I had the joy of interviewing Scott Wolniak, a multimedia artist who lives and works in Chicago. Working in painting, sculpture, video and installation, Wolniak’s body of work explores surrounding environments and everyday, overlooked objects meticulously rendered, creating works that implore humor and contemplation.
LS (me:) Your work incorporates humor into everyday environments, creating sculptural works from basic and overlooked objects such as rocks and bricks. What drew you to investigate such objects in a meticulous manner? What is it about such materials that ‘speak’ to you?
SW: I have been a ground scanner for a long time. I tend to look at the ground a lot in my daily life, as I’m out walking around, so I just notice stuff. Like, trash and broken down materials, fragments… all the little things that are worthless but have this interesting visual complexity- texture or whatever. This stuff is typically the byproduct of human activity but has run it’s course in this world… it is very close to becoming dust, so paying attention to it is a philosophical consideration of the ephemeral. I am interested in transitional things. Material that is degraded by the elements or by activity has history embedded in it. It is very low or banal material, and that is where the humor is for me- it is ridiculous to labor over remaking and representing these things, like a “misuse” of time by capitalist standards. But when you do take the time to look, they are actually very beautiful and interesting, like geologic souvenirs or scholar stones. I think these pieces need to present themselves as serious in order to be funny, and that back and forth between the contemplative and the funny is, basically, the content of my work.
Junk mail, trash, paper, wire, tape, glue
LS: “Weeds”, which was recently on display in Plant Life at Western Exhibitions, is a piece crafted using junk mail. Can you explain the conceptual and physical process behind this piece, and whether you intend the piece to read as an environmental/social message?
SW: This is another example of an observation-based idea. I would clean my front yard regularly in the summertime, clearing weeds and trash, and noticed that there were about equal amounts of both accumulating. The weeds proliferate, the trash proliferates. I live on the West side of Chicago, and it just kept regenerating, so it’s really a simple analogy between the two… and I decided to try to make one from the other. Once I started making them, I needed a lot of material and began using junk mail because it’’s a free, constant and unwanted source of material. I continued to use found debris collected around my yard and neighborhood as well, but the abundance of junk mail allowed for brighter and bigger sculptures. The main idea is that the proliferation of print media is like a force of nature, and it has an effect on our consciousness. I know that it has an environmental/ social dimension, and that is cool, but I didn’t think of that originally. I saw it more as a philosophical concept with a humorous, sci-fi “mutant-nature” sort of subtext, + a nod to Kurt Schwitters (“merz”). To make the pieces, I glue the collected paper trash and debris together in large random collages, which I cut into leaf shapes derived from actual plants. Wire is embedded into each collage-leaf, then assembled onto collage-covered wire armatures, with tape and lots of glue. Objects like pen caps, styrofoam peanuts and cigarette butts are fashioned into flowers and buds. For the pieces to work, they need to be busy, a bit grungy, and they need to stand up.
Acrylic and graphite on cast hydrocal
LS: Will you further expand upon the significance of humor, the unheroic, and contemplation in your art practice?
I am equally interested in comedy and the sublime, but they don’t easily dissolve into one-another. My work oscillates between these sensibilities, and occasionally an equilibrium between the two is found. There is a physicality to good comedy, especially when the body is involved, and laughter is a transformative experience. Both humor and the sublime are humbling and capable of producing altered states of consciousness. I associate the sublime with intense, overwhelming beauty and vastness, which can be a pretty heavy thing to address in art. Humor allows people to deal with big subjects lightly.
LS: You and Paul Nudd curated the show Heads on Poles at Western Exhibitions, inviting sixty artists to use the title as a theme and allowing the artists to interpret the theme as they wished. How did you and Paul decide on curating this show, and how did you select the participating artists? Were they local, Chicago artists, or ones you had never heard of?
It was an idea that we talked about over beers. I thought it might be interesting as a weird, open ended social kind of project, and Paul was very enthusiastic about it. Between the two of us,the idea came up often enough over several months and eventually moved from being idle drunk-talk to an actual project. Because it was a pretty dumb idea, it was all about play, not overly serious, and we felt free to invite anyone we thought of, knew, liked, whatever. Between us we know a lot of people. In the end, the density is what made it great, I think… soooo many strange and different pieces creating this field of objects. I loved that show.
LS: As an active Chicago artist, what do you believe is unique or prominent in the current Chicago art scene? What are its benefits, and what are its downfalls (if any)?
SW: Could be better, could be worse. What makes it unique can pretty much be summarized by the Heads on Poles show… lots of great artists making work but also freedom to fuck around. That combination leads to innovative art and good energy. Benefits are that it is not too expensive to live and work here, great music scene, good bars. Plenty of artists and alternative spaces facilitates constant exchange of ideas and allows young artists to actively participate, if they try. But that same climate can lead to less ambitious work generally. Also, it can feel like a pretty small pond sometimes, and a lot of the best artists are under recognized until they leave.
you can see more of Scott Wolniak’s work here at his website.