In 2013 the Chicago Artists Coalition and OtherPeoplesPixels created the MAKER Grant, two unrestricted cash awards given Chicago-based contemporary visual artists who demonstrate a commitment to a sustainable artistic practice and career development. The 2014 award of $3,000 was presented to John Preus, an interdisciplinary artist.
Preus studied furniture-making in Minnesota in the late ‘90s with celebrated furniture-maker John Nesset. He graduated with an MFA from the University of Chicago in 2005. After working with Austrian collective Wochenklausur, Preus and artist Sara Black founded Material Exchange, a project focused on art-making with discarded and found objects. Preus followed this with the establishment of Dilettante Studios in 2010 and Southside Hub of Production (SHoP) with Laura Scheaffer in 2011. Preus was the creative director of the Rebuild Foundation shop until 2012, and project lead for Theaster Gates's 12 Ballads for Huguenot House at Documenta 13. At the time of his grant award, Preus was the Jackman-Goldwasser resident at the Hyde Park Art Center exhibiting his hall-filling object/installation/space, The Beast.
Cortney Lederer, director of exhibitions and residencies at Chicago Artists Coalition, spoke with Preus about his inspirations, plans for upcoming projects, advice on the applying for grants and the realities on being an artist in Chicago.
Cortney Lederer: Tell us about some of the projects you have coming up. How will the MAKER Grant play a part in realizing them
John Preus: The MAKER Grant will pay my mortgage for a couple of months so I can take a little more time off of my day job as a furniture designer and focus on upcoming art projects. I am heartened and affirmed by the fact that I got this grant, and to know that there is support for the kind of work that I want to do.
I'm still pretty wrapped up in The Beast and its ongoing programming. I am particularly enjoying the conversation series with Simon Critchley, Jamie Kalven, W.J.T. Mitchell, Audrey Petty and Bart Schultz. Each project clarifies and raises the stakes. What has emerged is that high school kids in the neighborhood have taken over The Beast in the afternoons. On most afternoons it will be filled with the energy and enthusiasm of youth. They really treat it like their space. It confirms my sense that youth has been largely criminalized by virtue of the fact that there are few places to go where they are not treated as a nuisance. I am thinking about what the next step is, and how to further address that tear in the social fabric.
I'm looking forward to The Swing and the Wall at Comfort Station with Laura Shaeffer and Kevin Reiswig. The opening will include kids reading statistics over my improvisations on my furniture instruments.
I have a solo exhibition at the Heilbronn Kunstverein in Germany which will involve a monograph published by Snoeck. The project came about in relation to the piece I wrote for Proximity a few months ago, the result of simultaneously writing and making. The exhibition will extrapolate on that idea with a collection of objects and texts that will be turned into a book, exploring the relation between image, text and the different forms of thinking that making and writing instantiate.
I'm doing a large installation for EXPO Chicago using some of the furniture I've collected from closed public schools. It will involve a collection of functional things and some wall pieces that will talk to each other throughout the enormous convention center at Navy Pier. EXPO is largely a commercial event, so part of the project is engaging with questions around art and commerce—and the means of production that are often obscured within art practice—to emphasize a particular narrative. I’m thinking about how the furniture can be used to reflect/measure the depth of the divestment in the public sphere that school closings suggest. And how will that register among the collector and patron classes? EXPO's objective is to demonstrate or foster the viability and visibility of a high-end art market in Chicago. I am interested in what the trickle-down effect of that market is. Can it spawn smaller-scale production industries?
The burgeoning realm of art and social engagement has deep roots in Chicago.
What do you love about being an artist in Chicago?
The community. It is extremely rich soil. I have a long list of amazing artists and humans that have contributed to making me the creature that I am. It is a great place to be a part of a conversation that has radiated out into the international art conversation, and has made some bold claims about how artists affect and engage in civic life. The burgeoning realm of art and social engagement has deep roots in Chicago. There are so many distinct interest groups—art pockets—that don't have a lot of crossover. I enjoy experiencing as many of them as possible. There are so many great art programs in the city that bring interesting folks from all over the world to Chicago.
What is challenging about being an artist in Chicago and where would you like to see more support for artists?
Can we put the onus on the funders to find us?
I sometimes feel like life in Chicago is a war of attrition—a daily assault upon one’s sense of justice. How to bear that in mind without feeling defeated or hopeless can be a challenge. More funding for the arts would be nice, but it feels irresponsible to wish for that in light of the urgency of other civic ills.
As a matter of comparison, Heilbronn, Germany, is a working-class town about the size of Rockford, known for salt mining and not for its world-class art exhibitions. They are flying me there, housing and feeding me, and paying me exactly ten times what the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago paid for me to do a “12x12” show a few years back. This is what a country does that believes that the arts have a critical and crucial role in public life, public thought and the development of future potentialities.
I wonder if, rather than grants that require a burdensome and costly administrative apparatus, we deputized a handful of honorary “artist laureates” every year according to geographical location and demonstrated commitment to the field? Their job would be to scour the city for interesting work, and to fund it. Why require all of the artists in the city to spend their valuable time and resources for a shot at an ever-dwindling pot of money, against increasingly bad odds? It exacerbates the antagonistic supply-and-demand logic of capitalism. Can we put the onus on the funders to find us? Artists could join a simple online registry that would entitle them to a visit from the laureates. If the work is committed, it gets funded. Then there could be a big exhibition each year of all the funded artists—the communist version of EXPO Chicago.
Honesty comes in different flavors. Pick your flavor, but don't be an asshole.
Artists should be part of advisory boards, consult with developers, city planners, policy-makers. They should be supported for their valuable input. I am inclined to think that specialization breeds a kind of entropy. Things start to feel intractable. Artists like to find new ways to do things, however trite that might sound. I don't think funding the arts, then treating artists like a species of entertainment, is the recipe for a vital and engaged interchange. Artists should be involved with the decision-making bodies—and that is partially our responsibility.
Given your experience applying for—and winning—a grant such as the MAKER Grant, can you share some strategies for artists thinking about applying for funding?
Be honest. Honesty comes in different flavors: brutal, gentle, tactful, diplomatic, revelatory. Pick your flavor, but don't be an asshole. Whatever you are withholding is probably the source of your most interesting work.
Tell lies, but not the kind that hurt people. Imagine what the most interesting possible outcome of your work might be—within reason—and say that you are doing it.
Describe the working theory that gives your work momentum. It doesn't have to be true. Gravity is a theory, after all, that has remarkable explanatory power, but could eventually be replaced by something else. Evolution is a theory that explains certain developmental phenomena, but it can be contested. Working intuitively is sometimes shorthand for having no sense of direction—which is okay, but not a good reason to apply for a grant.
The piece that makes you feel a bit nervous might be the clincher.
Imagine a specific human being sitting there reading your application, and tell them a good story. Imagine that they trust and believe in you and want you to succeed.
Take calculated risks. The piece that makes you feel a bit nervous might be the clincher. Certainty is overrated.
Think less like a puzzle and more like a musical chord. Rather than trying to explain what the work is doing when you are in the zone, give the writing and the images a magnetic resonance that enlivens both.
Apply again. I predict that most of you will not get the vast majority of the grants you apply for, no matter how amazing your work is.
This is, in part, a popularity contest. Winning begets winning.
Give up. Pretend to be an administrator and make up your own funding program. Because I got this grant, 250 of you didn't. I am sure it is not because I am the best. The odds are not good. A look at the Andy Warhol Foundation's 20-year report will tell you that the ratio of administrative costs to grants given is two-to-one. (I suspect that is on the generous side.) Artists will always be on the losing side of that equation. And when the belt needs to be tightened, I predict that the grants are cut before the administrative fees.
Apply again. This is, in part, a popularity contest. Winning begets winning. We all want to be on the winning team. We all want to be at the party that everyone else is at. Each project gains some new friends, and disappoints some old ones. It hurts.
Embrace envy as a sign that you do care what other people think, and that it is good.
Care. Don't fool yourself into thinking that indifference is power, or irony is strength. Cynicism is not the same as intelligence.
Sublimate. Caring is painful and will get you injured. Love might kill you, in fact. Find ways to drown your sorrows in the work. Sometimes a relationship with the ghost of a long dead artist or writer is more supportive than what the living can do for you.
What do you read, listen to, or look at to fuel your work and find inspiration?
I've been on a Simon Critchley binge (Infinitely Demanding is fantastic).
Slavoj Zizek is one of our greatest living entertainers, and has some interesting things to say, on communism, belief, violence.
T. J. Clark.
I've been trying to bone up on my history of anarchist thought, and where it diverges from socialism.
David Greiber on debt and anarchy.
Theory of Literature by Paul Fry.
Rene Girard on mimesis and the scapegoat phenomenon.
Recent developments in psychoanalysis.
Jim Elkins on the animosity between contemporary art and religion.
W.J.T. Mitchell about the image, the idol, the fetish, the totem.
The TV show "Orphan Black," about a secret corporate cloning program. Mimesis gone awry. The same actress plays about 15 different parts. So cool.
Anything with Gwyneth Paltrow in it.
The Marx Brothers.
Do you have a motto?
I feel much more like I do now than I did before.
John Preus (b.1971) is a Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist. He holds an MFA from the University of Chicago (2005), and studied furniture-making in Minnesota (1996-99) with celebrated furniture-maker John Nesset. Preus founded Dilettante Studios in 2010, co-founded SHoP (2011), and Material Exchange (2005). Preus was the creative director of the Rebuild Foundation shop until 2012, and project lead for Theaster Gates's 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, at Documenta 13. Preus is currently the Jackman-Goldwasser resident at the Hyde Park Art Center leading up to his current solo exhibition, The Beast. His work has been exhibited at EXPO Chicago, The Heilbronn Kunstverein in Germany, The Experimental Sound Studio, The Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, The Huguenot House in Kassel, Germany during Documenta 13, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Betty Rhymer Gallery, The Chicago Cultural Center, The Devos Art Museum, The St. Louis Art Guild and The Smart Museum of Art.