Mark Penner-Howell is a Denver based artist whose work pulled me in with seemingly playful imagery and bold use of color. I was lucky enough to sit down with the Mark to find out more about what makes his work so intriguing, and why I wait anxiously for him to unveil his new show each year.
Tracy Tomko (TT): What influences or inspires your work?
Mark Penner-Howell (MPH): Lots of stuff. I’m really interested in ‘memes’ - ideas that have the ability to replicate themselves in different forms and have a life of their own, but they get mutated and transformed as they move away from their source. That’s what the ‘mash-up’ creative approach is all about, and I like how rich it can be. I want to try to achieve a kind of conversational quality in my work that involves all sorts of cultural references.
Contrasted with that, lately I’ve been interested in the idea that there are only a few media properties that are dishing out what we get subjected to in terms of mainstream news and culture. That’s an idea that really gets into my work. The Big Brother kind of Orwellian quality to the media – like “don’t touch that dial, we’re in charge of your television” is interesting to me.
In terms of artists I like, James Rosenquist has been a big inspiration for me, in that he cracked things open in the direction that I’m going - Post-Pop Art, with big narratives and crazy stuff flying around. I like the way he breaks up space. His painting “F-111”, which is at MoMA , I look at over and over. It’s good to give yourself benchmarks.
TT: What are the differences between Pop Art and what you are doing?
MPH: I’m aware of Pop, and what I do kind of references it. There’s a preoccupation in Pop Art with materiality and how both object and image are mass-produced. Pop Art comments on traditional notions of beauty and collectability as being derailed by mass production. They weren’t making images and saying that they were beautiful, or works of art. That got tacked on later. They took common objects and looked at them differently to turn that whole time in our culture into an art experience. This was the first American art movement to have irony at it’s core. There was a big focus on the methods they were using to produce their work, like screen printing to mass-produce them. What I’m trying to do is reinvest some of those techniques with narrative.
TT: Why did you become an artist?
MPH: My mother used to give me crayons in church to keep me occupied. There was no children’s service. After a while, she thought the drawings were interesting, and good. As a result, she took me and the drawings to the local high school to meet the art teacher, who agreed that I had talent. My mother got me private lessons. I did those in the summer, partly to keep me out of trouble and because she was a working mom. Students from the high school would tutor me. They did things like taking the eraser away or having me make a drawing using only the eraser. Those lessons blew my mind, at the time. That was at age 10, and it stuck. I can’t stop thinking about making things.
TT: Your personal work seems so fueled by bothersome issues in the media. Were you always as conscious and driven about things like the state of our country?
MPH: It’s sort of unavoidable for me. It’s just the only way I can do it. I don’t claim to have any special knowledge or insight in terms of having a position on the issues. I’m just responding to the anxiety that I feel in our culture – the paranoia. I’m trying to acknowledge it, but step away and have a little fun with it. Yeah, it’s really bad, but look at the funny side of it and try to tease that out, even if what you’re having fun with is our addiction to our own fears. We have a basic need to be fearful or watchful, left over from our evolution. I don’t specifically aim to make topical paintings. Like I don’t say, I’m going to do ten paintings about the economy. Even though that’s what my last show was. The way I approach it is more idiosyncratic. I’m working, and I’ll get all these half-baked ideas that start to make sense with each other because of where I’m at in that moment. As things develop, I might nudge the paintings in a direction so that a grouping of works seems more cohesive as a whole. It starts as a general question that I’d like to answer.
TT: In your statement for your most recent show, “The New Normal”, you comment on the media amping up our anxiety. Do you think that those in charge of the media have intentionally done this for a specific outcome?
MPH: I don’t think anyone is so cynical that they’re thinking we can sell advertising if we keep people anxious, but the net effect is that they convey the concern or whatever the big issue is, with urgency, so that we all want to help solve it. If they deliver their commentary or journalism in such a way, it’s going to affect people in ways that I think trigger our innate need to fear and be watchful. It’s an interesting idea to me because as a species we haven’t been out of the woods that long. There’s the whole “fight or flight” response. It gets sublimated and it comes out in ways that we’re not prepared for. So there’s a sort of addiction in our DNA to try to figure out how to get out of fearful situations. We like to test ourselves. We like to have an answer. And we like to put ideologies out there that we believe will pull us through those times. It’s a primal fear that’s just in us. Along the way, a lot of advertising gets sold. (laughs) I’m going to get in my car, turn on NPR, and all the way home I’m going to stress out about Libya, or something else. It’s inevitable.
TT: As an optimist, I purposely avoid spending too much time thinking about downward spirals. The New Normal, being very pointed in it’s satirical statements about the level of failure and naivete in our culture, might have repelled me. Instead, your colors and choice of imagery have a way of lulling my anxiety, even when the subject is unsettling. Are you trying to trick us into thinking about things we’d like to ignore?
MPH: My work used to be way over the top in terms of its ‘viewpoint.’ I had to learn to dial back. If the work is super-topical or referencing one specific time or event, it doesn’t hold up well. I had to back away and let it speak more generally in order for it to have staying power. When I look back at it, my old work could have been considered political art. Angry young people making art sometimes look too much the same. I was guilty of that. I try to be more ambiguous. I want to comment on things while not taking a position, now. I’m really bored by art that has all it’s own answers. I want some of my own ambivalence to show through. I have more questions than answers. If you don’t know the story or if you’re from a different culture, it should still have a big visual hook. That’s important to me. Also humor and irony are important to me.
TT: Do you find any similarity in the types of people that are fans of your work?
MPH: They’re all over the board. Hopefully, that’s because I’ve opened it up so that the content is suggestive and open to interpretation. That allows more people in. I like that there’s a lot of people coming up with their own ideas on what it’s about. I have my own meanings for things, but I like to put them out there in a way that’s provocative and keeps people guessing.
TT: Do you have a dream project you’d like to do? Or, an ideal collaboration?
MPH: I’ve been thinking a lot about installation, which to me is kind of a form of social collaboration. We are used to this new pattern of collaborating because of all the social media tools available to us. We’re used to the constant stream of commentary and feedback. I’d like to create something that’s involving and interactive, still commenting on the media and incorporating sound and sculpture. I’ve done some of this already but it’s very involving. Last year I created a piece with a talking animatronic plush toy, which used ‘text-to-speech’ software to read craigslist “Missed Connections” posts. I’ve got some other ideas along those lines. We won’t give away too much. I like interactivity, but it’s not as natural for me to collaborate with other artists on art projects. I do a lot of collaboration through music. I’m in a band called Ten Tongues in Chicago. Collaboration in music comes really naturally. I’m the guy in the band that runs around playing all the weird instruments.
TT: Are there any films or music that inspire your work?
MPH: I like stuff that’s very layered. I like to find things that feel familiar, but aren’t. I like mash-up music – dense stuff with lots of samples or cultural references. DJ Shadow, Amon Tobin, Murcof, even more traditional ‘bands’ like Arcade Fire are good examples of artists who make crazy musical and historical references, yet they’re doing something that’s really new.
TT: (Fun with Mark’s subconscious mind) Do you have any reoccurring dreams or nightmares you’d be willing to share?
MPH: Yes, I’m haunted by one. I have it all the time. I’m in an elevator that goes up, and it won’t stop. It’s off its hinges, shoots through the roof of the building, and keeps going. It’s like the weights pulled it so hard that it won’t stop, and there’s the feeling that it will fall. There’s a weightlessness. I can see out, and that I’m floating above the city. It’s terrifying, but I always wake up before it falls.
TT: Anything new on the horizon?
MPH: My first show with Walker Fine Art, in Denver, will open on September 16, 2011. Everyone is invited to come see the show. It will be somewhat different from my previous work. I plan to include more realistic rendering of the human figure. I’m going to put these figures in the world that I’ve been working with, but it will be less of a graphic representation of a character and more like someone you might see on the street. I’m working with models and placing them in the same kind of unhinged narratives. These aren’t portraits. I have an image of what the models look like ahead of time, then I find someone who’s look matches what I’m going for, so they’re more like actors, in a way.