whitehot | April 2009, Clayton Cubitt Interview
Clayton Cubitt, 'Untitled', Blue, 2003-2009
“Erotica is using a feather,” wrote Isabel Allende, “pornography is using the whole chicken.”
Clayton Cubitt takes Allende at her word. His pornographic photographs are juicy, meaty and fulfilling. His subject matter might not always be pretty, just as chickens are not the beauty queens of birds, but he prepares and presents raw flesh with immaculate elegance. And while some diners may find uncooked plucked chicken skin and muscle troubling, Cubitt masterfully transforms prime meat into tantalizing dishes.
Cubitt's beautiful body of pornographic photographs is a study in contrasts between the juices, complications and irrepressible sensations of raw, dirty sex and his arrestingly controlled and sleek sense of style. His work is gritty without being either earnest or silly, as he captures a playful yet mature intimacy in his approach to “adult play.”
TheConstant Siege,” is Cubitt’s independent version of the blog, titled “The Daily Siege” which he previously ran on Nerve.com’s website. Both sites feature his imagery, political and philosophical ruminations and updates on Operation Eden.
After Hurricane Katrina decimated his family’s home in Pearlington, Mississippi, Cubitt started “Operation Eden,” a blog which he subtitles “A personal chronicle of what Hurricane Katrina has done to my poor proud people.” Operation Eden included poignant photo-journalism and Cubitt’s eloquent commentary from the disaster site.
The project raised truly admirable money for aid but also functioned as a powerful piece of citizen journalism. In a paper on Operation Eden and citizen journalism, artist Jessica Faith Hayden and Professor David Wellman of the University of Santa Cruz’s Community Studies Department write “what started out as an online diary, a public chronicle of the anxiety Cubitt feels as he watches the storm bear down on his hometown, becomes an extraordinary documentary about devastation, survival, and hope.”
According to the most recent post in August 2008, Cubitt’s mother “back on her property in a beautiful little home she's overjoyed to live in, built by successive waves of wonderful volunteers since the storm. She's just received some rebuilding money from the state of Mississippi which she's using to shore up the rough spots left over, and to elevate the house to new FEMA standards (which change frequently since the storm).” Though that aspect of the post was hopeful, the remaining text told of residual poverty, crime and misery in New Orleans, and even three years after the natural disaster, Cubitt’s blog remains a brutal and insightful portrait into one of the most shameful episodes in America’s recent history.
Alongwith a riveting array of models and friends, he often photographs KT, the fiercely sexy women with whom he shares a Williamsburg house converted to resemble a decadent 70’s early Penthouse chalet. Cubitt's portrait of a girl’s smooth, alabaster vagina within a matching-coloured antique frame from his “Cream” series is currently included alongside work by John Currin, Tracey Emin, Richard Phillips, Paul McCarthy, Lisa Yuskavage and Orly Genger in “Talk Dirty to Me,” at New York’s Larissa Goldston Gallery. Cubitt is currently working on a series of large-scale stark, fresh nudes splattered with Indian ink. And though he is definitely not shy, he will have unattributed work (although it will be unmistakeably his) in the upcoming "Anonymous" group show at New York’s Envoy gallery. Here we discuss the many facets of his work, which he laments is too often misconstrued as “too porn for the art world, too art for the porn world. And too artporn for the commercial world.”
Clayton Cubitt 'Flesh For Fantasy (Girl #5)', Cream Series, pigment print and Baroque frame, 32.5 x 44.5, 2008
AFH: Aesthetically what separates your art from your fashion photography?
CC: Well, I think any of my commercial efforts will of course be tinted by the requirements of the marketplace commissioning them. So the most obvious difference between my fashion and personal work is the necessity in the former of showing the fashions, satisfying the designers, magazines, etc. But aside from that, I'm almost mentally incapable of drawing a distinction between art I make for the masses, or my clients, and that I make for myself. It all flows from what gets me off, ultimately. It's my viewpoint, and I don't particularly care if it gets seen by gallery patrons, magazine readers, internet audiences, or my friends, as long as it gets seen.
AFH: Is this the same audience you ideally wanted for your "The Daily Siege" blog?
CC: The Daily Siege was a four-year experiment in showcasing a full-spectrum, and very unconventional life. It was about presenting art and sex and commerce and politics as inextricably linked for me as an artist. I wrote on its first anniversary: "As I promised at the start, I've drawn no distinction between high and low, and I've posted everything from fisting to backseat trysts to still-lives of dead baby birds to an updated Declaration of Independence. I¹ve used this as an artist's sketchbook, a diary, a confessional, a gallery, and a soapbox. It's all of those things and none. It¹s perhaps the weirdest blog on the net. Most of all, what I¹ve been trying to show here is a full-spectrum life. I've tried to show that you can be free-spirited with love and lust, yet still be a faithful and devoted person. That you can be both the sinner and the saint. That you can be a cultured animal. That moral libertines exist. I've tried to show that perverts are people too." So, the audience was an amazingly diverse self-selecting group of very intelligent readers, dissatisfied with the artificial divisions old media publishers have placed between these different types of subject matter I'm working with. In a way, it was just a postmodern, net-age version of Hugh Hefner's original 50's Playboy Manifesto, although I didn't set out to model it that way at all, and I'd die before wearing a smoking jacket. But it ran its course, as all things must, and I ended it a few months ago, after having accomplished what I set out to do with it. The archives are still online, thousands of images, and I'll be launching a new chapter soon, with new challenges for me, and new levels of access for people who follow my work.
AFH: What do you think of the Gonzo art/porn aesthetic of guys like Terry Richardson and Richard Kern?
CC: I love Terry's work. It has a power and immediacy and connection that I think is about more than just being gonzo. Ditto Juergen Teller. I also like Terry's ability to transgress, and be rewarded by it. Shooting major ad campaigns and celebrities while publishing books by and about your penis is a lot more difficult than it looks, and anybody who can do it deserves credit. But I confess to getting quickly bored by one style of expression, in the case of these guys, the snapshot aesthetic. I wish I could do one thing over and over again, as it's much easier for the public to "get" what you're doing then, for good or ill. But I get too bored too fast, and as a result I like to experiment with all different sorts of modes. I rebel against familiar tools.
Clayton Cubitt, ‘There The Richest Was Poor, And The Poorest Lived in Abundance’, Decay Series, pigment print, soil, black mold, water stains, whitewashed antique baroque frame. 32x44 inches, 2008
AFH: Do you agree, as some people say, that this style is all about content and context? That "anyone in the studio for a Terry Richardson shoot could take a Terry Richardson photo"? Or is there more from a technical or aesthetic angle than often gets acknowledged?
CC: I think this kind of question opens a whole can of worms. In fact, many of Terry's shots are taken by his assistants, and other people on set. But I don't think this makes them any less "Terry's shots". It's his set, his ideas, his style of execution, the mood in the final edited photographs is in line with his "brand". So much of what makes a photographer's style is dependent on editing, and what that artist allows out in the world attached to his or her name. And there's a long history of photographer's assistants setting up lighting and cameras for their photographer, so I don't personally see this as a problem. Not to mention the long apprentice tradition in painting, dating back to the old masters. But even in modern times, taken to its extreme, you have whole factory production lines set up with anonymous workers, churning out branded images under artistic supervision. Warhol, Kostabi, Hirst, Koons. Are the resulting works any less theirs because they don't make them with their own hands? Photography especially is a machine-mediated art form, so we're already accustomed to the separation of artist from final work, this is just one more remove, but I think the provenance is still clear. In fact, it's that machine mediation I'm rebelling against with the Decay and Fugue State (splatter) pieces. I missed the direct connection I had to the final work when I was a painter, and wanted to reconnect with that.
AFH: How does that rawer erotic sensibility apply to your highly polished style, which seems more in an Araki school?
CC: I'll accept your comparison to Araki as a great compliment, even though I didn't discover his work early enough to count him as an influence. But when I did see his body of work, and how voraciously he jumps around, and experiments with different techniques, and how he's still managed to maintain a unifying mind through it, an outlook that comes through no matter how he's presenting it, I was very encouraged about my own work. I had previously always harbored fears that my curiosity and variety were weaknesses. Araki showed me otherwise. And it looks like I'm well on course to have as much trouble with skittish publishers and censors as he had.
AFH: Such as?
CC: I've had many projects cause me problems. A magazine that published a retrospective of my work was forced by their distributor to put black censor dots over a few pages that were considered too graphic for distribution. I had two pieces included in the first edition of the high-end art collectible "The Playground", and two different printers refused to print the pieces due to explicitness, so the publishers wound up having to print them all by hand for inclusion. And after all that, Barneys refused to stock it due to the pieces. Luckily, Colette in Paris was less prudish. WWD wrote about the whole controversy, which greatly helped sales. Although on the other hand, I also know that I've lost out on big commercial jobs because of the raw sexuality of a lot of my personal work, so that controversy definitely cuts both ways. I find it amazing, really, how much power and polarization images of the naked human form can inspire. Perhaps that's partly why I'm so obsessed with it.
AFH: When and why did you begin burying prints?
CC: I only began abusing, weathering, and burying prints in 2007, after the idea had been kicking around in in me since late 2005. At first it was just a cathartic reaction to what I had seen nature do to my family snapshots and belongings after Hurricane Katrina. So many of my childhood relics, and worse, my family's current belongings, were destroyed by the flooding, the rot, the mold. But in this destruction I kept finding myself fascinated by the grotesque beauty of it. Like a car accident, or the bodies of Pompeii. New Orleans is really a modern American Atlantis, after all. So this was just an attempt for me to bring under my own artistic control what had been an episode of complete chaos and destruction. Finding beauty in the shit. But as I started working with it I found other things about it to love. Like the fact that the resulting mold-ridden prints are very toxic. It's dangerous beauty, a siren call. Look too closely and it could kill you. Is the frame of the glass protecting the print, or the viewer? It appealed to my background in painting as well, as each piece is unique and unrepeatable, and that's something I find lovely. It also turns on its head the art-world emphasis on archival preservation. These images won't stop decaying once I seal them up. All things in life are transient, and more beautiful for it.
Clayton Cubitt, ‘And Somewhere There’s Someone Who Cares, With a Heart of Gold To Have and to Hold’, Fugue State, pigment print and India Ink triptych, 72x36 inches, 2008
AFH: How much control to you have over the end result?
CC: It forces me, as a control freak, to surrender. It's very random, and closer to painting or even farming than photography. It's excruciatingly slow. Just as digital technology speeds up photographic creation to being nearly instantaneous, the time it takes for me make each piece in this series is measured in months. After I started working on these I discovered that Stephen Gill had been something very similar, for different reasons and with different aesthetic results, in his "Buried" series, which I think was 2006 so. And Bill Morrison was doing something similar, and stunning, with his film 'Decasia' in 2002, which I discovered only in 2006.
AFH: How different is your relationship with the uncontrollable aspects in your Fugue State (India ink splatter) series.
CC: I'm still exploring what they mean to me, but the kernel right now, the cloud that they are forming in my imagination, is that they are both aspects of violence and injury, and my attempt to co-opt that, to contain it in the frame. Whereas the Decay series feels like feminine violence to me, subtle, creeping, slow and fluid, the Fugue State (ink splatter) series is more masculine. Attack, instant lashing out, leaving indelible injury. A moment of fury, leaving a scar as a testament.
AFH: What are you aiming to articulate with that technique that you can't with a different
CC: The instantaneous attack, frozen only in the damage it inflicts, is very important to the final pieces for me. I could achieve the same look deliberately, by painting the splatter, or by using the computer, which would enable me to be more exact and repeatable. But it's important to me that the splatter is a strike, a lashing out, and that each piece is unique and individual, and that the damage is not in my control. I spend so much time crafting the images, and making the perfect print, so when it comes time to mark them with the India ink, it's very therapeutic for me to let go of that control, and let dumb physics complete the piece. And the fact that I strike one splatter across a triptych of three identical images for me is a way to unite them, and at the same time individualize them. In one stroke the splatter renders three duplicate images as one greater whole, while also making each individual different from any other. This is the dynamic of disaster, of life. Of the earned beauty of wrinkles and scars, as opposed to the inherited beauty of flawless youth. I like this lesson.
AFH: Do you perceive the spills as 'flaws,' in the Zen sense of an intentional imperfection that highlights the tranquility in the surrounding composition?
CC: To some degree, yes. The notion that the imperfection is really where the true beauty lies. We can endeavor for perfection in the things we build, in our lives, our cities, our art. But in the end entropy catches up to us, eats us alive, doesn't it? I feel like the only way to be honest in our work is to acknowledge this, and not run from it, but rather, embrace it, and look for the beauty in it. Laugh past the cemetery.
AFH; How does your upbringing influence your work?
CC: My upbringing has been pushing and pulling my work my whole life. At first it pushed me away, as I sought to clean up my mind with a style that was slick and glossy, aspirational and wrapped in fantasy. That's still largely how I approach my fashion work, with some exceptions lately, such as my "Lagos Calling" spread More recently it's pulled me back, particularly since Katrina, and as I get older and lose some of that shame that's inherited with poverty. My most recent work is an attempt to balance this push and pull. To make photographic images that are as slick and controlled as I can achieve, pure and rare, and to bring chaos and dirt and decay to them, to better reflect the reality I've known. It's an attempt to balance the highs and lows I've experienced. The attempted control and the forced release. I've given up running and am comfortable with my roots, even proud, finally.
AFH: Did you have family who were effected by Katrina?
CC: Yes, my mom and little brother were missing for a week, and the home I had purchased for them that year was completely destroyed. Aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, everyone I knew down there lost everything, or almost everything, and many have not been able to return, even now, over three years later.
AFH: Do you feel that the massive media attention brought to New Orleans after Katrina made much substantive difference in the lives of people who suffered from the disaster?
CC: Yes and no. On the one hand, for the first few days after the storm, it was only the media and private citizens that were even in
the region doing anything, while the government tried to figure out which agency was stuck with helping, or who to point the finger at. So in this regard it was a lifeline to the rest of the country, even if only in one direction, since most people in the affected region didn't even have electricity, much less television.
AFH: Did you attracting attention to your family's plight help them in receiving aid?
CC: Yes, in my own small case, having been forced into the role of 'citizen journalist', the media attention saved the lives of my family. My mom's home was rebuilt by a volunteer group that found her, and her town, through my work. We got many tons of aid and many thousands of volunteers to come down and help, and raised a lot of money to help people that had nothing. On the other hand, the media cycle is very fickle, and it wasn't long until "Katrina Fatigue" set in. Within the first year I sensed a palpable yawn from many people regarding the Katrina story. In some cases it was outright banal hostility, like "That old thing?". And the task at hand in rebuilding the Gulf is so giant, and has been so bungled by the relevant authorities, that they're facing a generational battle for survival down there.
Clayton Cubitt, 'Untitled', Blue, 2003-2009
AFH: People have commented that Katrina flushed into the forefront issues of radical inequality, racism and poverty plaguing New Orleans but that were callously ignored by the country at large. Do you think the exposure of these deep-rooted toxic issues has had any real lasting impact in New Orleans? Or do these problems persist as they had before Katrina brought them briefly into national consciousness?
CC: Exactly the latter. To those of us who had grown up on the poor side of the divide, what was shocking wasn't the revelation of poverty and neglect, it was that other Americans were actually surprised by this reality. And for a time it sparked a faint hope for us that maybe Americans would start to wake up from the "Morning In America" Reagan head-in-the-sand rosiness/ruthlessness paradigm, which had reached its apex with the Bush Administration. But it wasn't long until we realized nothing much had changed, or was likely to, even as gas prices skyrocket, the housing market tanks, jobs are lost, and inequality grows. Just like the mold on my images, the rot is so slow it's taken you before you realize it. What was once how those "other" people suffered is increasingly coming to a gated community near you.
AFH: Do you think America learned lasting lessons?
CC: it's not just New Orleans, which is always trotted out as an example of poverty. It's Detroit. New York. Los Angeles. Miami. Every city has this, and it's growing. On its present course, I think the future looks less like central London, and more like downtown Lagos.
AFH: What inspired the 'Lagos Calling' series?
CC: I've always been fascinated by cross-cultural pollination. I love it when an idea jumps a cultural boundary, and embeds itself in a completely different environment. I think this forms the core of my interest in fashion work. The global sharing and remixing of tribal signifiers. The Bosozuko motorcycle gangs of Japan, the Sappeur dandies of the Congo, the John Frum cargo cults of the Pacific islands. Lagos Calling was an attempt to imagine a fantasy alternate reality. What if the skinhead fashion movement had arisen in 60's Lagos, instead of London? What if anthropological portraits from the time had been lost, and then resurfaced, damaged, faded, as a relic of a cultural hybrid that has since died out? Lagos Calling is what I came up with, in collaboration with an amazing fashion stylist, René Garza, who I've collaborated with for ten years. The skinhead aesthetic was perfect for it, since it was itself a product of a mixing of global cultures and immigration. British working class youth listening to Jamaican dub and ska. The fact that it was later co-opted by white racists made the imaginary transplanting to Nigeria (a former British colony) even more jarring and powerful for me. I think it was a success, and spoke to people. It was heavily referenced in pop culture (Gnarls Barkley repeated the styling in their video for their song "Going On", and Doc Martens inquired about acquiring the whole series for their headquarters). But perhaps the biggest kick I get out of it is all the people who write to me thinking the images are a real document from the 60's in Lagos. The websites in Africa and Russia that republish the images as historical reference. The SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) groups that point to it with pride as an example of "real" skinhead origins. That's the crux of both fashion and art for me. The simultaneous ability to signify and cohere tribal groups, while at the same time the ability to be universal and meaningful across time and geography. But as big as that sounds, it's also just playing dress-up. It should be fun. The notion of African skinheads was both powerful, and in a sense, playful to me. I want the fashion work to be both throwaway and permanent. The contrast amuses me.
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Ana Finel Honigman is a Berlin-based critic. She writes about contemporary art and fashion for magazines including Artforum.com, Art in America, V, TANK, Art Journal, Whitewall, Dazed & Confused, Saatchi Online, Style.com, Dazeddigital.com, British Vogue, Interview and the New York Times's Style section. A Sarah Lawrence graduate, Ana has completed a Masters degree and is currently reading for a D.Phil in the History of Art at Oxford University. She also teaches a contemporary art course for NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development students. You can read her series Ana Finel Honigman Presents
Photo: Maxime Ballesteros
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