Waking the World: Robert Montgomery’s Latest Poetic Push in Los Angeles
By Evan Senn
In the history of text-based art; politics and shock value reign supreme. Poetry and poetic prose are softer, but are taking the dominant stage in recent years as the public begins to yearn for more emotive gestures and less hate, anger and anxiety.
Robert Montgomery is the Scottish-born, Britain-based artist leading the poetic revolution toward finding our humanity. His work has been shown legally and illegally all over the world and has a soul-touching power to it that is undeniable.
Montgomery has made a handful of new works for the House of Peroni / Mission / St. Vincent custom collaboration. Some of his custom pieces are in collaboration with Italian photographer and filmmaker, Fabio Paleari.
Montgomery is creating a site-specific wall mural to live and breathe with the other work.
St. Vincent, aka Anne Erin Clark, is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who partnered with House of Peroni, a well-known international beer company, to curate theses strange and fantastical events. One in New York, October 5-8, 2017, one in Los Angeles, October 18-19, 2017, and one in Miami, November 1-4, 2017.
Aiming to curate a space that reflected a modern view on timeless Italian style, St. Vincent took guests on a journey from classic and clean Italian elegance to the radical style of ‘Memphis’ design. Contrasting patterns, bold and bright hues, geometric angles and unique shapes adorn the space, with installations and exhibits from artists in every field.
This project hosted by Mission, and sponsored by House of Peroni involves artists, designers, choreographers, mixologists, set designers, photographers and musicians, including artwork by David Byrne of The Talking Heads and artist Patrick Hughes. Montgomery is the main visual artist in this fascinating project, but all artists involved have fantastic visual impacts.
Handmade hat maker, Brandon M. Franklin will be exhibiting his hats and his process, set designer Lauren Machen has created an interactive and immersive space that is inspired by the design trend of ‘Memphis’ but dives into its more subdued details. Walls of clouds, hexagonal loungers, and soothing scents help Machen create a thoughtful and inspiring environment.
Choreographer Annie B. Parson created a duet performance inspired by the books, colors, and architecture of the ‘Memphis’ design aesthetic and the creative process itself. Using the concept of mark-making, the contemporary dance duet utilizes that inherent urge in art and artists to illustrate creation and destruction in an interesting movement-based work.
None compares to the visual and visceral experience of the text-based art of Robert Montgomery. Scottish poet, artist and sculptor Montgomery creates glorious and fascinating site-specific installations and prose-based word art. His poetic voice is brutally stark, with strict black and white words or electric light to put his words into the environment. His poetic prose hits the heart of his viewers like an arrow, sharp, swift and direct. Dreamy and lyrical, his words take text-based art to a whole other realm, full of complexity and clarity, beauty and disgust, ecstasy and agony.
We were lucky enough to get an opportunity to chat with Montgomery just after the New York installation opened, as he prepared his Los Angeles iteration of the project.
Evan Senn: So, I heard you guys just kicked off the New York location of this fantastic project. How did that go?
Robert Montgomery: Yeah, I think it went amazing. I’m glad to lead the installation and the mix of work, and loved working with people at Mission, and working with Annie. And, I think it was really well received. I feel. I hope.
ES: Yeah, you can always hope for that, right?
RM: I did a big wall painting. So I had two days of intensive, doing a text piece on the wall. Kind of like the contemporary artists doing a fresco, we were up on scaffolds for two days, so …
RM: Yeah, so I got to know the space.
ES: Can you tell me a little bit about how this project came onto your radar? Did St. Vincent reach out to you or was it House of Peroni?
RM: Yeah, St. Vincent reached out to me via mission, via House of Peroni, and I guess that she wanted to curate my work into the mix. And then we worked on it for three or four months, I think, in terms what we’d do. So we had a combination of my work. So we kind of covered the different aspects of what I do, with the newer piece, which in a way I’ve been doing these giant murals in the street. And, we did an indoor version of one of those, and then … Because I’ve never done one of those in New York and I really wanted to do a special one in New York, so this was a good way to introduce the new work to NYC. And then we did a light piece, and both the wall piece and light piece have kind of ecological themes.
ES: Ecological themes?
RM: Strong kind of ecological affections. And then, because of the connection with Peroni to Italy, I wanted to bring in this collaboration piece that I’ve been doing for a number of years now with my favorite Italian photographer, Fabio Paleari. So him and I have been sort of loosely collaborating on a series of portable TVs where I do my text over his images. And so we did some new works in that few weeks with him. I really want to get him, in a sense. I wanted to bring an Italian artist over to connect with that cultural heritage for Peroni. So, we got him into the mix and installed a series of those works. And then on Friday we were able to do the world premiere of his film Allen Ginsberg’s last reading, which was in Milan, which Fabio shot in 1996. And that hasn’t been seen anywhere in the world before, and it was awesome to make the first screening in New York where Ginsberg lived. And it was really his last performance before … he was already quite sick. And I didn’t know his last reading was in Italy, but it was a really nice connection.
ES: Yeah. That’s interesting. Are the pieces in LA going to be different, or the same as in the New York version of this project?
RM: Well, no, we’re doing a sort of variation in LA. So, we’re doing another mural piece… But we’re scaling that to the room again. So, we’re scaling that to the building. And then we’re bringing in, I think, a different light piece. And then a series of works that me and Fabio’s collaborations, where there’s eight of those. I think we hung four in Manhattan. And we’ll hang a selection of those in LA.
ES: Oh okay.
RM: So maybe more, I think, than we hung in New York.
ES: So the installation isn’t going to be the same, right? The whole thing, the multi-room…
RM: Right, because basically the project really is an installation; I feel that everyone’s participating, you’re trying to deal with a specific space in a way that brings that space alive.
RM: So the mix of designers, objects, interior design, artworks and entire feel, what the Mission team did in terms of the environment, was specific to the space, that’s what the scope was for New York, and it’s again the scope for LA, as I understand.
ES: Why is the ecological theme in some of those works that you mentioned?
RM: Well, I think we’re sitting at the moment where the planet is acute danger from impending ecological crisis, and we all need to wake up to that really quickly, you know? If you look at someone like … a writer like Daniel Pinchbeck who is a friend of mine, who’s just written his book How Soon Is Now?, last year, he predicted in a few summers’ time we’d have increased forest fires in the south of Europe, increased hurricane activity in the gulf. With the summer we just had, and the hurricane season we just had we can clearly see that our ecological timeline is maybe even shorter than we thought.
RM: And so, if we can’t wake up now then we’re never going to wake up. So I think we need to raise awareness on that, and I think it makes it really hard to ignore that moral question as an artist. I think we should engage in the moral questions, and I see it as though it’s a question that truly transcends politics, and it’s a questions of human survival and humanity, and I think that everyone planet-wide needs to really wake up to that.
ES: Agreed. Do you think that your work in this collaboration speaks to the work of St. Vincent in this collaboration, or are they kind of just side-by-side siblings?
RM: I love St. Vincent’s work, which is partly why I was so thrilled to accept the invitation. I think the connection is that she is working within music, but she’s working within music as an expanded art form, and she has this slightly finite view on the music she makes. And she also has a collaborative project with people like David Burns and choreographers. I feel as though she kinda comes from an art background. I never really asked her that, actually, but I feel as though she kind of comes from an art background and she understands contemporary art in a way that’s really intelligent. Yeah, and there might be a similar sense of sentiment in her work and my work, I think.
ES: Well, it pairs very well together, visually. So, I am imagining you both are on the same kind of level of thinking about all of these things. What was the experience like working with her? As little or as much as you did, I’m not sure. But just being involved in this process. I know you wanted to produce a work for New York…
RM: It was good. Yeah, it was great, because it was truly … it felt like a really collaborative art happening. Everyone got in the building on like, last Monday. We had like, three days to build the whole thing. It went up really fast. Everyone was there for it and responsible for their part of the equation. As you would be responsible for your instrument in an orchestra.
ES: That sounds fantastic.
RM: You know? So, no one could really drop their lines or like, get behind in the timeline. So everyone in individual teams were running in parallel and that worked really well. It was super smooth, the whole collaborative … every artist, every designer involved hit their mark just well, and it was like, hopefully the chorus’ voices has a kind of harmony. But it was a really kind of energizing team to work with.
ES: I really love your work, and have been blessed enough to write about your work a couple of times. I’m so fascinated with how you are able to creatively speak in your kind of poetic voice about a variety of themes and ideas, and it seems like each time you create a new project, or a new series, or a new piece of work, its just completely and totally mind-blowing, and original. I’m curious, what’s your process like for creating these works?
RM: My process is that I write about the city constantly, and the phenomena of the city and how it feels to live in our cities now. I think that I also, I sometimes … If I’m doing a series of work for one place … I did a big series in LA…
ES: Yeah, “Art Above the Streets” with the Do Art Foundation, right?
RM: The billboards were, like … that was a situation where I sat down and I thought, “Okay, I want to try and write in like what I think was an LA voice.” It was 2014. Summer 2014. I went to stay with my friend Ted in LA for a couple weeks, and I kind of got into the psychological state that was in the city a little bit. And I sort of tried to imagine what my life would be if I lived there the whole time, and I looked from that point of view. And also, with that series I wanted to bring in things that I thought every Angeleno would recognize.
ES: Yeah, they felt like that.
RM: So sometimes I do that. But in general I kind of write about the city as a phenomenon. And I try to … sometimes put complex ideas into just very condensed text. I mean there’s a heresy to my work, from artists like Jenny Holzer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and still now, who uses public space for text in a way that’s [provocative]. I took a lot from Jenny’s format, and then I just wanted to see if I could switch the type of speech I used one step closer to poetry. And that was my original experiment … And then what I became intrigued by is using billboards for example. The type of speech that appears normally in billboards is very materialist. An image on an ad telling you something. And it’s very much within the material world. So I wanted to experiment and take messages for things, the emotional things, or romantic things, or political things into that space. And something really interesting happened then, because you’re taking this kind of infinite voice that’s crossed with a book of poetry, and you’re filling it in this very public medium, who you’re very unused to hearing emotional things.
ES: Jarring to the heart…
RM: So I think immediately, when you do that you build up an interesting tension. So I just kind of studied how to write with a lot of economy. And that would be long text, and properly condensed and poetic. And also too, sort of what would the text graphic need to give it the most graphic presence? And for that I look back to concrete poetry, and the concrete poetry at the beginning of the 20th century, people like Guillaume Apollinaire and Millers… And, so I look to what concrete poetry has used the graphics to give strength, I think, to words. But you know, in the end of the day it’s just like … It’s pretty much like, experimenting, and just trying … until you feel like you’ve found your personal voice, in a way that’s true to you. I did a bunch of experiments with using text. I have done a bunch of failed ones, you know? I did a bunch of paintings with text, but in the end that stuff didn’t work. I spent years. I did, when I was in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, I did minimalist light sculptures with very long titles.
ES: Yeah. I love those!
RM: So I tried to put text and light together in an interesting way. And then ten years later, I watch how I was doing that with my light pieces and text, but the answer is, as always, I think is, like … I just tried a bunch of things and failed a bunch of times, until I felt like I got it right. You know? It’s like that.
The LA edition of The House of Peroni, a two-day pop-up featuring the work of Robert Montgomery will be on view October 18-19, 2017 at 101/EHXIBIT, 668 North La Peer Dr., West Hollywood, CA 90069. http://www.houseofperoniusa.com