Can you quickly introduce yourself?
My name is Christian Patterson. I’m an artist living and working in New York City.
Let’s talk about your most recent work Redhead Peckerwood. Your idea was to create a project that would be shown at first as a book, can you tell us why books offer more than any other mediums?
Redheaded Peckerwood has a strong underlying narrative that I knew would work very well in book form. But I always imagined the work as both a book and exhibition, and I wanted to utilize the unique qualities of each of those methods of presentation in a special, very specific way.
I decided to make the book first. The process of making the book helped me to fully realize the complete body of work and share it widely before mounting any exhibitions. Through the process of making the book, I learned the work inside out, and it has made the installations a piece of cake.
The book is a great way to present this work. You hold the book in your hands. It’s a bit smaller than the average photography book and feels good in your hands. You touch the pages and the inserts. You have to touch the inserts, fold them back or unfold them. They rest atop and partially obscure other images printed on the pages of the book. You have to interact with the book, and I think this makes the experience of the book more intimate and immersive.
You told me about the movie Badlands, which is also related to the story of the couple Caril Ann Fugate & Charles Starkweather. If it is the case, can you tell us how it has influenced you in your work for your own project?
As I made this work, I allowed my ideas to come to me from almost anywhere, as long as they related in some way to some version of the story — even if it was a version that only existed in my own head. The ideas could be based on reported facts from books, newspapers, interviews or court transcripts; from highly interpretive literary or cinematic accounts like Badlands, or based purely on my own imagination, which of course was completely interpretive. I think my work has more mythical or atmospheric meaning rather than any real basis in known fact. Badlands was my starting point but it ultimately ended up being just one of many, many different sources of inspiration.
The use of words, and hand painted letters is very relevant in your work, where does this come from?
I’ve always loved the playful side of language, or “word play” — double entendres, homophones, jokes and puns. I treasure my Dictionary of American Slang. It’s full of dirty words for dirty things.
I’ve also always loved artists who heavily featured letters, words and phrases in their work — starting of course with Ed Ruscha, but also including Tauba Auerbach, Mel Bochner, Bruce Naumann, Richard Prince and Christopher Wool, to name a few.
And I’ve also long been fond of hand-painted signs. When I lived in Memphis and worked with the Egglestons, I sort of inherited their interest in collecting old signs. They had acquired that interest from William Christenberry, and Christenberry had acquired it from Walker Evans. That’s quite a lineage of sign-loving photographers, huh? I’ve “liberated” a number of old hand-painted signs on my travels through the South. I’ve pulled commercial signs off old, abandoned buildings and religious signs off trees on the sides of country roads. I still love finding old signs but now that I’ve started making signs myself. That might become a periodic element in my work (see, there’s a little double-meaning word play — “periodic element”).
Shooting gun or shooting photography, what are the common points between these two notions and what about seeking “new targets” for both elements?
Now this is a conversation rich with analogies and double meanings. According to some quick research, the term “snapshot” was a hunting term in the early 1800s; it referred to a quick shot with a gun, taken without aim, at a fast-moving target. It wasn’t used as a photographic term until about 100 years later, soon after the debut of the Kodak Brownie and the casual, widespread use of handheld cameras. But in photography, there are so many analogies and shared terms. Ready? Aim…fire…shoot.
Run a Google image search of “camera gun.” There’s some crazy stuff out there.
Do you make lists? Things to do, things to look for, things to forget?
Yes, I make lists every day. It’s the only way I can remember anything. I’ve never thought about making a list of things to forget; I’ve heard of people writing down something they want to forget and burning it. I personally think this would have the reverse effect. But still, a list of things to forget is a pretty great idea. I might have to start one.
What is your relation to time?
I’m interested in the effects of time — memory, nostalgia, wistfulness, sentimentality and regret, to name a few. And in my work thus far I’ve often strived to make timeless images. I don’t mean that in an arrogant or self-aggrandizing way; perhaps “time-neutral” is a more appropriate term, but I like “timeless.” What I mean is that I sometimes strive to make images that bear relatively little evidence of the time in which they were made. I enjoy looking at other images that involve some sense of nostalgia; I’m just not sure if I want my own work to have too much of that feeling. I’d rather span time.
The artwork we picked for our T-shirt collaboration is issued from Redhead Peckerwood, can you tell us the inside story about those cowboy boots?
If you look closely at a few of the other images in the Redheaded Peckerwood book you’ll figure it out. It’s better that way. All I can say is that they’re the real deal.
How do you consider objects, older versus currentobjects, what is one of your favorite objects you remember having when you were a kid?
My father and I are both musicians — guitar players — and when I was just beginning to find my own way with music, my dad had a really nice collection of vintage guitars and he gave one to me — a 1964 Fender Stratocaster. I wish I still had that guitar.
When I was in your studio you were listening to Radio Nostalgie, do you like French old songs?
Oui oui. I don’t know anything about older French pop music but I love listening to Radio Nostalgie. It’s a great mix of classic American and French music. I highly recommend it.
You are not a designer however you designed your book, you’re not a typographer nevertheless you designed the fonts that were used for some of your signs, is there something you’re not and you would like to be?
There are so many things. I’d love to be a better drummer, or a really good pianist.
Your work is definitively related to America, what would you like to change in America at this point?
There are too many things to list. I’m actually really down on America right now. But that’s the strange beauty of America. In theory, we can change it.
You’ve worked closely with William Eggleston, what did you learn from him?
Everything that I learned from Bill that applies to photography I learned by looking at his pictures. Beyond that, I think I just learned to be myself. He’s an amazing artist. He does everything in his own way. And he doesn’t really like to discuss his work or his process. We spent most of our time together talking about other things — Memphis, Mississippi and music, or anything else other than photography, really.
One of your previous book is entitled Sound Affects, was a sound or music to listen to while looking at the work/book, what would it be?
I actually have a soundtrack for the book consisting of vintage Memphis rock, soul and weird music. Much of it was in a vintage jukebox I included in the first installation of the work back in Memphis. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to play whatever songs they liked while they viewed the work. It was my own Radio Nostalgie.
Your work balances between different time periods, what about your future projects?
I can’t say too much about my future projects — they feel like the distant future right now. I do think that some of them will somehow involve different time periods. I’m interested in time, among other things — the passing of time, its effects and even the confusion of time in my work. But in addition to all that, I think it’s essential to insert myself and make my own kind of work, in a contemporary way.
Conversation with Christian Patterson, Brooklyn, September 2012. Photography by Études Studio.