Making as an Act of Connection to History and Environment: In Conversation with Ryan Standfest

What led you to start Rotland Press?

Rotland is what I call “a state of mind.” A way of experiencing the world somewhere between hope and despair, humor and tragedy. A nebulous, grey morbidity where some kind of truth froths. A friend of mine in St. Louis has described my role of Editor-in-Chief of the press as “a go-getter merchant of despair.” I’m okay with that—a pusher of product that mingle mordant amusement with enthusiastic despair.

After I graduated from studying printmaking in the fine arts department at The University of Iowa in 2006, I moved to NYC for spell, and was soon feeling burned out by the academic pigeon-holing of art into silos of “practice,” and was left cold whenever I entered the galleries in Chelsea: they felt like glorified bank vaults. At art school and in art communities and scenes, I found there to be a sterile and conservative way of thinking, and a default forming of “art tribes” where people pride themselves on degrees of purity—what is or is not acceptable. I distrust any move toward purity. We are impure beings in an impure world, and no matter how hard you scrub, it’ll always be that way.

I have found cartoonists and comedians among the most nimble-minded, conceptually agile individuals I have known.

As I began having genuinely moving, down-to-earth exchanges with cartoonists in New York, even though I am not a cartoonist, I reconnected with what motivated me to make images to begin with—all of those non-fine art experiences that I grew up on; humorous, satirical images fed to me by a prankster grandfather of mine—comic books and magic catalogs and Mad magazine, the cartoons of Charles Addams, illustrated joke and novelty catalogs, packs of trading cards such as Wacky Packages and The Garbage Pail Kids (and the stale, brittle, unchewable stick of gum included with them). These were cultural products that taught my young self how much of the adult world was a sham! AND YET having grown up to immerse myself in the history and formal construction of art, there was another material coating my nervous system: one that appreciated the rich origins of graphic socio-political satire.

So Rotland represents a collision of dual sensibilities for me—the so-called high and low. Rotland Press is a project started by an artist alone in a studio with a need to connect to something outside of the self. I wanted to have conversations beyond a solely academic understanding of art practice and needed to engage with work outside of the walls of galleries. And yet, over time, my experience as an artist has defined how I have shaped Rotland Press. When I began the press, I only had a raw inkling of what I was trying to do and that resulted in messiness for a spell—publishing every dumb, male-body based piece of grotesque visual humor that I mis-labeled as satire or dark humor. But as the years have passed, I’ve found that my understanding of visual satire and cartooning have deepened. And as my own studio practice has evolved, and the language of my work has embraced certain strategies toward a socio-political discourse, the work of Rotland Press has pursued a similar line of inquiry.

The press remains a way for me to sneak out of my own head once in a while—to seek out more and more conversations with artists around the world. Rather than imposing my will as an editor, my pleasure is in finding those artists that have a philosophy of vision that I respect and for whom I hope to provide a platform for; a space to converse with their work.

What do you see as the social role/function of your work?

Oh hell, how I personally see my own work probably will not matter so much in the end.  But since you asked, let me try to chart some best intentions.

My work taken as a whole, meaning my output as a practicing artist, a publisher and editor, an arts writer and an arts educator, is rooted in an underlying need to make sense of and connect with a world that often disappoints and falls short of an expectation for something better. If I occasionally show signs of despair, it is usually due to the disappointment that my idealism frequently runs up against. But I have a reset button that gets pressed whenever I make my work: making becomes a positive act of connecting with larger histories outside of the self, with those makers and thinkers that have gone before me; connecting with the peculiarities of self and personal history by unpacking my family’s history; and connecting with my environment—those places where I live and work. For me, making is an act of recording these moments of engineered connectivity, but then the record gets played and broadcast, sent out to a larger audience with the goal of… seeing what happens. Who and what does it connect with? I feel like every attempt is akin to placing the Golden Record aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts, in the hope of yielding a response from curious, distant lifeforms.

The goal is to enter culture and either initiate or affect discourse. To talk. To listen. To talk some more. Not to have a monologue, but a conversation. In talking, we learn something about one another. Enlarge understanding through this simple act. We send signals, read signs, interpret, sometimes misinterpret, but engage. My regret about this interview is that it is taking place during a time when I cannot sit across or next to you at a bar, raise a few glasses and just talk without the fear of contagion-laced spittle entering our bodies! When I talk I like to gesticulate quite a bit. I think that my work is an elaborate form of gesticulation!

All this being said: I don’t have a damn clue how most of my work functions out in the world at large. Sometimes there are return signals. I have known when work frustrates or angers someone, or when it delights and emboldens someone. While recently completing my first real attempt at a large scale work of public art for the gallery Holding House, on Michigan Avenue, the work, a mural titled Supply & Demand elicited a steady stream of responses from those passing by. Essentially a sign about signs, an advertisement that advertises nothing, it is a space for projection. I’ve long been interested in the notion that advertising creates needs—an odd thing to have your needs created or cultivated for you—and so I attempted to depict a space that advertises whatever you think it is meant to fulfill. To some, the sign suggested an antique store, to another a beauty supply store, and to others a consignment surplus space. Somebody named Piranha yelled out that it was all about the “culture of exchange” we live in “and relationships too.” I think that social media has a way of oversimplifying feedback as meaningless numbers of followers and likes, so the real exchanges, the one-on-one responses to work are what really count. Finding an audience. Meaningful socialization should be the real social role of my work.

In art school, at least in the fine arts department, no one ever spoke about audience. “Audience” seemed like a bad word that got an art student labelled derogatorily as an “illustrator” or a “designer.” That never sat right with me. I think if you set about this business of communicating, talking in whatever language you traffic in, then you should do your damnedest to think about who you are communicating with, why you are communicating with them to begin with, and how best to communicate. Seems silly to me to cover up your intentions or hide behind a curtain of formal obtuseness. I come from a family that has neither the patience nor the cultural predisposition to sort through the vagaries of difficult artistic products. And although I am content to engage with any viewing experience I am challenged with, I can understand those who are not. The older I get, the more I want to cut to the chase and be forthright. To not be, is to be from a place of entitlement and privilege. I can’t afford to be obtuse, and so I hope that my work functions as something other than that.

“Supply and Demand” by Ryan Standfest


As an artist whose work sometimes performs a critique of capitalism, what do you see as the greatest challenge to critiquing capitalism from within it?

Well it’s not like my work has allowed me to have an offshore account or drive something other than a battered 2010 Honda Fit… I’m a pretty low level capitalist. My business, for better or for worse, allows me to do two things: to compensate those I commission new work from for Rotland Press, and to fund the development of more projects. In other words, the work often subsidizes itself. I am in the business of making more work to communicate more and to communicate better. As a teacher, I earn a paycheck that pays bills and occasionally repairs that Honda Fit.

But yes, I live and breathe and work and eat and sleep in a capitalist system. In an environment where everything is for sale and all is commodified, the challenge is to see it clearly for what it is, without giving too much of oneself over to it. But in the 21st century, in this country, that’s a human thing, not just an artist thing. It is a general existential crisis that is the byproduct of the abuses of late capitalism.

To frame the question another way: as the art object can always be commodified in capitalist society, and as working artists themselves are simultaneously businesses/brands, what are the greatest challenges you’ve faced in being critical of capitalism?

The challenges I face are no different than those that so many other artists face: how to find financial support from those entities willing to support the work. I am not a purist swearing off capitalism—again, I don’t believe in purity. I think purity, on either the political Left or the Right, is dangerous and naïve. However, I also don’t believe in the excesses of late capitalism, under which the chasm of inequality grows ever deeper and wider. There is a reasonable expectation for an exchange in which labor is compensated without falling prey to boundless greed. It remains essential not to lose sight of why I am placing a price tag on the products of my making—to pay for the making of the work itself and to provide for the opportunity to make more work, to realize the ambition of communicating to a larger audience by way of evolving the means to do so. Absent the presence of pledged financial support, one must enter some form of market to engineer such an opportunity.

As an artist schooled in the democratic model of printmaking—of producing multiples for the purpose of distributing many copies of a single image to a larger audience at a lower price, celebrating the portability of ideas over the profitability of images—Rotland Press is a project that fulfills my desire to create accessible experiences beyond the gallery-based, art world model. It also allows me to follow in the footsteps of those artists and thinkers who can make critical work without worrying if it will be accepted within the hallowed halls of uber-commodification. I have the freedom to be disrespectful and openly critical and potentially offensive to a wide variety of socio-political targets without worrying about paying the rent to keep my enterprise open. In this way, I feel a kinship with a certain motley group of artists I’ve long admired. Trouble-making publisher-printmaker-satirist-impressarios who built their own model for survival. With Rotland, I could drop dead, and the work I’ve published could still be in the cultural bloodstream in many places at one. The work of Rotland can continue a conversation that I alone could not sustain, or that a single artwork hanging on a wall or sitting in a drawer cannot sustain. That to me is what a successful model can be.

What do you consider the social and political responsibilities of making art in America today?

When I critique the other side of capitalism, the after effects of the postwar dream,  I do so from a personal place. I don’t pretend my vantage point is a truth, but a record of my own excavations. I come from a family that rustproofed the undersides of cars, mined for copper, saturated telephone poles with creosote, inspected pharmaceuticals, painted advertisements on the sides of building, repaired factory machinery, bottled beer for Stroh’s, booked performers at The Roostertail club on the Detroit River, and worked at the Packard factory building armaments as part of the “arsenal of democracy”—a family that lived and breathed under their own spellbound notions of the capitalist fantasy until the seams started to show and the disadvantages began to outweigh the advantages. I breathe in the air filled with the toxic particles of that failed Postwar capitalist dream. That residue is here to stay and I feel a responsibility to examine it closely.

It is not for me to tell other artists what their responsibility should or shouldn’t be, at the risk of proselytizing, but for me, it is a responsibility to understand my own story and its socio-political underpinnings. To fully grasp my relationship to history, to the time I live in, to those around me. To clearly see the forces that shape me, define my biases and beliefs. To analyze that residue I refer to. As a teacher, I try to establish the importance, as makers of culture, to sharpen perception and cultivate awareness with the goal of defining one’s own philosophy of vision. But that starts with knowing your role in it all.

If one can be cognizant, avoid making your own halo by falling into a performative activism for the sake of propping up the ego. It’s not all that necessary to broadcast via social media, every gesture toward bandaging the world’s wounds. Quiet acts of desperation also make a difference. Those that toil quietly at the margins, slowly laying the groundwork for bigger conversations, bit by bit.

“American Fascism Now” by Sue Coe and Stephen F. Eisenman (published by Rotland Press)

Do you think it’s possible for art to exist outside of politics, an “art for art’s sake”?

Well first you need to define “politics.” At the end of the day, everything is political. Decisions are rooted in a personal, cultural or social politic. I am making this for _____ reason. Bingo: you are defining a specific relationship to the world.

I don’t think there is such a thing as “art for art’s sake,” even if you think that is what you are doing. I’ve always thought the phrase “doing your own thing” is nonsense. I reject the notion that an artist can exist independently from others and the currents we all find ourselves in. I’ve also never trusted someone who says “I’m not a political person.” That statement is sufficiently political to me, indicating a false pretense to be separated from that which affects everyone. 

Art will always be intended for some sort of audience. And even if one chooses for that audience to be strictly confined to those who speak a language exclusive to art, that is a political decision.

I don’t intend to create overtly political art, or propaganda, but find myself drawn to art that reflects the political—those sets of decisions that are made from a place of personal belief. Overtly political art becomes a single-minded representation of the world as strictly binary: black or white, good or evil, yes or no. It proposes an impossible path to purity. But an art that works to truly understand what is political, embraces contradiction, murkiness, indecision, doubt, impurity—I know that as a truer representation of the world I live in. There is a favorite quote of mine taken from an interview with Orson Welles in 1958: “I demand a (human’s) right to keep and sustain (their) contradictions… I hate any opinion which deprives humanity of the least of its privileges; if any belief demands that one should renounce something human, then I detest it. I am against all fanaticism, I dislike political and religious slogans. I detest anyone who would cut a single note from the human scale.”    

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