An interview with Ken Little by Laurence Miller
LM: What are some of the influences on your work?
KL: Wow! Everything from comedies on Saturday mornings, early television, and Walt Disney when I was a kid to “Western Artists” like Charlie Russell. When I went to art school in the sixties, my professors were pushing Abstract Expressionism, but we were all distracted by Pop Art, earthwork artists like Smithson, the Arte Povera group, Eva Hesse, Joseph Beuys, and Richard Serra. Subsequently, I had a great interest in the Hairy Who, outsider “visionary” artists like Sam Rodia and an eye on renegade long timers like DuChamp, Phillip Guston, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Most recently, artists like Bruce Norman, Jonathan Borofsky and Terry Allen interest me. My contemporaries are, I think, somewhat loosely defined by the group coming out of the University of California at Davis: Bill Wiley, Robert Hudson, John Buck, Bob Arneson, Bob Brady, and Deborah Butterfield. Here in Texas there are Dave Hickey(who now lives in Las Vegas), Harry Geffert, and Ed Blackburn.
Growing up in West Texas and fixin’ to make art out here in the middle of nowhere, I was also inspired by the art of Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and Bill Joe Shaver. I’ve read Mark Twain, Melville, Thoreau, Black Elk, Joseph Campbell, and others… That’s it in a nutshell.
LM: Place this installation of yours into a historical context in terms of your development as an artist. What were the issues you were trying to address?
KL: Well I’m not the kind of artist who identifies an issue and then goes step by step toward it. But, there are issues that I have gone through and then cycled back to over and over through the years.
LM: So the work and the issues are cumulative?
KL: Yes. I visualize the process like those old LP records on the bottom shelf. The first circle of issues you go around is a really long one. The next one comes around parallel to it but a bit shorter. Age works this way too, Your first six years takes forever, your last six years go by like that (snaps fingers) if you live to be an old man! The biggest circle I follow is confronting or creating an overall sense of wonder. It’s not a completely intellectual experience that is easily explained in verbal terms. It’s an experience that is easily explained in verbal terms, it’s an experience of being in the present moment and thinking, by God, there really is something magic in the world. An example of this happened to me in the seventies at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was there from out of town, wandering around killing time, I think. Anyway, I rounded a corner and was literally stopped – It was a seated figure covered in cowrie shells, probably African about two-thirds life-size. It just stopped everything for me. I had to stand in front of it and try to put the world back together.
LM: An aesthetic experience?
KL: Maybe, yes. It was as if I’d made it, although I didn’t. I wasn’t the artist, but the object and I were not separate. We were one thing. I used the experience for a long time and you could see some of it in those early shoe pieces where I was working with similar patterns. In a sense I was working more like a painter than a sculptor because I was moving things around on a surface, breaking them up from a static profile, making the animals bristle and squirm.
LM: Is each major work building up from the previous work? Is there a sequence?
KL: Yes. You know, I’ve cannibalized pieces in order to make other pieces. I have a general working process where I make a lot of elements and use a few of them in one work. The rest of them lie around in the studio and eventually I make them into something else. In a way it’s like I make my own found objects and let them lie around until I discover them in a new way. I sort of make spare parts and eventually find a way to synthesize them. This installation “Soaring/The Rules of Engagement” is a synthesis of some of the elements I have worked with the last six or seven years – some new additions.
LM: Is this the culmination of six years of work?
KL: Not a culmination in the sense that it’s an end, but a synthesis. It’s as good as I can get it right now.
LM: Ken, describe this piece to me.
KL: The whole thing from the title on down, is a series of complements or couplets pertaining to the relationship of the material world that we know, touch, see, and define, and the spirit world of apparitions, mystery, and the sublime. It’s a study of how one defines the other. What is natural? What is unnatural?
The first thing you notice when you go into the space is the density of different things, floating, flying, tumbling, and soaring through space. It’s a deluge – a flood or maelstrom – of dripping color, money angels, chocolate bars, houses, signs, facial expressions, and possessions. On a personal level it refers to a time I almost drowned in whitewater on the Big Blackfoot River outside of Missoula, Montana. I fell out of the canoe and lost my fishing gear, my sunglasses, oar, and all that stuff. I got the canoe back, righted it and got back in, but through another series of waterfalls, ended up having to give everything up – all my material possession – just to save my life. It was a baptism through water that transformed me from one state to another.
At the center of the room is a large anthropomorphic bear figure, a lot like a teddy bear in a sarcophagus, or an oversized chocolate Easter bunny effigy. Its facial features, hands, and toes are very human. All its body orifices glow from red-orange neon light on which it appears to float. It’s the subconscious glow puffing through the surface. I wanted the bear to be male and female, not male or female or neutered. In a relationship to the blue water-like walls, it refers to our deepest mythological and volcanic origins. Circling the bear are neon drawings of hands with facial expressions, like barroom constellations, referring to our first languages: languages of the body and facial expression. They are complimentary in color and substance, illuminating the hulking mass in the center of the room. Hovering above are the Buck and Doe dollar bill angels, faceless, organless, shells that fly swim and fall through or toward the neighborhoods of steel frame houses on the ceiling. Lit from below the neighborhoods are split, with one referencing the Apollonian and Dionysian side. The title of the piece is also Apollonian and Dionysian: soaring like a bird into the night sky along with “the rules of engagement” which pertain to the use of force in military or police activities, a system of control… these are just a few of my thoughts although I don’t intend for this to be an owner’s manual of the work!