“Mitosis: Felicity Nove at CMay Gallery”, by James Scarborough
A Conversation with Kathleen Weyts, Curator of “Somewhere in Between: Contemporary Art Scenes in Europe”, Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium, by James Scarborough

A Conversation with Elyse Pignolet and Sandow Birk on the Occasion of their Exhibition, "American Procession", at Track 16 Gallery, by James Scarborough

Please find below a conversation with Elyse Pignolet and Sandow Birk on their American Procession exhibition at Track 16 gallery (reviewed here.)

Also check the above link to visit equally compelling recent work by Pignolet and Birk, including Birk's Trumpagruel series.


JS: The Procession of Princes on Dresden Castle’s exterior wall inspired the piece. Was it something either of you had seen in person, or was it something you saw in reproduction? Either way, was it an aha moment when you first laid eyes on it? Or did it happen to coincide with something you had been thinking of prior?

SB:  We did see it in person, on a driving trip across Germany about ten years ago. We went to Dresden for a couple of days and sort of stumbled on it, as we hadn’t heard about it before then. It’s massive and amazing. It’s outdoors and about 3 or 4 stories tall, and a whole city block long, on the side of a castle, so it’s amazing. I think to both of us it was not so much an “ah-hah” moment as the germ of an idea. We bought a souvenir poster of it and had it around our studio for years, thinking we’d eventually come up with a way to use it in a project of our own. It was when the printer Paul Mullowney contacted us with the proposal to do a woodblock print project that the memory of the Dresden work kicked in and became the basis for our new project.

EP:  Since Sandow got the first stab at your questions he has answered most of them for both of us. I will add because my background is in ceramics I was very much impressed by the Dresden mural, I don’t think I had ever seen a ceramic mural of that scale and presentation in person before.  The Procession of Princes is meant to be seen as a standalone artwork, while other large-scale tile murals I had seen have been more connected to the architecture- covering walls like in wallpaper.

JS: What was your working process? Did you collaborate each step along the way? Did you divide the work? How? What contribution did each of you make to the piece?

SB: We collaborated all along, from concept to arguments about who to include in the two processions, to the physical carving of the woodblocks, which the two of us did over a couple of long months in Elyse’s San Pedro studio.

EP: It is true, we worked together on all aspects of our Procession print. Sandow and I have collaborated on many projects over almost two decades and it’s a very natural process for us.

JS: Your criteria for the processional figures follows the same criteria by which Time Magazine choses its Person of the Year. The figure who, for better or worse, influenced events of that year. How did you choose these particular figures? Were there any really controversial figures you considered but didn’t include? Who?

EP: Coming up with our list of names was a lot of going back and forth between us, but we also talked with friends. We tried to not have the most obvious figures from history. For example, on the left side we added local hero Robbie Rogers of LA Galaxy soccer team.

SB: Yeah, we didn’t want to do the obvious people, the ones that appear on elementary school murals, but rather we wanted to choose people that were more symbolic of a greater movement, or people lesser known and unsung, or even people that we weren’t familiar with beforehand. For example, there’s not a lot o rock’n’roll people in there and there easily could be. That could be a whole procession itself. As for really controversial figures I think we threw in all the ones we could think of as controversy makes a more interesting work.

JS: How did you decide to do it as a woodblock? Was it the subject matter? Because the medium lends itself to political commentary? Because its impact is legible and, thus, immediate?

SB: The idea for the woodblock actually came before the concept. We’ve done several huge print projects with Paul Mullowney and Mullowney Printing in San Francisco, and it’s been a great relationship. Paul and his team come up with funding for projects and the technical skills to make amazing works possible. A previous project was a series of 15 huge woodblock prints about the war in Iraq, and we’re well aware of the history of printing and woodblock print making as political vehicles. So, the opportunity arose to do a project with them, and it was just after the inauguration of Trump, so we were feeling very political and angered.

EP: Yes, and as Sandow mentions, we had the opportunity to work with Paul Mullowney and his team again. The timing was right, and it seemed appropriate for creating something bold and political.

JS: The Dresden work measures 334 feet long by 34 feet high. Yours measures 38-1/2 feet x 4 feet? About 1/10th the size of the German piece. How did you arrive at that particular size?

EP: Size was important. We wanted to try and push the limits of what we could create as a woodblock.  Paul Mullowney was really a guide to what was possible. The height at 3” was decided for us because that was the width of the printing press we used.

SB: We pretty much made it as big as was physically possible on the press at Mullowney Printing. It does really make a much bolder image the larger it gets.

JS: The German original’s magnitude fit the scope of its heroic presentation of 800 years of German royalty. What’s the relationship between the scale and subject matter of your piece?

EP: After the election and since, I have been pretty disturbed about everything in the country politically, the administration specifically, and the hope was to reflect that in the scale and subject matter in the piece.

SB: One thing we’ve learned from past woodblock print projects is that the inherent crudeness of the method helps create impact. The physical carving of the wood and the textures and the aggressiveness of carving add to the emotional weight of the works, and scale does as well. Big and bold are essential to the overall impact.

JS: What issue does the piece address and for whom did you intend it?

SB: The image is about the division of ideologies throughout American history, it’s about good versus evil, about humanity versus selfishness and self-interest. All of the people depicted are remarkable for one reason or another, and I think it points out that the country - even since pre-country colonial times - has been formed by the opposing forces. As for who it’s for, its for everyone, every American, if it were possible. We hope that some of the names, especially the ones from further back in history, make viewers do some research and see who these forgotten people are and what their accomplishments and deeds were and have led to, because so often they have effects lasting decades or longer.

EP: Well said Sandow, I’m not sure if I have much more to add. Yes, the intent is for as many people possible to view and for as many discussions possible. So, thank you for your interest and your thoughtful questions!

JS: Procession suggests forward motion in a regal manner. Your piece, with two different groups, with two different agendas, with two different motivations, moving toward each other in opposite directions, feels more like the fans of two World Cups teams spoiling for a brawl. What does that suggest about the structure of the American political system?

SB: As soccer fans, it would be great if the meeting of these two processions was similar to football riot, because that would be relatively harmless. Unfortunately, the repercussions of these groups is much more lasting and more formative to an entire nation of hundreds of millions for generations.

EP: I completely agree with Sandow. One thing I will point out in our Procession, while the left side does suggest forward motion, the right comes to a halt with a man building a brick wall.

JS: Would there be any circumstance under which you would recreate the piece on ceramic tiles, as the Germans did when their painted original deteriorated?

 EP: Sure, that would be great!

SB: Oh, yeah, that would be fantastic. It should be thirty feet high and encircle the capitol dome in Washington, DC.

JS: If you could exhibit the piece anywhere, indoors or out, where would it be? Why?

EP: My hope would be that the piece would be seen in as many places as it could.

SB: Sure anywhere, but how about on the back of the one-dollar bill? (Writer's note: that was an initial observation, since abandoned - "Did you conceive the piece so that, perhaps, it could serve as a perfect-for-this-era back side of a newly issued dollar bill?) Or outside voting booths? Or as a poster in a high school classroom? It’s meant to create discussions and spark interest in our meddled-with democratic process.