10 Questions: Melissa Pokorny


Useful Thing / Prop, 2012

10 Questions is a recurring feature that asks artists and other cultural figures about their work, lives, and personal insights into the contemporary art world.

Originally from Detroit, Melissa Pokorny is a sculptor and installation artist working and teaching in Urbana, Illinois. She was included in On the Nothing New: Intertextuality in Contemporary Art at DePauw University, a show curated by The Galleries at Moore’s Director & Chief Curator, Kaytie Johnson in 2011. In April, Pokorny will be exhibiting her work in the group exhibition A Trapped in Your Mind Feeling at Transmission Gallery and Aggregate Space, both in Oakland, California.

1.   Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?

Everywhere! I am a happy wanderer, and I look for moments of connection and recognition in ordinary places within the landscape of the Midwest, where I live. I love to find unexpected jewels hidden in little museums and collections, both private and public. Historical homes and regional museums are a favorite, as are natural history collections and estate sales. My work is heavily invested in ideas about place, landscape, and history. Not the grand narratives found in history books, but the humble histories of lived human experience. How those histories are inscribed on the land, both in the built environments of the domestic or urban milieu, and in the remnants of the natural world as it persists through time, fascinates and compels me. How our memories are connected to both the commonplace and the extraordinary via the objects and things we collect, cultivate and pass on adds to this dimension of collective memory-making constructed through place-making, home-making, and story-telling. My work brings together these divergent places and things, and often assumes speculative collaborations with people I’ve generally never met. It’s all about the tension between absence and presence, memory, imagination, fact and fiction. It’s about telling stories, making amends. It’s about the life of objects that persist while we do not. It’s about loss and dislocation, rootedness and connection. It mines the metaphor of hauntings and pushes the crossing of thresholds, and reminds us that all stories are ghost stories, all pictures are haunted. I consider my work to be about the afterlife of things — the things that we hold dear hold on to us, and manage to conjure presence in our absence, when they get left behind.

2.   What’s your art-world pet peeve?

Oh, where to start! I think that we’re all pretty aware that the “art world” exists in many iterations — some more exclusive than others, but none especially easy to navigate. I tend to keep a healthy distance from it because of where I live now, and sometimes I think I’ve divorced it altogether. I vividly recall being just out of graduate school and seeing “older,” more established artists complaining bitterly about the lack of recognition, lack of sustainability, provincialism, on and on. I was so turned off by that rancor, and I swore I would never go there. I suppose one pet peeve is this: good art happens everywhere — not just in the art centers. I wish there was more celebration of that fact and that the art world was more accessible to artists who live outside the major art cities.

3.   Who is an artist that you think hasn’t received enough recognition?

I could take the obvious route and say, ‘ME!,’ but really, there are too many to name. I do think that recognition takes many forms. Being acknowledged by other artists is sometimes just as gratifying as curatorial or institutional recognition. It’s easy to get sucked into being totally negative about the exclusivity of the art world. Lack of recognition is the most ubiquitous complaint, so most of the artists that I know fall into this category.

4.   What’s your favorite place to see art?

I do love New York City. My favorite places, the galleries that can always be depended on to have something up that I find at least interesting: Andrea Rosen — some of my favorite artists are there — David Altmejd, and Elliott Hundley. I also find Derek Eller to be dependably good, with a really great roster of artists, and very thoughtful group shows. Lisa Cooley is a favorite, too. I love going to the New Museum on Thursday nights when it’s free. Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Primitive was a recent show there that totally surprised me — phenomenal, eerie, immersive. I also like to duck into the lobby to cool off or warm up when I’m going to galleries on the Lower East Side. They have the best selection of books, too.  Good bathrooms. And amazing  homemade marshmallows!

5.   What’s the last show to surprise you?  Why?

Maybe… the Ryan Trecartin show at PS1 last year. I went fully expecting to be underwhelmed by another over-hyped artist. I had seen his work here and there — but the show was astounding, expansive and brilliant. I loved the serial quality of the rooms, and the way in which the audience seating was integrated into the sets. Totally unsettling, but memorable.

6.   What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery?

In the mid 90s, I was in a show in San Francisco at an alternative space called the LAB. The French artist Orlan was also in the show, and seeing her sweep into this tiny little gallery space, looking for all the world like Cruella DeVille, was quite surreal. She was in furs and was wearing a very dramatic dress and boa/scarf sort of thing, and her hair was an amazing bouffant of black and white. She nearly knocked over my work, and she stepped gingerly (and a little contemptuously) around and over and past it. She spoke no English, and I recall it being a very awkward moment.

7.   What’s the worst piece of art you’ve ever made?

I have to pick just one? I usually have a piece in every show that I struggle with. I end up feeling very frustrated and hateful toward these pieces. Ironically, they are often the pieces that people pick out as their favorites. Go figure.

8.   What’s the last great book you read?

My current favorite is The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, by Dylan Trigg. In it, Trigg addresses how recalling the experience of place is not only fundamental to our sense of self, but also how the act of remembering is at its core an uncanny and often eerie phenomenological experience.

9.   What’s your guilty pleasure?

I adore watching stupid paranormal reality TV. Ghost Hunters, and Finding Bigfoot are two of my favorites. If they ever do find a ghost or a Sasquatch, I want to be there to see it–in the meantime, I enjoy all the endless exclamations of “Did you see that?”

10.    What’s an idea for a work of art that you’ve thought about making but never will?

I would love to someday be able to make simple, spare, reductive (small, portable!) work. But I’m a maximalist at heart, and I will always err on the side of wretched excess.

About Melissa:

Melissa Pokorny has been an exhibiting artist for over twenty years. Her found object assemblage, cast resin and digital photo-based sculptural works have been widely exhibited at venues across the U.S. Recent solo shows at Platform Gallery in Seattle and Front Room Gallery in New York augment a long career of solo exhibitions, including exhibitions with Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco and Bodybuilder and Sportsman in Chicago. Selected group exhibitions include venues such as Yerba Buena Gardens, Southern Exposure, Victoria Room, and New Langton Arts in San Francisco; Foodhouse Gallery in Los Angeles; Gallery 400, The Glass Curtain Gallery at Columbia College; and Devening Projects +Editions in Chicago; and The Richard Peeler Art Center at Depauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. Her work is held in collections at the Orange County Museum of Art, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the Richard L. Nelson Museum at UC Davis, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She received her MFA from the University of California, Davis, after earning her BFA from Southern Illinois University in Edwardville. She has received numerous grants and awards, including an Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship, and in 2010, The Efroymson Family Foundation Fellowship. Pokorny is an Associate Professor in painting and sculpture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She currently lives and works in Urbana, Illinois.


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