Briefly describe the work you do.
My recent work is interdisciplinary. If you can imagine equal parts Erwin Wurm or Marina Abramović and equal parts Talking Heads or Devo that’s a great start. It’s process-oriented performance art with a live dance punk soundtrack. I project video of myself interacting with the landscape while I sing quirky metaphor-laden songs about what’s unfolding in the video.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
I grew up in a tiny village on the Ohio River called Shadyside. Being a creative kid that never gave a damn about football, baseball, or basketball in a small high school sports-driven town like that was alienating. So I drew pictures and made weird music with my friends. When I finally went to study painting in college amongst other like-minded folks, I immediately respected the challenges of that environment. Art school is inimitable.
Everything about my practice today is rooted in those days of painting and drawing. My early interest in rendering the human form—specifically how it can convey meaning—is what ultimately (many years later) led me to process-oriented performance art. At that time, I thought performance art was a scam. A lot of people don’t initially trust it. It’s like a bizarre and unfamiliar religion from the outside with all of its unusual foreign rituals. Everything I do, whether performance, video, installation, or sound, still begins with drawing. I am a huge drawing advocate.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I wouldn’t call myself a post-studio artist. I love the idea of a dedicated laboratory-like space—a safe and familiar room that allows you to take risks without anybody watching. All of your shit, drawings, and notes around you; it functions like a concrete model of your neural net that you can walk around in. The space makes you accountable. While my final works are very public, I am deeply particular about absolute privacy when I’m working. I am easily distracted and like to work at night when nobody is around in the building my studio is in. I find that quietude conducive to switching into my magical make-it-happen zone.
While the studio plays a critical role in my practice I can’t discount the landscape. Hell, I could probably call myself a landscape artist—but not of the ready-for-grandma’s-calendar variety. I have deep respect for the tradition of the plein air painters. There is real romance for me in the idea of the artist situating him or herself in the sweltering heat, being eaten alive by mosquitos, standing in the mud, and isolating themself all in a quest to frame the idyllic—something purely theoretical that only manifests through the artists altogether fictional view. We’re storytellers and we help people see.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I am ridiculously organized. Everything goes on my calendar. That’s a reality that art school doesn’t necessarily prepare you for—that you not only need to continue busting your ass in the studio but that you’ll also have to schedule that around your day job. I love the familiarity and the ritual of studio labor. And that so much of what an artist does remains unseen. Intangible labor. Invisible labor.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
Between 7PM and 3AM is ideal. I am not somebody who can do much with an hour or two here or there. I need a good block of time—and preferably a few days in a row so I can be a little manic about it. I am a professor so I have the summers entirely open for creative work—and that unfettered research time is irreplaceable.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
I began doing this performance-music hybrid work five years ago. Prior to that I did both art and music separately. Smashing them together made perfect sense. I think my work is the most “me,” that it’s ever been. It’s what I’m supposed to do. While I’m still developing this body of work, I’m also exploring new directions.
I started a new long-term project last year at the Brush Creek Ranch Artist-in-Residence program that represents another very sharp turn for me. It’s really far along now and I am excited because it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It will likely be another year in progress. It might totally fail, but if there was no risk and the stakes weren’t real it most certainly would flop. There’s nothing worse than safe, flavorless mediocrity.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
I love philosophy—especially because as an artist I can use and abuse it. I can peruse it casually, pulling from certain ideas to ascertain a wanted flavor without all of the baggage that a scholar might encounter. I don’t think I’ll ever need to finish Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, because sometimes one word or one sentence is all I need to open up a world or two. I respect the voices of logic and the flights of alchemy as equitable harmonies at the heart of my work and I use both intellect and absurdity to situate the viewer at the seam where mind and body touch. So Merleau-Ponty has had as much impact on me as Gary Numan. Rhythm is meaning at its most basic. It’s bodily.
I had the good fortune of seeing Ann Hamilton lecture twice when I was a student. I was still a painter the first time I saw her speak. I was familiar with her art but hearing her illuminate it changed everything for me. Her works are nothing short of genius and the parting poetic resonance they instilled were the first seeds of my realization that I might not be a painter. Shortly thereafter I had a studio visit with Joan Jonas that was also incredibly formative. The influences kept snowballing. Another key ingredient was seeing Miranda July’s performance, The Swan Tool, live in 2001.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
I enjoy writing and might have liked to head down that path. It’s never too late. I’d also like to be Neil deGrasse Tyson, but I understand that Neil currently holds that position. It is so great to see science literacy back on the radar of popular culture in the United States and I think that he has a lot to do with that.
Interdisciplinary artist, Gary Setzer, provides gallery audiences with an experience that the Huffington Post called “a phenomenal hybrid of his own, integrating video, music and performance.” His works have been performed, exhibited and screened across the nation. In 2012, Setzer released the soundtrack for his performance, Supralingual/Sublingual: The Tongue is the Terrain, on Pretend Records. Setzer currently lives and works in Tucson where he is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Arizona.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.
I enjoyed reading Gary Setzer’s replies on 365. I feelthatuknow understand his more recent work with greater depth and how things are tied together. Thank you for you 365artist! Janet Zielinski -special Ed teacher