The Interrogator Volume 1
Artist Charles Mahaffee interviewed
by Noé Cuéllar and Adam Rose.
Photo by Noé Cuéllar
What is your relationship to numbers and numerology?
I'm not sure it's a direct usage of any specific system. The
numbers I use exist as rhythms loaded on top of each other till they
implode back on themselves. That way I can find a confused discord that
overloads more than any intentionally crafted dissonance. I don't care
so much that these numerical contexts are explicitly legible in the
work; it's another case of mutating an eccentric and obsessive thought
process. The use of musical terms here is fairly revealing though.
How do you feel about rock music?
I'm a huge fan of a lot of rock music, particularly where the sound
of the instruments is pushed far beyond whatever the next guy might be
doing. That's what I respond to about rock music as a concept; it set
the stage for destruction of its own preset verse-chorus-verse
structure. Most types of distortion, overdrive, and feedback found in
noise music today began as experiments used in rock guitar playing. On
the other hand, rock is also associated with a kind of bravado and
swagger that I find boorish and dull. I'm highly skeptical about the
mythos of the guitar hero playing 50 notes a second. And yes, quite a
lot of that swagger has appeared everywhere as well, from the personas
of visual artists to the self importance of many noise musicians.
What was some of your earliest art like, what are some of your first
In grade school I got into trouble everyday for
drawing in class, usually comic book characters and images from books I
was reading. Eventually I made up my own characters, and I guess this
is where I started thinking creatively, though I was still usually
repeating or mimicking what I had seen elsewhere.
At 15 I took my first
art class, exposing me to art history which I had never seen before. I
painted a portrait of a cousin in the style of Van Gogh, and from then
on I was obsessed with mark making and brushstrokes. When I went to
LaGrange College in Georgia and got my first proper studio my sophomore
year, I decided I wanted to be a painter. I was completely enamored
with the abstract expressionists, even when I was painting figuratively.
My early paintings were mostly brushy paint heavy large abstract
paintings, using a lot of flesh tones stolen from De Kooning. I painted
my first nude self portrait in 2001, which set me off on a series of
nudes, again laden with brushwork, until around the time I left for
Chicago in 2004.
Can you compare your formative influences to your latest ones?
My early influences left me drunk on "expressing" emotions, using
art as a way to communicate "human feeling." I was an avid reader of
fictional literature, responding mainly to suffering protagonists and
their pitfalls into obsession, resignation, and sometimes redemption.
These are heavy words, but I found them reflected in the struggle with
paint and canvas, overcoming or being overcome by the materials,
creating an image that would pass on the evidence of the confrontation.
This bubble was somewhat popped after being rejected from grad schools
after graduation. I realized I had no content, only rhetoric. I was so
into "being a painter" that I had no idea what I was actually doing
I didn't immediately shift into other influences, but started to
research about the artists I already revered instead of just looking at
their work. De Kooning was very much a thinking person, well versed in
philosophy as well as poetics. Van Gogh had quite sane and calculated
reasons for the colors he chose. Art was far more than what you felt
"inside." I no longer wanted to make work "about" obsession; I wanted
to make work about what I was obsessed by. The more obsessions I
researched, the more things I found to research. As my work became more
focused, my thinking became more complex, and the emotive aspect I
labored so hard to depict began to show up far more intensely by seeping
in through the back door. It didn't need me to prop it up; it was
already there. From there I was free to explore anything, from
linguistics to quantum physics to experimental music, anything that
piqued my interest, because it all would inform and mutate the work on
its own. Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, as well as more recent figures
like Tracey Emin or Sarah Lucas stood out to me as other artists who
allowed not just different media to come into play, but showed how these
different focuses could connect and reinforce the central themes of
their work. There was no difference between thought and feeling, no
need to illustrate action in one certain medium or another. These
pieces can think on their own.
You're an artist that works with
video, sound, performance and visual mixed media. How does your work
relate between mediums? Do you think it's important for artists now to
explore themes in different disciplines?
I think it's very important to explore different media, but not so
much disciplines. I prefer the term media, as it doesn't carry the
singular contexts of the latter term, as in when we say someone has
"mastered" a discipline. I don't want to master anything and have
extreme reservations about "virtuosity." Relating the mediums together
is a matter of restricting each piece to as specific an idea as possible
in an individual experiment within the confines of my broader thought
process. This way they can contradict, support, or erase each other all
depending on where and how they may be "read." The more I remove myself
from orchestrating, and the more different media play on the same theme
at the same time, the more distorted the effect. There's nothing I want
less than eloquent exposition; I far prefer layered static.
What do you think of the Holy Bible?
My immediate family is very religious, but there wasn't any violent
repression or insistence on spiritual matters. I was never forced into
taking part in faith; it was a natural part of my growing up. This is
why I never developed a hatred for the Bible that so many other artists
experience. When I use biblical instances, numbers, or structures it's
more of a relation to a lost part of my history. I am agnostic and I
don't believe in the Scriptures any more than I believe in the Koran,
Vedas, or other religious texts. However, this by no means limits or
defines my relationship to the Christian Bible; it is an indelible part
of my thought and I cannot dislodge it. The acceptance of this
inevitability allows a complex interaction with the Bible that adds
layer to the work and this is nothing I want to leave behind.
How do you react to these words: morality and brutality?
Moralities are difficult to separate from brutalities in that both
imply some sense of punishment, which is either seen as too brutal or
not brutal enough. Both of these systems are arbitrary givens. A lot
of artists use an "immoral" platform in order to question the legitimacy
of a said morality or to defame what it holds dear. To me the hardest
to deal with, and in that perhaps the most brutal, is holding an
"amoral" position. Not only is the social morality questioned, but the
entire concept of morality is obliterated. Substituting one morality
for a more brutal one seems to me to be a cheap circle. Having no
morals at all is impossible to live with, resonating far beyond the
superficial manners of a society, threatening to tear apart the
individual itself. That zero stance is where I hope to start thinking.
Despite your video work being very graphic, it doesn't come across
as a simple way to shock or disturb. In live performance you can be a
strikingly quiet and vulnerable presence. How do you focus imagery and
how does presentation impact your work?
I think it's a matter of having the imagery as a service of the
process rather than an end unto itself. The experimental aspect allows
for some pieces to go quietly and others to adopt a more controversial
stance till the conceptual framework references itself infinitely. They
start to spin on their own. The presentation in an installation setting
allows these spinning structures to break each other down and to
reinforce themselves. That's why shock isn't important to me; it
garners a one dimensional prevalence of one piece over the others. Live
performances are unembellished for the same reasons. The dissonance I
want would be impossible with too much pageantry and input from my
bodily movements. I am vulnerable because I am before the crowd
wrestling with something I designed to be out of control.
How do you relate to the audience during performance?
It's different for every piece. A lot of the performances using
simple means in order to obtain overload, but others are quieter and
less obliquely intrusive. One in particular comes to mind. I was doing
a performance consisting of reading a list of useless arguments before
the crowd. I read the list again and again. To my surprise, the
audience began laughing initially with the repetition, but by the end of
the piece they were reciting the list with me. It was a profound moment
for me because none of that was planned whatsoever, and I had not
expected any such reaction. It sealed the performance as a true
experiment, and opened up new channels to consider. An artist really
can't trust or control what the viewer might bring to the piece.
What do you think about language in general, and English in
I can't escape it. Even when someone uses the phrase "I can't put
it into words" I wonder if they could had they simply been given
different words. All I can say about English is that I use it because
it's the only language I know. Language is one of my main concerns and
subjects to study and work through. It is untrustworthy, necessary,
freeing, inhibiting, missing, present, past, on and on. In my work I
don't presume to understand language and its affect on us. I want to
see how many ways and times I can stretch it, bend it, and sever its
properties. I want to make it stop being what it is and become what I
want it to be. But in my very wanting it to be something else I have
already codified it into language. This already makes a circle; done
enough times it makes it an infinite regression. Again, it spins on its
Charles Mahaffee was born in 1980 in Decatur, Georgia. He attended
LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, completing his B.A. in Art in
2002. In 2004 he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago,
earning a B.F.A. in 2005 and an M.F.A. in 2007. Since graduating he has
shown at Julius Caesar Gallery, Gallery Uno, Zrobili and has performed
at the 1901 Gallery, The Op Shop, and Garbage World, as well as other sites
around Chicago. He lives and works in Chicago.