are not unlike the way medieval and early modern poems are referred to: by their first verses. They too didn’t have a title (the same way medieval manuscripts didn’t have a title page).
Q: What forms of balance do you represent in the imagery of your art itself?
W-P+P-W: We move back and forth between different expressions of identity. Our “real” selves now exist in a knife-edge balance with our “fictional” selves, as we represent them in drawing. The fictional P-W with her hair ribbon and earrings; the fictional W-P with his bow-tie and glasses: those are surrogates for us, but they’re also ideal versions of us who can do things that nobody would be able to do in real life. After all, as you mentioned, we endow cupcakes with these features, and in so doing transform them into avatars of us.
Q: If you were to describe your artistic process as a sound, what would it be?
W-P+P-W: A noisy pendulum of chatterback and ripostes, the garrulous gabble of scroobius and runcible interchange. Rattle, crinkle, swoosh, hum.
P-W: “Oh Loulou! More glitter, really? Ok, I’ll color this. Can you get me another estompe?”
W-P: “Please don’t erase the pencil underdrawing, we want to show our process.”
P-W: “Oh Loulou! What are you doing to my landscape? You’re writing on it? Oh my god, you’re wrecking it! Stop!”
W-P: “Wait! This is supposed to be a collaboration. No need to be such a control freak, while I’m a chillaxing free-range chicken. But you’re also the only one who actually knows how to draw…”
P-W: “Can you please draw one of your funny creatures here?”
Q: Any parting thoughts?
W-P+P-W: A question for you: in our work can you figure out who did what?
Q: I’m sure that one day there will be a Ph.D. dissertation by a Morellian connoisseur attempting to identify what was drawn by each of your individual hands.
W-P+P-W: And as usual with connoisseurship, they’ll be wrong a lot of the time.
Q: Well, at least in this case they’ll have a 50-50 chance of being right!
W-P+P-W: But anyway the point is in what concerns W-P+P-W, 1+1 does not equal 2, it equals1.
Image at top: Waldman-Plesch + Plesch-Waldman, Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman is a Pigment of Your Imagination, mixed media on paper, 14 x 17 in., 2018.