A conversation with Joseph Wilcox

by Eve O’Shea

102 from Permanent Record, Archival Pigment and Laser Print, Dimensions Variable, 2012

Recent NARS Foundation Season III and IV resident Joseph Wilcox discusses his work and artistic undertakings.

EOS: All of these projects have such different topics — how do you come up with them? Are they motivated by chance or chance encounters? Does each project feed into the next?

JW: I mean, I think those are interesting questions, because when I’m making new work, I never really think about how it’s fitting in with like, a trajectory. It’s funny to see the collection of projects together on my website because they become this kind of distillation. There are many projects that aren’t on there — either I no longer think they’re good, or I have developed some other projects and I don’t know if some previous ones necessarily fit. And it’s funny to see all these projects together and how they become different as they relate to each other.

I mean, visually, in terms of the content — let’s answer your actual question — I have some interests in general, and I think they lean towards the way in which systems work, and how people are stuck in these systems without their choice. It’s kind of how the world functions. And so analyzing some of those systems, whether it’s the way in which we’re consuming images on our phones, or an economic system that we’re required to take part in. I’m trying to dissect those and deconstruct them a little. I think that is the overarching way I would think about my work, but a lot of it is chance, or convenience — an idea that I think is interesting, or something that pops into my head. And I’m like, let me see where this goes. I really like making work that’s integrated into my daily activities, partially for practical reasons, because there’s only so much time.

Even this new receipt project that I started working on, it was kind of organic; the way in which I started doing these tracings, because I’ve been interested in receipts for a long time as this weird economic trace that I think says a lot even though they don’t have a lot on them. A long time ago, I collected a bunch of ATM receipts for this reason. And then I photographed people at the ATM and tried to pair them up with people in interesting ways. I think that was my first time working with receipts in general. And then as I was including them on these mood boards I’ve been doing, I wanted to transform the actual receipt in some way, so I traced them. And then I was like, “Oh, these are cool.”

The Home Depot #1225 – 12/28/20 – $47.64, Ink on Paper, 11×8.5 inches, 2020

Sometimes I think I assign meaning after the fact, even though it’s there in the beginning, but once I see the object I can kind of start saying, “Oh, well, this is how it connects to these various topics or things I’m interested in,” whether it’s something like value theory or socialist policy or whatever. 

EOS: What goes into your process of choosing what media specifically you want for each project, whether it’s a scene or an installation or a video? How do you make those decisions?

JW: For me, it tends to be whatever makes the most sense for the content — that’s how I think about it. A lot of times, I feel like the medium is a part of the work. Whatever the inherent qualities of the medium, they’re part of it. The first short film I made was the video work “In Search of Martin Klein” which used all these YouTube conspiracy theory tropes to explore the intersection of images, conspiracy logic, and the internet. It was taking this thing that people were somewhat familiar with, and flipping it. So again, it just makes sense that if it’s going to be about that, it should be in that format. I think that I tend to work that way, where I kind of take a familiar format, and try to twist it a little bit, to say something about it.

In Search of Martin Klein (Still), Digital Video, 18.51 minutes, 2017

Another example is theAmerican Apparel Portraits project on my website, and having it be this moving image gif piece made sense to me. Because the original image sources were these digital images on American Apparel’s store, and if you’re flipping through a product, you can scroll through them really quickly. And the recent LaserJet printed photographic constructions are very much connected to the idea of accessibility and voice in terms of people who may not have access to expensive printers or bigger platforms. I think whatever the medium is tends to be really important to the work.

Untitled (05-28-20, Union Square East & East 17th Street, Manhattan), Toner on Paper, 80×100 inches, 2020

EOS: You work with so many different media. Did you start with one in particular? How do you feel that your choices surrounding materials evolved?

JW: I started with photography, originally. There were a few reasons for that, but mostly it was because I wasn’t good with any other media. I’m still not very good at drawing. Photography lent itself well to being able to produce work and ideas without needing to be able to draw. I also think that I’m pretty left-brained, logically sided. I think photography in general lends itself well to folks who tend to rely on logic,, because there’s so much technical stuff to get into that it’s exciting to understand the technical part of it even before you understand any of the visual parts of it.

So then, as I became a better photographer, and explored that a little bit more, I wanted to break out of the confines of what straight photography offers. For my MFA thesis project, I was using documentary images that I made, but then pairing them with these fictitious texts I created. I think that helped me break away from straight documentary photography. Once I did that I realized I could work with any media. I wasn’t aware of a lot of artists when I was younger, and so I didn’t know that you could do that. I thought you had to choose a medium and do it and be really good at it. And then I quickly realized that most artists don’t do that.

EOS: How do you feel the analog or technical practices in your art relate to the digital aspects?

JW: I like to think in terms of digital and technical more than materials. When I think of materials, I think of what they represent to the world or how they function rather than what they really are. When I think of the photographic constructions being laser printed and what that means, it has nothing to do with the fact that toner is this specific type of material and adhered to the paper substrate using heat or whatever. I would say that I do not think of materiality that often when I’m making work. Even the use of the OSB in the mood boards — I mean, I do like how the chip board comes together visually and the fact that I can it creates an interesting accidental collage. But I’m more interested in the boards for what they represent to the world than what they are as material. Maybe those are the same thing, I don’t know.

Mood Board #3 (i don’t know who needs to hear this), Paint, toner on paper, plastic, painters tape, receipts, vinyl, cardboard, envelope on OSB, 32×48 inches, 2020

I guess you can’t have one without the other. Part of the reason I like shitty LaserJet prints is because I do think they’re beautiful, but it’s for a lot of reasons. LazerJet prints have been a part of my whole life, and they mean certain things in terms of my own formation, but also for the things they represented, and the politics of the things they represented.

You asked earlier about deviating from your original medium and choosing other things. I started making zines as a later development. I think that happened in conjunction with zines getting a little more popular in general. I think I’m a late indicator of when something is becoming trendy — I like to think I’m not the mainstream, but I’m also not like — I wasn’t a rad “zinester” when I was twelve. I started making them in grad school. It was partially because I wanted to connect to that history and connect the history of zines, because I did grow up listening to and playing in punk rock bands, but there was no zine scene when I was a kid, not at least in my little suburb. When I started making things in those materials, like laser printed zines, it was partially because I wanted to be connected to that history, because I think it’s a really interesting and important form.

the hammer and the dance, Toner on paper, 8×5 inches, 32 pages, 2020

EOS: You started writing alongside taking photos — how important is the writing to the work, or what relationship does it have to the work?

JW: When you say, writing, are you also partially talking about didactics? For me, those are super important as a maker, because they help me understand the work more. And I know, no work exists in a vacuum. People have to come to the work through some kind of entry point. I think having explanatory texts can be really helpful for some people. Having to explain visual work with texts doesn’t defeat the purpose of creating visual art, but it’s a different thing. There’s never been work that hasn’t kind of been analyzed and reanalyzed. To me, I feel like my works aren’t necessarily finished until I come up with a write-up that feels really good in terms of what the work is about. They’re important for me as a maker to finish and understand where the work fits in and also to communicate.