Iteration as an Approach to Thinking: In Conversation with Emmy Bright

Emmy Bright is an artist working with drawing, writing, print and performance. In her work, she uses art history, psychology, comedy and philosophy to investigate the problems of connection and the problems of boundaries. She earned a BA in Art History from University of Chicago, an Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an MFA in Print Media from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She has recently held exhibitions at the Visual Art Center in Richmond, VA, the Distillery Gallery in Boston, MA, and at David Klein Gallery in Birmingham, MI.  She has held fellowships and residencies at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Penland School of Crafts, Vermont Studio Center, OxBow School of Art, Alfred University, and at University of Hawaii at Manoa Valley.  She is currently an Artist in Residence and co-heads the Print Media Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art. She lives in Detroit where her work is represented by David Klein Gallery.

Can you tell me about the background on this piece entitled “Spooning Richard Serra”? (The interview begins in Emmy’s studio at Cranbrook, with the two of us walking around and discussing some of the work.)

It has this ambivalent or unclear relationship to him – it’s making fun of him but its also tender and very much like the “I Made You a Rothkoseries. In that, I was just printing some other piece and had to print a black rectangle for a background, and so there was this black rectangle on this newsprint towards the top and it was like, “hahaha it’s a Rothko!” I’m sort of like an art historian Beavis and Butthead!  So I wrote on it “I made you a Rothko” and then made a dozen or so.  I had just come to Cranrook at the time so I figured, “oh I’ll make these for all the people I want to make friends with.” I planted one in my Artist in Resident’s  studio, and more around campus in other student and Artist in Residence studios, and I was waiting for people to say, “thank you for the Rothko.” But they didn’t say that!   They would just say, “thank you for the print.” Then a little later on, I was printing a flat of  pink and I thought, “oh it’s a pink-washed Rothko,” and giggled!  Pink washing is a term used to describe when countries try to seem more queer-friendly then they actually are to attract tourists, so these were pink-washed Rothkos!  I distributed  them to all the people who I thought might be queer on campus but still no one said anything about them as Rothkos! Then I was doing something similar with white, and I printed all of these “inverse Rothkos” and gave those out too, and then finally it came back to me indirectly!  Someone told a friend of mine, “did you know Emmy has been making Rothkos?” And hearing that, I was like, “I fucking did it!”

It’s like a ridiculous joke but it’s also like, “what is my relationship to the canon and these dudes whose work I mostly don’t care that much about—even if I respect it or know why its important—I don’t care that much about, it doesn’t speak to me.” How can I top the guys at the top of the canon?  

That’s your Erased de Kooning.

Exactly. It’s very much that but through language and a visual pun, seeing what language can do. 

I noticed your undergraduate degree is in art history, and I was curious both how the transition from art history to art-making happened, and also how your background in art history has shaped your art practice?

I’d say I’ve been a pretty hardcore nerd from the get go, but it was very hard for me to decide to go to art school and what some might think of as “real school.” And initially I wanted to do both – go to a university AND an art school.  So I made an ill advised plan and only applied to pairs of colleges in cities that had both a real school that I liked and an art school that I liked. Then I only considered a city for college if I got into both of the schools because my secret plan was that I would start at one and if I disliked it I would switch to the other. 

So I got into both the University of Chicago and School of the Art Institute, and when I went to interview at SAIC, a graduate student said to me, “look if you come to the Art Institute you’re gonna be with people who don’t really want to pick up a book. Go to University of Chicago and come to SAIC for grad school.” I think the idea that I would be with non-readers – as someone who has really depended on books for information, ideas and understanding of life beyond my own – that kind of freaked me out. I was also more confident in my academic skills, so I went to U of C and thought I’d be a classics major but then hated it. Then I took a leave of absence and worked in record stores, and when I came back I was like “if I want to study art I should get downtown to the Art Institute” and that seemed somehow impossible, so instead I studied art history at U of C and I really loved it! I focused on contemporary art and did my thesis on Henry Darger who was considered an outsider artist.  I got to work with an awesome cultural theorist and historian, Sander Gilman.  And then after that, I worked for Community Arts in Chicago for a while, and scooped up a degree in art education, even though I was making art the whole time,  it took me a while to realize that I wanted to commit to making art as the center of my work.

Were you making art in high school?

Oh yeah.

And were you serious about it? I do feel like there’s a line between how all kids tend to draw and then at a certain point it becomes, “this is my art.”

I think I was pretty serious about Art from the jump because it was the thing I loved more than anything. I don’t know if the work I was doing in high school looked like Emmy Bright work now – because I was still figuring out materials, approaches and what was possible, but actually some of this work that I’m doing now and what I was doing in high school have some similar weight and color— but you know in high school, I trying to do self-portraits and learn drawing, welding and ceramics. I was never one of those people who was great at drawing realistically, and I think for a long time I was like, “if that’s being an artist that’s not me, I’m just making stuff,”and I think it was more when I learned screen printing in around 2005 or so that I was like, “oh this clicks, this makes sense as a way to work with ideas, in a way that a lot of other approaches didn’t.” 

I realized that I really like inhibited ways of drawing — in screen printing, you have to do all this shit before you ever see it on paper, you have to make your image, then you make your screen, then you burn your screen, and you mix inks, then run ink through it— and you never really have the wide freedom of an open page, you do have blank pages, but the process so procedural and hard to change what you’re doing at any given time.  And there is something about those inhibitions that I find offers a lot of freedom. Because I’ve developed this way of working, you can’t just willy nilly decide to put a cat into it, or a heart. And it’s not that I’m always just following the next step, you do get surprises, but they are these very thin windows to have those.  I do a lot of improvisation in my print making – a lot more than other people – but still,  it’s very procedural and that appeals to my logic brain and worker brain and also keeps my busy mind from ruining what I am making by having too many ideas and wanting to try them all out.

Are you someone who productivity is important to? Like important for your mental health?

Absolutely. I like working! One of the things I like about this quilt that I’m working on is that I can just bring it home and throw on a movie and work on it at the same time.  I feel better when I am doing something with my hands.  I don’t think it’s a protestant work ethic thing (though that may be a part) – but when my hands or body has something to chew in, my mind can go in bigger loops.  Honestly, sometimes I have to put on a lecture about Fanon or Lacan so that I can keep my brain from getting in the way of the work! Like giving a dog a bone…

How did language as subject matter find it’s way into your work?

I think that’s through my family. My dad is someone who loves puns and jokes, and makes up songs, and my brother does it too, and now, even my 9 yo niece does it! -Whenever we’d have peas for dinner growing up, my dad would recite:  “I eat peas with honey, I’ve done it all my life, they do taste kind of funny, but it keeps them on my knife.” So love a mix of the absurd sensibility and stupid wordplay. Also, I love reading and books—And I’m always taking notes—my sketchbooks look a lot more like this (points to spiderweb style diagram on wall). I think thought/logic happens a lot in language, and emotion is evoked more directly in material/color.

I think the dichotomy that has caused me a lot of pain – this disjunction between thinking and feeling.  It’s like “I could think my way into one thing, but I could feel my way into this other opposite thing.” In college I used to be like, “you have to use your thinking brain, do what makes sense, be the classics major.” (not that being a classics major *actually* makes sense!) But, a lot of us sort of conform in this way.   For awhile, I leaned on my feeling brain.  But more and more now, I’m curious how my thinking brain can change my feeling brain, and if I had insight could I change my behavior?  I have gone to a lot of psychotherapy so obviously I believe in language in this profound way. It’s talk therapy so that practice is like, “can narrative make life livable? Can language make life livable?” 

So is linguistics an area of interest to you?

A little bit, I’m not deep into it, I’m more into thinking about the performativity of language. Have you read J.L. Austin?


He’s like O.G. performativity of language, his theory was that some language is performative and some is just talking— his thing is that if there is a certain circumstance and a certain utterance it actually changes the world. So like if you and I were dressed in our fancy clothes at the front of the church and we had rings and a priest there and we say, “I do,” it would change things materially. Likewise if I say, “I promise I will be here on Tuesday,” you show up expecting me to also.  But if I just say the words “I do” in a grocery store, I don’t end up married.  Since Austin, its generally agreed that all  language is performative – all language does stuff. So I depend on that idea a lot. In using the text  “Spooning Richard Serra” there, it’s like a lever towards meaning. You could look at this image and it could be a pretty abstraction, but the language makes you think about art history, think about cuddling, think about the canon and if I’m in it or not, think about who is Richard Serra and who gets to cuddle these giant masculine metal monoliths he made, and maybe the idea of cuddling with his work feminizes or queers it or him in someway.

Was this around college when it started finding it’s way into your work? And who were your influences to incorporate it?

For about fifteen years I was doing these Muhammad Ali valentines,  that paired drawings of him with lyrics from pop songs. I think it started with using those lyric samples from music, that’s where the habit of pairing figurative image with language came from. I’ve always done these valentines and gifts. I think one of the things I like about printmaking is that it can move around in different ways than, say painting or large scale sculpture.

Were there artists in particular who influenced you to incorporate language?

Mark Lombardi was definitely one. The artist who I came across and I loved first was Eva Hesse, because I had never really liked abstraction before.  I saw her work in eighth grade at the Yale Art Center and I was like, “oh shit.” How does she do feeling with these blobs of whatever?  The other artist I loved, and it’s kind of corny to say now, but I loved Andy Warhol as a kid. He just like grinded it out!  And then I saw his drawings which felt so queer, so tender –  and then I learned about the Factory and him hanging out with the Velvet Underground, and I was just like “who was this dude?” And it wasn’t immediately like “oh I have to learn to screen print” but I think there is something to the repetition that to me relates to mechanized production but also trauma and memory. Seeing one Warhol electric chair painting is one thing, but seeing a room of all thirteen is a whole different thing. I think I like iteration as an approach to thinking.

When you talk about this dichotomy between logic and expression in your work, geometric shapes and organic shapes, are there places where you feel like that distinction breaks down at all?

The way a friend of mine, Iris Eichenberg said it was, “you want to ride the edge of a knife”, and I do!   I want it both ways. I hate these binaries, and I want to show these things clashing, but I also feel both sides very intensely and to pretend that I’m like easy  with it would be bullshit — it’s like I’m a conflicted kid, and so my stuff is about these conflicts. So like with this work (Butch Flowers), butchness is a kind of masculinity, and flowers are a kind of femininity, and these kind of flowers are kind of like masculine flowers, but there’s also this sense of “this and that” but how do you hold them together? Like how do you hold these paradoxes and conflicts? Maybe the psychological goal is integration, but I’m not integrated (laughs)! We all have conflict. I think for a long time growing up I was presented as a happy kid who was good at getting along with people, and the way I did that was just trying to be positive all the time—and I’m still able to pull that out – to float the boat doing dark times – it is a skill. But I think I find great comfort in recognizing my own pain, and other people’s pain – and when I can do it with some levity or beauty, I feel like other people can feel seen too. This is like silly and funny (points to Spooning Richard Serra) but anyone who has not felt at the top of the heap (of the art world or anywhere) probably also could be like, “can I fuck with these guys too?”


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