Esthetic Lens presents a new installment of Artist Talks. Artist Ally Fouts visits The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be, an exhibition at 062 Gallery in Chicago, and discusses the work on-site with the artist, Ross Sawyers.
On a rainy afternoon, I arrive at 062 Gallery to meet with Ross Sawyers to talk about his current exhibition. Today, the city feels post-apocalyptic; blankets of precipitation loom heavily over the streets. The weather only adds to the dark uncertainty of the pandemic and political climate we currently find ourselves in. I step into the gallery and am confronted with photographs that only further this sense of an eerie, dark future. I meet with Sawyers, and we begin to discuss the photographs he so diligently created.
Ally Fouts: The title is The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be. This feels like a good place for us to jump off. Can you tell me about the meaning behind the title?
Ross Sawyers: “This project started back in 2018 before we found ourselves in a pandemic. At that point, the world was still not the greatest place, but a bit calmer than it is now. It was really interesting to me to be working under the title The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be, and then have the world to continue to fall apart more, and more, and more as the project went on. For me, it was a reference to the idea of what, both individually and collectively, we imagined our future to be, and how the present certainly doesn’t align with the Jetsons version of what we once thought of as the future. That term ‘future’ can mean 100 years in the future or tomorrow.”
“Originally, it was a way for me to think about how, as I get older, my understanding of my place in the world has changed. My understanding of where I’m going is changing. We’ve collectively experienced a decline in our own safety and our own comfort level, which I found really interesting.”
AF: It’s almost prophetic: You say the future isn’t what to use to be, but now thinking of that ‘future’ as being our present, it is certainly something we could have never expected in 2018. Where did the phrasing of the title come from?
RS: “I don’t take complete credit for the title. There is an ex-baseball player named Yogi Berra, who’s known for saying ridiculous things like, ‘You can observe a lot by just watching’ He did at one point say, ‘the future ain’t what it used to be.’ That’s where I originally heard this saying. I did a little research and the first time it was found in print was in the 1930s. It was written as ‘the future isn’t what it used to be.’ in an essay entitled “A Private Correspondence on Reality” by Laura Riding and Robert Graves”
AF: The work in the front room are clearly photographs, but the images that appear on these “field signs” look like paintings. In fact, the illusion is so strong, I can’t tell…are they paintings or photographs?
RS: “Anything two dimensional is a photograph. These bigger pieces are printed on canvas, which is why they read like a painting. The reason that they’re printed on canvas is because the structures that hold them, which I refer to as ‘field signs,’ reference the kind of structures that hold billboards in farm fields as you drive across the country. The next time you pass a McDonald’s billboard in the country, look at the back of the structure, they’re usually very makeshift. They’re not the kind of billboards you see driving down the interstate in Chicago. I love them as structures, so I started making them to hold these photographs. I didn’t want the photographs to read as a photographic print on paper, I thought it made more sense to print them on canvas or vinyl so that they would more closely mimic an actual billboard outside.”
AF: I’m curious about the sequence of your conception of each piece: Did these field signs come before the photographs?
RS: “No, they came after. It started with this piece [looking at Sawyer’s exhibition in a box]. It’s based on something Marcel Duchamp did, ’Boîte-en-valise,’ which he made miniature exhibitions of his work that fit in a suitcase. I always loved that; This was my first attempt at that.”
“I was asked to do a piece for someone’s yard for the Terrain Biennial. That was the first time I made a field sign. The photographs definitely came first, then field signs, and then simultaneously, the smaller sculptures. The sculptures happened probably a year and a half to two years into the project.”
AF: As I look between the field signs and the “exhibition in a box,” I notice similar imagery. What is the relationship between the field signs and this piece?
RS: “The ‘exhibition in a box’ is actually where this project started. These are the very first photographs I made. I didn’t really know what I was doing at that point…but then it evolved into this whole exhibition. These are really small little spaces. In fact, these photographs may be pretty close to scale. They’re little rooms that I built and made out of paper, then I would draw and paint onto them, and then photograph them. Since they were all made of paper, I just started tearing them up and pasting them into other environments.“
“You’ll see several of these images pop into my other pieces. They read more like paintings because they feature these spaces that I drew and painted before photographing. The look of brushstrokes on canvas isn’t actually brushed strokes, they’re brushstrokes that were made on paper, then photographed, and then printed on canvas.”
AF: While looking at the photographs in the front gallery space, I notice symbols that are carved into their frames. I also see the same symbols in the exhibition in a box. Where do these symbols come from?
RS: “The symbols are all directly pulled from a visual language that was created by the transient workers at the turn of the 20th century. Particularly men, but there were some women, who moved back and forth across the country chasing work. They would rely on towns and local communities and people to help them along the way, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. They would use these symbols to communicate with each other as they moved back and forth across the country. On the frames in the front gallery, they are warning symbols, like ‘there’s danger or, get away quick,’ or ‘there’s nothing to be gained here.’”
“There is a political angle to this piece, which is a departure for me as my work has not been overtly political in the past. The inclusion of the American flag stamps, and the instances where I have drawn symbols over them, is a reference to our current time where voting and by extension the post office, are under siege. The triangle with the two hands coming out of it means “a man with a gun lives here,” the three slash marks mean “unsafe,” the one that looks like a tree means “defend yourself” and the last one means that “a dishonest person lives here.” They are all a reference to our current political situation specifically our president. It’s not really important to me that anyone knows exactly what they are or what they mean. It’s about their presence because I hope that when somebody sees them, they come across as deliberate and meaningful, even if the person doesn’t know what they mean.”
AF: I could definitely sense their importance and their suggestion of language. Moving back to your photographs, I am wondering if you manipulate the images after you’re done photographing, or do you keep the photos as is?
RS: “I think the act of photographing something is to manipulate that thing. To answer your question, there is some manipulation, but only to the same extent that there’s manipulation in every photograph. I’m not compositing, I’m not doing montage: I make the photograph. They are very close approximations to what was in front of the camera, in the sense that any photograph is a very close approximation of what was in front of the camera.”
AF: Looking at the images, they begin to feel simultaneously like stacks of small rooms and huge exposed construction sites. How interested are you in exploiting perspectives?
RS: “I’m really glad to hear you say that because that’s how I want them to feel. My whole career as an artist and photographer is centered around the practice of building small scale environments in my studio. For a long time, I was asked frequently why I was doing this instead of just photographing spaces that exist. In this work, that’s a bit more obvious, because these spaces don’t really exist anywhere or at least anywhere that I have access to.”
“I have all of the control in the world over how you perceive these photographed spaces; I decide from what point of view you see them from. I decide what the lighting looks like. I decide what the perspective is like. I get to decide all of those things for very deliberate reasons.”
“Now, I don’t have any control over how you interpret it but If I were to bring the actual construction that I made the photograph with into the gallery, it would be terrible for me. You could walk around it and you would know immediately how big it is. Through photographing them, as you mentioned, when you were a little bit further away, they read to you as unfinished construction sites. I love that, and that wouldn’t happen if the object was here.”
“One of the things I love about photography is that it is in its nature to transform; making three dimensions into two dimensions. You see a photograph from a fixed perspective instead of being able to walk around it. It gives me the ability to control and stipulate how I want you to see.”
AF: Working in this way changes your role as a photographer from being an observer to the architect of the image. Do you feel that your hand comes across stronger in these images than if you were to photograph existing sites?
RS: “I don’t think any photographer is just an observer, all humans who make photographs make a series of decisions leading up to the shutter opening and closing which make them the architect of the resulting image. “Your [interviewer] read of the photographs is exactly what I want it to be. I want them to read as living spaces, to read as rooms, to read as structures built by people for shelter. That’s a reference again to an uncertain future. We may or may not be living in places like this in 10 years, who knows.”
“Let’s run this narrative out and say in 10 years or 15 years or 100 years, humanity is living in these ramshackle makeshift structures leftover from a previous civilization. At that point, It’s like, what do we put on our billboards? There’s no advertising. What do we decide to make visual? Visual material is critical to us as a species, in my opinion. That’s why in these structures, my hand is a little bit more present.”
AF: Each individual photograph looks like it is its own unique structure. Do you make a construction, photograph it, and then make a new construction for the next photograph? Or are all of these photos derived from the same structure?
RS: “Another great question. This project is a real departure from the way I’ve worked in the past. Previously, I would build these very specific spaces, usually a single room, make one photograph of that space, and then break it down and start over. In this work, all of the photographs are different variations of basically the same construction. In my studio, I have a table that’s four feet by four feet. I’d start building and when I got to a point that I thought it was interesting enough, I’d make a picture. I’d stop the building process, spend quite a bit of time framing, composing, and lighting. I would then make a photograph, and then start adding to the construction. When it would get to another point where I felt like it was different enough from where it had been before, I would make another photograph, and then start building once again.”
“There are a few photographs up front that look as though the space has collapsed. It actually did, I didn’t do that on purpose. Since the structures are built to be photographed, they’re not built to last. There is tape, hot glue, and wire holding things together. A couple of times in the process, it just got to be too much, and things fell apart. The first time it happened, I was really bummed. Then, I saw it from the right angle, and I was like, nope, we’re good, this is just another photograph.”
AF: When I compare the content of each photograph, I am surprised by how some structures look strong enough to withstand enormous pressure, while others look like a single sneeze could blow them over. What was your intention behind this?
RS: “For some of them, I very much wanted them to look like the structure would fall apart. Others I wanted to read as both ramshackle and janky, at the same time, sturdy and ultimately going to survive. This plays back into this idea of this uncertain future; we can try to shelter ourselves, we can try to have a home, but ultimately, it’s not in our hands.”
“In the photographs, if you look at it from a certain view, all of the vertical pieces are very straight. But if you move around 45 degrees or 90 degrees, they all start to slant in different directions. That’s a reference to an idea that from one angle, this object looks really sturdy and like it might be in progress and could end up being a really gorgeous skyscraper. But then from another angle, it reads as super precarious and probably unfit to be a skyscraper. I really love those kinds of contradictions.”
AF: That concept comes through beautifully. It makes me consider, no matter how delicately you put pieces together, it can ultimately still crumble. Then, you make what you can with the remaining debris. What is it about these vacant, dilapidated skyscraper forms that most interests you?
RS: “It’s interesting to me to think through this false narrative of the future collapsing into a ‘dystopian state.’ At what point are we satisfied enough with a space to cover our needs and provide shelter and safety that we start decorating it? I have heard many people, whether they’re artists or not, say things like, “when I move to a new place, it doesn’t feel like home until I put things on the wall.” There is something about that. I’ve moved enough to know that there’s the first month of moving that is mostly unpacking and settling into our needs. Then, there is the point where you realize, all of these walls are super bare, we need to put something up. I imagine that will be true in a utopian future or a dystopian future.”