Putting the work together:
An interview with Michael Wilson
Michael Wilson is an assemblage artist who has always been heavy on techniques using artifacts and disassembled objects from an era long gone. He avoids plastics to make his assemblages look as though they were antiques themselves. Stuff from the dustbin, collected up and transformed. A solid piece needs to have electricity and some of them literally do. That's when a viewer’s responses can be very strong. Once in a while he puts away an artpiece until he finds the right part or found object to give the assemblage that edge and an 'outside the box' feel. He also makes castings of old parts of statues and adds them into the cohesion. The ultimate goal is to have depth and flow, which he oftentimes does, in hitting the 'mark' . He and his wife, artist Susan Spencer, open up their studios on occasion, so when in Northern California ring them up.
Photo credit: Susan Christine Spencer
How did you come to be an artist? How did you come to work in assemblage, and where do you find your materials?
Growing up in the 1960s I was influenced by my father's art and love of jazz. He was a well- known animator and artist, so I grew up in an environment that proved a lifelong influence. Another big influence was André Breton. I took art classes at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and we got to display our work at the college art gallery. I was also in a graphic arts class and made my first billboard ‒ a double-sided sign reading ‘Ground Floor Gallery’‒ for a space I rented in Old Towne Pasadena, California. We sold few works, but soon found out we weren't salespeople. At that time, before gentrification, there were 400 artists living in a four-block area of Old Towne, in 1977.
With my training and family background in art I was handed a baton to carry forward a never- ending art project that allowed creative ideas to flourish. Through my collecting junk and antiques I found it inspiring to give old objects a 'new life'. What may look like a series of broken pieces in front of you would ultimately grow to become an assemblage.
Why have you focused on assemblage?
In 1908 Apollinaire had moved ‘toward freedom in assembling a poem out of disparate parts’. In its structure, assemblage is like an abstract painting and constructivist sculpture but moves away from these art forms because its elements may be charged and identifiable. Thirty different components can compete in one assemblage to effect a fluid emotion. For the real artist, it is a liberating creative method, using untried variables in different sequencing in a state of randomness and disorder. Seemingly unfitting, these objects, articles and discards must be formed into a union of parts in the ensemble. These lost and found objects can never be preordained because the artist must 'play with' elements by placing objects around until the essence of the pieces and what transpires between them is discovered by the artist. What occurs after disorder is organization of dissimilar objects. The ultimate outcome is a sort of homogenous transformation. We as artists are never fully cognizant of our intentions until the 'magic' happens. Things fall into place. After that it is time for adhesion, putting the work together.
What the work communicates is up to the viewer. Sometimes the artist may have specific intent with regard to form and symbol. Mostly though it is free expression and abstraction of objects and ideas.
As with much art there is a series of adjustments, while at other times there may be a simultaneous harmony where everything comes into play quite rapidly. Oftentimes mistakes can lead you on a new path and a new development. Common objects begin to form the dynamics of a certain cohesion with a new life for these discards and found objects much like a poetic development.
What artists have had the most influence on you? Did you meet many people from Wallace Berman’s ‘Semina circle’ – you have previously mentioned the poet John Reed in particular?
The studios we rented for US$50 a month had many artists living there, including John Kelly Reed (Ramussen), who was the great friend of Ed Kienholz, George Herms, Cameron and Wallace Berman. John Reed was in three handmade editions of Wallace Berman’s Semina journal. John was also part of the historic Ferus Gallery and curator Walter Hopps. I was able to meet artists George Herms, Dean Stockwell, Ed Moses, Llyn Foulkes, Ed Kienholz ,Billy Al Bengston and others.
These artists all touched me and helped me organize my thoughts around becoming an artist. John Reed would raid abandoned buildings and come back with bags of metal and other 'found objects' for art.
After moving north I became a US forest ranger in an isolated part of coastal California, known as Big Sur. This was time for reflective and inventiveness. Little did I know beat artist Bob Branaman was living up the coast with his family in Limekiln, only to know him later in life after I met my wife, Susan. We were madly in love in Boonville, California, and immediately began living on her 20-acre ranch in the redwoods where later we built our art studios and home.
Here in Anderson Valley we met artist Stan Peskett, a UK artist who discovered Basquiat and introduced him to Andy Warhol at a party Stan had while living around the Chelsea Hotel, NYC.
Speaking of Andy Warhol, The Ferus Gallery had the first display of Pop Art by an east coast artist in 1961. Irving Blum had taken over the gallery from Wally Hopps and Ed Keinholz and after displaying the soup cans show Irving had managed to sell three of Andy’s works. Realizing his mistake as curator, he managed to buy back those three of Andy’s works and then bought all the rest. A major score, for later on they became worth millions. He bought all for around US$900. One of the people Irving bought a soup can back from was Dennis Hopper. He was big on collecting art and went to many openings of The Ferus Gallery, as did actor Dean Stockwell.
Have you ever met any of the great jazz musicians?
We hung out and studied with the jazz greats. Our teachers were Gary Foster, Bobby Bradford, Alan Broadbent, Putter Smith and Warne Marsh. When a break occurred, we would all go out back and smoke pot in between sets with Art Pepper, Louie Bellson, and comedian Redd Fox. The clubs we had in LA were exciting. At the famous Lighthouse Cafe jazz club you could see Milt Jackson and the MJQ, Gabor Szabo, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie. Other clubs were Concerts by the Sea, Donte's Jazz Club, Baked Potato and Memory Lane. Once in a while you could see everyone together at a club, including the Ellington Big Band and at Hollywood Bowl the Beatles and then Benny Goodman and then later Count Basie and the Band. Jazz was a major influence and although I was classical trained I turned into a jazz bebop pianist at 14 years old. My band was Monster Wilson and the Quintet. We even a had a girl singer. Jazz was everywhere and we saw all the greats and later were trained by them. Part of art, as I see it, is besides what we do in the art studio.
What was your experience as the late 1960s shifted to the 1970s? Did you notice any major changes in terms of an attitude or approach towards art?
As an artist in the 1960s I was surrounded by art. My dad was a well-known artist in Hollywood and there were people like Stravinsky, Sonny and Cher, Jonathan Winters and Carol Burnett at his studios. Dad did the credits in the movies Irma la Duce and Grease. All his animations are at http://www.fineartsfilms.com/index.php.
Moving into the 1970s, many artists were doing the first MTV video productions, using art as the medium to promote bands, and my dad was right in there working as the artist for songs like Jim Croce’s’ Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’ and Joni Mitchell’s 'Put up a Parking Lot'. We were all as artists trying different mediums and as soon as spray plastic foams became available it was in use for unique molds. Many stayed non-political, but maybe the first in the 60s had been Kienholz, using anti-war art as a political statement.
Later on, punk art started using bizarre effects, such as sheer stocking and pink spray paint as a way to reflect the times and using the theme of sexual exploitation as a way to cross the line.
Artists I knew started using production lines in small warehouses to recreate an existing piece of art and manufacture more of the same with varying changes in the reproduction. We as artists were figuring out as well that larger was better, for small pieces of art were not what the wealthy were looking for. They needed to be big in scale to fill the walls of the huge mansions these people live in.
By the 1990s some of us fell by wayside, took vacations for long periods to reflect or got out of the mainstream and created niche art that was predominantly just to barely scrape by, but holding on to our values and not selling out or doing kitsch art. If you eventually held on, you could have a gallery represent you and that would be something many artists would love but cannot get.
In the 1990s I opened up my first gallery with another artist, which was our playground. But later in the 2000s my wife and I opened The Beat Gallery in Mendocino County in Northern California, which was much more serious. We finally brought the gallery home and are having showings by appointment. Before Covid19 hit us all we even had a salon where expressive people came to reunite. It's a good life.
The US is going through tremendous turmoil at the moment, due mainly to the Trump presidency. From where I am, it looks very scary. What do you seen as the position of the artist in such circumstances, and what do you see as the future of the artist in the US?
Most artists and galleries have been deeply affected by this president in power who has violated the constitution numerous times. We are hopeful that his tenure ends soon so we as artists can again flourish. We would be glad if galleries could reopen and artists could have shows again.
Working the Machine
You mentioned that you and your wife, the artist Susan Spencer, are putting a book together, with about eleven other artists – could you tell us more about that?
In 2005 Tim Nye of Nyehaus Gallery, Soho NYC, reopened the Ferus Gallery exactly how it would look during its existence, 1957-66, and invited us all to the original gallery on La Cienega, LA. It featured many of the original artists and we had dinner afterwards at the famous Musso and Frank's Grill in Hollywood, sponsored by Nyehaus. It was a great reconnect and I was doing the Ferus Gallery website, which is currently being redone by myself to be interactive.
Many of those artists and others influenced our group in the Northern California Redwoods. Those artist included Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Bruce Connor, Jess, Bettye Saar, Kienholz, Max Ernst, George Herms, Kurt Schwitters and Wallace Berman.
All these connections and friendships have come to a climax, as we are publishing a book with artists Spencer Brewer, Susan Spencer, Hans Bruhner, Larry Fuente (Smithsonian), Via Keller, Esther Siegel and myself. The book will be titled Mendocino Lost & Found - Rebel Artists of Assemblage and Collage.
Apart from the book, what are you busy with at the moment?
Susan and I continue to work on our ranch in Philo, CA and I continue as a rancher, contractor, jazz pianist and assemblage artist. Recently Susan and I had a two-month show in Venice, California at Beyond Baroque in The Mike Kelley Gallery. It was an amazing exhibit of both our works visited by many artists, poets and friends. I ran into Bob Branaman and he wanted to buy a piece of art. Instead we went to his home and workshop and I traded him for one of his artworks. I wanted to also visit artist Robert Irwin, but he's in bad shape these days.
In conclusion, I would like to say that by isolating and simplifying objects and their environments, an elemental nature can be revealed that exists in all things, real and imagined. This is the thread that connects us all. Through the particular, the universal can be attained. Revealing the universal, whether it is our physical universe, circumstance, object, emotion, or thought, permits us to see the elemental parts of each other and ourselves and thus a circular connection is complete. This connection leads to an illumination, not only of ourselves and toward each other, but also for and toward the whole world and what other worlds may exist beyond our consciousness. This is the power of art – the power of transcendence from beauty and the particular into the sublime and the universal and back again.
I hope that in some way the results of my pursuit of art join the tradition of work that has provided a portal to those questions whose answers help us define and clarify our existence, our experience, and our purpose here on earth.