Exclusive: Pop Culture Collides in Todd Pavlisko's 'I Love You'

Modern art influenced by classical suicides infused with the words "I love you.” Colorful trinkets serving as memorabilia of late artists’ obsessions and passions. Orange Soda. Magnets. Vintage sports cards. A coin collection formed over the course of 9 years.

These are but a few things one can find at Todd Pavlisko‘s featured showcase I Love You, now on display at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea. The Ohio-born, Boston-based artist and professor took Milk Made’s Jordan Allen on a stroll through his gallery. Covered in sleeves of tattoos and sipping a coconut water, Pavlisko casually pointed out all of the intricate connections between his work and his diverse range of influences, from Alexander McQueen to Jean-Luc Godard.

Talk to us about your artistry. How did you get into creating?

I think I always was making art as a kid. Albeit, you don’t really know what “art” is—you kind of just put stuff together because you think it’s cool. You get older and read books and learn a little bit about what artists are—so i started doing that pretty young. Genuinely throughout middle and high school I started getting really into it. In undergrad I really got into the cultural theory of it.

What’s your creative process like? What do you do around the studio for inspiration?

Chuck Close said it best when he was asked what his inspiration is. He said: “Inspiration is for amateurs.” The rest of us get up early every morning, get to the studio, and get to work. Beautifully stated. Even though there are intricacies in art where you get a little inspired by something but I kind of am on a trajectory with the objects that I’m making. So the things that get me into the studio would be listening to music, reading, and talking to other artists. But for the most part when I’m making art I’m usually a little ahead of myself. I’m always working on a few separate bodies of work.

Who are a few of your favorite music artists to listen to?

Well, now that it’s summer I’m like really getting back into my reggae roots. But I’ve been going to the symphony quite a bit and you’ll see that reflected in the show. You’ll see me working with luthiers and violins. Viola and cello players—tapping into their heads about what the history of each object is. With that said, I’m very particular with music.

What inspired you to create “Crown”?

"Crown" was my last exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It’s actually a large backdrop of my thinking and how I like to make art. Getting back to your earlier question, those are the subtle moments of inspiration.

For years, I’ve been making paintings and sculptures of physicists and scientists. I really appreciate physics and math math. That said, I can’t do it that well. I just think it’s really cool. I wanted my art to operate with these properties.

When the art museum came to me and said they wanted to collaborate, I’d already been working with a physicist. I reached out to him and said “Hey, I’m an artist. We should talk and get together in the studio.” He also happened to be a sniper. Bringing those two things together was very applicable to the things that I wanted my art to operate as. Heat, speed, time, the bullets moving. I got him on board and told the museum that I wanted to shoot sniper rounds in the museum past the collection and capture that bullet with high speed cameras. Slowing it down, the bullet moves around the space.

The two separate pieces of art were made into one. The video piece is called Docent. The bullet is a docent to art history. And Crown is what the bullet crashed into to stop it in the museum.

Who are a few artists that you’re into?

I have a piece of art where it’s all of these sports collecting cards and two of them are signed by two of my favorite artists. One of them is Chris Burden and the other is Robert Irwin. There’s really a broad spectrum of artists that I feel are incredible. For example, someone like Patti Smith. She borders on music but she’s clearly a fabulous, righteous artist.

In three words, describe to us your aesthetic taste.

Minimal, tasty, and crunchy.

What’s it like seeing your art live in a gallery?

It’s wonderful. Working with Robert Miller is amazing. These people are fresh. It’s nice to see my work in a space but it’s better to actually work with the gallery to put it in the space. It really saturates the experience of handling your art. Once you take it to a studio it looks completely different. It’s cleaner and simpler. I wouldn’t want to go into a space to just hang my own art. I enjoy collaborating with the employees in a gallery.

Talk to us about your teaching. Do you find it to be more difficult to teach about art as opposed to creating?

I spent 6 years just living in Manhattan and I missed teaching. I left my job teaching at Art Institute of Chicago to come here and there was sort of a void in me as an artist when I didn’t have that backdrop. Teaching is informative to me as an artist in multiple ways. The difficulty of each depends on the day. I dig it. It keeps you on your toes. You have a conversation around art that you wouldn’t necessarily have around your own work people come to the table with their own ideas. Teaching is a live animal. It’s cool, difficult, beautiful, and terrible all at the same time.

Do you have a favorite piece of artwork of your creations? If so, what is it?

It’s more of a thematic thing. I worked with the sniper, for instance but that was just one of the people outside of my discipline that I’ve connected with. I’ve worked with snipers, chemists, mathematicians, plastic surgeons. It’s ‘making’ on a different level. It requires knowledge beyond my own understanding. It requires their patience and acceptance.

Do you think artists should be able to create art for the sake of expressing themselves or do you think they should be held accountable for thinking about the social implications involved with their art?

It’s a very hot, trendy thing to be an artist that thinks about the social strata but there are a lot of pretty amazing artists that have no interest in that. It’s not a responsibility of every artist but the artists that do take on that mission set themselves up for a really intense responsibility. They’re responsible for that social theory and they’re also responsible for making smart art.

How would you define smart art?

It’s pretty ambiguous. But to me, it’s connected to art history, contemporary thinking, cool use of materials, thinking about space and time. It has a lot of meat to it.

Do you wanna talk a little bit about the work here?

I want to talk about the connectivity. I started making these drawings (points to drawings hanging on wall). Here’s Alexander McQueen, Kay Sage, Mike Kelley, Mark Rothko. When Mike Kelley killed himself, that was such a sad moment. We lost this gem in the world. Such an amazing thinker. They all killed themselves. The text surrounding each drawing connects to their suicide notes. When McQueen killed himself, he wrote his letter on the back of Darwin’s book, The Descent of Man. That book is in a sculpture that I made that’s in the front of the gallery. You get these subtle, intricate connections throughout the show. Mike Kelley really liked orange soda so I made something incorporating that was well.

I started to think about what my suicide letter would say if I decided to kill myself—which was very complicated. It’s a difficult object to leave behind—especially as an artist. I had this non sequitur moment then I took Jean-Luc Godard’s film, A Bande Apart. There’s a scene when the characters are running through the louvre. I removed all of the art and replaced it with “I Love You” over and over again because it’s the last thing that all of these people left on their suicide notes. I love the idea of running through this vacant field where art used to be.

These table pieces get back to those collaborations that I was talking about. I was making violins and I needed help from luthiers to figure out how to fix this and that to the body of the violin. I also started emailing chemists and I found this guy named Dr. Robert Carter, the dean of University of Boston’s chemistry lab, and collaborated with him.

Do you have any other openings coming up?

I came off of my show at the Cincinnati Art Museum—that show was a motherfucker. It was an intense process. It took 6 years to make. A lot of bureaucracy. I was far more of a bureaucrat than an artist—talking about the importance of a piece of art to fine art insurance companies, sheriffs, and mayors. That process was grueling. It was important to go through. Now I’m already onto my September exhibition. After that, I’m going to take a deep breath and recollect myself.

If you weren’t making art, what do you think you’d be doing?

Maybe medicine and surgery. I worked with a plastic, reconstructive surgeon for years and it’s very similar to art. A lot of problem solving, ambiguity, and creative necessity. I’m also into design and making things also. I guess that draws back to art.

Check out Todd’s collab with Samson Projects here.

Go see ‘I Love You’ at the Robert Miller Gallery, on view through May 23rd.

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