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Q&A: Adam McEwan

by Stephen Becker 16 Apr 2012 1:30 PM

The British artist, whose works is currently exhibited at the Goss-Michael Foundation, talks about the unlikely material that dominates his sculptures.


Untitled (Jeff, Nicole, Macaulay, Bill, Rod, Marilyn, Malcolm), 2002-2004, The Goss-Michael Collection

British artist Adam McEwan is probably best known locally for his series of obituaries for people who haven’t died yet. Nicole Kidman, Bill Clinton and Macaulay Culkin are all eulogized (and some of them, like Malcolm McLaren and Marilyn Chambers have passed on since the work was made in 2004).

That series is owned by the Goss-Michael Foundation and is currently on display in a solo exhibition of McEwen’s work. The show also includes paintings and installations, but it’s largely populated with McEwen’s graphite sculptures of everyday objects.  After a tour of the show late last week, McEwen talked about what he likes about working with the material and some of the jokes that are embedded in the sculptures.

Art&Seek: What appeals to you about working in graphite?
Adam McEwan: The thing I like about it is how familiar it is. In a sense, maybe I would hope, democratic. Because pretty much everyone from the age of 4 onwards knows what an HP pencil looks like. They know that color, they know what it’s like to pick it up and draw a line with it. So, maybe, like, I use newspapers or I use signs or I use everyday objects – which are all available in that sense. Maybe the material itself has this availability?

A&S: Is there anything to the idea that it’s a piece of art that you could turn around and make art with?
A.M.: Yeah, of course. There’s like a few dumb jokes embedded in the material, and that’s one of them. Which isn’t necessarily that funny, but I like the fact that it’s there. Another one is the fact that you can erase it. It’s pencil. You could erase all of these sculptures. You could pick the sculpture up, draw on the wall with it and rub it out. And eventually you would have nothing left.

A&S: The sculptures are of everyday objects – air conditioners, step stools, an ATM machine. But the common theme is they’re all objects that we expect something out of.
A.M.: Part of the thing I find myself doing is trying to decide what will make a good sculpture. And it does seem to have something to do with offering something and not delivering it. Or let’s say, looking for something and not getting it. So, a drinking fountain – apart from the fact that when I made a drinking fountain I could call it Fountain and pay homage to Duchamp, like, legitimately, supposedly – but a fountain is meant to give you something, and it isn’t giving you anything here. … Every deli in New York has one of these ATMs. This ATM is not going to give you what you’re looking for. It’s going to give you dirty fingers from the graphite.

A&S: During the tour today, your work really seemed to illicit discussion and opinions from people about what it all means. What’s that like for you to hear people interpreting your work?
A.M.: I think it’s great – I like that a lot. It couldn’t be better. The worst thing would be that there was no response. I make this really for myself in the sense that I want to work out what I’m thinking. If people had no response, it would be depressing.

A&S: But I noticed there wasn’t a single time where you said, “No, that’s not it.”
A.M.: Nobody said anything crazy. Sometimes people say stuff where you’re like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And then you can go, “That’s cool. That’s fine.” I suppose what would be weird would be if somebody’s like, “This is what you’re work is about, and that’s the way it is.” And I’m like, “Well, it is for you … but it may not be for someone else.”

A&S: When you know you’re going to lead a tour of your work, do you think about how much you should explain and how much you should hold back?
A.M.: I’ve found over the years that often you think people are going to get this stuff that’s under the surface, and they don’t. I mean, they simply can’t – how are they going to guess that’s what you’re talking about. So I guess I used to be like, “Hey, think about it.” And it’s like, people maybe just don’t have time to get to that strange place that you’re at. So I think, why not make things clearer? But at the same time, I also really like art that’s slow – that functions in a really slow way and that actually, the more you think about it over time, you realize that there’s other stuff going on under the surface. So I think in that sense, let it happen at it’s own pace.

The Adam McEwen exhibition is on display at the Goss-Michael Foundation through July 28.