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The Artist’s Odyssey, “Artists and Provocateurs Debby and Larry Kline,” by Barbarella Fokos, March 30, 2017.
In this installment of Where Are They Now, we visit with performance and installation artists Debby and Larry Kline. Read about (and see) their many recent projects in the Q&A with Barbarella Fokos below.
BF: Can you help people further understand “My Dinner with the Klines?”
LK: My Dinner with the Klines is an extension of a common experience. Everyone has played with things on the table while waiting for a check in a restaurant. We simply take this to a new level. The challenge of creating the work is that we use no tools — tape, glue, etc. All sculptural works are created using only the materials provided by the restaurant. In the words of poet/writer/artist David Antin, “…So the Klines began to regard these dining experiences as performances that enacted the recovery of art from rubble.” Rubble, in this case, refers to the significant amount of waste generated in the United States in the form of paper and plastic when dining. For us personally, it is one of our most intimate collaborations. Because the pieces are created so quickly, our collaboration must be very fluid.
(Executive Producer, Barbarella Fokos; Director, David Fokos; Segment Producer, Giovanni DiGiacomo; Associate Segment Producer, David Moldering; Editor, PJ Bagley; Special Thanks to Rudford’s Restaurant)
BF: I recently had the honor of witnessing your work firsthand. It seems you’re always creating art with My Dinner with the Klines. Is there a place people can go to see this growing body of work?
DK: This is definitely an ongoing work. The initial photographs and videos have been culled into limited edition, artist made, hardcover book including 45 photographs, stories behind the meanings of the works, and 13 short videos, all created in restaurants. We anticipate creating a second volume as we continue this project. We also have an extensive selection of large format photographs available for exhibition and purchase. The new photographs are not online, but when the piece is exhibited, we always add new images to the mix. Some of the works can be seen by visiting our website, or by contacting us directly and visiting our studio.
BF: What sort of artwork have you created since we filmed you?
LK: Well, I guess right out of the box, we would have to say that we were thrilled that episode of Art Pulse TV (in which we appeared) won an Emmy for Arts & Entertainment Programming. It has been a big source of pride for us. The episode was sponsored by Art San Diego 2013, where we were being featured as winners of the San Diego Art Prize. The art fair was a frenetic time for us, but also a break-out event that really increased our local visibility. In addition to showing at the Art Prize booth, we gave three live performances and had a solo exhibition of “The Candy Store” at Beyond the Border, a space sponsored by gallerist and collector Larry Poteet. In “The Candy Store” we created a retail space housing “inconsumable products” made out of controlled substances such as tobacco teddy bears and candies with prescription medications baked in the glazes. The piece was about the trend toward self-diagnosis and treatment due to rising healthcare costs. The work also addressed the safety of some medications and brought into question the marriage between the regulatory arm of the US government and the pharmaceutical industry. One of the “active ingredients” in our products, Vioxx, had been removed from the market due to a reassessment of the potential dangers posed by this drug (which sometimes resulted in death).
DK: One of the coolest aspects of the installation was that people confided in us as though we were medical professionals. Our show at Beyond the Border was declared one of the best shows of 2013 by San Diego CityBeat magazine. We were also honored that the brilliant David Antin wrote about our work for the San Diego Art Prize catalog that year, a highlight for anyone’s career! We were further honored that “The Candy Store” became one of the few solo exhibitions at A Ship in the Woods about a year later. In fact, since the 2013 art fair, our
feet never quite hit the ground, and we have had multiple shows each year since then, producing about a half a dozen different bodies of work since we were filmed for Art Pulse TV.
By the end of the year, we had created a new body of work called “Call and Response and Response,” for the San Diego Art Prize exhibition at the La Jolla Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. It is the first series in which our collaboration is the heart of the work, due to the method used to create these drawings. The “CALL” occurs when one of us asks the other partner to draw something based on a word or short phrase. Once that drawing is finished, the person who issued the “CALL” creates a second drawing, a “RESPONSE” to the first drawing. This series emphasizes the continued spirit of play and the duality that guides many of our projects as we feed off of each other’s ideas.
LK: One of our favorite aspects of this show was that, while many tried, no one could successfully identify the author of each of the ten drawings on display. When we respond to each other in this way our drawing styles begin to mesh. We were thrilled that one of the drawings from the show was gifted to the Athenaeum by a collector and is now our second artwork in their permanent collection.
In 2014, we built “The Post-Apocalyptic Coffee House,” a multimedia installation launched at Torrance Art Museum’s exhibition, “Prep School – Apocalyptic Visions and Survival Scenarios.” It could be thought of as the last coffee house on earth, a 10’ x 13’ sandbag structure that provides a safe space to sit, drink a free cup of coffee, and contemplate the end of the world while watching video excerpts of others describing how they envision this end. Those who wished to participate were encouraged to post a video addressing their thoughts, fears and visions of the end of the world to Twitter using #cuppadoom, and some of their videos were eventually incorporated into the artwork. Later in the year, it returned to San Diego as part of the “Beyond Limits” exhibition at the San Diego Art Institute. It also got great coverage by Lonnie Burstein Hewitt at the La Jolla Light and Susan Myrland at San Diego City Beat.
DK: We also launched “Think Tank” that year. This piece was originally designed in conjunction with Comic Con at Mark Murphy’s, Art Expo 2014 at the Media Design School of Digital Arts. It was later shown as an ArtLab project at Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair 2015. The tank itself is a quarter scale model of an M1 tank made of foam core. We gathered stories from soldiers and their family and friends and transcribed them into text and cartoons, which sprawl across the surface of the tank. Delivering the content in this way makes the stories more relatable while honoring the experiences of these superheroes. The most challenging aspect of creating the piece was collecting the personal stories. Military stories are often sensitive and private, so they are often difficult for individuals to share. There is also the challenge of representing others’ stories through our imaginations, interpreting and envisioning the experiences. Two memorable stories are related to preparations for chemical warfare: A soldier in Iraq who was so starved for fresh food that he shoved a sandwich into his gas mask before he ran for the bunker. His comrades were terrified because he seemed unresponsive during the attack, but he was actually feasting. Another drawing tells of a soldier who accidentally tore her chemical weapons suit and was pacified by a Master gunnery sergeant who told her that he was repairing it with a “special tape.” This, of course, was later revealed to be duct tape. We intentionally left space on the tank for additional stories, so as the work moves from location to location, it will change and grow. We are appreciative that so many have trusted us and shared their lives.
LK: Think Tank was the first of many new projects in 2015. “Project Yourself (personal projection device),” was created for an exhibition at San Diego Art Institute Project Space at Horton Plaza. It looks a bit like a large 1950’s ray gun, and it projects images onto the chest of the wearer using only an LED flashlight and handmade slides made of architectural foam. The wearer becomes the projectionist, screen, image interpreter and discussion catalyst for each changing image. The wearer can also change the focus or create subtle movement within the image by moving the wire handles. The whole thing is a rather phallic protrusion, and this work visually pokes the audience to question if it is a threatening weapon, an alien space gun or something quite innocent. The first exhibition of this work provoked a security guard to interrogate us as to our intent and to determine if it would be allowed in the building. “Project Yourself” will also be worn during the final MAS Attack at the Torrance Art Museum this November.
DK: 2015 also marked the first of our supersized collaborative drawings with “Prayer Rug: Be not Afraid,” a 4 x 8 foot image that began with a map of the earth, a flattened globe that began to take on the geometry of a Navajo rug.
LK: Our drawings are exercises in simultaneity, and in these large drawings, we often begin at opposite sides of the paper, eventually crawling all over each other. This free-flowing game of tag carries on until the surface of the paper is covered in a complex web of images. In this case, the drawings depict every sort of natural and man-made disaster that can befall our planet, from storms, volcanoes and tsunami, to nuclear blasts and the Ebola virus.
DK: As the earth splits apart, the viewer can be calmed by deciphering the secret message of hope, delivered in binary code near the bottom center of the image. This drawing debuted with “MASAttack 2015” at San Diego Art Institute, a joint project of Ginger Shulick Porcella and Max Presneill at Torrance Art Museum. Ann Berchtold later saw the drawing and reproduced it as a 23’ billboard at corner of 10th and Broadway in downtown San Diego as part of Open Walls Project, 2015.
LK: We finished out the year by curating an exhibition for Gotthelf Gallery, titled, Seeing Is Believing: A Reinvention of Articles of Faith (Artists: Cheryl Nickel, Dave Ghilarducci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Paula Levine, Jamex and Einar De La Torre). This exhibition featured artists who contemplated how faith meshes with contemporary life, the role of ritual and symbolism, and the metamorphosis of traditional symbols as they become immersed into popular culture. This exhibition was multicultural and addressed many faiths, but in true Talmudic tradition, these artists posed questions, made comparisons, challenged customs and found commonalities.
DK: Some viewers found parts of these works irreverent, but the presence of religious imagery in contemporary art indicates that questions of faith are still relevant. Among the cool curatorial finds in this exhibition, are busts of Jesus and Mary made of cast Carrara marble, molded directly from Michelangelo Buonarroti’s original “Pietà”, housed at the Basilica of St. Peter, in Vatican City. The “Pietà” is an icon in it’s own right, both as a religious symbol and as standard of beauty and artistic genius. With the blessing of the Vatican, the heads alone were cast. However, separating them from the whole artwork changed them from the original, making them more objects of curiosity rather than ones of grief and suffering. Viewers could get a much closer look at Michelangelo’s handiwork than would ever be possible at The Vatican, but in this contemporary context these sculptures also become relics of human endeavor, creativity and the cult of fame of both the religious figures and the artist himself.
LK: 2016 brought the creation of the massive installation “The Alchemist and His Junks,” a piece devoted to the living cycle of trash and commerce between the U.S. and China. The main character, over twelve feet in height, is both ancient and modern. His garb is based on ancient Han dynasty jade burial suits, but in this work it is transformed into a sleek superhero, emblematic of industry.
DK: His logo, the Chinese character for gold, is made of lead and gold leaf. As with most materials, lead’s unique properties has both positive and negative aspects. Of course, we are grateful that lead is available to protect us from X-rays and radiation from nuclear reactors, and provide us with instant electrical power through the use of lead batteries. At the same time we are shocked to find lead in toys, clothing, dishware and many other products that we “consume.” This comes from a production system that has outpaced our ability to neutralize the waste that we generate.
LK: In this work, we show recycled waste transported from the market where products are consumed, back to the manufacturer, where The Alchemist creates new products to be sent back to the consumer. The products return loaded with value but often containing traces of toxic materials. This installation does not place blame, other than to say that we all share in both the consequences as well benefits of the manufacturing process. This giant has been on the road for much of this year. It was originally created for a solo exhibition at HB Punto Experimental, and it then traveled to the “Significant Others” show at San Diego Central Library Art Gallery; “MasAttack 2016” at San Diego Art Institute; and “Happening en el Valle” in Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico. It is also scheduled to be exhibited at California Center for the Arts Museum in 2017.
BF: What is the most common question you get from those learning about your work for the first time?
D&L: When people realize that we are artists, the first question is always, “What medium do you use?” The answer is that we are not those kinds of artists. Our work is issue based, so we always seek the best media to tell the story. To this end, we have used everything from traditional materials to ketchup, mud from the Dead Sea, salt from Bonneville, electromagnetic fields and eBay.
BF: What are you working on now?
LK: We have been quite busy. We exhibited, “The Alchemist,” at HB Punto Experimental. That piece then travelled to Mexico as we were among the US contingent of international artists exhibiting in Valle de Guadalupe as part of “Happening en el Valle.” We were also hired by Write Out Loud, SD this summer, to create illustrations for live Kamishibai storytelling performances of Roald Dahl’s, “The Magic Finger.” Dahl is best known for writing “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “James and the Giant Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” among others. Balboa Park honored Dahl’s birthday with a great schedule of programming related to his work, including three performance debuts of “The Magic Finger” featuring our illustrations, performed at the House of England, the Japanese Friendship Garden, and Starlight Bowl Ampitheater.
A few weeks ago, we were honored to create a performance piece as a tribute to our good friend David Antin, who passed away in October. His memorial in Los Angeles was truly remarkable. A host of friends including artists, writers, poets, curators, art historians, museum directors spoke glowingly of his brilliance, humor and generosity. We created “Cacophony and Utterances,” a participatory poem in two parts based on the artist’s own works. The first reading took place in the Getty Center theater, with hundreds of participants each reading one of five of David’s poems simultaneously. Through his words, a cacophonous wall of sound filled the theater. The second part of the performance took place later that evening. Participants were asked to take the poem with them and at 9 o’clock in the evening, find a quiet place to recite it in a strong clear voice. For David. He would have smiled.
And, of course, the latest iteration of My Dinner with the Klines came while eating at a restaurant with YOU (Barb and David Fokos) and Melissa and Travis Walter.
BF: What’s on the horizon in terms of projects and shows?
DK: We were recently awarded the Calzona Prize in a ceremony at UCSD. The award includes the deed to a plot of land in the desert on the border of California and Arizona, which we will use to create art and turn the land into a way-station for travelers. The artwork will be a series of earthworks that relate to the formation of the Salton Sea. This project should take about a year to complete and will be a sister piece to Earth Igloo for Jerusalem, a piece we created for an exhibition at Museum on the Seam.
LK: We are collaborating with Salk Institute scientist Saket Navlakha to create an artwork that will be part of the “Extra-Ordinary Collusion: Art and Science Collaborations” exhibition at San Diego Art Institute in 2017. We’ve had our first meeting and the ideas are sprouting. We will also be included in two group exhibitions at California Center of the Arts Museum in 2017-2018, one in collaboration with the artists of Public Address and the second as part of a show related to recycled art.
DK: We will be exhibiting in the final MASAttack exhibition at Torrance Art Museum, also next month. We were pleased to invite artists Elizabeth Stringer and Kim Garcia to participate in this great event. We are also leading a tour to the Salton Sea for the MCA, which includes a lecture about our work. Finally, we just learned that we have been offered a booth at Art San Diego 2016 in November to create something spectacular.
BF: How would you recommend someone go about approaching your work? What should they digest first, second, etc. to get the full experience?
LK: Our work often deals with very serious questions about social issues, politics, economics, and justice. We use striking aesthetics and sometimes humor to address these issues and make them more accessible to the general public. This creates a duality in the works, which may be visually pleasing and/or interesting while maybe quite disturbing on a deeper level. The key to understanding these works is to give them time and to dig deeper to find more subtle and complex content and meaning.
DK: Once they become vested, we metaphorically slap them around a bit, so their thinking is expanded and they begin to see meanings below the surface.
After this Q&A, the Klines had even MORE updates to share!
From the Klines:
We have begun siting foundations and excavating for Igloo Inversions for the Salton Sea, our project in Calzona, CA. We are moving toward securing funding for the project.
We led a tour of famous desert sites for Museum of Contemporary Art Members. Visited Salvation Mountain, East Jesus and ended the tour at our home for dinner and a studio visit.
We accepted an invitation to exhibit The Alchemist and His Junks at Art San Diego 2016. Sold some works to first time collectors and loved all of the animated exchanges with the attendees and art professionals.