The Interrogator Volume 1
February 2011
Artist Charles Mahaffee interviewed by Noé Cuéllar and Adam Rose.

Photo by Noé Cuéllar

AR: What is your relationship to numbers and numerology?

CM: 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.

AR: How do you feel about rock music?

CM: 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.

NC: What was some of your earliest art like, what are some of your first creative memories?

CM: 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.

NC: Can you compare your formative influences to your latest ones?

CM: 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.

NC: 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?

CM: 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.

AR: What do you think of the Holy Bible?

CM: 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.

AR: How do you react to these words: morality and brutality?

CM: 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.

NC: 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?

CM: 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.

NC: How do you relate to the audience during performance?

CM: 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.

AR: What do you think about language in general, and English in particular?

CM: 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 own.

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.