Your Word is Your Bond

I spoke with artist Ryder Richards about his participation in Oxford American's inauguaral art exhibition Crossing Borders, which starts August 1st.  Richards calls Texas home and focuses on object making, large installations, and works that call into mind their spatial context.  We spoke the day after the verdict arrived in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.  That news shaded our conversation a bit, especially since Richards' recent work focuses on guns as instruments and tools.  I found our conversation, though unfocused, elicited a lot of interesting material about the South and how it is perceived by its own artists and the world at large.  What follows has been edited for clarity.   

What does your current work from Crossing Borders focus on?

They’re all featuring hands holding guns, so this idea of the gun as a tool and a weapon, and of course referencing the individual that is making a choice or the decision with that weapon or tool in their hand.  A lot of this comes out of some research and work that I’ve been in for quite a while that is based on this notions of environmental determinism.  These ideas that whatever culture you’re raised in is impacted by the land, and that in turn sort of generates a type of individual, and within the South/Southwest region, there is a sort of slant towards violence and this is borne out in a book called Culture of Honor.  

These guys actually did these tests which are really crazy, they have these people walking down a really narrow hallway and they have someone bump into them or call them something like an asshole, and then they’d walk into this room and they’d immediately swab their mouth.  And you can test for adrenaline and cortisol levels.  And people from the South, when they get bumped and insulted, their adrenaline level spikes and they’re ready to fight somebody.  I find [the studies] to be, well, it sort of holds up to my personal experiences.  


Are the works large-scale, or...[Richards is known for his large installation work]

They are [drawings] created with gunpowder to sort of make them.  I've really enjoyed that process, the idea that the potential of destruction can become a creative act.  I make a black and white drawing and put gunpowder on that drawing and ignite it.  The drawings are technically small, controlled explosions, and I’m using materials like gold leaf in there to reference wealth and empowerment.

[Gunpowder] is such a loaded material conceptually.  There’s this sort of notion of creating out of violence and being able to control a certain level of violence in order to predict your results and get out of it what you want instead of just destroying something.  It’s a use of power that is very carefully calibrated, and for me that acts as a balancing mechanism for a lot of things that I’m talking about, but just sort of cultural violence in general, is that, yes, there will be some of that if that is the nature of man and if that can never be altered.  But this sort of calibration or balancing of it into channels is possibly creative rather than destructive.   

I’m generating a body of work that looks at violence and weaponry and the tools of these things.  Not necessarily condoning the actions, but paying attention to the fact that these actions do happen.  I’m not necessarily glossing over and claiming that gun control is the answer, because you can take the guns away, but I don’t think it’s going to change the culture.  

 Gold Standard

I think people like to be able to break down a complex issue and have a handle that they can hold on to.  I think that’s a function of art, to show that these handles that we hang onto might be too simple.  

If you read art as reality, you’re always going to have a problem with it.  But once you can calm down and sort of take it in a context [of] being on separate levels at once--not just aesthetically but also conceptually and the time [period] it was made in--you’re almost dealing with it as a banal thing and letting that thing open itself up.  Then it has this potential to offer one thing and create paradoxes that can tease out, possibly, things that are more interesting or things that are a little more complex than people want to deal with.  That would be the thing that good art does, in my mind: It makes people pause and have to consider things in multiple ways.  

I think that there’s this sort of reactionary tendency that people who like guns like my work, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s not really what I’m going for,” [laughs] You know, it’s more about thinking about the action that is required.  In the end, guns are a highly refined tool, and it comes back to the usages and back to the power and the equalization of individuals and this fear that dominates people.  Often it's reputational fear.

[In the Trayvon Martin case] you end up having two situations and either one of them are based on levels of aggression and sort of imposing will on another individual.  And that’s where the gun becomes something that is quite dangerous.  Once you’re imposing will, there are a lot of issues you have to work out about how it’s going to be imposed and dictated to the other person.  And the easiest thing to do in a fear situation is to just pull the trigger.  

A lot of these come back to sort of economic and then cultural guilt issues that plague our country.  I find some of these to be very fascinating just because the structures of our culture are set up to isolate and separate people, and that sort of comes back into problems of Us vs. Them, creating otherness, and the gun has a major function in upholding that otherness.  It’s also something that, unfortunately, our country has been good at for a long time.

The Host

How does your personal story relate to the Crossing Borders theme?

In a residency in Germany, it was really interesting to me to see the Texas stereotype.  In Germany they’d ask where I’m from and I’d tell them, "Texas," and they’d be like, “Oh, Texas!" and put their hands up like guns.  They’d get really excited.  And then they want to know what kind of work I make.  I make work about masculinity and power structures in Texas, and they’re asking, “Oh, what about guns, guns, guns?!”

It becomes this sort of reputational thing that is already set up here, which started to confuse me because if you say “[I'm from] America,” you’re just from America, that’s one thing, but I can say “I’m from Texas,” and that means something completely different.  The people would really sink their teeth into that.  They’d want to talk about Indians and Roy Rodgers and horses.  And yeah, I’ve had that experience: we used to have horses when I was a kid, and I know how to ride, but I don’t find that to be anything amazing since I grew up around it.  

In these other countries and places, they just have a different way of looking at all this.  I started to find that that regional identity was actually an important part of me and that there was actually something great going on down here [in Texas] that I wasn’t paying attention to until i started traveling.  Since I’ve been traveling, I’ve been seeing my own land in a different way.

Extreme Unction

In other places is the South viewed any differently as opposed to something being just American art?  Are people even aware of these different regions?  I imagine Texas has a wider reputation than, say, Alabama or Arkansas.

I would say that there’s always been this notion that the South...this idea that everyone here is a little bit...lower?  There is this tendency, at least when I was in New York, of “Oh, well, you should really get up here because this is where the good stuff happens.  And if you stay down there nothing good will ever happen for you.” And it’s kind of the same even out in L.A..  They’re very assured of their own position, and at a certain point, maybe even it seems like a smidgen of moral superiority.  And I guess some of that’s warranted, because we do things down here that are completely bonkers.  Just like the Trayvon case again, and I guess you read about that lady who fired a warning shot*. You end up having these things that happen, and they’re just thinking “Oh, this only happens in the South, these people are crazy.”

So I wonder if that correlates to art, if the reputation of the South is stretched that far to where the the art coming out of the South is possibly denigrated or associated with being inferior in some way just because of the culture it is coming out of.  I really don’t know.  […]  But [in the North] they don’t want any of the work I do that deals with violence, they want the work I do that deals with construction materials and large scale installations.  

Well, that might be a sign of...not necessarily "progress," but the fact that they associate you with one method instead of just the "violence" guy from Texas... 

Yeah.  It feels like things are mentally, conceptually divided between different regions, and I’d like to see that broken down more, but a different point is that that's what makes each region powerful unto itself.  Taking what comes out of a region and dealing with it as its own thing, that’s pretty great.  It seems like the flatter that the world gets with media and technology it’s really nice to have some holdouts and some distinction show up.

*Marissa Alexander, also in Florida, was denied a retrial of her attempted murder conviction based on the "Stand Your Ground" laws that were frequently vilified during the George Zimmerman trial and its analysis.-Ed.