Discovery Series: an Interview with Gutbox
We’ve all read the same romance novel about the art world and the salons of poets, artists, and patrons. These days, we've lost the community of the salon. The mainstream art world is too obsessed with promoting the individual "rockstar" artist, to bother with the exchange of ideas. It is up to the artists to break through the industry-driven isolation.
We were fortunate enough to get to talk with Gutbox, a collective of nine emerging artists who are doing just that. Based primarily in New York City, the members of Gutbox work collaboratively on pieces in addition to their individual careers. Founded in early 2010, Gutbox is Nick Dyball, John Hagan, Jazz-minh Moore, Ray Sell, Heather Hart, Seth Mulvey, Caroline Thaw, Ulrike Theusner and Thomas Witte.
COMPANY: How did you come up with the name Gutbox? Is it too obvious to say that it’s from the gut?
GUTBOX: Well, it was a unanimous decision. We just threw out some words that came to our brains instantly. We just spit them out. The name came naturally, since we all wanted to get together and do something that was kind of instinctual and from the gut. And we started working on panels, so it’s like a flattened cube—a box.
COMPANY: How did Gutbox get its start?
GB: We were each looking for a way to shake up our own individual processes. Any of us can get used to what we do in our own work, but we wanted a way of having unlimited freedom to experiment. Working together alleviates the pressure of “getting something right” as no one individual is responsible for the whole piece. We all have our own careers going, but this is where we come together and there’s not a lot of pressure on it. Gutbox provides us a space to explore and create. It’s like an aesthetic social club.
COMPANY: What’s your process like?
GB: When we started we didn’t set any parameters. Someone said, here are some panels, it’s a collective, do something. And it was the hardest thing because we never thought we would have to work collectively, or even with another person. So you sit with the panels for a while, take a few months to figure out what to do. At first you try and be really careful, and incorporate your stuff into what’s there already, just be safe. But after a while, you realize you can just work and not worry.
Right now, we’re working with 12x12 wood panels and there’s a lot of random passing off of panels. So it’s like, I have a panel and I want to pass it to somebody, can you meet me here? Then at meetings we’ll lay all the panels out and we’ll determine if they are finished. In everyone’s mind, collectively we decide these are done, or I want to work on this one, or this could use some John. Or this one could really use Jazz-minh. Or Heather needs to spray paint the fuck out of this.
COMPANY: So, you guys have meetings?
GB: Well, this is all over drinks and cigarettes. “Meeting” is probably not the best way to say it.
COMPANY: It actually sounds like an old school jazz riff, where each musician is playing off the theme of the last soloist.
GB: Right. And it throws out your process completely. It’s like, you go, you take a panel, and you’re looking at it. It’s not blank like what you’re used to. You know you’re not working with this material that is only your hand touching it. Four people have already touched it, and four people have already brought their own head to it, and you have to look and say how am I going to fit myself into this, what am I going to fit in here. And so then you’re approaching it completely differently than anything else you’ve ever done. You come across new processes that you haven’t done before. You get some great ideas working on panels others have already worked on and you can apply that to your own process and work outside of Gutbox.
COMPANY: So Gutbox has influenced your individual work?
GB: Absolutely. That’s kind of been the point in a way. The overall mission was to get close with other artists and break our patterns of making work. As individual artists, we all exist in a vacuum sometimes in our own studios. You can get a little lost in your own work. With Gutbox, we wanted to broaden our scope, both the community and our work.
COMPANY: For each of you, has it been a positive experience?
GB: Fucking hell yes
COMPANY: Not just being a part of it—have you ever said, oh wow this is not something I thought I wanted to do in my own work, but I’m doing it because this is what I’ve seen in our group work. And now it’s seeping into my work. Is it hard to balance the two?
GB: The process is very freeing in a way, and there is more room for experimentation. In Gutbox, we can go a lot farther. We are each more willing to take risks on group work than on our own individual work, so it gets us out of our heads and thinking – how can I work something into this panel? For example, Nick works mostly with watercolor. But if a piece already has resin on it, that isn’t going to work, so he has to figure out another way to contribute. And Jazz-Minh is more of a figurative painter, but she also enjoys working with texture and abstraction, and has the freedom to experiment in our collaborative panels. In Gutbox you can do whatever you feel like doing, and not worry about whether it is consistent with things you have made in the past.
COMPANY: Is it difficult to work collaboratively with so many artists, especially when you have total control over the process of your own work?
GB: Working with nine people is hard to imagine. It’s hard to believe that nine brains approaching this project would be a positive experience, especially since it was kind of random where some of us knew each other and some of us didn’t. But the fact is, it works. We had Gutbox’s first solo show at the Y Gallery. People came into that show that had never seen our work and they wanted to know who the artist was. The pieces look like one person could have created them, when in fact it was many.
COMPANY: You each have a really unique aesthetic, are there ever difficulties concerning your artistic differences?
GB: The clashes have been very limited. There have been occasions where things don’t really go well together, but it’s all trial and error. But we’ve learned how to deal with it. Plus, it helps that we laid down some ground rules at the beginning. Basically, we understand that what we do on each panel is worth something. Our time is worth something. So none of us will just paint over something someone has done simply because we don’t like it. We try to work around and within each other’s process.
Every once in a while there will be a panel that’s just getting a little hideous, like it’s just gone in a weird direction. Then we can say, okay, this one, you can really go for it, you can destroy this, and I don’t care what you do to this. Or the other way around - you can say, I really love this panel, try and keep a lot of these elements. But one of us would never throw something out because someone was angry or didn’t like it. Instead, the point is to try and evolve it, to add something and make it your own. You have an obligation to be focused on your own contribution, because that is what you are bringing to the table. With each piece there can be interesting dynamics. Some of our favorites were a mess at one point. And we’re all friends in the end.
COMPANY: How do you manage these decisions? Do you circulate email or do you have formal discussions?
GB: We do all those things, but it’s very organic. It kind of happened over time through our relationships with each other. We developed this trust, and so that trust kind of bled into the work as time went along. As time went along, those decisions became intuitive. Not everyone makes it to every meeting, but we trust each other’s judgment. We’re more of a cacophony than a symphony – we each contribute our own ideas and aesthetics, but in the end we come together to make decisions.
COMPANY: How do you function in terms of representation, shows, and selling? Is there reluctance on the part of galleries to be working with a group?
GB: We haven’t encountered any reluctance, but so far we’ve only been represented by Y Gallery. That’s where we had our first show. They had collectives before, and other crazy projects, so we knew they would be receptive. Monetarily, it’s not really practical. Not only do we split the profits with each other, but with the gallery as well. With each panel sold, we put a percentage back into Gutbox, to fund projects and upcoming exhibitions. Whatever profit that remains is split among the artists who worked on that piece. So, we’re not doing this for the money.
COMPANY: Are you working towards an upcoming shows right now?
GB: We are actually. We have a project in Los Angeles in June, at Hibbleton Gallery. We are moving beyond panels and building “The Gutbox,” a physical incarnation of Gutbox. It will be an 8x8 foot square interactive box that you can walk into. On the outside it’s a super slick commody-looking structure, a cube, and you go into it and it’s our piece. We’re actually working on the wallpaper right now. Basically you’re going to be walking into one of our paintings.
This will be the prototype, or first run, for more Gutbox spaces. We want to build one in New York and we’re looking for places and support. Basically, we’re want the panels be the commodity, and the “Gutbox” spaces to be the creative explosion, a clubhouse. We are making spaces that are outside of American consumer culture and inside of Gutbox. It seems that an interactive, installation iteration more suits the idea of the collaborative, so that’s what we are aiming towards.
COMPANY: So, overall, how would you describe your experience working together?
GM: The experience of working with is group is kind of what being an artist in New York is supposed to be about.
There is a romantic idea of what being an artist in New York should be like—getting together with other artists, talking shop. But that’s not the way life is, or at least it is hard to find. Working together through Gutbox we have created that ideal for ourselves. It’s about communicating with each other on an intimate level and making art. It’s not about making money; it’s about building community and making art, taking risks, and just being creative.
Read More at the Gutbox website.