Desert Test Sites A Conversation With Jesse Sugarmann

by Matthew Kyba

 Jesse Sugarmann, "We Build Excitement"

The demise of an American hallmark automobile, the Pontiac, carries with it the loss of an American symbol. Jesse Sugarmann’s practice involves this loss, framing it as a product of the increasingly globalized auto-manufacturing production. He comments on how the manufacturing model is adopting the “less is more” mantra in order to appease the largest customer base. However with that, comes the ultimate death of trademarked American cars that cannot appeal across seas. Sugarmann discusses how this operates vis-à-vis the art market, and how his artistic practices comes into form.

Jesse Sugarmann 4
Production still, We Build Excitement (Wonder Valley, CA), 2013

The first questions inquires about your practice’s relationship to the economic and commercial system of the “art world” a sphere that has been extremely Western-centric up until very recently. Especially in the 60s and 70s, the American art world seemed to be self-contained, creating and exhibiting its own artists. But with inevitable and continued globalization through the digital proliferation of images, commerce, and dialogue, America is becoming less centralized in terms of the art capital. How does your practice operate and navigate within the broadening of different art markets, as the United States becomes less focalized?

I think the transitioning forces of globalization in art and automotive manufacture are yielding quite opposite results, really. Or at least I hope so. I mean, the process of an auto manufacturer preparing a product for the global market is a process of softening, a search for a lowest common denominator of design. Take the Ford C-max as an example, the car that serves as Ford’s global hybrid platform. It is a markedly inoffensive car, an iMac mouse with wheels. It’s fine, just fine; no one will ever call it ugly, but it’s also rather hard to see. I’d be hard pressed to describe specific design elements of the C-max.   Meanwhile, the globalization of fine arts creates an aesthetic broadening, an expansion of design possibility. A correlation exists between the two forces, of course, but it only exists in the most market driven areas of art. Zombie Formalism, if I can use that as an accepted term, manifests the Ford C-max of the contemporary art market. But Zombie Formalism represents a decent chunk of the art market and only a tiny bit of the art world. Mostly, globalization is making art more interesting. And it’s making cars more boring.

To answer your question, my practice fails to navigate broadening art markets. I make sculptural car wrecks; market value isn’t really an issue. My work is American, relating to domestic society as a document more than an invention. The US is focal in the work, but not inconsiderately so, and not in the interest of privileging an American perspective. But what I am interested in are the domestic changes in my areas of interest (cars) resulting from global trends. And that is the core of my attraction to Pontiac; Pontiac offered a strictly American design motif, physical objects of American machismo and identity fantasy. And the marketability of that fantasy has expired, which is interesting to me.

Jesse Sugarmann, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You #18 - #21"
Jesse Sugarmann, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You #18 – #21”

With your series Any Major Dude Will Tell You, each hubcap seems analogous to each other. But with different designs and distinct rates of deterioration, it seems each car-part has a snowflake like appearance and uniqueness. The process of production to create each object identical always ends with each looking different. Could you expand on the similarity but individuality that these works gesture towards in terms of the mass production they were produced within? 

They’re rims, alloy rims that I’ve melted down into flat disks. Alloy rims have an aluminum core and an alloy composite shell. When the aluminum melts, the added metals or materials within the alloy shell either burn, leaving ash residue, or sink to the surface (I melt them face down). The resulting disks are 2” thick aluminum with a thin surface of colored ash or extruded metal particles. The ash and particles maintain the original design of the rim, hence the “hubcap” appearance.

What I found is that variations in supply chain meant variations in composition of the alloy shell. So if I took 4 snowflake rims off of a Jeep Cherokee, two of them would leave a bright orange residue and two would leave a dark silver residue, in spite of their initial identicalness. This is because the rims were either made in different factories, or in the same factory but at different times and with different alloy composites. I got excited about this, this unseen variance within the composition of our automobiles, and the Any Major Dude Will Tell You series was an exploration of that inequality.

Jesse Sugarmann, "We Build Excitement"
Jesse Sugarmann, “We Build Excitement”

The second question concerns the idea of decay. Your video and shots seem to exhibit ghost-like settings, with picturesque landscapes juxtaposed beside propped-up Pontiacs. However vivid and bold the images’ aesthetic seems, there is a constant theme of the decay of this western entity. It seems your work encapsulates the shell of a former full-spirited american identity. Which (if any) american symbols still exist to be fully glorified by the United States? What ramifications do you feel upcoming to these cultural symbols going the way of the Dodo? 

I live in the central California desert, in Bakersfield. The desert is an interesting and difficult place to live; a desperate place, certainly, but also a place where you encounter ingenuity on a daily basis. That is, to live in the desert is to persistently defy logic. The desert absorbs life, and thus the forces of entropy in the desert are aggressive. And that’s just something I have become accustomed to, aesthetically, this landscape of pressurized entropy. It’s normal for me, and that comes through in the work.

In 2012 I was asked to do a project at the Chevy-in-the-hole brownfield site in Flint, Michigan. I spent a couple of weeks in Flint, and I found myself to be really at home there. I recognized that brownfields, the vast expanses of slab and parking lot that were once sprawling factories, equated a manmade desert. They are Michigan desert. And I grew attracted to this idea, to the idea of the desert as this entropic force that could be naturally occurring or manmade. And that’s the graphic theme you’re picking out of the work, this equation of desert.

I don’t see any looming shortage of American symbolism; we generate more than we lose. I mean, certainly, the Big Three are changing, transitioning into a global market. And the cancellation of Pontiac is a milestone of that process, the end of a way of life and a professional identity for a large group of people. But keep in mind that the NUMMI plant in which the Pontiac Vibe was built has now become Tesla Motors. And Tesla, for many people, is the symbol of what American ingenuity can accomplish. American industry regenerates and mutates, engages in generational revision. Globalization is amplifying American symbolism as well as adjusting it.

Jesse Sugarmann, Production still, "We Build Excitement"
Jesse Sugarmann, “We Build Excitement”

High Desert Test Sites 2013 incorporates cars that appear frozen in time. Could you tell me a little more about the process of creating this work, and how it was intended to be seen? Was documentation the ideal way? Or do you feel in-person visits could only truly capture the essence of the work? As well, the conceptual and ambiguous content of the work leaves it open-ended for analysis. What is a constant reaction or interpretation you’ve head regarding the work?

Photographic images of automobiles have an astounding ability to isolate a cultural moment. Think of Stephen Shore’s parking lot images from Uncommon Places, and the way in which they capture the late 70’s and early 80’s with such clarity. The cars aid that clarity, absolutely. Automobiles, as a landscape, edify current standards of social identity. They represent human selves; they look like people, have faces and rear ends. They are totems of identity. So, as they age, you know, they offer a glimpse into prior notions of identity. And that’s one of the things I love about images of cars. As time passes, their presence in the work shifts. The identities they summarize shift from a shared association to a memory.

High Desert Test Sites was an opportunity for me to display the type of large-scale sculpture work I was doing as part of We Build Excitement in a public setting. I usually create work for documentation only due to safety concerns. I mean, I’m really good at balancing cars on things. But I can’t guarantee an arts institution that they’ll stay erect…and welding them together seems to lose the point. So I usually just stick to video and photographic documentation.

High Desert Test Sites gave me an opportunity to present the work in a public setting without liability-wrought institutional oversight. It was a great experience for me, really freeing. I guess it goes back to why I love the desert …when you’re out in the desert, it’s already assumed that you’re worried about dying. I mean, that’s why there is a gallon of water in your trunk. And an assumption of that sort is not part of the viewer’s agreement with a museum or gallery. So I felt that I could display this dangerous work with an understanding that people would be careful.

I think, also, that a good bit of the “frozen in time” aspect you’re feeling is just the quality of light in the California desert. It’s beautiful out here, really. People should visit. Bring water.

View more of Jesse Sugarmann’s work.

Jesse Sugarmann, Production still, We Build Excitement (Wonder Valley, CA), 2014
Jesse Sugarmann, “We Build Excitement”

Matthew Kyba

Matthew Kyba is an independent curator currently situated in Portland, OR. His curatorial interests focus on exploring unique exhibition strategies and alternative spaces. He recently graduated from OCAD University with an MFA from the Criticism and Curatorial Practice Program.

(All images courtesy of the artist)