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Bird Flu & the Emperor’s New Clothes: A Conversation w/Cein Watson & Joe McVetty

Cein Watson and Joe McVetty III’s exhibit To Leave and Never Return is on view at Kayo Gallery in Salt Lake City through May 15. The artists were once students together at the Maine College of Art; Cein now lives in Salt Lake and is a triple major in philosophy, art history and printmaking at the U of U; and Joe just graduated from the Maine College of Art and is taking a year off before grad school. Cein’s work was shown in the fall of 2005 at the Kimball Art Center in Park City (read more). Joe’s wall drawing was exhibited in The 19th Drawing Show at Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, in January of 2006.

I spoke with the artists as they were installing at Kayo Gallery. Cein was working on a large wall painting that occupies the entire west wall of the gallery. Joe was working on some large drawings in pencil on gessoed paper. In preparation for this interview, I asked the two to name some of the influences on their work. Cein sent me a 300-word list of artists, philosophers and concepts. Joe just told me that I needed to understand Bill Buckner in game six of the 1986 World Series.

(We go over to look at Joe’s work, standing in front of a drawing of what appears to be a gargantuan fart rising into the stratosphere from a crouched figure.)

Joe: That’s the Challenger explosion. I think the defining year in my life was 1986 into early ’87 – the Challenger explosion, Iran Contra and Bill Buckner.

Cein: It shaped the man he is today.

Jim: Because those are just events that stick in your mind?

Cein: I think that you’re looking for meaning and there’s no meaning here.

Joe: No, There’s meaning in 1986!

Cein: There was maybe then, for you.

Jim: Tell me about the relationship of what happened to Bill Buckner in game six of the 1986 World Series to your work.

Joe: I was at that game with my Dad. The thing that struck me about what happened with Bill Buckner was that you could have more of an effect on people by screwing up than by doing your job right. That’s what I see myself as doing.


Joe: These are the bird flu series (groups of people wearing underpants and skull masks are beating something with hammers and croquet mallets; in another drawing, similar people are tying chickens to inflated balloons). I had this idea with the bird flu, the end of the world – apocalyptic – who’s going to be doing the cleaning up of the birds? There’s always those pictures of villages and they’re lighting birds on fire. So they’re going to get rid of the birds by knocking them out with hammers and letting them float away.

Jim: And then come down on somebody else?

Joe: We hope – well, we never care so it wouldn’t matter. Then it got real boring to think about chickens, so this isn’t about chickens (the drawing we’re in front of at this point depicts a group of people wearing skull masks holding guns and pointing them at an empty spot on the ground in the middle of the group). Chickens got me to the place of making the drawings but when you get there you realize that chickens don’t have anything to do with anything. Now it’s just an interesting drawing. Now, with nothing there, that’s what makes this interesting. If there was a chicken there it would be such a bad drawing. Chickens got me here, the bird flu got me here, the end of the world got me here, but now it’s something else.

Cein: Chickens got Joe to Utah.

Joe: It’s about absence. It’s repeating. All my work is always repeating. I think repetition leads you somewhere.

Cein: Ritual.

Joe: Exactly – the hammers, the balloons, the skull masks, the underpants, the uniformity, tasks, routine.

Cein: I think that happens with everyone, though. Artists, in general, working, inevitably will have a vocabulary that repeats itself.

Joe: I’d like to do something else but this is what I got right now. I’m interested in architectural stuff lately. I’m interested in architectural constriction. I’m interested in eliciting a response from the viewer instead of having a passive experience which is really boring. This is just me showing off, like, “Look at what I can do really well.” And the viewer doesn’t get anything from that. I’d rather make something actually happen. I’d rather tell a lie in the physical world than two-dimensionally make an illusion that causes the viewer to do something.

Cein: He’s telling lies all the time in the physical world.

Joe: I want to squeeze people into spaces and make them react to the space.

Cein: That’s a neat idea because somebody said that architecture is the totalitarian art form – it’s impossible not to be engaged by it.

Joe: You have to have a reaction. Now, you see a lot of passivity – the niceties – people are really passive now. So I want to encourage a more confrontational reaction rather than the passive reaction. I think this is really passive and I wish I could elicit a more confrontational response.

Cein: Which is why, maybe, even in them being passive they’re still really confrontational.

Jim: (Looking at Cein’s wall painting and noticing a book of medical photographs open before it)–This is an anatomy book?

Cein: Dasein!

Jim: When I read a definition of Dasein, it seems like just another philosophical concept. But it seems to have some sort of personal meaning or connotation to you – is that right?

Cein: That’s a loaded question – that means there’s an objective meaning to something? OK, well I guess the shallow answer would be that the idea of Heidegger’s Dasein made me feel OK to paint people again because it made people relevant to me – it made figure painting relevant again. So here’s a question for you: Would it really matter what I put on the wall if I gave the viewer a context of how it should be read? Then I could define what the meaning of the thing was and it wouldn’t be a problem. They could agree or disagree but it would still be me defining the thing. This could be graffiti if it were somewhere else. The idea of context and the idea of an artist statement framing up anything to be read a specific way. Yes, this has personal symbology and meaning to me. What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything – in that it’s so many ideas that are working against themselves that it’s an answer to questions that don’t have answers. The meaning is created through the context. With all this jargon and elitist jargon talk people get lost and there’s no meaning because there’s so much.

Jim: I suppose you could say that’s making a statement in itself – you could be just saying that there’s too much elitist bulls**t.

Cein: And I’m participating in it just to show you guys how useless it is, and it’s futile and it’s awesome. I’m inside it doing my dance – watch me dance with you guys – this is great!

Jim: Well, you’re obviously enjoying it, whether it’s meaningful or not.

Cein: Yeah! I like to think about it.

Joe: Is there – do you think there’s a meaning?

Cein: Nah, the context gives meaning, the process gives meaning.

Joe: I’m real serious – I think there’s a meaning.

Cein: So many ideas – lay it all out, doesn’t mean anything. You map it out – determinism, all the different versions of it; you map out Epicureans, or Stoics or any of it, it’s a history that you can’t even participate in.

Joe: So who’re you making this for?

Cein: Huh? – The failure . . .

Joe: I gotcha!

Cein: Who am I making it for? What’s the inspiration? I dunno. It’s a compulsion, it’s like breathing – I can’t stop myself. Which is probably why it’s getting so out of hand; it just gets bigger, and – the megalomania – it’s never ending.

Jim: How are you gonna feel about painting it out?

Joe: You gotta put a nice glaze over it and then paint white over it so years from now they can take off the white paint and the masterpiece will still be underneath. They can X-ray the wall.

Cein: X-ray the wall – yeah that’ll happen

Jim: They’ll never be able to tear this building down.

Cein: In regard to a more serious topic, the Socratic method — I’m a bag of wind, a talker. [It’s] sort of anti-philosophy – engage you and then set you up through questioning to fall, and to reveal your own mistakes so that you’ll be forced to reflect. In the same way in terms of conceptual art and concepts it’s the same sort of Socratic method, laying out all these questions and setting it up and in the end, I don’t have any real meaning except for undercutting all these other concepts. So then in the end, in reality, I’m not really saying anything – I’m saying just the opposite – revealing the Emperor’s clothes.


Jim: I can see the fun in that.

Cein: It’s a blast! Watch me dance!

Jim: I used to have this friend who was intensely serious — you could get him going on this long train of stuff and then just say, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter,” and he would freak.

Cein: Yeah! Melt down – I think that’s happening in the art world right now, and that’s why I can paint this over in a month and everybody can kiss my ass.

Joe: What about social responsibility? Do you think it’s your social responsibility. . .

Cein: To define the work?

Joe: No, to not be so frivolous with this space, and really make a statement, especially with the way the world is right now?

Cein: I would say in response to that – nobody cares, so why is there any responsibility?

Joe: Is it your responsibility to make them care?

Cein: You can’t make people care.

Joe: Yeah, you can!

Cein: No, you can’t.

Joe: Yeah, you can!

Jim: How do you make people care?

Cein: Punch ’em in the face!

Joe: Miss a ground ball! All you gotta do is miss a ground ball! Thousands of people cared!

Cein: But you can’t make those people care! They did care but you can’t –

Joe: You can put yourself in the position to make people care. You’re putting yourself in a position right now where you can have that effect on people.

Cein: Alright. Alright — we gotta draw some distinctions, but before we do that, I’m going to let this go — Joe’s right, Joe’s always right, in that I’ll have an effect on people but I don’t think it’ll make people care. I don’t think that I have any social responsibilities.

Joe: Alright . . . that’s fair . . . that’s a load of crap! You total bag of s**t!

Cein: What is it? What’s my job? I can’t define anything for people – the viewer defines it.

Joe: So, yeah, exactly.

Cein: What about you? I just dance in the corner without my clothes on.

Joe: Keep talking!

Cein: Look at all these cool clothes I have on! The reason the Emperor’s clothes keeps coming up is I had this long conversation with a painter friend of mine and he’s like, all artists have a myth, what’s your myth? They all have a myth that they work by to make them so that they can stay in the studio; so they feel like they’re working toward something. That’s my myth. Come to the opening on Friday, it’ll be done.

(There’s a pause as we walk away.)

Cein: There’s a fly around my head.

Joe: It’s all that bulls**t coming out of his mouth!

Cein: I think that’s an appropriate way to end it – with flies buzzing around my head.

I went back to the opening. Cein had decided he would just keep working on the wall painting for a while. Joe had decided to dispense with titles for the drawings and post a small sign: “Chickens got me here, vultures are taking me home.”

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