Efrem Zelony-Mindell is an independent curator, writer, and artist. Their curatorial endeavors include shows in New York City: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, the International Center of Photography-Bard’s 2017 MFA thesis show Familiar Strange, and Re: Art Show’s This Is Not Here. They write about art for Unseen, DEAR DAVE, VICE, Baxter Street Camera Club of New York, Rocket Science Magazine, Musée Magazine, SPOT, and numerous essays for artists monographs. Their first monograph n e w f l e s h is being published by New York’s Gnomic Book and will be available in August of 2019. They received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts.
n e w f l e s h
The study of gender, identity, and queerness is often exemplified by a kind of idealized sexuality. The work of ‘n e w f l e s h‘, a Gnomic Book collaboration edited by Efrem Zelony-Mindell, refuses to view a person as disparate or specific to parts or expectations. Behind the flesh, there is more than a man or woman: there’s a person—a human—full of so many parts, feelings, and ideas. You can buy the book here!
‘n e w f l e s h‘ looks to study queerness beyond the body and to stop just looking at the things that we know, so that we may see them for what they could become.
William – When I first started flipping through ‘n e w f l e s h’ I was very impressed with its roster of artists and how everyone’s work seems to flow with one another. Having so many works cooperate and be in dialogue without conforming to a kind of subject oriented mold made me wonder how long ‘n e w f l e s h’ has been in progress and how the idea first came to you.
Efrem – I dunno man. The voices whisper my friend. Let’s see if I can break this down some. How long has this been going on? Very late 2015, early 2016 is when I first started looking at works for n e w f l e s h. For the better part of these three years I’ve been looking at 75 artists, give or take.
The idea came because someone offered me the opportunity to make something free of constraints. Stephen Frailey, the Editor-In-Chief, of DEAR DAVE magazine asked me one day if I’d be interested in writing about a group of works that I could choose for the magazine. He told me that whatever I organized only had to be contemporary, and pluralistic in nature. Shortly after I found myself in a situation where I was leaning into discomfort as opposed to following along or ignoring it. The idea of pushing against and simultaneously into my own uncertainty felt desirable to me. I realized that I’ve subconsciously spent a lot of my life leaning into awkwardness so as to expose something of myself. I see an injustice in the world, homogeny, and I want to shout back against it.
William – When you say discomfort and leaning into this awkwardness, do you feel as though the work in ‘n e w f l e s h’ connotes the idea of bending the rules and/or purposely interweaving various genres of photography? How is ‘n e w f l e s h’ a kind a push back against the homogenous nature of photography in our current culture? What does fighting back against what’s popular now look like to you?
Efrem – The works definitely bend rules in and of themselves, and especially as a group living together. But I mean for the words, and concepts, of n e w f l e s h to break the rules as well. Here I have a body of work whose focus is queerness, but I clearly state that the works, “Have many things in common; homosexuality is not one of them.” I mean to turn the expectations of photography and queerness on their head. I hope to. I want to. Now is the time to stop letting specificity and comfortability dominate any community. Things are coming along, but growth and change doesn’t stop. There are a litany of cul-de-sacs in photography and queerness. n e w f l e s h is positioned to celebrate difference and expose experimentation so as to put everyone on a level playing field. There are street photographers and there are abstractionists making works totally free of a camera. There are old folks and young folks. Some have illustrious fine art and commercial careers and some are only about to graduate from school. The hierarchy is freed of its burden here, we can give it the day off, because we want to look at great art, draw connections that bring us together, and have conversations that will make people uneasy so that they might become realized.
The art world deserves a better class criminal; and I’m going to give it to them.
I think fighting back against what’s popular is unique to individuals and shouldn’t be dictated. The only thing that should be provided for someone who wants to speak out is the support of the people around them. Very specifically for me fighting back means not being silent anymore when I see something that makes me uncomfortable. Or when I see something that parades as speaking for the general masses when it’s completely exclusionary and only provides a very fixed world view. Underneath that I think it’s very important to make it clear that fighting back also includes bringing many different kinds of people to the table to have really genuine and meaningful conversations. We all have different positions in life, but we’ll only drive forward if we can have and listen to discourse.
William – What you’re describing here is a kind of solution to what game theorists would call a ‘coordination problem’. I would agree and say the majority of artists are skeptical of where the conversation for photography is going (or has yet to go); and yet nobody wants to be the first one stepping outside the group to display something that might terrify, confuse, backfire, etc. or criticize work that’s being produced today. What we lack is the ability to step forward together and present a unified; yet discernible parts to a whole. What is stopping the progress of such art? The market and the artists that feed it? Instagram’s ocean of imagery muting the interesting?
Efrem – The interesting is a locomotive. It won’t be stopped. It will pierce the ocean and scramble the current in its wake.
I think we as artists stop the art really. We find an equation that works, or is profitable, and we become machines. 1+1=2, 1+1=2, over and over again. Introduce a little anarchy. It’s hard to want to continually introduce uncertainty because making the work is hard, but not nearly as difficult as putting in the effort to push ourselves and the way we tell stories and make things. We as the makers need to upset the established order, starting with our own. Even if everything reduces to chaos. That fear that might keep us from our potential should ignite the fire of our invention.
There are so many parts that play into what stops the progress. Artists need to stop solely playing to each other and start asking, “Who are we in the service of?” Because we’re not in the service of each other. It’s wonderful and beautiful that artists get to interact and work together, but if we’re only making art for artists then we are the bubble, we are the problem, and we are everything awful that many people think of us. The market wants trends, that construct is completely malleable. Think of an artist like John Waters who now is so popular he represented The United States of America at the Venice Biennale in 2017. Waters, by his own admission, has said about his career, “Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy. The insider. Like I am. HA! The final irony! A creatively crazy person who finally gets power. Think about it, I didn’t change, society did.” If we accept an atmosphere like this cycle of shaking things up for the reward of reinvention that chaos will only continue to provide its benefit. For me, I am the instrument of that chaos.
William – It’s kind of hilarious (in the same way the best comedy wants to make you laugh and cry) that what was once called “not art” and / or considered “crazy” is now in major museums and venues. Of course, it’s amazing to see work that was once considered not palatable or “sellable” by members of the upper echelon are now being championed, but occasionally it feels like it’s being done for pure marketing purposes, rather than an actual love of the craft and art. As you just said, John Waters, who was once considered a true deviate and “filth”, is now dearly beloved by many in the high art world for his deviancy and filth. That being said, Water’s is a person I adore, because he’s never stayed ‘still’ in his art (or life)…he’s constantly reinventing himself to understand himself. Which is all hard to do and think about when you don’t have a gallery or a patron to back you when rent’s due in a week and you need supplies, groceries, etc.
Efrem – You know it’s interesting to lead the conversation in this direction. One of the things that’s so important to me about n e w f l e s h is something that Charlotte Cotton speaks about in her essay in the book. n e w f l e s h is not a, “Re-skinning with the pelts of youthful creativity – for a pre-existing and fixed idea of photography.” It reaches backwards as much as it does forwards throughout time. This may be an unpopular opinion, but if I’m being honest from the impression I’ve gotten from folks who have been doing this much longer than you or I, stability and availability in the art world has always been strained at best and has always been the name of the game. We as young working professionals need to understand the current systems as well as be doing the best we can to get ahead of those systems. The balance isn’t easy and I frankly don’t think there is any perfect way to navigate those waters. We also live in a world with a lot of people who don’t want to share. There’s a big fucking club and you and I are not in the big fucking club.
There’s also a big “some for you means less for me” mentality in a huge portion of the art world that I interact with. It happens amongst colleagues and peers, sometimes even amongst friends. I frankly don’t understand this mentality. We’re all going to be doing this a very long time, which means we have to do it together. I would say that yes we do need to be constantly reinventing ourselves or at least trying to take the time to look at what we are doing and how we can be doing it better. I’m sorry to say another unpopular opinion, but a person can always be more exhausted. I’m constantly thinking that to myself in moments when I feel overwhelmed and at my limit, “You can always be more exhausted.” Pushing through has to happen even if it means screaming and crying and bleeding. I don’t think there’s a happy ending to this reality. I will say this, there’s a hallmark-esque saying that I saw one time that really made me angry. It said, “Find a job that you love so you won’t ever have to work a day in your life.” That’s bullshit! I feel the same way about Dan Savage’s “It gets better.” More BULLSHIT! We should find jobs that we love so we’ll WANT to go to work everyday. Again, borrowing from John Waters, “If I didn’t work this hard for myself I’d have to do it for somebody else.”
To view more of Efrem Zelony-Mindell’s work please visit their website.