It Can’t Be Helped: Daphne Fitzpatrick

Daphne Fitzpatrick, The Baton, installation view at Art in General, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Art in General. Photo: Charles Benton.

To experience the everyday as a stream of insatiable curiosities is the sort of feeling adults are supposed to outgrow, but some of us don’t know how to do that. Or we simply refuse it, because a world governed by the imagination is preferable to exterior social systems we didn’t design, but can only counteract through acts of imagination, and willful recalibration. And so the mundane becomes a space for reorganizing impulses that refuse to be dulled. Impulses best when sharp, big baguettes best kept standing tall.

Daphne Fitzpatrick’s recent installation The Baton at Art In General’s Storefront Project Space brought sculpture and photography together as an indivisible unit of thought. The Baton treats the lexicon of surrealism with an invigorated immediacy, a sense of play that could only happen now. The installation was comprised of a large freestanding pipe cut-out, a human-sized cast sculpture of a baguette leaning casually against the wall, and a video stream of photographs by Fitzpatrick’s everyday findings in urban space. Some of the photographs both overtly sexual and steeped in hilarity.

A couple of weeks ago, Fitzpatrick leaned back on the studio chair and said “…it’s how I deal with many serious issues: I use humor to own it.” And Fitzpatrick has tackled serious issues, both personal and social, by cultivating an arc of happenstances shaped by a freewheeling wit that is, in one word: inexhaustible.

“There are lots of childish phallic jokes in my pictures. Blatant perversions in the PG-13 range. Bottle necks, beads of water, flowing hoses, things like that.”—Daphne Fitzpatrick

At the time of writing this, my Twitter feed is flooded with child-like drawings of sharpened pencils in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdon attack in eastern Paris yesterday. Pencils as tools, AK-47s, bullets. Scrolling through, I think about the power of humor, and the strategies of its deployment. When is humor playful, when is it bigotry? When is humor a method for breaking down an unfit social armature, when is it complicit with the unfit system?

Photograph by Daphne Fitzpatrick, 2014.
Photograph by Daphne Fitzpatrick, 2014.

At the time of our interview—between the Millions March NYC on December 13, and the Charlie Hebdon attack on January 7—we met at Fitzpatrick’s studio, where another brown pipe was wedged in one of the walls. We talked about the relationship between photography and sculpture, the role that photography has played in Fitzpatrick’s development as an artist, and all the ritzy wonder that surrounds a practice committed to seeing and shaping, from that point of intelligence.

The active surveyorship of the flâneur is important to Fitzpatrick. And after having marched on different dates in support of #blacklivesmatter, we could not avoid discussing the basic politics of public space, where race, gender, and class inevitably intersect: “The death of Eric Garner, was very upsetting. The broken windows thing needs to get done away with. It’s outrageous that police were harassing that guy for selling loose cigarettes. That is a market, it should be a job.”

As Fitzpatrick shared that observation, I thought of when I first saw the life-sized baguette from the street. Standing in that butch stance of leaning confidently against the wall, placed in a spot of privileged seeing—to scan as much of the room as possible. Kind of like that old-school thing where the masculine one goes on a date, and always takes the seat facing the whole restaurant, and all its ensuing activity. From Fitzpatrick’s observation on the racial tensions of public space, I found more cultural elasticity in the stance of the life-sized essential substance of bread (the body), and the pipe cut-out—in all its Freudian undertones, it continuously speaks to the power of perceptions.

The Baton can also be read as a question: who in space surveys, who is being perceived and how? When I laughed at the photo stream in the window, I didn’t feel shame or guilt—I laughed at the visual puns because they remind me of all the funny things we cannot outgrow but keep us humble. It’s the spark that “can’t be helped,” the inevitable slips of the bizarre that permeate our perceptions and bring an unexpected re-ordering of life as we thought we knew it.

At a time where humor and satire are under scrutiny, The Baton is a relevant reminder that humor can also be deployed as the richest form of commentary—Wit;  and it can be given the sultriest form of pleasure—the unknowable.

Patricia: When I went to see your window installation at Art In General, it was flooded with afternoon light, just radiating a wild, voluminous gold. As I moved around the corner to get a different perspective than from a West side walk, I noticed the constant stream of “streeting” that is being shown, a fantastic touch. Is this the first time you’ve worked with photography this way?
Daphne: I have been a photographer for a long time. I studied photography as an undergrad at SVA, and started shooting digital in about 2003. I’ve always been a  photographer. From there I began to develop a pretty much daily practice of shooting wherever I am. Mostly the streets of New York, which are well trod streets by many photographers who I love, Gary Winogrand being the top dog.

As a kid, photography was the first thing I was really good at. I pilfered my dad’s camera. He had an expensive Nikon I wasn’t supposed to touch but I took it and was immediately into it. But opposite of you, I was not into technical printing, developing, all the darkroom stuff. I was into making the pictures, I just wanted the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. Did you see Winogrand’s show at the Met?

Patricia: I didn’t…
Daphne: Oh, I have to scold you a little bit. The show was amazing. I went four times. I shoot pictures almost as fast as he does. He puts the Leica up to has face so quickly to shoot the picture, it looks like he is scratching his nose.

Photograph by Daphne Fitzpatrick, 2014.

Patricia: What do you think of Vivian Maier, do you know that work?

Daphne: Of course! It’s an amazing, crazy story. A whole life, an extraordinary talent.

Patricia: Just thinking about photography.
Daphne: Yeah! And that, by happenstance, we get to see the pictures.

Patricia: Did you see the show at Howard Greenberg?
Daphne: No.

Patricia: Oh, my turn to scold you, [laughs]. In the back room, there were these colour photographs that were made in her lifetime. She’s very much like Winogrand….
Daphne: Oh yeah! She’s right up there. She’s as talented and remarkable as Winogrand as Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, as any of them!  It’s undisputed. That’s what’s so amazing about photography: when you’re good, it can’t be helped.

Patricia: What a phenomenal way of saying that!
Daphne: It’s true, it’ can’t be helped and consistency makes it apparent. It’s not a fluke.

Patricia: So, what role did photography play for you in this installation?
Daphne: Kristen Chappa invited me to use the windows on Walker street, which are basically a vitrine. The public cannot enter the space, so it’s a window shopping experience, which is of course very pleasurable, especially at night, when the windows are lit and you can linger as long as you want. It is also an activity associated with the flannuer that Benjamin has written about. The image of the dandy, refined tastes but not much money, strolling thru the streets of Paris, looking at things.

Patricia: And on your work in general, how does photography show up for you?
Daphne: I am a photographer the way I am a sculptor as it turns out. In my daily movements through the city, I am looking and noticing and shooting pictures. The city is an endless source.

Photograph by Daphne Fitzpatrick, 2014.
Photograph by Daphne Fitzpatrick, 2014.

Patricia: When I first looked from the street, I immediately thought “Magritte, Inverted” because of the pipe and the flying bread paintings that are clearly referenced by your big baguette.
DAPHNE: I think I share some of Magritte’s interests, the subtext, the double entendre. When ordinary things are misunderstood and have other meanings. Usually naughty ones.

I knew I wanted to make a baguette large—very large—the size of a person, basically. The references are doubled: there is Magritte of course, and Vija Celmins’ giant comb. But I have used baguettes in my work for several years. So, yes there is the influence of Magritte, and the baguette is a bit of automatic comedy!  It’s a silly object, used in slapstick comedies. A simple basic food, cheap and low but essential and wonderful.

Patricia: The surrealism of Magritte is Freudian at the core, right? The pipe, the baguette. Why did you want to work with these pre-existing undercurrents of masculinity?
Daphne: I think we are not done with these images, they still provoke. The primary forces of masculinity are at work on us at all times. The inequality of gender is bothersome to me in a deep way, and I deal with it as I deal with many serious issues: I use humor to own it. I like that feeling in the sculpture. That is an important part of my work: the delicate, simple touch.

These images still provoke because they remain unanswerable. Here we are, we’re having these life spans, and running through them are still the same questions about sexuality, masculinity, femininity, power, how it gets played out. No one really seems to have any real answers—but we’re answering them all the time, and there’s new answers, and the images are always provoking and compelling. You go back to them and you’re not done with them. You’re going to make another sculpture of a phallus on a crushed car.

Patricia: And the pipe?
Daphne: The pipe sculpture is made from one sheet of handcut plywood, revealing the negative space of a smoking pipe. Essentially, it is a hand drawn shape. Because the pipe shape is upended, the silhouette can be read in other ways: a figure, a squiggle, something.

Patricia: Is the fabric of radical feminism given any room in the development of your work?
Daphne: Well, I am not sure if I am a radical feminist. I am a feminist, of course. Helen Moleworth used that word when writing on my work, and the word has stuck for some people. I think Molesworth was using the word in a more playful way and perhaps that is a more appropriate take on it.

There might be something radical about my easy-going expression of a kind of maleness in my imagery. In my work and in my life it was always important to “throw over the patriarchy” by simply refusing the strict gender roles offered to me growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. I knew the boys were having more fun, so my solution was to simply be a boy. A boy who was also a girl, which was way better. Still is.

“Maybe that’s the radical part of my feminism, is that I’m comfortable. No resistance. I’m into it, I’m interested and I’m playful with it.”—Daphne Fitzpatrick

Patricia: I find there’s a lot to discover in the overlap between sculptors who photograph and vice versa. Often I’m drawn to works by people who work that way, usually long before I know that those two disciplines are present in their process. There’s something about photography and sculpture that lures people who work with one of those disciplines to the other…
Daphne: That’s all true, and there’s a lot of precedent. I only know how it affects me. I was a photographer from an early age, am still a photographer, and developed my art making as I developed as a person, being interested in things. I’m good at drawing and painting too, and it comes natural to me to make things. It came from being out in the world.

What helped a lot in my 20s was being a worker. I put myself through school by being a house painter and would teach myself things. I do like to make things and I’m handy. I’m also a collector. Of things, finding things, buying things, et cetera. It all develops, all of these practices together. I don’t see that much of a difference between what’s happening for me. I know when it’s a picture and not a sculpture. But there’s a lot of crossover in both ways of making things. I’ve done a lot of street photography in the last couple of years. Many of the things I’m making pictures of seem like sculptures…

Patricia: They look like readymades.
Daphne: Yes! It’s out in the street, things are blowing around and it’s almost like making a sculpture, by making a picture. And then there’s the pleasure of making an object, finding an object, placing an object. They’re all kind of connected. The attraction to plain images that seem like they are from a catalogue, the time travel kind of picture. I get very excited about that kind of idea in pictures. An uncanny feeling, for sure. I love the uncanny.

Photograph by Daphne Fitzpatrick, 2014.
Photograph by Daphne Fitzpatrick, 2014.

Patricia: I think artists who work like you are doing art history a huge favor, a seriously huge favor of rescuing these phallus things from cis male lexicon. And I use the word “rescue” intentionally. And then I wonder if I’m being a lazy feminist by approaching art that way.
Daphne: Well, who are you thinking of, Sarah Lucas?

Patricia: Oh, her too, absolutely, I’ve always liked that work.
Daphne: I’ve always liked her work too. People have noticed we have similar interests.  But we’re talking about the phallic?

Patricia: I’m talking about how a queer artist can work with traditionally male domain iconography and rescue it—and it’s not appropriation.
Daphne: I think I know what you mean. You’re relaxed about it, you’re happy to see it. I’m queer, I’m a woman, and yet I’m using this imagery. So there’s something like…“Oh, okay”.

Patricia: What do you mean?
Daphne: I’m thinking about Marilyn Minter, actually. How she uses imagery that is really pornographic. But when Richard Phillips uses porny type of images, it’s harder to look at. When Minter does it, I’m really drawn in and interested, it’s more powerful. She’s a woman, so…I don’t know how you feel about that, is that too essentialist? It makes a difference where the images are coming from.

Patricia: Well, there’s the intelligence of knowing how you’re being looked at.
Daphne: You’re right, there’s a really strong argument, of course. We know what it’s like to be look at. We have a deeper, innate understanding. We know it, we understand it.

Patricia: And so non-consentually, the way we are all looked at.
Daphne: Yes. Being queer from the generation that I’m from, being a lesbian, being a woman, being butch, being male-identified—for me, my whole life gender has been a THING. This is something I’ve known since before I spoke, it’s innate. I basically was a boy, I assumed I was a boy. But what I’m still fascinated by is, that we’re STILL fascinated by this. There’s seemingly two choices: boy, girl. Of course we know now there’s a big spectrum, but meanwhile there’s still…

It’s so convenient to package it that way.
Daphne: And it’s a lifetime of unpacking this for ever and ever.