Banks Violette extracts inspiration for his sleek sculptures and ethereal graphite drawings from real-life stories of murder, suicide, horror and anguish. His solemn, even tranquil, adaptations of brutal true-life crimes often feature teenage protagonists who act in tune with death-metal soundtracks.
The Brooklyn-based Violette was born in 1973 in Ithaca, N.Y., rumored to be the state's suicide capital. By the time he received his MFA from Columbia University in 2000, he had begun exhibiting his chilling memorials to hardcore iconography with Team Gallery, where director Jose Freire describes his art as a "cross between Delacroix and Cady Noland." This week, Violette presents a critical homage to Kurt Cobain, the grunge generation's pop-martyr, at the Whitney Museum, earning him a well-deserved place as one of New York Magazine's top-ten favorite participants in the much-anticipated 2004 Biennial Exhibition.
Ana Finel Honigman: What do you think of the term "new gothic?"
Banks Violette: It's silly, all the people who are being described as part of trend have been showing for a long time and the examples cited as the movement's forbears were working only 40 years prior, so, as far as the actual artistic practice is concerned, this is about continuum not resurgence. The term refers more to the popular and art press' critical response, the market's sudden interest or galleries' accompanying support of this work than to anything relevant to the art itself. "New Goth" is fundamentally about the market, which is a very dull thing to talk about.
AFH: Death is never dull.
BV: Death is a big theme. Sex and death, what else is there?
AFH: But this trend is arguably not about death as a universal human experience but about the commercialization of death in popular culture.
BV: The way death is represented in popular media is about our attempts to flaunt a phony comfort level with death, as an abstract idea. It is an irresponsible adolescent response to our communal and individual fears. I am less interested in how this genre relates to fear and much more interested in issues like the way class is represented in pulp horror.
AFH: You mean that horror is repudiated to be a "low" cultural product?
BV: Yes. Horror is considered "low-brow" in part because because theatrical esthetics were discredited by modernism, and in part because theatricality is always considered low-class. The notion of vulgar excess is always tied to class prejudice. Look at the term 'white trash.' Trash is excess, theatre is excess and horror is about excess, as in excessive violence, excessive gore and excessive emotions.
AFH: Yet your work is brilliantly restrained. You focus on the ephemera peripheral to the crime, not bound up with actual gore or violence.
BV: I am put off by theatricality. Filling in imaginative gaps with theatrical excess kills horror.
AFH: How do you edit which examples of ephemera are worth adding to your version of the narrative?
BV: I am interested in the material photographed in black and white, in the middle portion of crappy true-crime paperbacks. In these shoddy images, there is always something banal, like a pack of cigarettes on a counter, that is part of the context at the matrix of the crime. Suddenly that banal artifact is tinged with meaning. I try and do the same thing. I see a non-narrative and build a narrative out of it, like with these minor, fundamentally goofy Slayer album covers, that I bring up to the scale of 19th century panorama paintings or theatrical backdrops. They then become the stage on which this action is conducted.
AFH: How does your choice and treatment of your signature surfaces, like reflective black epoxy or graphite on paper, reflect your conceptual concerns?
BV: I wanted to create drawings that were physically analogous to sculpture. With the sculptures, I was inspired by '60s Postminimal notions of signature materials like Joseph Beuys' felt and fat. Where material becomes a way for somebody to articulate an entire project. So the black shiny epoxy just became a convenient way of doing that. In both mediums I am interested in formal issues of mass, scale, gravity.
AFH: Do you think there is validity in linking the "new gothic" trend to 9/11?
BV: No, I think that's intellectually irresponsible. It is just harnessing the same prism to every issue, so that every series of concerns is refracted the same way. It is too easy, too safe and it is historically incoherent. September 11th was a tragic event, that was also really horrifying, but I grew up at the height of the Cold War and was deathly afraid of jets flying overhead. There was a brief period, post-Glasnost, post collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was no obvious threat, but the fears attributed to September 11th are not new nor is this genre of work.
AFH: And the media always creates the same narrative for every victim, regardless of the crime. Victims are always portrayed as spectacular and somehow unique, as if to imply that murderers only pick special victims. It seems an ugly way to romanticize atrocity.
BV: That is the dimension of true crime novels that interests me most. They function like opera. They always focus on the incredibly compelling stories, never the minor ones, and you, as a reader, feel satisfied by the entertainment dimension added to the tragedy because it conforms to your expectations of literary narrative.
AFH: You mean a narrative where death is the climax?
BV: Yes, it makes a good, clean story. It is the ultimate narrative conclusion: things dying. It triggers an identification process. The dead rock star is such a phenomenal instance of that. A dead rock star has passed away from the realm of disappointment. Once removed, Cobain becomes this Christ-like figure, exempt from disappointing his public by becoming boring. The rock star becomes a type, they become an icon translated away from the specificity of, the idiosyncratic, the personal, the dumb fact that they tied their shoes poorly, or they had bad breath. Now they're iconic. It is fundamentally pathetic.
AFH: Can you tell me about your piece on Kurt Cobain for the Whitney Biennial?
BV: The installation is assembled from images that are fundamentally dead or bankrupt, overused or over-determined, to the point that they don't function anymore. Part of the installation is a series of images of horses. They are a reference to Neil Young and Crazy Horse and also a reference to the romantic imagery of a horse as a symbol of freedom. The central component of it is this big rock stage with a smashed drum kit. It is a sort of Keith Moon gesture of raw emotion. It is such an historical hand-me-down. Even though it is choreographed, smashing a guitar is a stand-in for feeling. Those hyperbolic notions don't really function anymore but every now and someone potently reactivates them.
AFH: What do you think about your work's recent popularity?
BV: I don't know whether it is really popular. The press is just the speculative surplus surrounding the Whitney. I'm not really taking it that seriously. For the most part the reaction to the work hasn't been tremendously positive, and I understand that. I'm not banging my head against the wall and saying, oh, why don't people want to look at amoral things? It's understandable.
AFH: You consider your work amoral?
BV: I try to be amoral. Not immoral or apathetic but amoral.
AFH: Do you think people want to find a spiritual component embedded in your art to redeem the narratives you reference?
BV: I think people want a resolution, they want a fortune cookie-like tagline at the end. That has nothing to do with what I want in my art. If anything, I want my work to evoke sympathy for the devil.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.