joshua caleb weibley
Joshua Caleb Weibley is a Brooklyn-based artist who was born during the year the O'reilly media published its first "Animal" series. He observes the obsolescence of materials and their function as time passes. He makes you question the relationship between viewing images digitally and in person. His works are visually delicate and almost impossible to photograph. We curated his "Animal" works in a group show currently on view at Small Editions (through January 14th).
What were your bodies of work at TRANSFER Gallery and Veronica about?
Being invited to show at Veronica was the original impetus for the “Animal” drawings, which I first presented there and then presented in Brooklyn at TRANSFER. For the show at Veronica in Seattle I was thinking about the nearby offices of Microsoft and Amazon so I developed a body of work that would weave them into other themes in my work. I’m usually thinking about the way time passes and obsolescence seemed like a good way to relate tech companies to the passage of time. I also see shades of obsolescence in the material I make my frames out of. It’s a plastic material made to look like stone that is used in practically every chain store in the world for things like checkout counters and wall cladding – it’s literally everywhere. It’s best known by the brand name of the first kind invented in the late 60’s called Corian, but there are so many different, often tacky, varieties. All this is to say: the material’s tie to my re-drawings of the covers of programming manuals emerged out of a lot of diverging thoughts that are hard to quickly summarize. I think the easiest thing to say is, if nowadays the internet is just a big shopping mall, I’m framing pieces that meditate on online infrastructure using the same material that coats (or frames) the interiors of physical shopping malls and stores.
Do you feel like there has been a recent increase in finessed surfaces?
As far as countertop surfaces are concerned, my understanding is that gradually the stranger variations and colors of it have been disappearing, being replaced by shades of white. As for art, I’m not sure that I can speak to a trend but I can definitely say that I do always have this weird experience when I’m talking with other sculptors when I describe the use of this material, watching them practically salivate. It’s like they can instinctively get how attractive and interesting this stuff is visually minus the direct experience I had in a relatively brutal factory setting. This was around the time of the financial crash and there just wasn’t other work to be had. I didn’t select it because I liked how it looked; it chose me, in a way, and then I figured out that I could use it for my own ends.
How do you source Corian?
It's actually quite expensive, so I buy very small quantities online and make the absolute most out of what I can get. A couple people have given me scraps they’ve found in odd places. When I’m buying I usually I buy varieties that are discounted because the factories have discontinued that particular type and they basically just want to get rid of it. And there are factories absolutely everywhere in the world. There are varieties manufactured as far as England and Dubai. The original variety is still manufactured in New Jersey by the DuPont Corporation, which is very proprietary in its handling of its products and hasn’t been enthusiastic about my interest in visiting their plant… Sometimes I’m willing to pay a little extra if the name of the color is interesting. I think my favorite now is “Lattetude,” which is a coffee-ish khaki color made by LG, a company maybe better known for its consumer electronics.
What are the themes in your works?
I view my work in terms of writing and photography, although I am not really a writer or photographer. For example, a big part of the “Animal” drawings for me was a piece of writing I made in imitation of the O’Reilly books’ back page colophon text. I used it as a device to connect all of the pertinent information, which is something I think about in every body of work: what is a fairly digestible document that I can use to loop all of the ideas together? I’m not trying to tell people what to think about the work, but I am trying to provide something that reveals how fertile the things that I’ve assembled are for you to create your own associations between. They are infinitely smaller as things if I have total control over their meaning, but if no-one knows what you’re talking about they’re also limited in what they can get out of it. As for being a photographer, I like to indicate instances of time passing. Generally frames act like photographs anyways in that they attempt to freeze something in place for consideration. I guess I also think of myself as a framer who doesn’t make frames for other people.
What’s the significance of the paper in “Engineering Forms”?
It’s a form of engineering graph paper. My attraction to it is what I read as a pun in its titling, which is neatly presented alongside all of its other material information on the front of its packaging. In a way, the cover sheet kind of does what I like writing accompanying exhibitions to do: tell you what the basic elements on view are with the expectation that you’ll then make something of them for yourself. I have the title sheet from the pack hanging over here. It’s referred to as a national company, a “national brand” form of this grid in spite of the fact that it lists its offices and manufacturing site as being split between Mexico and America, which I find perversely ironic at this moment in time. Its name “Engineering Forms” just conjured for me making something out of nothing: to engineer form. You are given an environment, the grid, in which to produce something. The title sheet states that they are lithographed, which I assume means they are archival. It claims that it is reproducible by all methods, which is particularly funny when you think about how I’m using it in this series because these pieces that I have made are really hard to photograph. And even once you do get a fair image, they’re pretty different in person.
What do you do to them?
Rather than being “works on paper,” they really are simply framed pieces of paper without any additional marks. But the glass they are framed behind has intricate etching that produces the moiré pattern that you are seeing now. It shifts slightly based on your perspective too. They might seem to be all pretty much the same at a distance, but each is unique.
What’s the pattern?
In a way it is a riff on a drawing technique that Sol Lewitt used to use. A long time ago I realized that if you applied a rigid grid to one of his basic drawings, a really wild, sensuous moiré field would be produced. In this case, the graph paper provides the grid. You mentioned while you were looking at them that they resemble thumbprints and I think that’s very much how I see the pattern: I think of it as a kind of signature or fingerprint. It’s like a calling card, being “the wild crazy moiré field guy.” Even the “Animal” drawings I made for TRANSFER, Veronica and your own show at Small Editions follow that logic: the fine, tightly packed lines create an Op kind of visual effect that makes them sometimes appear to vibrate.
So is preciousness a factor to you?
Yes and no. My work often gives off an ethereal kind of vibe, but the actual techniques are kind of arduous in a physical, bodily kind of way that I have a hard time finding precious. Actually, I think it might be more accurate to say of the glass that I’m scratching it rather than etching it. Every line was made by hand using a diamond burr tool that requires a rough, heavy, deliberate and repetitive series of motions. I swear I killed some nerves in my index finger on that part of this series, which is pretty characteristic of most of the methods I employ. I think that’s the reason I don’t immediately go to preciousness: all of the techniques I use to make these are rough. Much of the time I'm using a table saw. There is a lot of sanding involved. The process of producing the dovetail joints I've been making recently takes multiple steps that are mostly very loud and/or dangerous. And then the etching takes so much time, so it’s hard for me to think of them as precious because of the amount of sweat involved.
Why didn’t you replicate the papers themselves?
These papers have been constant companions to me in the last seven years to a decade. Years ago I bought a lot of packs of the paper from a stationery store in Greenpoint that closed recently. When I realized I only had a finite number of them (one last pack) and I couldn’t just take a walk and buy more, anything I could think of to draw or write on them seemed somehow wrong. Simply copying them just wouldn’t be the same. It seemed more appropriate to preserve them. It’s something like an oblique memorial gesture, both for the paper and for the little shop.
Your frames are so unique. Do you ever make them for other artists?
I’ve had people approach me about making frames and it doesn’t feel right. If I felt that it was a legitimate collaboration I would consider it, but my frames are sort of “me.” When I was younger framing seemed like an authenticating process for ideas that was prohibitively expensive. There were all these little ideas that you couldn’t just put on a wall without a special container for them, which I couldn’t ever afford. I never really got over that. It’s sort of personal in that sense and I think that’s why I’m reluctant to make frames for other people.
Who are your influences?
Probably my all-time favorite artist is Hanne Darboven. Her use of frames and consideration for time should look familiar to people who know my work. The Dia Foundation’s Chelsea location just opened a presentation of one of her most significant works that’s only been shown a handful of times in America. It’s a really big deal. I also like Mike Kelley’s voluble gadfly attitude and prodigious output. As for living artists, Butt Johnson probably comes closest to an artist-mentor kind of figure for me. He’s a really cool guy who makes these tiny, meticulously precise and layered drawings, sometimes taking years to finish. He works with banal materials like ballpoint pens, but he’s making images with a baroque, masterly level of attention; images that have a depth, complexity and vividness that you just don’t see anywhere else. And yet, there is an offhandedness and juvenileness to them, but he’s just fucking awesome. I would say in a similar fashion that the years I spent working with Reade Bryan were very formative. He’s a great sculptor and a thoughtful human. My old friend Ye Qin Zhu has also left a lot of fingerprints on my thinking.
Is time a factor for you?
Always. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why I fixated on the O’Reilly media series – there are so many different ways to recognize the passage of time imprinted on the series. Each one of these books describes a language or an area of thinking about the development of tech culture which tends to start looking really old very fast before being superseded by something else. And then the book goes out of print.
So what’s the story behind it?
The year that I was born was the release of the first one. The designer who created it, Edie Freedman, is still the head designer there. Tim O’Reilly, the company's founder, really liked this concept she came up with as a then-freelancer, associating programming languages with different species. She has been really tight lipped about why she picks each one, but some of them are kind of obvious. She’s only explicitly given one of them away, the first one that was published: “Learning the vi Editor” had a tarsier on its cover, which has since become the informal logo and mascot of O’Reilly Media. It’s an animal that has huge eyes, and she has said that she picked it because it looks like a programmer who has been up way too late staring at a screen. All of the covers have a similar joke-y, pun-y logic to them. One of the reasons I thought it would be interesting to re-draw the covers is that the drawings of animals on them were already appropriated by Freedman from a 19th century image archive. On top of that I was appropriating an appropriation, many of the animals employed by the series have gone extinct or become endangered since the 19th century, which kind of dovetails with the other time-based elements I was trying to play with in the series.
What’s the one for “Mastering Bitcoin”?
The ants on the cover for “Mastering Bitcoin,” on the one hand, make sense if you think about ants working collaboratively to produce this root structure that is not unlike the blockchain in cryptocurrencies, but I think the real source is the name of author Andreas M. Antanopolous. Freedman is really impressionistic (and goofy!) like this with how she arrives at some of her ideas. I appreciate her sensibilities and intuitions because they feel very human.
Are you fascinated with the covers because of the birth year? Is it universal?
I like that the Animal books are as old as I am because I can relate and parallel my aging with its existence as a print line, bringing my own human experience of time to bear on a corporation’s “life.” I wonder if there will still be an O’Reilly Media by the time I’m dead or if they’ll outlive me. I wonder if the company will outlive its founder Tim O’Reilly, whose last name in the company’s logo now sits on the covers of these books like a dead painter’s last name sits on a Renaissance painting. I’m also comparing the process by which books go out of print, the way animals become extinct and how technology reaches obsolescence with my human limitations. We all share impermanence.
Your work is so detail oriented, how do you feel about it being viewed online?
My works are hard to photograph because they often use really fine parallel lines which, when viewed on a monitor, mesh with the grid of pixels of your screen and produce moiré patterns and distortion that are not present in my work. It’s tough to take pictures of my works for the internet and I’m proud of that, actually, because I think most of the work that I find compelling online is sort of lame in person. I don’t want to love something from my laptop. I want to develop a personal relationship with something. I like making things that are rewarding in person.
The thing about the internet is that it’s a really effective tool for concealing the existence of supply chains. We now have the mentality of “Oh we press this and get stuff.” It’s so fast that you forget there are factories that produce the things populated by a fairly large workforce of people that you kind of need to remember