Color, form and texture are three vital adjectives for New York artist, Chris Bogia. Inspired by the world of interiors, textiles and decorative arts, his artwork explores this material tripartite in considered and in-depth ways. Chris’ sculptures are composed of different materials that create contrasting textures that are reminiscent of domestic spaces. Plush and lacquered surfaces create an element of tactile seduction that is reiterated in the rounded forms of the pieces. His embroidered and watercolor works on paper continue this theme figuratively with snaking limbs that reach out to laden fruit bowls with draping vines and entwined leaves. Chris says that he is captivated by the idea of utopian spaces, but knows that this is always compromised by human presence. “The most potent beauty,” he explains, “is fleeting and vulnerable.”
In addition to making his own art, Chris is the director of the Fire Island Artist Residency which he co-founded in 2011. This platform brings lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identifying emerging artists to Fire Island, a place long-steeped in LGBTQ history, to create, commune, and contribute to the location’s rich artistic history.
AMM: Hi Chris! In the last few years your art has changed direction quite considerably. What inspired this shift from performance/installation to the two and three dimensional pieces you’re making now?
CB: Hi ArtMaze! Great Question. For about 9 years I’d been making these installation type pieces, I called them Shrines—they were mash-ups of domestic objects, forms relating to furniture, store window displays, centerpieces made from yarn tapestry-like panels featuring album covers or mimicking the mandalas found in decorative pillows. I took photos of myself and others “activating” them, and I showed the photos as separate works. These pieces were very hard to make and would take me months to learn new materials just to finish a small element, and I wasn’t moving through my ideas fast enough. I felt a burden to make each work function as a “flagship” carrying every idea about art, my own identity, and decoration that I felt my practice contained. This was partly a reaction to being an emerging artist and only getting a few opportunities a year to show work in public. I needed to give anyone who saw a group show I was in the “full Chris Bogia experience”. I really loved those installations, but I also felt constrained by them. I was most interested in design and decoration, but I was afraid to create simpler works that solely embraced those interests from a fear of being thought of as stupid or shallow. I started getting inspired by peers like Matt Connors and Keltie Ferris who were queer and making abstract works as well as the writings of Chicago art historian David Getsy who was writing about a new kind of queer abstraction. It was a window into a new possibility of making, and then it became a door and I walked through it. I started experimenting with abstraction using the same principles of design and decoration that I had been working with in the previous installations, and the work just flowed out of me. Narrative and illustration has been creeping into the work intuitively since the first abstractions, and I like the direction it’s currently taking me.
AMM: You seem to enjoy experimenting with different media. What inspires this innovation and how do you use the different materials in your practice?
CB: My early material inspirations came from fashion. When I first moved to NYC in the 90s for college I became obsessed with the idea of working at the Todd Oldham Store on Wooster Street in Soho. There was something so inspiring about the way Oldham was using traditional textile embellishments like beading and crewel work that held my attention in ways contemporary art wasn’t at the time. I became a fixture at the shop, and they asked me to work there. It was a very inspiring time for me creatively. The store was a kaleidoscope of color and texture—and not just the clothes—there was a psychedelic ceramic tile floor, light fixtures of broken glass and thin wooden dowels bent into modernist shapes, silver leaf, tie-dyed velvet fitting room curtains, iron work, Joni Mitchell songs, incense… I was so happy to be in that space for a couple years. The time there helped me understand what was possible for my own work material-wise, and where my interest in personal utopian spaces could intersect art making. Since then I have continued to look to the worlds of interior design, textile design, and decorative art for new material ideas. I recently went to Stockholm to see the Svenskt Tenn flagship store and spend time with (and buy) gorgeous fabric designed by Joseph Frank. It’s pinned up on the wall in the studio now and I look at it whenever I am loafing off to get inspired.
AMM: The composition of your sculptures emphasizes a sense of balance and tension. What does this relationship mean in your work?
CB: When I think of the perfect room, the perfect windowsill, the perfect shag carpet Shangri-La of my dreams, I get inspired to make fragments of those perfect fantasy places in the work. Nesting—to me it’s a blood-sport, lol. I am crystallizing that utopian domestic world in my work, but I am also aware that utopian spaces are totally flawed and extremely fragile. You can construct your perfect room (and you should!), but once you put a person or two in there… whoa folks, things can get really messy! Your perfect domestic jungle of houseplants can’t save you from a fight with your spouse or your own crushing ennui. The sculptures embody this struggle between balance and tension. The most potent beauty is fleeting and vulnerable. That’s what I want my work to illustrate. Also I’m a Libra 😉
AMM: From working with wood to embroidery, can you give us an overview of your process of working?
CB: Everything begins as drawing. I am a planner. If I make a series of drawings, like the ones I call Plants Vs Zombies where a repeated archway is a stage for the interchange of houseplants, furniture and figurative forms, I will put them all up and look at them every day. Favorites emerge. Once a work on paper is turning me on like that, I begin to think of how it could exist as a tapestry? As a sculpture? “Maybe I will make this part in veneer, and contrast that with this part in yarn. The yarn needs a formal foil and a punch of color, so let me try lacquer on this part” and so on. I like to imagine it’s the way that interior designers work, but without a client or a room I can explore that tool kit in a more personal, indulgent, and limitless way.
AMM: What does your studio look and feel like?
CB: I love my little gay viper nest! Right now I am finishing up a two year residency at the Queens Museum. They gave me 350 pristine square feet in an “L” shape. I kind of love the less boxy set up because it allows me to combine a gallery/work space with a domestic/desk working space in a way that makes sense and is functional. I am kind of funny in that I put just as much effort into how the sitting area looks as I do the working area. Maybe more actually! I have a little children’s book called “Mr. Fussy” that sits on the coffee table in front of the white green and yellow Matisse print vinyl couch from the 60s, and he’s definitely my spirit animal (in the book he combs each blade of grass on his lawn—I love that!). My time at the Museum is almost over and I will (fingers crossed) be building out a new space in Maspeth Queens next month and I am getting SO EXCITED about having even more space to play with in this way. The studio for me needs to be an extension of my urges to decorate, to embellish, and find domestic pleasure and visitors understand the work even more once they see it.
AMM: Do you have a motto that you create by? What is it?
CB: Whenever I get stuck I just think, “what would I want to hang over the bed”, and I make whatever that is.
AMM: Please tell us about form, texture and color in your work.
CB: These adjectives are so important to me! Surfaces! The surface of a sculpture gives more meaning than anything. It’s the skin. Imagine if you saw someone walking down the street and their skin was made of shag carpet instead of flesh. It’s that powerful—especially when working with geometric abstraction which has historically defaulted to raw material expression like marble, metals, wood or painted versions of these materials as the final surface. Today in 2018 that feels lazy to me. Form, texture, color: these are the decisions I spend the most time agonizing over, sometimes procrastinating for weeks over the simplest formal consideration because I am so anxious about getting it right. I have painted rooms in my house three times in a weekend (with taping!) because I cannot handle things not being just the right color. Usually I trust my instincts, but with so many colors and surfaces and shapes being combined, I often change my mind. The textures—yarn, veneer, lacquer, ceramics, jute carpet—they play off one another in familiar ways suggesting high-end design, hand-made folksiness, and the surfaces in our homes. They are a way to anchor the work in the domestic and give the viewer that seductive vibe of something beautiful and familiar—or perhaps aspirational.
AMM: Fruit bowls, snaking limbs and vines are popular motifs in your work. Please tell us more about your visual language.
CB: Fruit bowls in artworks are historically all about giving, abundance, and fertility. They are an easy way of showing something we universally “want” without getting too specific. I mean I COULD show bowls of hairy chubby men, videogames and weed, but I am more about universal seduction at the moment, lol. Houseplants are another universal symbol, though I also understand them as a millennial domestic design trend as well. For me houseplants represent our urban attempts at clumsily living in harmony with nature—which is maybe the best humans can do in most cases? In my drawings they are the angular balanced foil to the snaking figurative forms—the boneless arms, grabbing hands, and incomplete faces that can only smell or gape. Those forms represent our urge to want and strive—even if they tend to look pretty lazy. Sometimes they want fruit from a bowl, sometimes they want to caress (or mangle) houseplants, and sometimes they give up and just flop on each other. Together these motifs are a way for me to illustrate domestic psychodramas large and small.
AMM: Can you explain the idea of the frame or framing, which we see in almost all your work?
CB: That’s a funny thing. I don’t have a singular explanation, but I can draw comparisons from my tendency to create unique frames when I make a series of works and a very intense personal interest in video games since their inception (I still play about two hours a night before I go to bed). In early 80s arcade games, you’d have the same framed out level (think pac-man, Q*bert, Dig Dug) and all these graphically-simplified characters and objects placed in or moving in various combinations of goal oriented play. I think that very closely mirrors the way many of my recent compositions have begun. Games are not something I think of consciously, but when I consider the flatness, the limited palette, and everything I just mentioned before the influence is certainly there.
AMM: I’ve read in other interviews that you’re interested in interior decoration and design. How does this translate into your art?
CB: I’ve already touched on this in some of my other answers, but I wanted to share a story that relates:
When I was born we moved into my Italian grandmother’s house that was decorated in the 70s and I loved the way it looked. Being a child and low to the ground I spent a lot of time in deep shag carpets of fuchsia, purple, ice blue, and the furniture was sumptuous velvet jewel tones. Wild wide trellis wallpapers punctuated by huge illustrations of rose bouquets and bright stripes of color covered most of the walls that weren’t wood paneling. We had so many knick-knacks and tchotchkes on every surface and even lit up in display cases and those were just as cool as the toys I played with. When I was maybe about 12 years old my mom hired an interior designer to redecorate our home. Now here was this guy whose job it was to pick out new things and remove the old. I couldn’t understand it and I was pissed off. I remember angrily asking my mom “why would you need someone to tell you what your own house should look like, and choose things FOR YOU?” It was confusing to me probably because I had those instincts myself and didn’t understand them as unique or special. I had been redecorating my bedroom on my own every few years since I could remember! This whole decorator incident took place during the darkest earliest years of the AIDS crises.
I couldn’t do the math completely, but I knew this man was gay, and that I was “like him” enough to be very scared of him being around and making me reflect on what it would mean to be a homosexual in the late 80s. Tragically, he would soon vanish shortly after he started working for us—I heard my parents talking about how he died of AIDS one night in the kitchen. It shook me up bad—was that what I was, was that what would happen to me? I came out in my teens in the mid 90s and generally had a pretty good go with it and moved to New York for college to meet other gay people, find love, and be an artist. I would go on to draw connections to interior design, queerness, and my own creative impulses. The sculpture “The Decorator” was made thinking about those connections.
AMM: What prompted you to co-found the Fire Island Artist Residency program? What’s it all about?
CB: I always balanced a full-time job and my studio work. At the time FIAR was founded, I was working as the academic administrator in NYU’s art department (where I’d studied and where I now teach). It was a great job, the people were like family, but I felt stuck. I wouldn’t apply to residencies because I couldn’t take the time off to do them. I was becoming scared that my chances of being an artist were slipping away. At the same time I had begun to visit Fire Island, the world’s oldest LGBTQ town according to local author and historian Esther Newton. The first day I was there I had the idea for an LGBTQ artist residency. It was a fantasy—something I wished I could participate in—not found. There were no other residencies in the world for LGBTQ artists and I’d never had many queer peers in my years of art school (which is pretty strange really because I went to very liberal schools). It took the nudging of my curator friend and FIAR co-founder Evan Garza, as well as my partner (really the unsung “third” co-founder) to really get it going. I took out $6000 of my savings, rented a beach house, and the rest was history. Eight summers of FIAR later the organization is both an officially registered non-profit artist residency that brings LGBTQ artists together for four weeks of intimate art making, idea exchange, and public programming AND a social practice component of my total work as an artist. I didn’t always see the latter, but after Evan moved on and I evaluated the personal financial sacrifices I was making to keep FIAR going during difficult times (our low-cost rental burned down during the off season with all our stuff in it!!!) I came to the realization that both my studio work and FIAR were my combined practice. Since then it’s been an amazing journey, and I can’t wait to make it to ten years of FIAR in 2020!
AMM: What’s next for you?
CB: I just received a very generous grant from the Jackson Pollock—Lee Krasner Foundation. It came at a crucial time for me when I needed to move from a two-year studio residency at the Queens Museum to a space of my own ($$$) again. I am now able to find and build out a new studio, hopefully staying in Queens close to home and make more art! I just started formally working with my favorite gallery in the city, Mrs., and I am looking forward to future projects with Sara and Tyler and their inspiring Maspeth gallery. I’ve lived in Queens since the 90s, and I’m super psyched to see the art world finally catching up to me here (sorry Brooklyn, lol). I am currently preparing work for shows coming up at the New Museum, Mercer College in New Jersey, Law Warschaw Gallery in Minneapolis, Beers Gallery in London, and maybe more but it’s currently a secret…. It feels like the beginning of the next chapter of my life as an artist, and I am super psyched! Thank you so much ArtMaze for asking so many good questions and letting me ramble!
Find more about the artist: www.chrisbogia.com
Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.