Posted on Christmas Day: artist Julia Schwartz recently interviewed me for the artist series she edits at Figure/Ground, where I come clean about a number of things including the existence of artists on the Egyptian side of the family, my thoughts on Virilio and inefficiency, painting as a radical gesture, the importance of locale, and my walking fetish --->
Joy Garnett is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her paintings, based on news photographs, scientific imagery, and military documents she gathers from the Internet, locate instances of the apocalyptic sublime in mass media culture. Her social media projects examine the intersections of our digital and material worlds. Her work has been exhibited at MoMA P.S.1, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Her paintings have been reproduced on book covers and in numerous publications including Harper‘s, Perspecta: The Yale School of Architecture Journal and Cabinet magazine. Garnett serves as Arts Editor at Cultural Politics, a contemporary media theory journal published by Duke University Press. Her writing has appeared in the anthology Virilio Now (Polity 2011), and in the forthcoming Virilio & Visual Culture, The Virilio Dictionary (both with Edinburgh University Press 2013), and The Cultural Politics Reader (Duke University Press 2013). She is currently working on a family memoir about politics and art set in Egypt’s Old Regime. She is represented by Winkleman Gallery, New York.
What attracted you to the arts? What were your earliest experiences of making art?
There is definitely an artistic tendency that runs in my family. There’s my mom, who was an artist and a freelance photographer. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, into a family of illustrious poets and painters. I’ve been researching the family history on and off for years: they were all eccentric artists! Radicals! Utopians! My grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushady, was an influential Romantic poet and editor who published several high profile journals in the 1930s and 40s. The most radical was Apollo, a platform for experimental Arabic poetry that really pushed the envelope. He organized a salon called ‘Apollo’s Society,’ whose members included notable and emerging poets from around the Arab world.
My mom grew up around a pair of eccentric older cousins, the Wanly brothers Seif and Adham. They were famous painters of the period. There’s now a museum wing dedicated to them in Alexandria. I think they are the reason why my mom initially wanted to become a painter. I found her childhood sketchbooks — she had aspirations early on. On top of that, her mother, my grandmother, an Englishwoman, was descended from the famous Lancashire poet and labor organizer Samuel Bamford, and styled herself after the 19th century adventurer and author of Letters from Egypt, Lady Duff Gordon. So, my mother and her two siblings grew up in an atmosphere of creative and political cross-cultural ferment, in a milieu of avant-garde and politically rambunctious artists, when Egypt was negotiating a volatile mix of European Modernist influences and elements of Arab nationalism. For literature and the arts it was an exciting if difficult time, full of conflict. Her father was in the thick of it.
I was born in the suburbs less than an hour’s drive from New York City, which was my immediate source for art when I was a teenager. My mom had me drawing and painting when I was one or two years old. She was then dabbling in oil paint — she was a truly awful painter! She didn’t inherit the Wanly genes, unfortunately. But happily, she was already quite a good photographer. We would paint together in a small room at home that she had tricked out as a studio. Soon she dropped painting altogether and committed herself to photography — good move. She used to tease me that there was room for only one painter in the family. She went on to become quite accomplished. She was obsessive, really. Our house was one large darkroom and studio with storage for her work. She was never not working on her photographs. I wonder if this, along with my fraught, competitive relationship with her, has something to do with my need to make and remake the connections between painting and photography in my own work.
My dad too was in the habit of producing large numbers of photographs of a more technical nature. He is a scientist, and I grew up hanging around his lab and helping him with experiments. He had an additional home lab in the basement, adjacent to my mom’s darkroom. It was like an artist’s studio. He would attach a camera to the oculus of his microscope in order to document experiments, sometimes with Polaroids, sometimes with 35mm film. I remember having fun manipulating the microscope mirror in order to emphasize different details before photographing them. Among other things, this gave me a sense of the artful, constructed and interpretive nature of photographs, even when they are functioning as scientific evidence. Something I was to circle back to later as a painter. [....]