An Interview of John Sheridan by Harry F. Roche

Harry Roche: ...Since this interview is about you and not me, maybe we should start with your influences, which you suggested. A notable list of mostly visual artists from the last couple of centuries: van Gogh, Manet, Duchamp (see article on Duchamp), Mondrian (see article on Mondrian), Burden (see article on Burden) and also one filmmaker, Godard. So do you want to just sort of run down how these people have influenced your work?

John Sheridan: The influences of other artists are very important to me because first of all I, very early on I had an idea that art was obviously not invented by me. (Laughs).

Harry Roche: (Laughs)

John Sheridan: That it is invented or discovered, however you want to term it, by others. And I'm accepting this social model, the creative model in which to work. Now I actually don't have any problems with art. On the other hand, realizing that others invented d it makes me curious as to what has been done, and consequently what the influences are of the things which have been done in art.

Harry Roche: Mm hm.

John Sheridan: And it is just a sobering thought that people have gone before me who have lived perhaps thousands of years ago who may be known to me, or unknown to me, but whose conclusions or inventions - you might say their solutions to whatever we want to term the issues of art - are still somehow living in me, and in the culture. So the realization that there are these others leads me to want to make it a little bit more conscious I think than most other artists do, in their own minds, as to what those influences are.

I think it's also true that one realizes one is born at a certain time and that's an accident of birth - that's an accident of nature. Obviously we don't choose these things. I don't believe that I just came from a previous life and that I've landed here again sequentially and I used to be a cockroach you know and next thing I'm gonna be is Brigit Bardot, a reincarnation of Brigit Bardot the next time around. I don't believe stuff like that, I believe this is my only chance at life, but the event of my landing in a place called the United States at the time that I did which is in 1954, in the city that I did in Detroit, Michigan is significant just because the basis of all life is where and when you are.

So, being influenced by artists doesn't necessarily mean I'm influenced by the earliest artists first and the most recent artists last. The tendency would probably be to something like that but I think that very often in art and in life one is influenced actually by the closest things first, one only becomes aware of the prior things as you think about it, as you try and piece together where things come from. So my earliest influences I'm sure probably extend back obviously through the Greeks and before. Because I recognize in my art a lot of the parallels between the Greek sense of fate, and the Greek sense of tragedy and the individual's struggles in the world. And our awareness of those struggles. I think that is something that still is very much the basis of the art that we understand today. Really why it is we are considered Western culture.

Getting a little more specific than just the Greeks, let's say, if you come up in time and certainly someone like Giotto influenced me very early on, partly because he was one of the earliest artists I studied when I was in college and actually came to taking classes in art history and seeing work by artists. And having him presented to me as one of the progenitors of the modern if you will era, if you call the Renaissance the beginning of the modern era which is like, why not? It's not modernism but it's certainly an unbroken chain of understanding of art in a similar way to the Greeks that we have. Because prior to that we were influenced by a lot of other things.

So more recently speaking, Manet has got to be one of the very most powerful influences on what I'm doing. I have traveled to the most extensive collections of his work in various parts of the world, particularly New York, and Paris, and also the Courtauld Institute in London where his major works hang. And have made it a point to try to come to grips with his work. And I think that his establishing the modernist idiom which I think is historically true - he really is the first modernist artist - is very, very crucial to understanding all the art from his time, meaning about the 1860s in the West, onwards. The whole thrust of the avant garde, the whole - the alternative media. The alternative - the arrogation by the artist of the right to establish a new mechanics of meaning. Very, very crucial.

If you look at the criticism that Manet endured in his life time, it's really a testament to the fact that his pictures completely astonished and basically baffled and bewildered the viewers of his time. They could not make head nor tail of his paintings. And yet often people look at his work today and they think, "Oh, he's just another mid-19th century artist." Not true. He used a lot of mid-19th century motifs certainly, which are recognizable. You know, people sitting playing guitars or dancing or just hanging out. But certainly if you look at the mechanics of his painting, he paints everything backwards. Everything's totally backwards - he paints his backgrounds that are supposedly behind the head of his sitters, he'll paint them last. So the backgrounds actually overlap the faces sometimes. And this just drove people out of their minds in those days.

But it is a whole new mechanics of painting that because of the way he does it created Modernism because it created a reversal of the roles. The viewer is no longer merely a passive viewer of a very beautifully shaped window on the world. The viewer now is forced to become an active creator of the painting in front of them in order to make sense of it. And it's this extra step - or not an extra step but it's just a very different way of looking at what could otherwise be considered very traditional media - oil paint on canvas, perhaps traditional poses, perhaps traditional subject matter, but all altered in this bizarre mechanics that he used. And I just to this day I can never look at a Manet without wondering how he thought to move beyond Renaissance space into Modernist space.

How he could invent that. Where it came from in his mind. Because he was not a theorist, and he could not talk to the subject himself. He was not himself clear on what he was doing except in the fact that he was very sure that what he was doing was great and purposeful and significant. And I think that is where my truest modern roots lie with someone like Manet because he was one of the first artists who was interested not in beauty but in significance. And significance can be many different things, and you're not tied to the same technical or educational kind of paradigm that everybody before Manet was tied to - and was expected to follow.

He broke the canons and it flummoxed everybody. And it opened the floodgates to everybody afterwards. Cèzanne himself wrote Manet a letter saying that he considered Manet the father of modern art and that without him all the modern experiments were not possible. I think that's - Cèzanne was no sycophant. He was not a brown noser, he was no ass-kisser, and he would never have said something like that, he would never have written a letter to anybody saying something that categorical unless it were true. And I think that is a very significant letter, because people disagree as to where modern art begins, people will say not, Velazquez, or Goya or Blake or Constable even, Turner - people will just say anybody, "Michelangelo." I mean, people will just say anybody that they feel like you know. Or Cubism - people often will start modernist art at Cubism.

It's just not true. Cubism comes out of a lot of things, including Cèzanne, and Cèzanne definitely himself fingered Manet as his main progenitor. You move to people like van Gogh - his liberation moves beyond Manet and even Cèzanne in certain directions which are to this day unparalleled and really inimitable because they're so tied in with the personal psychology of the artist. And the time in which he was painting where there weren't these other paradigms to react to. And he was as far as using traditional motifs let's say, he was doing certain traditional things. But you look again at the mechanics of his painting and his style - his brush strokes for sure, and the construction of his paintings and he really moved way beyond an area where there were any guidelines, any milestones, any signposts or certainly any mentors.

And I think that created in the late 19th and early 20th century, up to the mid-20th century a great impetus of avant gardism. Where - avant gardism is a military term that it's your spearhead of your attack. It's the very, very front most phalange of troops who are penetrating into hostile territory. As opposed to rear guard which is what they called the academics. But I think that the artists who labored under that, people like Duchamp and Mondrian whom I admire enormously - certainly Picasso, Gauguin whom I admire very much - a very underrated artist I feel...

Harry Roche: Gauguin?

John Sheridan: I think he's very underrated, yeah. Highly underrated. I think most people don't know his work very well at all. I think most people have a passing understanding of him, they have a few images in mind of his that they see reproduced like postage stamps, but I think their real appreciation of him is extremely limited. I think he's one of the most underrated great artists of certainly the last century. I would have to say between he and Mondrian I think they tie, to me, as the most underrated great artists.

Harry Roche: Yeah, I don't know if Mondrian is underrated either, but...

John Sheridan: Oh, you can't talk to anybody in the art world around here about Mondrian.

Harry Roche: I don't know but there just weren't very many great painters in the 20th century anyway.

John Sheridan: That's true. That's very true.

Harry Roche: There's Mondrian, there's Picasso, and Pollock.

John Sheridan: Maybe, yeah.

Harry Roche: And who else?

John Sheridan: Yeah, you could say maybe Duchamp did a great painting or two, maybe not.

Harry Roche: Well, yeah, we don't [??] Duchamp for his paintings.

John Sheridan: Nude Descending a Staircase.

Harry Roche: Yeah, well that's more tied to events outside the painting too.

John Sheridan: Yeah, but you have - sometimes the work itself creates those events as much as it is swept up in them. Certainly a whole discussion itself is what is the significance of a painting like Nude Descending a Staircase? Where you get for the first time the title is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the artist's intention of how he and or you are to view the painting - how to interpret the painting. Where the title becomes part of the fulcrum of meaning, and the title in certain ways is very counterintuitive, to the paintings. Very interesting, and I think that was one of the things that really shocked people at the time because it talks about a nude but no one could see the nude in it and it just drove them out of their minds - brilliant.

It is a brilliant stroke. That is where you start having truly conceptual concerns coming through and showing the way toward a more conceptual art. And I think that's one of the reasons why people were so flummoxed by it. Is because it set them up. The title itself set them up to look at the painting in a certain way and the painting would defeat their viewing - even though you could eventually see what the artist was getting at, you would also see there is something about it that isn't in the painting in a way. And I think that gap between what people expect or what people think of when they think 'nude' and what they see in a painting such as the Nude Descending a Staircase - the gap in their understanding created tremendous curiosity and consternation.

That is very powerful. To me that is one of the most brilliant aspects of that painting. And that is a very powerful influence because in my own work while I don't necessarily hinge the meaning of my work on the title, I do generally try to give a title that is not a direct dry description of the work - that has a poetic aspect. But that is at the same time in its atmosphere maybe, related to feelings that I have to the painting or to my work in general.

Like calling a painting "Reborn on a Tightrope", "A Rumor of a Rumor of War" or some of the other titles that I've had which are of a similar nature. They don't describe the work at all, but they describe a sensibility around the work and so to me that - my not being the same person as Duchamp - I have a different take. I can look at the way Duchamp named things and I feel well I can't really just follow in those footsteps, I have to have a different angle on for instance naming a work that is relevant. In my case it's not really a structural relationship as it is with him, but that's again because I'm a different person, I'm following people like him who made the conceptual element of the title a very significant thing.

Going forward a little to Mondrian I think the thing about Mondrian that is just to me so absolutely amazing and that keeps him in my mind consciously. I mean, he does - he arises spontaneously in my mind which is to me a sign of a true influence and a true source of inspiration. But his absolutely unflagging integrity in the face of every reason in the world not to continue making his art. He was always desperately poor, he was always struggling, he was always fearful of losing his apartment, losing his livelihood, because his trying to sell work was such a struggle for him. And he had to sell his work at dreadfully cheap prices, and yet he - even in his most frustrated moments, where he was thinking of quitting painting - which he did around the age of 50.

He was complaining of how recalcitrant and stupid the art world was, that he was thinking of quitting painting and becoming a horticulturist. (Laughs) and actually selling the flowers that he was painting on the side instead of selling the paintings of the flowers...

Harry Roche: Mm hm.

John Sheridan: ...and actually earning a living. Because he was scared. He was scared of dying in utter poverty. And it's certainly is not a fear that has gone away, even with Social Security and all that. It's certainly a fear that someone like myself faces, who has been an artist their whole adult life, who has - I've never ever made a profit in any one year. I've perhaps come close maybe one year - in the 25 or so years that I've been making art. I'm 45 years old and I'm no closer to having any sense of economic security that I was when I was 19 and began becoming an artist.

So there certainly are real concerns. And his courage and his integrity - which he's not the only person obviously. Many people have faced that with a lot of courage and faced that uncertainty in life and actually set themselves up for perhaps real suffering. Because of their pursuit of culture. Or their pursuit of politics. People have died standing up for what they believe and there are consequences to art - and to me he is a great artist because of his work, because of his tenacious intelligence and his absolute integrity. Mondrian could no more have sold out than I don't know - Jesus Christ could have sold out. That's the way I feel about it. He has that much integrity in life. And his art.

And that's such a powerful statement, particularly looking at the type of work that he was doing and imagining his frustration and the paltry response that he got. And the fear and the struggle that he went through - to make his art and face an uncertain economic future. So to me he's one of the great heroes of the 20th century.

Harry Roche: So that's really why you don't really like Picasso too much either - because he doesn't have integrity and he screwed around and just wasted his talent?

John Sheridan: With Picasso it's really just more a matter of he did more work than he needed to make his statement. And that in my mind raises the question of what his motivation is - what his compulsion was. Because he definitely is I think the most talented - definitely the most talented artist in the last century. I mean, I don't know anybody who could come close physically to his unbelievable talent. I'm definitely one of his admirers for that.

Certainly when he turned his mind to what you might call the 'structural analysis' of art - Cubism. That was significant because of the results which are amazing, still. It's also paradoxically the time where he actually shelved some of his talent - some of his natural incredible dexterity in favor of a more simplified expression that nonetheless is truly the basis of our appreciation for him today. If he had painted the Blue and Rose periods or some variation of those for his entire career, he would have been an interesting artist certainly, but structurally we wouldn't have looked to him as a great progenitor of a type of art - and we do for Cubism.

That's where his talent actually takes a bit of a back seat. I think that's very significant.

Harry Roche: I guess it was a good thing that the Harlequin's costume had a sort of diamond flat shape.

John Sheridan: Yes! Exactly - exactly, and Cèzanne painted Harlequins too.

Harry Roche: And then again the thing - I mean, I don't know if you know this, I mean there's actually - Cèzanne actually got a lot from Ingres too. Not just - I mean Picasso obviously - but you see Ingres' stuff in everything is sort of on the top or the bottom - you know continuously. This sort of tapestry of sort of tweaking your mind, sort of 'where is this?' And again there aren't any wrinkles in Ingres' bodies or often the [??] so you have these weird, bizarre, floating figures like Manet and then Cèzanne got a lot from this weird geometry that he embarked on.

John Sheridan: Cèzanne was a very erudite and sharp observer of everything - including the art. Particularly art. I think Cèzanne is characteristic of a person who was definitely born after the French revolution and was educated in the school system that was developed after the French revolution wherein you would study music, and poetry, and language and mathematics, and geometry. You had what really became the modern constellation of what you might call the seven liberal arts. Whereas before the revolution someone like Cèzanne would have probably been raised in a Catholic school. Would have been much more heavily indoctrinated than he was in Catholicism and I think that would have made it harder for him to have been the revolutionary and the rebel that he was.

But the French revolution gave - not only the model of a rebel spirit and a modern spirit and a new way of organizing the society where these ancient classes were to be broken down - but it also gave the people the right to question basic things. And you see that in Cèzanne - tremendously. From the very get go Cèzanne is being influenced by poetry - ancient poetry - but also - and of course also at the time at his young life - modern masters like Ingres and Delacroix .

But at the same time he's being influenced by cheap fashion illustrations. Just everyday kinds of things that would have been unthinkable at any time prior to his young life. He's certainly one of the earliest artists to take advantage of the not only advertising as a legitimate source and an unhidden source. You look at his early work - they can find the very ads that he copied for his paintings. He didn't try and hide them, he didn't try and mythologize them as Cabanel might have or Bougereau or somebody else.

He just - he was so much a compulsive artist. He couldn't help himself. He used the side of his palette knife to paint. Some of his earliest paintings are strictly palette knife paintings - I mean it was absolutely unheard of. And they're not his best work, but when you realize how young he was and no one else was doing that, it's astonishing that he would have the gall, and that's what it was looked upon at the time - utter, unmitigated gall - to do these paintings. And you get the sense that he enjoyed the idea that he was galling people with his work - a very revolutionary concept. A very modern concept that could really only happen in the modern bourgeois economic system of capitalism that was growing up then.

His father was a rich banker, so Cèzanne could paint whatever the hell he wanted. No one was going to come cut his head off - no one was going to throw him in jail, no one was going to punish him really in any way. He could get away with doing what he wanted to do and there were these great ideas floating around. There was Manet by 1860. There were the masters, that he loved, but at the same time, was reacting against, because he could not sit down to paint a painting that had the absolute fineness of detail and very dogged observations of an Ingres.

He temperamentally couldn't do this. And he didn't have to. And you add those things together: the economic opportunity, his liberal schooling and the revolution in art, and a great mind - a great if disturbed mind - I'd never say that Cèzanne wasn't disturbed. He certainly was. But that's not always fatal. Being disturbed - I mean there are a lot of very disturbed people who live very long and very - well I want to say significant, but certainly - lives of great interactivity with the world. You can look at anybody from the worst dictator to the pettiest mom or dad oppressing their child to just people who are disturbed - perhaps partly because they're sane.

They're insane because they're sane - and in their hearts they're free, and in their souls they're liberated, and the world doesn't want to go along with them very much. Consequently their response does not jive. It's looked upon as very strange. They're looked upon as crazy, and to some extent they may be crazy. It certainly has been suggested that the only logical response to an insane situation is insanity. Or the only sane response to insanity is insanity. Because insanity won't let you be sane. It comes after you.

So Cèzanne is a tremendous, tremendous influence. In word and deed - I mean, nobody thinks of Cèzanne as a generous man. But I think of him as tremendously generous - every time I see a Cèzanne that's of any significance I think, "Wow, I'm so glad - I'm glad that he left this for me to see". Even if nobody else in the world appreciates it. Although Cèzanne gets his due. I think. I think he's pretty actually fairly treated as the great artist that he is. And he's certainly one of the artists who is pretty properly appreciated. Unlike Gauguin, oddly enough, or certainly unlike Mondrian to my thinking, who to me are just every bit as great as him, and among certain circle of people are truly appreciated, but I think there're huge gaps even in the art world of people who just don't - they never think about Gauguin.

Harry Roche: Well, of course the art world nowadays nobody is aware of history to begin with so...

John Sheridan: That's another very interesting...

Harry Roche: ...our local, contemporary art mart...

John Sheridan: Art mart. (Laughs).

Harry Roche: ...schmooze fest...

John Sheridan: The Art McMarket.

Harry Roche: ...oppressive, depressing...

John Sheridan: It is oppressive, and it is depressing. And it's very unfortunate. That to me is one of the saddest and most - shall I say least - appealing aspects of the contemporary art world. By that I mean interacting with other artists, interacting with dealers, really anybody - art lovers, collectors, this type of thing - who have a purported interest in the arts. To me one of the saddest aspects of it is that lack of sense of history - that lack of love. Of where what they are doing comes from. And I just don't understand, with all of the resources in the United States that people have, to educate themselves, to actually go and explore, to actually sit and have time and peace of mind to think, and ponder where this great stuff that we admire comes from.

And where we fit into all of that - why more people don't avail themselves of this great opportunity in order to better ground what they are doing and what they think.

Harry Roche: Yeah, well it really seems that a lot of artists we know basically they really don't - it's not that they just don't know - they don't appreciate anything before Andy Warhol. If you want to generalize, which in a lot of cases is true.

John Sheridan: I think that's very true. That's VERY TRUE. It's astonishing to me, and that was one of the things that when I moved out to the west coast that I found very disturbing and appalling in fact - almost abysmal ignorance of people in the art world. I think there are a lot of reasons for it. I think that the type of person in a highly charged, capitalist culture - a materialist, capitalist, conservative culture - the type of people who would be drawn to art are by and large either going to be certain people who opt out of that in some way but are still highly influence by it.

Or, they are people who are in fact conservative people and capitalists. And they buy into the whole imperialist, American mentality. It's just that they're out there also painting, and making sculpture, and doing installations and performance work, and making films and writing scores and plays. And doing videotapes. So the complexity in the art world mirrors the larger culture which is extremely powerful because our economic machine is so robust at the moment for many people, and it can't help but color the results.

But it's what you find in capitalism is that people don't have time to think about the past. They're too busy making money in the present and future. And that's what you see in the art world too. Everybody is very present oriented. It's 'what show are you having now, it's how much money are you making now, who are the collectors of your work, who are you connected, what collections are you in, what museums have you shown in' - all of these things which in and of themselves are not bad, but when they become your life - when they are the front and center of your consciousness, you wonder where is the room for true meditation? Where is the room for the true hitching up of your wagon to this great caravan of art? Where do we fit in this type of thing?

And for me it's the opposite - I'm much more interested in those questions rather than in who's showing me, who's not showing me. I mean, these things are all a part of my consciousness - they irk me, but they certainly don't dominate my thoughts when I'm thinking about art. I try to forget about the material world when I'm thinking about art because to me it certainly can inform but I think it's like a lot of things: the real world has to inform what you're doing in a kind of subconscious way. That's where it's real power lies, or at least there has to be a very powerful subconscious as well as a conscious element in what you're doing.

The artist is one of the few people who can flow inbetween the conscious and the subconscious, if you will. If you believe that those are actual physical structures in the mind - that there's a subconscious part of the mind, or a conscious part of the mind. People can disagree with that too. I wouldn't make a theory out of it, but if there is such a thing, certainly the artists are the people in Western culture, certainly besides religious mystics or others who can go through the membrane between those things, much more freely and actually combine them and make things that actually speak to both sides - or all sides of the mind.

To me that takes up a lot of my effort. And worrying about 'are the dealers going to like what I'm doing' is almost - almost completely irrelevant. I try to imagine people in 100 or 200 or 500 years. I try to imagine what they will think of my art, simply because that to me is where the art truly has to exist. It has to exist in an eternal present that projects into the future in time. Obviously the moment-to-moment is very important.

But the people I run into in the art world by and large in my opinion are not really interested in what art is. They are interested in themselves and in the perception of them as successful people. And to me success just has a different definition. To me it has to please myself and my own critical sense, to be - not to put too much of a romantic spin on my thought process - is that I imagine taking my work before Duchamp. Or Mondrian. Or Manet, or Giotto - or Phidias - and ask them, "What do you think about this? What do you think about this work?" I mean in my fantasies I do this, but I do it for a reason. I don't do it just to kind of masturbate mentally and have a waking daydream. I do it because I'm trying to jog my own sense of what level art should rise to and this game I play, mental game I play with myself is where I think that if they liked it or even if they didn't like it, that might be significant as to the worth of the piece.

Whereas the idea of going on my knees before John Berggruen with my work and have him sort of make a face at it and dismiss it - to me that's completely irrelevant. And yet he's the person who would be most helpful - of all the people in San Francisco - would be the person most helpful to me if he liked my work. But I just cannot consult his mentality. Because I know where his mentality is coming from, I go to his shows, I see the type of work that he shows. And I don't respect it for the most part.

Consequently it makes it difficult for me to get on my knees and color my nose a deeper shade of brown in order to try and promote my work. I just feel it's probably useless, which is probably true. And why debase myself? But I'm condemning myself to a life of obscurity because I don't do that.

Harry Roche: Yeah, so we should also talk a little bit about censorship since we've both been embroiled in that lately.

John Sheridan: We have, haven't we? Censorship. What an issue. I always had a suspicion that censorship would be some shoal that my little ship would bang up against from time to time in my life and it certainly has of late. I've been censored twice that I know of and am currently in a situation where oddly enough my work is not being censored, but my chosen title for a show is being censored, which I find very odd. And unexpected, but one realizes that that's part of reality. Reality exists in many layers and many ways and this latest wrinkle of having my title censored is just one of those possibilities that has in fact come to be.

I shake my head at it but you have to realize that reality is a very strange thing. It just points up how little power the individual has in a larger context.

Harry Roche: Right, the artist's submissive lot in life.

John Sheridan: Right, exactly. But certainly you and I have been through censorship this year in the show that you curated, PAPER CUTS, and it was a very interesting adventure where they told you to take the stuff down and now they're saying no they never said that when of course it was a complete lie. And us ending up having the show taken down after only a little over a week. Losing face a little bit, certainly losing the opportunity to show our work. And perhaps even make some sales. I wasn't banking on sales, but I was banking on respect and that certainly is what does not exist in this culture toward art is any inherent respect.

I was just thinking about that the other day, I was looking at a photograph of Picasso, that famous one where he's kind of dancing, he's making this move. And it looks like he's doing that old Jackie Gleason shuffle. And you just get the sense that this is a man who - whatever you think about his work - he's very comfortable in his own culture. He's doing work that people appreciate and love, even. Or even if they hate it, that's so much more bracing than what happens here.

Living in the San Francisco Bay area is like living in a cocoon. It's like living in an iron lung -- with anesthetic. You know? You can't do anything, no one cares, you're isolated, you're covered up, you're helpless -- yet, you're there. You're looking around and that's really the biggest difference in America is that Americans by and large are peasants. We are a peasant society - I mean, one can say we're a democracy. And that's partly true too.

I mean democracy does breed a kind of lack of respect in a way. Our respect becomes legalistic: everybody's equal. And that's a good thing. On the other hand, you're not better than I am. Because we're equal - and that's a very good thing when you put it in that way. On the other hand it does extend to a certain extent when you look at it in the art world, as, "Oh, my child can do that." It's not just that I'm equal to you - you as the artist are equal to my child. Intellectually. And that's where you start getting into this battle, if you will, between the culture of art and the larger materialist, practical culture of America.

That is a schism that has never healed, it has merely become a larger industrial aspect of the culture. But that doesn't mean anything good. That just means that there's a pipeline. But you've got to fit into the pipeline, and if you don't fit into the pipeline, then you do not travel in that pipeline toward anything. You don't get shows, you don't get collected, you don't get written up. And that's unfortunately where we're at now. Where artists have so few rights, there're so few reserved assets, resources in the culture for art, that you're left to scramble in the market place like some sort of a futures trader on Wall Street.

You know, you see these guys yelling and screaming, "Sell! Buy!" And you feel like that as an artist except that it's your art and by extension yourself you're hawking - like pork bellies. But pork bellies have a very practical function. They're used as all kinds of agricultural products - but what's art's function? And that's a question that because it's subtle the average American doesn't spend any time wondering about. And that's where you get this schism and this disconnect between history and the present.

You have people who are running around and they're all materialistic, and they're all in the present because they're all making a buck - well what time do they have to think about art? Except to plug blank holes in their walls or to adorn their coffee tables, or something like this? And if you have any subtlety of mind, or any belief in the power of the individual creator as an artist, you can't look at art in those terms. It's so easy to go way beyond that and yet you find that most people are stuck at that incredibly primitive level of decorative function or art.

And how can legitimate art which is complex and maybe even alienating find much of a home in a society that exists primarily in that mentality - IF even at that mentality. Even the idea of having a decorative painting in your home is beyond a lot of people in our culture.

Harry Roche: And so specifically back to the Bay Area, we always get accused of being provincial which seems to be true. Truer and truer with each passing year. And so I was just wondering what you thought about the usual lip service that you get about once a year from the SFMOMA or the Legion of Honor about the Bay Area becoming a world class art center. And I imagine you disagree this is in the offing.

John Sheridan: "A world class art center." That is a - boy that is certainly projecting a mindset onto reality. I mean, if that was a joke, no one would laugh. That so is disconnected with reality that it virtually verges on advertising. This is something you would expect the San Francisco Tourist Bureau to say.

Harry Roche: Yeah.

John Sheridan: Just to find something to say about the 'scene' - that it has no reality whatsoever - is irrelevant. Because they don't care about the reality behind it. They are merely trying to - and the people who purvey something like this - are merely trying to at my most charitable I can imagine they are trying to jumpstart a situation that doesn't yet exist.

If you get people thinking positive thoughts maybe positive things can happen. I think that at my most charitable is what I would ascribe to a statement as "San Francisco as a world class art center". Having said that, giving people the benefit of the doubt, I would say that that is at most 10 percent of what the true meaning of that phrase is. The rest of it is just that it's either the most cross-eyed misreading of reality that I can imagine. Or that it is an extremely cynical class-oriented attempt to paint a false picture just because the true reality is so boring and so nondescript, so anti-climactic and forgettable - that to speak that truth as I am speaking it right now - it sounds so negative, it sounds so damning, so that much of a downer - that people just cannot say that about something that has at least been paid lip service to. Which is the art world: "Art is a good thing. Art is uplifting. Art is intellectual, it is emotional, it's spiritual. It's all these things rolled into one."

It has a great history. So of course you don't want to say anything bad about the "art scene" and especially if people are wealthy, they're not connected with reality necessarily anyway. They don't go to the schools that they have helped disfund for art classes and music. They don't see the poverty of mind of the children who go to public schools in our area. They don't see the lack of exposure to art as a natural thing in our lives. They think of it as just, "Oh, these nice few galleries that we go see every so often and these funny, funky artists, struggling to show their work. It must be very competitive..."

And it's extremely condescending. It's extremely laughable if the reality wasn't so unpleasant, which is basically we have created a very small network of venues for people to show in, and unless one is showing at those venues, one cannot get any critical response to their work. None of the media in our area would ever consider going out to a studio to interview an artist, except in your case, but in this case it's also in regards to a show.

None of them would go out and search out independent artists to make an analysis of their work. Artweek would not do that, certainly the Guardian wouldn't do it, SF Weekly wouldn't do it. None of the magazines here would go and try to find independent people...

[End side A] [Side B]

...but as I was saying about the media here is that an artist must jump the hurdle of getting into some sort of a space and have a formal exhibition before there can be any media. So there are hurdles that are based upon other things happening rather than there is a general sense that we're all looking in the culture and we're all trying to find out what's significant regardless of what other people think. So there's no independence of thought here, there's a hierarchy that is based on the slimmest of consensuses of other people.

The Media cannot write about any art independently unless there's a gallery or museum is showing it. And often a museum won't show it unless galleries do. Sometimes galleries won't show you unless museums are showing you. And to have any real chance of getting shows in most galleries one has to know personally the gallery owner and probably be on good terms with some of the artists who are in the gallery and have them recommend you.

Without that hierarchy of steps taken, one has almost no chance - regardless of how good or how bad their art is - one has almost no chance to show. And that's certainly true in New York and certainly true in Los Angeles, which are much bigger art markets. I assume it's that way in Chicago. But one has this problem, this perception of the art world as being so creative and it's so open and it's a free culture and boy isn't it great to be an American.

Yet you look at the reality and it's extremely class-oriented. Which is another reason that my work doesn't get anywhere. Because I was born in Detroit, I was born to working class parents, sometimes at best working class, very struggling people. Well, that is a type of young experience that is obviously going to have some effect upon you if you're honest.

And in America we often like to try and reinvent ourselves. You come up from nothing, Elvis grows up as just a kid driving a truck and he becomes the greatest superstar in the mid-20th century in terms of popular culture. And he's this god and everybody loves him - but he's still basically a kid driving a truck. It's just that he also has a four octave range voice and is very entertaining.

But for me it's much more an interesting issue of trying to keep a certain kind of faith with where I came from which is a blue collar, struggling kind of social milieu. And my work reflects that. I paint 50's automobiles, I paint images from old B-movie posters and dimestore novel covers, as well as the abstract elements of what I'm doing. And these are very class-oriented images. They're made for working class people.

They're not Dostoyevsky, they're not Mozart, they're not Michelangelo. They're Samuel Z. Arkoff, Roger Corman and Henry Ford, and people who are aiming at providing something, some sort of service or entertainment for just average folks. Or people who are newly capable of buying these things. And that's very class-oriented - and consequently one of the reasons my work is not better appreciated or picked up is among other reasons that I stay true to a certain extent to the class that I came from because I find there are certain images that to me are very valuable.

And not just to me as a working class person, but also as an educated person and someone who does care about the history of art. I see very clearly in some of these images, 1950s Cadillac with fins and wings - I see Greek chariots, gold plated Greek war chariots. And in the detective novels of women struggling with men holding pistols and fighting - I see Greek mythology and these titanic and epic and very interesting personal struggles that people had that made great stories.

To me I am actually straddling both worlds. I am straddling the blue collar, I am straddling the college educated and upwardly mobile bourgeois - or higher, haut bourgeois - culture. That transition from this peasant working class to - former peasants - who are now white collar and creative elites. But I have chosen to keep some of my influence back in my own actual existence, and my own true personal history.

This is something for various reasons I'm not being allowed to do. This is why I get censored, this is why I can't name my show "Asshole Nation". "Asshole" is a word that is commonly used in my class. When you're angry or you want to characterize something that you don't like you say, "That guy's an asshole." And if I'm characterizing the culture, calling the culture an asshole is an anthropomorphism that to me yes, it's indelicate. My college education explains to me that it's indelicate - but my past, my pre-college past - tells me that that's absolutely appropriate thing to say if you have a beef, if you have an argument.

If as in this case I have an argument with the whole culture, the whole materialism, and the militarism, the capitalism, the extreme class orientation and racism and sexism of the culture - I have a big argument with it. The absolute environmental devastation that we wreak not only on America but on the whole rest of the world, whose resources we essentially steal. So why not name a show "Asshole Nation"?

Harry Roche: Mm hm.

John Sheridan: Well, if one has no connection any longer to the fact that a lot of people live very rough and tumble and precarious lives, one wouldn't have any appreciation of why that title would be significant to someone like me. And yet it is very significant to me. And the censorship I'm facing, not being able to use it, doesn't sit well with me for a split second at all. I think it's very insulting in fact. But that's the way it is. It's part of my ongoing struggle to have truly free speech - in a culture that supposedly supports free speech. Which doesn't in fact - or which certainly fails at critical moments. And censorship is alive and well at every level.

Part of the censorship is definitely in my case that I am not afraid to re-present images from my own past and the past of my class - working class people - in America. White, working class people. And one could say, if one were an extreme feminist, you'd say, "Well, also white male working class." Which is true. It's true. All of the images - the cars that I paint - they're all designed by men. And probably built and manufactured and promoted and the profits all went to men.

I mean it certainly was an enormously male dominated culture.

Harry Roche: But yeah, but you've had a lot of problems with faux feminists for your images.

John Sheridan: Right. Because feminists on the other hand try to have a sense of history because a lot of their argument is the overcoming of history. They want a new world. So to them, the idea of ever, ever harbinging back to prior images, like entertainment images, such as I sometimes use, or even cars - to them those are the bad old days. And those are to be criticized, excoriated, made to seem mean and petty and ridiculous and to have absolutely no value whatsoever in this modern world.

And to that I say - they're wrong. Quite simply they are wrong. And no amount of brow beating or accusing me or moral turpitude is going to stop me from doing what I feel is an artistically legitimate line of inquiry. I understand as well, if not better than they do, what the imagery that I use means. But if you look at art as a complex, or a nexus of forces what for instance certain feminists have and I suspect would pick out of the work would be one aspect of one piece of this nexus of forces. And say, "This is 100 percent of what the art is."

When in fact maybe it's 5 percent, perhaps it's 10 percent, I don't know. To try and make a quantitative analysis is very hard to do. But the point I'm trying to say is that you have people for their own political reasons, and not for artistic reasons - and this is what really bugs me - it's for political not artist reasons - make a point of saying that using imagery that shows women in skimpy clothing, or maybe who are afraid or are in fear of their lives somehow equates with I want women to continue to wear skimpy clothes and be in fear of their lives.

That is so grotesquely simple-minded, and insulting to me, given what I know about my own work and the process of distillation and choosing and agonizing and hard work that I've undergone to do the work that I have done in my adult life - that - reducing my work to as one woman dealer called it "just testosterone" or what another woman said, my work means to her is that "women can never be friends".

Just these conclusions that are so hairbrained as to - if I were a feminist, I would cringe at such incredibly simple-minded, childlike conclusions - over these things. And women may say, well men have always reduced women to objects and of course that's true. And it's not fair.

But what I always say, and it's one of the most significant things about looking at my work, is that yes, the imagery - which is a part of the work, some subsection of the work - the imagery that I use does have latent right-wing aspects - we live in a right-wing culture, folks. They have aspects of male domination - what has been the history? They also have aspects of probably race - not because they denigrate other races, but they just don't include other races. They happen to be overwhelmingly white people that I paint.

But this was the truth of the media of that time, of the 50s and the 40s, 30s and 20s. The media was dominated by Caucasian-centric culture. And certainly this is nothing to be proud of. On the other hand it is also nothing to run away from - the history of it. The point that I make to people who want to paint me with the brush of moral turpitude for recapitulating these images is yes, the images are sexist and right-wing and perhaps there's a certain edge of violence to them, although it resides in a very cartoonized form. And yes these images are these things. Does that mean that the art that they are within - is those things? Is there a direct equal sign between those things?

In general because we live in an anti-intellectual society, that generally shuts people up at that point. They just have nothing to say beyond that point. And so you come to the conclusion that people have these knee jerk reactions and it makes them feel good to snipe at you - but they have no real good will because they are not interested in discussing it with you. They're not interested in exploring it - to them it's just a battle - you know, "You are the enemy, I will criticize you."

To me that is just an extremely pathetic, unfair and very unenlightening view to take on art. Because to me one of the greatest aspects of art is its ability to create discussion. Either in your own mind or among people.

Harry Roche: Mm hm.

John Sheridan: And why is that such a bad thing in the Bay Area? Why can't people talk about art? It goes back to what you were talking about earlier, it cycles back, as all things do.

Harry Roche: ??discussion or not, so I just wondering what you thought of some of the other critics in the Bay Area? Assuming I'm the best writer, but what about Baker, Bonetti and even Glen.

John Sheridan: Glen Helfand?

Harry Roche: There are so few critics anyway.

John Sheridan: Right. I'm not too familiar with the people in ARTWEEK, because I don't read it very often.

Harry Roche: Neither am I, there are only a handful of people I take "seriously" in the Bay Area anyway, and none of them are in ARTWEEK for sure.

John Sheridan: Certainly, Kenneth Baker - I get the impression is actually a quite intelligent man. He does have some sense of history. You will see in his reviews there's almost always a reference somehow - there's always some reference to some other work of art, an artist - something like this which immediately to my mind gives - it's not that I have to agree with him on it - but certainly it gives a dimension to what he's talking about. That it's not merely flat description and/or it's not merely a litany of references on one hand.

He describes the work, he also gives some historical anchoring to it, which I appreciate. As far as that goes, to me, that's a big part of the role of the critic is this contextualizing art for the reader, as well as giving the sense of what the response is in front of the work of art. How it affects you. And I think he is often very clear about that. I often don't agree but at other times I do find that he and I are on the same page, particularly with someone like Mondrian, whom he champions from time to time. I've read some things that he's written about Mondrian, about actually what both you and I agree very much is that Mondrian isn't just a designer of cute little abstract future dress designs.

But that actually if you get up close and look at his work there's this whole universe of detail that is actually astounding and very significant to the mechanics of the painting, and the meaning of the work. And other people, one just gets the sense, have no insight whatever into. And I've agreed with him about that. I don't read the newspapers much anymore. I've given up reading newspapers, just because they're so depressing.

But I certainly find Bonetti at times will write well and then he'll write very poorly the next time around. As though he's perhaps writing about something that interests him and then something that he has absolutely no interest in. That's the only thing I can ascribe it to, because his writing style seems to fluctuate very radically and I'm sure it must have something to do with his personal interest in the work. Or maybe the type of work that actually appeals to him.

Harry Roche: Well I don't know what appeals to him, to be honest. I can pigeonhole everyone else.

John Sheridan: Good point.

Harry Roche: I mean, both Baker's taste isn't as narrow minded as people say it is, and I don't know, I think Bonetti's probably fairly open to a variety of things, although maybe that's not entirely true.

John Sheridan: We wouldn't know. Right.

Harry Roche: But someone like Glen has the narrowest focus of any critic going anywhere I'm sure.

John Sheridan: Iit's kind of disappointing. Certainly for instance the other critic at the Guardian, Sarah Coleman doesn't seem to have much of any insight...

Harry Roche: I don't even consider her a critic, she just got the job.

John Sheridan: But she ends up - the Guardian ends up hiring someone who really doesn't understand anything about art, as does some other newspaper like the East Bay Express.

Harry Roche: And probably the SF Weekly, if they ever get anyone to do anything on art. It's been 2 months now. This guy doesn't return phone calls.

John Sheridan: It's symptomatic - these are all symptoms. All symptoms of the larger malaise in the culture. The true heroes of late 20th century, early 21st century American culture are technology. And money. Technology had money. That's what really is the star. And what is technology? Is technology an individual? No! Technology is a movement, it's an economic transformational movement, that has vast implications, not all of which are good.

It's highly political. And consequently you can take major issues with it. But it will change your life and it's the true star unfortunately, because people do believe that. They believe that technology is their savior. They run after it like people used to run after Christian relics. They had to go. They had to pilgrimage, they had to go worship. So people are on their knees before Bill Gates, or Netscape, or Sun Microsystems. And all the products that come out, all of the graphics programs, and the Internet and all of these wild things that allow us to communicate and do all kinds of things while we're sitting at home.

And do things that we either would have had to travel great distances, expend great amounts of time and money to do, or couldn't have done at all in the past. At all. The most powerful king in the world couldn't talk simultaneously to millions of people as one can do now, or view something like one can over the Internet as one does now. The most powerful kings in history couldn't have done such things.

So, it's very odd, but it's true to me - and I see this very clearly as being someone who works in traditional media, even though I do use computers as an adjunct as a factor, a facet in the work that I'm doing - the work starts in my mind. It ends up on paper or canvas so it starts in a traditional place and it ends in a traditional place. In between it goes through a computer. So I'm very interested in things that are going on. At the same time I can see that my interest in culture, what I believe is significant in life is not shared very much at all by other people.

Harry Roche: Yeah, well I was going to say, don't you find it odd that someone like Glen has not responded to your work? I mean, he only likes one type of thing, but this is sort of it, I would have thought.

John Sheridan: One would think, but on the other hand, given the media hoops, and that the media only responds to shows, which it can go see, I've been shut out almost entirely of San Francisco except in the shows that I've worked on with you, at the Ghia or at Paper Cuts show of recent vintage. Those are the few times except for the two Acme shows where I show my car art, the art that had automobiles and babes in it. The only times I've ever shown in San Francisco have been associated with yourself.

Harry Roche: Well, I mean Sacha.

John Sheridan: Oh, that's true, I forgot Sacha Eckes.

Harry Roche: Or Richard Schoepke.

John Sheridan: Well I've never shown really with him. I've never shown at his gallery. He's farmed my work out to restaurants. Private businesses, so it's not really a public thing at all. So I've really been kept in a closet and not been allowed to show my work, partly because I am independent. I'm following what I think are legitimate steps in art that will make the art more valuable in future than it is now.

But the people running the alternative spaces, they're interested in trendy stuff that's going to be significant now - but will NOT be significant in five minutes. Much less in five years, much less in 500 years. So for me, it's much more important to make work that's going to be significant than it is to make work that I'm going to have to crawl on my knees to some half educated dealer in order to try and plead with them to show my work. I have too much pride.

So, I have figuratively painted myself into a corner, because I do have some pride, I do believe that artists are the real generators of culture, and they're the people who should be looked toward to create the culture, not the galleries, not the museum curators. I mean, these people are very important - I would never denigrate that there should be these people in the world. But without the artist there is no art.

And the artist really is the locus, the nexus of the reality of art. And that's the real key, the real, real point about it: Individuals, making individual decisions and coming up with a symbolic expression that other people really have to take or leave, and that's just the way it is. And certainly it's a great, great and empowering invention that to this day in my mind has not been surpassed in Western culture - by technology, by religion, by political structure - none of these things in my mind give as much satisfaction to the soul ultimately as the power of the individual to create their own symbolic universe.

And that to me is what art is. And if the critics around here don't like it, it's partly their fault, but it's also partly the fault of that I don't get to show. I'm shut out. And the way that they've got the media set up, is they can only write about shows. So I would certainly complain about the media, more than I do. I think I complain about the media the least of all the components of the art world, partly because they have set it up and again it's party their fault, they've set it up so that they have to wait until one is anointed by some venue. Then they may deign to write a blurb or some analysis. But if and only if.

They're always in reserve. Because there are plenty of people to write about, bad as they are. And I've never had a word written about me in Artweek in all the years that I've lived and shown in the Bay Area. Not one word ever. And I just think it's just symptomatic.

Harry Roche: Well I'll have to try to get Steve Jenkins out to the Meridian.

John Sheridan: If he'll go.

Harry Roche: He's located in San Francisco.

John Sheridan: I don't know what these people do with their lives.

Harry Roche: Yeah, well I'm not going to be writing on it.

John Sheridan: Right, I'll be sending messages to people, but I have no faith. No faith. In anything.

Harry Roche: Well I think this is a good place to end.

John Sheridan: Thanks, Harry.

Harry Roche: Yeah, well I thought it went very well. I thought I'd let you do the talking.

John Sheridan: Thank you I appreciate that very much.


Copyright © 2002 John Sheridan