Michael Salter

Since 1996, Michael Salter has participated in developing the artist-run space, Lump Gallery in Raleigh, NC and has recently opened the new project space, LumpWest in Eugene, Oregon. He has exhibited nationally and internationally, including his recent show, “Are you sure” at Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York City. Appropriately titled, this exhibition challenges our perceptions of everyday media, merging the vernacular of commercial design with a willful irrationality. While the commercial appeal of Salter’s work attributes to it’s accessibility, the way in which the imagery and surfaces are designated confuses our expectations of both advertising and commodity. Daily Serving recently spoke to Michael Salter about past projects and his most recent solo show in New York City.

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All Photos Courtesy: Jeff Bailey Gallery and the Artist


DS: First, I would like to talk about your experience working with Lump projects, how did this space get started?

MS: When I moved back to Raleigh North Carolina I needed studio space. My wife saw a sign on a local art supply store window about an available space. This is when I first met Bill Thelen, the director and curator of Lump Gallery/Projects. The idea was that if he rented studios on one half of the building, then the other half could be purely a show space. Bill was looking for work motivated by concept, made by people who were honest and committed. I remember hesitantly telling him my work doesn’t really sell if that’s what he was looking for. He reassured me it was all about the work, not the money. Having come from a DIY practice myself, we immediately understood each other. I had a history of exhibiting in renegade shows put together by artists in underground spaces. Bill had been doing living room shows in San Francisco. What began as a tenant/landlord relationship now exists as one of those unique friendships that lasts a lifetime. Lump was to be a professionally run project space open to all media and invested in showing work not usually embraced by the typical commercial gallery scene. We were kids, we were idealists, the crazy thing is – it worked. It still works today nearly 11 years later.

Raleigh is no where near the center of the art world, but we just believed that good work needed to be experienced. I believe in all the functions of the space. It connects artists in an otherwise loose community. It provides challenging work in a beautiful space. It allows for discourse to occur. Bill deserves all the credit, absolutely without question. My role was, and still is, that I am his greatest believer and supporter. In the early years I’d sit in the gallery during open hours, I’d help design print promotion, and I can say I have filled my share of nail holes in walls. The space is privately owned which means Bill has the sole curatorial responsibility. Though functioning much like an artists’ run space, there is and always has been only one guy behind the whole thing, Bill Thelen. He always likes to offer me some credit for the success of the gallery, but this is my interview and it’s my chance to let everyone know he’s a genius. He certainly has what I believe to be one of the most well rounded holistic approaches to curating. He’d give somebody his or her first show or invite a super star. We always agreed that it didn’t matter how old you were, or if you even went to school, just that the work be challenging and engaging. People need to see good work, there is so much of it out there, so many artists who will never be allowed to break into a particular scene, and we’d be crazy not to experience what they have to offer.

In 11 years there’s been a lot of shows, but there has been some critically important artists who helped shaped my own artistic practice. The list includes

DS: Art-as-commodity seems to be a condition that your work criticizes. For example, the Subzer-o series is similar in form to the models being produced by Justin Novak, who’s writing about the gray area between art and design, between production and preciousness, and editions, fascinates me and aligns with my work in many ways. I was determined to look at the object of the character in a precious material, delivered in unique editions; and this contrasts the vinyl toy market’s formula. Some element of all of my work is always in response to consumer culture. I love the artist/designer toy craze, but I am afraid it’s a bit saturated and like any market flush with product, the good stuff is hard to find. I am really most interested in the idea of looking at the character as precious art/object.

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“Road in Sight” was a project that migrated to the street, where your hybrid icons functioned more literally like advertising. This particular work parodies the messages and imagery imposed upon the public, while simultaneously emulating the presentation and territorial strategies that are used to communicate these messages.

DS: Could you talk about the way this piece functions on the street vs. a gallery?

MS: I actually think they function much the same. The reductive graphic language has always cast its authority in to my consciousness. The visual hype of ‘happy meals’, “always low prices”, sneakers, toys, movies, t-shirts, technology, politics, Olympics, video games, MTV, booze, smokes, Coke and Pepsi, breakfast cereal, NASCAR, and toothpaste, all seem to find me whether I am inside or out. I see it riding the bus and watching the bus go by. For delivering my work, I have no preference between the street and the gallery. Each of these presentations function similarly; each icon subverting the authoritative, reductive, graphic language used to brand corporate identity and sell dog food. I hope within each icon, logo, or pictogram that a strange new message is communicated, one that tries to elude definition or resolute narrative. I hope to manipulate the visual ‘triggers’ people associate with contemporary visual culture.

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DS: Your work addresses the differences between street and gallery, simply by way of scale. I’m reminded of the way billboards or signs look at close range. Like these monumental structures, the Styrobot dwarfs other work in the exhibit and even the space in which it inhabits. Would you say the work functions to objectify hierarchy?

MS: I can see looking at that statement in 2 ways; formally or physically vs. conceptually. All my installations have these odd relationships of scale and placement. I am always very aware of how the work is addressed…. to be backing up from a monumental sculpture to get a full view, only to back right into a tiny and delicate piece demanding close observation. The experience is unsettling and I like that. It is further realized by consciously addressing the space between moments, the clustering of images, motion, media, surface, etc. The ideas around images and art in the street and its relationship to the gallery fascinates me. I want to swap contexts fluidly, putting work on the street as willingly as I will let the label on a can of toilet bowl cleaner influence my gallery work. The white box acts more like a stage then the highest, most revered place for images and objects to exist; a stage to manipulate perception and response, while twisting reference and association.

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The dichotomy of high and low culture is ever present in your work; some pieces set a high expectation for the viewer, while others engage a willful misunderstanding of our visual culture. Perhaps the aspect of entertainment allows the viewer to suspend disbelief and project his/her own narrative…

Ultimately, my observations of visual culture and my own personal fascination with the chaos that surrounds it, is my motivation and in no way is it required of the viewer to know that or position themselves as such. My hope is for the viewer to see my synthesis of visual culture and get a glimpse in to my vision. When someone understands the work, I feel for that moment I might actually not be crazy. There are always clues, triggers and gateways for the viewer to build a narrative and meaning. My interest has revolved around the ideas of the reductive visual language and it’s potency. ‘How much’ can be said with ‘how little’? Can something seem so obvious to one person yet read completely differently by others. Can a narrative begin a linear path and then wind up suspended and unresolved? My favorite books and movies keep me haunted and nagged by potential meanings and narratives. My intention is for my work to instigate the viewer in the same way – to be bothered or teased, but not delivered a comfortable solution in any way.

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