Karl Haendel and Geoff Tuck, thinking about fatherhood

Karl Haendel, Questions for My Father #2, 2007, graphite on paper 58 x 45 inches

Karl Haendel,
Questions for My Father #2, 2007,
graphite on paper
58 x 45 inches

Geoff Tuck:

Hi Karl. I had lunch with a friend recently, Michael Powell, and he is a new father, too. He and his wife, Natilee Harren, had their baby several months before you and Emily had Hazel. Michael was telling me about the experience of childbirth for him, and that during the experience he got a sense of mortality that he hadn’t expected, or maybe one that surprised him. Thinking about it, I guess in the moment of new life one would naturally become aware also of the fact of death, but it is not something I’ve heard people talk about.

Karl Haendel:

I had a similar feeling. Although I’m not sure I would call it an awareness of mortality – that’s too cerebral. It was the terrifying fear of death. Of losing somebody you love.

At one point when labor was going pretty good – Emily was in the bed and the contractions were coming every two minutes – I left the room to go down the hall to the bathroom, and when I returned she was wearing an oxygen mask and had an IV in – the baby needed more oxygen, it was nothing serious and rather routine – but this medicalized situation that Emily was in really freaked me out. I had a flashback to when my mother was in the hospital; my mother had cancer much of the time when I was growing up, and she died when I was 19. So I spent a lot of time in hospitals with a woman I loved who was wearing a mask and hooked up to an IV. I saw my mother in the bed there for a second, and felt the terror of expectant loss.

I have only loved two women with such intensity – my wife and my mother. This image of Emily scared the shit out of me – there’s no way during childbirth, if you are in a hospital, to ignore that hospitals are places of sickness. Even though at the hospital we had a midwife to deliver, it was still a hospital, a frightening place.

Geoff:

Michael also talked about gaining a new understanding of being a husband, of feelings of responsibility and the need to protect – both his wife and their new child. Michael is a pretty enlightened 21st century guy, and is well versed in Feminism, and he characterized this new understanding as one that made him uncomfortable in his consideration of his wife. I think he didn’t suddenly feel macho, and as though Natilee is suddenly powerless, but I recognize this as something men must deal with now, that maybe did not come up in the past, say when our parents were making children.

Karl:

I’ve always had something of a protection instinct, and it intensified when Emily got pregnant. So this contradicts my understanding of myself as a sensitive, educated male with an understanding of Feminism, and the knowledge that women don’t need protection from a man. I’m thinking this instinct might be genetic, i.e., not all my fault (laughing) – but how does one control this? How to be a Feminist and be a “man”? I need a bit of macho, no? On the other side though, the amount of respect that I have for Emily increased tremendously after she gave birth. I’ve never had so much respect for anyone. Birth is a profound thing to witness – and it must be an even more profound thing to experience. It’s powerfully human, but also base and animalistic.

I cried – since puberty I’ve cried only a handful of times. I cried openly. The first time ever for happiness.

Karl Haendel, Informal Family Blackmail, 2012, installation view at Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles Projects

Karl Haendel,
Informal Family Blackmail, 2012,
installation view at Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles Projects

Karl Haendel, 5th Column Group, 2007, installed at Guggenheim Museum's

Karl Haendel,
Haunted, 2012,
installation view at the Guggenheim, New York

Karl Haendel and Petter Ringbom, Questions for My Father, 2012, installation view at Harris Lieberman Gallery, NY

Geoff:

Your work – might be called intellectual, you work with language rather than blood and guts; so do you think this animalistic, emotional experience will (or has) inform(ed) your work at all?

Karl:

More and more over the past few years, I’ve tried to insert actual life content into the work. I contrast that with art content, such as appropriation, classification of images, semiotic play – things that I am still interested in, and have worked with in the past. But I’ve notice the dearth of quality artwork that has real emotional content – things have gotten rather formal. I’m interested in issues of everyday life – love, anxiety, fear, shame, happiness, hope; all things that literature and film deal with and that art often avoids. Contemporary art is just so… stuck up its own ass with its own discourse and its own language, and it doesn’t allow us to talk about emotion in a non-cheesy or non-ironic way. I understand why this is – the critique of expressionist tendencies has become institutionalized. A lot is off limits. And expression looks a lot like emotion.

So, to get back to your question, I’ve been struggling with how to allow for content without falling into cliché or utilizing debunked formulas. We’ve talked about my Questions for My Father film in the past, which explored how the formation of one’s sense of politics, race, sex, and morality is intertwined with one’s personal history – with love, friendship and family. Likewise, I published a book titled Shame – which was about a feeling we all have, but few of us have the balls to talk about publicly. It was emotionally heavy, but delivered without a dramatic crutch. So during the time Emily was pregnant, I had a lot of anxieties. (Laughing) I always have a lot of anxieties; I mean I’m human. And Jewish. So out of that came a new book that I am publishing now that deals with fear and anxiety. So tangentially we arrived at that yes, it is informing my work.

One of the biggest fears I have of being a father – and a husband – is not having enough time. I love to work all the time. My work is very labor intensive. And I recognize that I’m not a master or genius, but I can work harder than most people, which I believe is how I get my edge. (Laughing) This is a problem though, because it’s just in my nature to work, and I don’t really know how to be home, I don’t know how to hold a baby and just be in the moment. Working all the time is a fear-based thing – what happens if I don’t?

Geoff:

So then I wonder, does this fear of being in the moment take the form of work that keeps you in another moment – and away from the present one? Is it a way of avoiding something? For me it’s a criticism in my personal relationships that I stay busy to avoid personal things.

Karl:

Being busy is…it’s fear. For me at least. Mostly, fear of failure, but there is something else. When I’m home – which is not that often – I am not just sitting around, I am doing errands, fixing stuff, gardening. I am still busy. So perhaps the being busy is about a fear of emotional intimacy? I had a therapist who was always talking about presentness…

Geoff: Presentness implies availability. When you are drawing you are present in that moment, of drawing. Right?

Karl: Sure, but it’s a presentness at work! This is in opposition to the role I ideally see for myself, which is a husband and a father that is available to my wife and to my child.

Geoff:

Speaking like someone’s older uncle – I get the sense that you have a good deal of fun. This seems true from my observations of you, of your body language and your smile. Look, Karl, if there are two types of dads who work too much, I can imagine one who works and has a lot of anger, who does not bring love home, and in his ignoring of his family there is a lot of… active avoidance of the family. I can imagine another type, one I think may be like you, who absolutely loves the work, takes pleasure in the fact and in the idea of the work, and who takes that love and that sense of fun home. That would be a total presence that I think a kid would pick up on. Long story short – I’ve long thought that you’d make a great dad.

Karl: People say that to me, but I worry it might not be so.

Geoff: That’s exactly why you’ll be a great dad – because you do worry, and so you will find ways to make it happen!

Karl Haendel, Pembroke Smoke, 2012 Pencil on paper, with shaped frame, 66 x 51.5 inches photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Karl Haendel,
Pembroke Smoke, 2012
Pencil on paper, with shaped frame,
66 x 51.5 inches, photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Karl Haendel, Knight #8, 2011 103 x 79 inches, photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Karl Haendel,
Knight #8, 2011
103 x 79 inches, photo by Robert Wedemeyer

Karl:

Do people’s outsides match their insides? If people see me as a great dad, will I be one?

Geoff:

I think people do sense some of the truth about us that we don’t read so well. Besides, Karl, I don’t see much anger in you, and I think anger is what poisons people.

Geoff:

Are you an angry person, Geoff?

Geoff:

Well, a lot of the things I do come from anger – not a lot, but certainly some do. Displaced anger from when I was a kid. But mostly, I think I’m the person you see – fairly cheerful and supportive and easygoing.

In terms of you and little Hazel – let me tell you a story from my own family. My older brother has a son, my nephew is turning twenty now, and as he grew up my brother told me about finding it alarming and delightful and reassuring when he had conversations with his son that his dad had with him. And for me, I was finding this interesting triangle between my brother, his son and our dad. I have tough memories of my father – he was a sad and confused and angry person.

Maybe it is early for you, but do you have a sense of your own father in you? In relation to Hazel.

Karl:

My dad was not a conversational person, he did not talk about his emotions, and I’m not even sure if he had an inner emotional life. He was distant not just from us, but also from himself. That said, he was always around reminding me to study! So I can get a sense of how the anxieties that fueled my father are fueling me. What he had were values, rather than emotions, so perhaps I won’t find the kind of correlations you speak of in my own relationship with my child if what we are talking about is tenderness or sensitivity. But if we are talking about life lessons, I get a feeling they will show up. My father’s values are with me, and I suppose they will infiltrate my parenting, and be passed down to Hazel. Basically my dad’s sole concern was that I work hard and do well in school. He had a fair amount of trust in me not to do stupid things. I do think those kind of values get passed down. So now I worry if Hazel will have access to the best education and will I be able to afford it. Wait, are those values, or are they fears and insecurities?

Sometimes who you are is passed down, and sometimes who you are is a reaction against your parents’ values. Or some combination. But nothing is neutral.

Geoff:

So here we are talking about dabbling with emotion in art. With Questions for My Father were you aware that you were touching a live wire for yourself?

Karl:

I knew that when I made the original drawing, the one I based the film on, I hit upon something real and true. But only later did I realize that the drawing did everything I want all my future work to do. This drawing, it’s not decorative, it’s not overly designed. It’s not pleasurable to the eye. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t have a theoretical excuse for its own existence. It’s simply hard and honest. Yet somehow this is still a pleasurable artwork! It works because of the human capacity for empathy, to see oneself in others, to identify. The pleasure that the work generates for the viewer comes because he gets sucked in, identifies, and reflects on his own life. When all the artifice is stripped away, and if there is actually content there, you will be left with something real.

Geoff:

It’s true. I look at that drawing, and I find myself smiling and then tearing up and then feeling anger and nostalgia; it’s like reading Tolstoy, a very complete human story.

Karl:

I always valued art that cared about the viewer – some art doesn’t really care that much…

Geoff:

Yes! In a lecture I did last month, at UCLA, Brad Eberhard (the professor) asked me to tell the class what one thing I felt was most important that an artist do in an exhibition, and my answer was to offer a viewer the grace of an invitation – an invitation to look, to engage, to care about the work.

Karl, I think that drawing, Questions for My Father, goes much farther than simply offering a viewer a way in. There’s this phrase that gets thrown around the art world in terms of risk: “having something at stake” and often people use this phrase baselessly. Often there is nothing really at stake. But in the case of Questions for My Father I feel something is very much at stake. You, the artist, and me the viewer when I look, become invested in the questions, they relate so directly to each of us personally.

Karl:

I hope it speaks to broader human concerns, to thoughts we have all had. Of course, these are questions that come from a personal place, things that I want to ask my father, but I can’t. I did ask my father one of the questions once, and it relates to our conversation today. (Laughing) I asked “Why did you have children?” and his response was, “That’s what people did back then.” A response that tells me little about him, but a lot about how culture has changed. Back then, it was true, you just had kids, but now having children – at least in Western capitalist culture – is a lifestyle choice. But his answer is only partly disappointing, because it points to that messy overlap between broader societal values and personal choice, which is kind of the meta-subject of that drawing. The question isn’t “did he choose to have kids, or was it chosen for him?” It’s to what degree the two are the same thing.

But Geoff, what was your own interest in this conversation, these questions about being a parent? Why did you want to talk to me about it?

Karl Haendel, "We Love Abortion" group, installation view at MOCA, 2006

Karl Haendel,
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, installation view, 2006

Karl Haendel, A Year From Now, billboard Los Angeles, 2008 Courtesy of the artist and LAXART, Los Angeles

Karl Haendel,
A Year From Now, billboard Los Angeles, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and LAXART, Los Angeles

Geoff:

My dad was pretty abusive, Karl – emotionally, physically, and sexually. And so for a long time my only understanding of parenthood – and of sex – was through people taking advantage of me: my dad when I was a child, and then later, in school, older girls and women who saw me as sexually available. At the time it didn’t feel like anyone was taking advantage of me, but… in retrospect, I was a child, and I really didn’t understand what was going on. This is where the anger I mentioned comes from. With time and therapy, I have been able to see my dad – who killed himself when I was seventeen – as a human, and probably a very confused and sad man; so when I heard my friend, Michael, talk about his experience of becoming a father it really struck me deeply. I began to wonder what my dad felt when he first saw me. Not “me” the person, but me, the little human being. Was there a moment for him of what you termed “genetic recognition,” as a life he felt a responsibility to protect, and to whom he owed some love and concern? I mean, before he objectified me into something he could use.

Karl:

I’m really sorry Geoff. It’s really terrible that you had such an abusive childhood. And I’m honored that you feel comfortable enough to share that with me.

It’s kind of remarkable. Remarkable that now as you reflect on the way your dad treated you as a kid, you would seek out young fathers and ask them about their motivations in an attempt to find out something about your experience. But it’s also remarkable that this is even possible. I mean, we don’t really know each other that well and we are discussing these extremely personal topics, and pretty honestly. I don’t think we could have had this conversation thirty or forty years ago. Men didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, talk about these things. I think around forty years ago, women began asking questions more freely– of themselves, of the culture and the politics of the time. Much later, men began to feel comfortable doing this.

What we are talking about is self-reflexive masculinity, men being emotionally open, to others, and to themselves, in the sense that they investigate their own motives and desires. Your friend Michael is doing this in his personal life – being aware of the emotional and intellectual aspects fatherhood, accounting for Feminism – things I am trying to do with my work. I want to foreground a complex male subject – not a “pussy” male subject, I’m not going to make a bunch of work about “being a dad” – that’s just weak. A subject that understands and allows for the emotional range required in being a father. Of course, this subject is also a political being, an economic being, a sexual being.

A lot of contemporary art doesn’t necessarily read as male or female, but plenty of it does, and a lot of the work we think of as masculine tends to fall into two categories: overtly big and macho – this is the work that brings high auction prices – Jeff Koons, Urs Fischer – or overtly gay or queer work. The first is a big, overtly masculine mode of production. Sterling Ruby does it. And I kind of like this model, I am interested in this, but can I do it and have emotional complexity? Mike Kelley did it, I think Kelley was like the master at this. And on the other side of the spectrum, you have work that is super gay or queer, although it doesn’t seem to be as popular as it was a few years ago, which is less macho, but is still one-dimensional. I want something–not in the middle exactly, but something that is rich, sensitive, emotive, yet still strong and masculine.

Geoff:

Well, talking about the one mode of production, the overtly male kind, perhaps what you are proposing is an art that doesn’t model that behavior, but that observes and questions the male behavior? Like maybe if we don’t know exactly what masculinity is, but we “know it when we see it” then you are asking “well, what is this then?”

Karl:

Yes, exactly. I want to make work that can look itself in the mirror, work that can be honest. Honest to my own desires, so the work will often have a certain swagger, a certain material scale and ambition, but also honest to itself, so I must question these same desires, and put the question of why I do what I do back into the work. Martin Kippenberger did that beautifully.

Geoff:

With Kippenberger and Kelley, you are talking about two artists whose work was all over the place. They used everything.

Karl:

Yes, in terms of materials and form, and their range of content. But the inquiry and honesty was always there. But I think Roy Lichtenstein was another artist who was masculine and sensitive at the same time, and who was “all over the place” in terms of the range of life he explored, even though materially he was staid.

Geoff:

Lichtenstein? Really? I guess I need to look more at his work, because I don’t see him that way.

As we talk I am thinking that a lot of artists working now owe a debt of gratitude to Feminism, the early artists who broke all that new ground. They make it possible to ask all these questions.

Karl:

Of course! I owe a huge debt directly to Mary Kelly for Questions for My Father. I couldn’t have made that without Post-Partum Document. (I also owe her because she let me into UCLA for grad school!) Strangely, it seems that a lot of the debt we owe is to a kind of Feminist work that I don’t particularly like – the touchy-feely stuff, vulvas and dinner parties, which was more popular than the cold stuff, but it got people comfortable talking about sex and bodies and desires. Mary Kelly’s work deals with emotions in a more objective way, and this is what I am attracted to.

Geoff:

Did you see Barbara T. Smith’s paintings in the show at the Box? Among them were paintings of her daughter and her son, her family – with whom she had all these troubled relations – and a self-portrait. They were insanely wonderful. Earlier we talked about Laura Owens as an example of a masterful painter, and I think Smith’s paintings pack the same wallop that Owens’s do technically, but for emotional reasons; Smith has an entirely different skill-set. And Smith was working at the same time as the early Feminists, but I think at the time, she was a little discredited for being so… touchy feely, to use your phrase.

Karl:

I’m sorry, I didn’t see that show. Touchy feely isn’t always bad, especially if it serves a purpose.

Geoff:

Yeah. Maybe it was more profound being in the presence of the work… it always is with painting, but still Smith’s work is definitely worth looking at.

Karl:

I will. You know, it could be a limitation, the way I deal with emotions, in the relatively cool, objective mode. When you move away from clichés you can lose audience. Raw emotion, starkly analyzed, is not for everyone.

In saying that, I think there is a kind of analyst impulse in my work, which is coming out more and more. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m just now publishing a new book called FEAR. It’s a text only book, and I got the passages from various websites, chat rooms and message boards of people talking about their fears. I trolled through these sites for months as a kind of emotional voyeur, appropriating material. So the text moves through different subjects that people are scared of – heights, accomplishment, failure, fat, poverty, illness, and vomit – I could go on – edited together to compose something like a single narrative. While there is a lot of humor, it does get pretty dark.

And where did the idea for me to make this book come from? Emily was pregnant, fatherhood was impending, and I began to see a lot of new anxieties coming up. The book is my investigation into that fear.

Geoff:

Did you find a general shape of Western fear by doing this book?

Karl:

Yes, in the topical sense. You get a good sense of who we are now. But more importantly, what I found is what I found is that the feelings are the same, even though the situations are different. Western fear feels the same as non-western fear, although the situation that provoked the fear is different. The life circumstance of humanity is radically varied, but we all share a common set of emotions. This new royal kid that was just born. Prince William’s son. His life will be drastically different from that of my kid’s. But they will both experience loss, fear, shame, joy, accomplishment, pride. At times both will feel inadequate, and other times they will feel powerful. They will feel exactly the same way numerous times throughout the course of their lives.

(Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris.)

Karl Haendel, FEAR, 2013 pp. 62 - 65

Karl Haendel,
FEAR, 2013
pp. 62 – 65

Karl Haendel, FEAR, 2013 pp. 66 - 69

Karl Haendel,
FEAR, 2013
pp. 66 – 69

Karl Haendel, Fear, 2013 pp. 70 - 73

Karl Haendel,
Fear, 2013
pp. 70 – 73

Karl Haendel, FEAR, 2013

Karl Haendel,
FEAR, 2013, pp. 74 – 77

 

Karl Haendel, FEAR, 2013 pp. 78 - 81

Karl Haendel,
FEAR, 2013
pp. 78 – 81

 

2 Comments

  1. where is Karl’s next show.
    i enjoyed the interview.
    and i loved hearing sugar mountain.
    x

  2. “Pembroke-Smoke” is incredible! Great interview Geoff! Thank you!

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