Lunch #4 with Mark Wentzel

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Mark Wentzel was my former professor and a thesis advisor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His sharp ideas and inputs to architecturally frame my thesis work continue to be essential in ways I think about my own practice. 

His wife, Jen who also is an artist, and Mark have invited me over for dinners a few times and have offered generous spirit of conversations and life. Out of curiosity of where he was with his work and ideas, I invited him to participate in this lunch project, and he welcomed it. I was quite excited.

Formerly known with his chair piece “XLounge”, Wentzel’s works wrestle with this idea of functionality and aesthetics of art objects, addressing relevant social issues for us to ponder. His show at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center “Morale Hazard” (2009) also questioned this hypothetic/real situation of collapses of systems that we constructed for ourselves. To read more about “Morale Hazard,” here is an Art 21 blog regarding Mark Wentzel’s work. http://blog.art21.org/2009/05/27/holla-from-hotlanta/

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xlounge (2006) #markwentz
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#moralehazard (2009) #markwentzel #aca

When I asked Mark what food to bring, he had one of the simplest requests - coconut soup and spring rolls. I got to his house and he led me to downstairs studio. We crowded a small table with bowls and wrapped spring rolls and started to eat. Mark quickly started the conversation regarding this idea of ‘food’ as a diffuser amongst relationships built with other artists. This constant social negotiation, unless stemmed out of early friendship, with other individuals can be a tricky thing. I think that’s why we need to eat together often like family would. 


Gyun Hur (GH): Your point regarding 'food’ is interesting. You mentioned how 'food’ becomes a diffuser in a sense amongst people since it is an accessible denominator. In a sense, that is why I love eating with people, something so instinctive about food while we may be conversing regarding our emotional and intellectual ideas. We, artists, are interesting - yes, we have this strange relationship with our own 'ego’s and finding ourselves to navigate in the midst of this art world can be trying, rewarding, heart breaking, and enriching. Anyways, could you talk a little more about your project with food and community in Detroit? Even just drawn as an idea on a map, I find it really interesting.

Mark Wentzel (MW): Yeah, food is good stuff. Perhaps because food is highest on the list of basic human needs and the preparation (cooking) of food has a lot to do with our evolution as the dominant species (for better or worse) it makes sense that when it’s sort of put in the position of social currency it works well. Acquisition of taste, nutrition, palate refinement and all that aside…maybe food is that third voice in the conversation that keeps things in perspective relative to basic necessity. In some cultures the phrase “have you eaten” is used in the same way as Americans would say, “how are you doing.” This makes a lot of sense. Besides, you can’t monopolize a conversation so much when your mouth is stuffed with chicken confit, or chicken feet, or chick-fil-A. So my proposal for a specific neighborhood in Detroit uses food as form of creative currency. It’s more of a curatorial concept than an individual art idea that brings people together, in a rough but promising area of the world, over food to generate creative ideas. But more later on that…hopefully.

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Precise design series of his zodiac animal device caught my attention, which led us to converse regarding functionality vs. aesthetics more intensively.

GH: This idea of “vice vs. virtue” and how 'vs’ exists as in-between-er deeply permeates in your work. Your series of sculptures and designs suggest this wrestling between functionality and mere aesthetics and existence as pure sculpture. As a sculptor, as more of a maker rather than a romantic dweller in an image (yes, did we not refer that to painters - ), you are engaging this process as a conceptual thinker and a physical maker. Could you elaborate more on this idea, especially regarding your vice (12 zodiac animal series?)

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MW: What I like about the phrase vice versus virtue beyond quaint alliteration is that while it normally sets up a relationship of opposites, good vs. bad, it can also be a sequence of almost synonymous terms. All three of these terms can act as comparatives, by virtue of this, in vice of that, this versus that, setting up an opportunity for neutrality rather than polarity. So the bench vice as a physical sculptural object came to mind as a mitigating form, sort of like the nail fetishes in the Congo of African, that has a certain diffusive agency.  When realized these will be large scale, functional cast iron works representing seven of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. They are interpretations of the bronze fountainheads created by the 17th Century Italian missionary Giuseppe Castiglione for the Qianlong Emperor at the Old Summer Palace, the ones that Ai Wei Wei replicated recently…from there the story gets a little more complicated. (insert mouthful of cantonese noodles).

After talking intensively about this urgency about wanting to finding an 'answer’ in our act of making, I took some time taking a look at his sketches. This particular space of Mark’s was filled with sketches, graphic mottos, and writings for projects to be actualized. And these notably recognizable structures were to be built, positioned in contexts that would reverse their assumed functionality, asking questions back to the audience of what we are looking at. “Objects” in public space allow works to be accessible - and this accessibility, this democratic way of accessing works and ideas is important to Mark, important to me. And in that idea, we dwelled a bit conversing. 

GH: Your space, in a way, your entire house is fragmented/divided in an interesting way. Even this basement studio space is in a way full of layers. Entrance is a guest room sort, and this current sitting space in which you share with your son August and a lot of your sketches and texts exist. And then behind a black curtain, there is a physical space with tools and machines which you share with Jen. And then the space leads to a bigger space outside. Your way of structuring this (as it is still evolving) architecture in a way hints me the way that you are processing ideas - framing ideas, problem solving situations, negotiating relationships, etc.

MW: My spaces, I guess is more accurate. Partly due to circumstance, but yeah, I have a very compartmentalized work environment. I think this is probably pretty analogous to how my brain works, but it also accommodates different aspects of my work, computer rendering, idea generation, small and larger scale fabrication, studying, along with my family life. These different rooms, I guess five in all, each play a different role in thinking about and making art, but they also allow me to integrate my family relationships, my wife is a clay artist and my son has enjoyed laying some pretty serious marks down on a stack of matt board scraps. Yes, so we have a bunch of independent spaces, each a work in progress in itself.

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We also talked about August (Mark’s son)’s paintings, his incredible brush marks. As an artist, to be a parent and see much part of yourself in your child… must be an incredible thing. 

With the simplest set of food (a small bowl of coconut soup and spring rolls), we had perhaps the most complex conversation about what actually 'making’ means to us artists - makers and thinkers. And a deep concern how art is supposed to function in the midst of our normality was apparent in his work and thoughts. And perhaps Steve Aishman’s text regarding Mark’s show “Morale Hazard” echoes exactly that:

“ Subsequently, his gallery talk was filled with people who had largely diverse interest, like people who were interested in art, people who only wanted to talk about the economy and some people who were just interested in muscles cars.”

- Steve Aishman, “A Report From Phantom Zone,” Big Red and Shiny

Cannot wait to see his next project in person. Thank you, Mark, for making time to share your thoughts and studio space and also the most thoughtful words for this blog post. Thank you, Tin Drum Cafe, for free lunch for us and a gift card!

Next artist is Yana Dimitrova who moved to NYC from Atlanta after her schooling. It is going to be another good one! Stay tuned -

- G.