Q&A: efrem zelony-mindell
By Zora J Murff | August 16, 2019
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is a curator, writer, and artist. His curatorial endeavors include shows in New York City: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, Familiar Strange, and This Is Not Here. He writes about art for Unseen, DEAR DAVE, VICE, Musée Magazine, SPOT, and essays for artists’ monographs. His first book n e w f l e s h, published by New York’s Gnomic Book, will be available in late August of 2019. He received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts.
What does queerness look like beyond the body? n e w f l e s h, a project published by Gnomic Book in conjunction with a gallery show at The Light Factory launching at the end of August 2019, will challenge conventional notions of gender and identity studies. This published collection of works by 68 artists with essays by Charlotte Cotton and Ashley McNelis, along with a group of 22 artist's works from the book being shown, n e w f l e s h hopes to reclaim certain ideas of what queer is capable of.
The artists in n e w f l e s h abstract the subjects and materials they use. These works embody a mastery of what is possible in front of the camera, as well as technologically once the photo has been made. These images force us to look beyond the familiar, so that we may see them for what they could become.
All too often, the body is used as a form of control. The works in
n e w f l e s h ascend peculiarity and convention. It’s by removing titles and preconceptions that these works question the expectations around photography that deals with the body. It’s my hope that making room to question the status quo in this way will lead to new paths of equality and interactions between us as individuals. New concepts and conversations may be hard, but it is time to start having them.
n e w f l e s h features works by:
David Avazzadeh with Shirin Omran, Owise Abuzaid, Thomas Albdorf, Delaney Allen, Mitchell Barton, Ruth van Beek, Andrey Bogush, Cru Camara, Ellen Carey, Joshua Citarella, Kenta Cobayashi, Joy Drury Cox, Sara Cwynar, Femke Dekkers, Dillon DeWaters, DISCIPULA, Ryan Duffin, Izaac Enciso, Arash Fewzee, Stephen Frailey, Freudenthal/Verhagen, Sophie Gabrielle, David Brandon Geeting, Katinka Goldberg, Rachel Granofsky, Kris Graves, Aaron Hegert, Linda Hofvander,Sheree Hovsepian, Inka & Niclas, Bill Jacobson, Ina Jang, Arseni Khamzin, Nico Krijno, Jessica Labatte, Ken Lavey, May Lin Le Goff, John Lehr, Glenda Lissette, John MacLean, KC Crow Maddux, Joseph Maida, Michael Marcelle, William Miller, Stephen Milner, Luke Libera Moore, Robin Myers, Erin O'Keefe, Ryan Oskin, Sarah Palmer, Jessica Pettway, Jess Richmond, Ilana Savdie, Reeve Schumacher, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Daniel Shea, Pacifico Silano, Brea Souders, Kate Steciw, Eva Stenram, Matthew Swarts, Quinn Torrens, Patricia Voulgaris, Martin Wannam, Hannah Whitaker,Vasantha Yogananthan
Zora J Murff: What was the most recent memorable piece of art that you’ve seen? Why do you think that this work stuck with you?
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: I’d definitely have to say Peter Clough’s Odalisque at Invisible Dog. Peter is . . . Odalisque is . . . There are some times when I go to see a work of art or go to an opening that I am transformed into a totally freely eager excited child. In these moments I feel so innately connected to who I was, who I am, and who I want to be that the only thing that matters is what the art is and does. Peter’s work is honest and unconventional in every regard that a thing can be. He uses so many different mediums and media to realize what he wants to say and how he wants things to look. The work is liberating and sexual and criminal. I don’t mean criminal in that he’s bad, I mean criminal in that he is guilty of wanting to turn the rules on their heads and get away with it because there’s not a damn thing wrong with his needs and his reality. The malleability of art and the way things can get made is embodied in his work. Seeing so many functioning parts supporting and ennobling each other to tell a story that is revealing and exposed is so thrilling and deeply meaningful to me in a very personal way.
ZJM: Are you drawn to interdisciplinary art? How does that relate to your own practice?
EZM: I definitely am fascinated and allured by artists who are pushing the expectations of artistic mediums. Artists like Peter blur the lines of categories and systems. But I’m not disinterested in something, like a beautiful gelatin silver print by Roy DeCarava. The intrigue to art happens in my gut and in my chest. I care most about having that reaction to the work, everything else is secondary.
ZJM: Can you tell me a bit about your own practice? When did you begin pursuing art?
EZM: I always want to be careful when talking about the start of art for me, because in honesty I was raised in a home with two artists, and I don’t want to come off sounding all dippy like Jeff Koons, “I’ve done this all my life and was winning awards for drawing in Elementary school.” But the truth is I was always encouraged to draw, and think, and write. Every year my parents sent me to art summer camps as a kid, and I attended an arts high school. Creative expression has always been something around me, especially at home. It wasn’t until studying art in college that the gears really started turning and I realized that this was something I could pursue beyond just fun. Art took on realistic roles and I started pushing myself with focus and determination in college.
ZJM: What came first for you? Photography? Painting? Curating?
EZM: There were a few things that brought me to photography, namely newscasting and graphic design, but I think it’s totally fair to say that photography is the canon that I come out of. In college I majored in photography. Half way through my junior year I wanted to know what it was like to experience being more hands on in making compositions. Not that I don’t feel like I make photographs, I do, but I wanted to know what it felt like to touch and feel the things that I was making. At a time when most people were taking studio and technical skill classes I loaded up on painting and art history courses. I didn’t know then that I was aiming myself at exactly what I’m doing now. Writing and curating didn’t happen till much later. A good three years after graduating from college I was working for a creative director. One day, with some playfulness in tone, he said to me, “Efrem I’m sick of hearing you talk about this art stuff. I want you to go out and see a show and write something about it. I don’t care what it is or how long it is. Just get it to me.” At the time I thought he was crazy. A week or so later I was out in the city for a birthday by myself. I walked around, caught a movie, and was trying to fill my day. By noon I’d already had a pretty good day, but it being my birthday I didn’t think noon seemed like a good end to the day. So I took myself to see Jeff Koon’s retrospective at the Whitney when it was still in what is now the MET Breuer building. I enjoyed that show immensely and decided to write about it. I handed that to my boss.
I had no idea that my boss’ intention was to show it to his next door neighbor, Ben Ferrari, the Co Editor-In-Chief of this online publication I’m sure no one’s ever heard of. Ben published it and asked me to write again. And again, and again, until finally one day he was showing me how to post the writing myself onto the site and I had free range to write as much or as little as I wanted. I tumbled through many rabbit holes from there, writing for other platforms, and about more and more artists. Until one day I shared a piece of writing with Stephen Frailey, the Editor-In-Chief of DEAR DAVE magazine. Stephen offered me space to write, and choose a group of artists to be, in the magazine. This is how n e w f l e s h started. After getting that confirmed I reached out to Mike Tan at Rubber Factory here in New York and asked if he would be interested in having a show based off what was going to be in the magazine.
I don’t mean to undermine the lineage of what I do, but I feel in a lot of ways I stumbled into, and continue to fall into, all of these different titles. I’m very lucky that art and how I interact with it has always felt incredibly natural. To be more precise, I've tried hard to always see where lights are green and go for them, even if those green lights were things I never imagined I’d be doing.
ZJM: It’s easy for it to feel that way (stumbling into it), but if you’re a good advocate for your practice, things will begin to happen. Does writing/curating feel the same to you as making a painting or taking a photograph?
EZM: I almost worked with an artist one time that I asked to define my role as the curator of the show they were going to be in, and they told me, “Curators are secretaries.”
My writing and curating fulfills me and allows me to express myself the same way that making art does. People entrust me with their work, and let me explore aspects of it that they might not have thought of previously. For me, I don’t see how curating couldn’t be a creative act. Curating is about working with other people to make ideas that I have, a reality. Any art gets made in the same exact way. The only difference in that regard, is there's a whole new element that I don’t experience when I make art. Curating, and writing, uses the element of community as a medium.
ZJM: Did you see n e w f l e s h as a book, or did that thought come a later?
EZM: Once I started gathering images I couldn’t, and still haven’t, stopped. When Rubber Factory confirmed the gallery show, I started fantasizing about maybe one day having all of these images for an exhibition or a book. I made n e w f l e s h because I wanted something that would be able to have a life beyond just a one time thing. It’s still expanding. Its adaptability continues these conversations about queerness and the expectations of the body and identity.
ZJM: What do you feel is the potential of the book--when I say book here, I mean the photobook as a concept--for Photography? What do you feel its pitfalls are?
EZM: Books are objects in and of themselves and they have the power to create an atmosphere that delivers a person's work to viewers in a way that’s not all that different from how a show does. The pitfall is that sometimes people seem to feel pressured to produce a thing that doesn’t reach that potential. There’s a real aura of finality around producing a book. The book seems to mean a thing is finished, complete, done. And I’m sorry that photography breeds these feelings about the work. Both a book and a gallery show are pit stops in a life dedicated to making visual stories. There’s no reason we can’t reach backwards and forwards and introduce elements from any period and from any point. Now of course that doesn’t mean always, but I think people greatly underestimate the power and potential of their archive and think once a thing is seen it’s over, never again. And I just don’t think art works like that. We need fairy tales and stories that fold and follow and change as we all change. In a time when we share so much, nearly everything, now is the time to lean into using these systems so the things we make can grow exponentially.
ZJM: n e w f l e s h as a book, as a concept--to me--seems to be talking about pushing beyond. Not only beyond our understanding of the medium, but also beyond our understandings of self.
EZM: There are many societal expectations that cluster around ideals and communities that come from a place of trying to cubbyhole things to make everything easier or more palatable. The potential to push beyond those expectations only comes from calling out these attempts to control things and people. I’m sick of hearing artists say that, “We need to have a conversation,” but they don’t say what the conversation is, or how and when we all should go about having it. I want to be more outspoken and push myself to engage with people I meet. It’s important to let people feel comfortable and to allow them to try on new things, new ideas, to speak with uncertainty or complete literacy.
What I have a difficult time understanding is why some artists seem so apprehensive to discourse especially around their work. I thought that was the point? I hope you don’t mind Zora, I’d like to ask you a question. Why do you think we have to be so polite to each other? And I don’t mean that we don’t have to be respectful to one another when we talk about each other's work, but I wonder why we all tiptoe around each other in our bubbles waxing poetically and not taking more time to encourage discussions now because we want to push ourselves and each other.
ZJM: I often feel like we have a difficult time separating ourselves from discourse, that disagreement with an idea you put forth means that you’re disliked. I see that a lot in my classrooms, students who are reluctant to speak their mind because they’re afraid of their peers’ responses. Whenever that happens, it’s unfortunate because the fear of being misunderstood is not only a detriment to the individual, but also to the group. I’ve been trying to embrace slower conversation and slower thinking. In those moments I’ll take time to dissect things, and more often than not, what seems like pointless digressions leads to richer conversations overall.
More broadly, I feel a part of this politeness has to do with the nature of “getting ahead”—whatever that may mean—one has to make a lof of connections, get to know a lot of people. Are we becoming too reluctant to step on peoples’ toes based on trying not to develop a “bad reputation”?
EZM: I really think there’s are a lot of things about art communities, as much as gay communities and queer communities, that make me feel isolated. That’s okay. I just want to live in a world where we realize that we are for one another and sometimes that means having difficult discussions because we want to change, grow, and promote that in our friends and colleagues. The thing that attracts me to queerness is that it’s so vast. And should be. There’s so much that can fit in there, anything can fit in there. It’s not specific, it’s not exclusionary. It doesn’t have to be any one thing for every person. I hate to see that it may have corners because it’s become commodified. It’s the psychology and philosophy that’s most exciting to me about queerness. I just want to smash all of it so that it can be more fully realized. And I’d hope that such a restructuring would always be the desire for queerness.
ZJM: The other day, I was thinking about Emancipation, and what that must have felt like for enslaved people. How did their dreams for themselves and loved ones change based on new possibilities? The term possibility seems important, not only to n e w f l e s h, but also to queerness.
EZM: Queerness has a really elaborate rich tapestry of good and bad and ugly and beautiful that allows us to make informed decisions now. We need to achieve those things and realize that potential. We’re not going to know the unknowable unless we go there. When I was still living in Florida I drove with a friend one time from West Palm Beach, in South Florida, to Orlando. The friend was going to look at houses because she was moving and I tagged along. The three-ish hour drive was great, full of unknown views and landscapes, and great new conversations. But I remember the second we pulled off the highway my friend went nuts, “WE’RE LOST. I DON’T KNOW WHERE WE ARE. WHERE ARE WE GOING?!” I guess technically we were “lost,” but only because we’d never been to the place where we were. That’s not anymore lost than just living your life. The unknown is exciting because it means we as individuals need to figure things out, interact, make something happen. Sure it can be terrifying to not know, but getting lost should be a reward we enrich ourselves with. It’s an activity that we can do alone or with others, it will drive us to make something, to have revelations, to form relationships, to push beyond comfort.
ZJM: An exhibition of n e w f l e s h is opening on August 29th at The Light Factory, what is the most exciting part about the show right now?
EZM: It may seem silly but right now, in this exact moment, the most exciting thing to me about The Light Factory show is that it’s happening in another state. New places, new faces, completely different customs and possibilities. It’s great to have a show like n e w f l e s h in New York of course, but I feel like I’m preaching to the converted in a lot of ways. I’m excited to see what people talk about and what people want to ask this time around. I think there are many works that will really challenge folks, maybe even make them uncomfortable, or angry. That’s good. I want to let people have their feelings and provide the opportunity to talk about whatever may be on their minds.
ZJM: What’s next for you?
EZM: I’m excited to be working on a next something for n e w f l e s h. I’ve started collecting more photos at a much higher degree and focus than in the last few months. There’s something new here and I’m very excited about it. There are some other things on the horizon for n e w f l e s h as well that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet. But I do love a good tease.
I’m also working on two other projects that have doors open to becoming publications and shows. For now I’ll be a little tight lipped.
ZJM: It was great speaking with you Efrem, thank you for sharing your time with me.
EZM: The pleasure was all mine Zora. Thanks for sharing with me. CHEERS!
If you’re interested in learning more about n e w f l e s h (or better yet, pre-ordering a copy) please visit the publisher’s website. The book will launch at the New York Art Book Fair.
n e w f l e s h at The Light Factory
August 29 — October 11
Opening Reception: August 29, 6:30pm-8:30pm
1817 Central Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28205