susannah tantemsapya  ⟶  los angeles + bangkok   

Zefrey Throwell, Panic in The Chalk Cave

by Susannah Tantemsapya

The WILD Magazine
March 21, 2013

Film still from Time Stau

Zefrey Throwell’s latest exhibition, Panic in the Chalk Cave, is on view through March 23 at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Gallery in New York. We spoke with Throwell about how WILD it got creating a project about his father’s drug addiction, among other things…

WILD Magazine: What does Panic in the Chalk Cave mean? What is the show about?
“Chalk” is slang for methamphetamine and a “Chalk Cave” refers to falling deep into addiction and losing sight of reality. The title also references one of my favorite Al Pacino films directed by Jerry Schatzber, The Panic in Needle Park.

Zefrey Throwell: The show has three components: the first are portraits of my father, the second is a movie I co-directed with artist Dirk Skreber called Time Stau and the third are paintings I made based on that film. The entire show revolves around drug addiction, methamphetamine and time travel.

WM: The series At last… rest are made out of the ashes of your cremated father and crystal methamphetamine, the originals were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy and you made new portraits for this show. Why did you choose to use these unconventional materials and what process did you use to make them?

ZT: The first time I made the portraits I used my own share of the ashes from my father’s cremation. I presented them at a solo show at the Leopold Hoesch Museum in Germany. Upon returning to the U.S., they were demolished by Hurricane Sandy. This knocked the wind out of me. I laid in bed feeling sorry for myself until my mother called to remind me that many people had it much worse than me, and I should be out helping them. I volunteered for a large part of the next month and didn’t make art.
In December 2012, my mother mentioned that she still had her portion of the ash, and that I could have it if I wanted. I was conflicted because I didn’t want to take her share of her ex-husband, it somehow felt wrong. She assured me that it was fine and gave them to me; proving once again that she is the best damn mom in history.

As far as the process…

Human ash doesn’t come in a fine dust, it comes in chunks of bone and large gravely bits. I had to grind it down by hand with a mortar and pestle in order to use it. I am quite positive, I’ve inhaled an unhealthy portion of my dad at this point. I then silk screened white ink on white canvas, and sifted the mixture onto the canvas.
I used photos because I wanted them to accurately reflect specific moments and phases in his life. I see this as a memorial in a documentary fashion. I didn’t want my hand to get in the way. I didn’t want the audience to get hung up on the rendering. I wanted them to focus on him. There are eight portraits that span the full spectrum of his life: from his rough upbringing, to running away from home at 15, to him as a hippie in 1960’s San Francisco, to him as a biker in the 80′s, to his eventual death from a meth overdose at 59.

Douglas Throwell #10, 20 Years Old, 2013 48 x 36 inches human ash, methamphetamine, acrylic on canvas

WM: How has this very personal subject matter affected your relationship with your family?

ZT: My father died seven years ago from a meth overdose. I hated him while I was growing up because he was never around and always promised things that he never came through on. Over the years, I grew to understand him and his addiction, and came to realize that he wasn’t a bad man; he was suffering from a disease that he had no control over. We made our peace before he died – we weren’t best friends – but I no longer hated him. I feel this show has helped me come to terms with my feelings about both his life and his death.

My mother was not fond of the show. It has caused some tension between us. We shall see how it resolves.

WM: What has shaped your methodology as an artist?

ZT: People. More people. More and more people. Everyone.
Some of people that I look up to are:
John Cage, Andy Kaufman, Sally Menke, Abbie Hoffman,
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Sam Gould, Jenny Savill,Ian MacKaye, The Sandwitches

WM: Your practice combines contemporary art, film, performance and music, how have these elements influenced your creative process?

ZT: I am a product of all the other people whirling around me. We all do it all. I am nothing special, in this regard. When I hit a block with one thing, I switch instruments and keep beating on the same drum.

WM: Given your project Ocularpation: Wall Street influencing Occupy Wall Street, how do you see the relationship of art and social change expanding?

ZT: There are a million different threads to follow in this finite world. The idea that art can change the world is laughed at by majority of people I have spoken to. When they don’t laugh, they smirk. Why? Why can’t art change, influence and redirect the thoughts of the world? There are no rules in art, it can do whatever it wants. It would be like the ability to hit a homerun every time you swing the bat or strike out without even getting up to the plate.

It’s a beautiful, infinitely twisted anarchy that frees people from the stick in the mud linear rationality that hangs like a comfortable heavy dirty gray blanket all over society. Rip that son of a bitch off, and let’s get cold and savage! Let’s look the unpleasant things in the eye and talk about them because they certainly aren’t going anywhere! Let’s get some lunch!

Before the Party, Always Left to my Own Devices, 2013 48 x 34 inches, oil and acrylic on fabric

WM: What projects are you working on now?

ZT: I am working on a project called the Croatian Architectural Reclamation Project (CARP) that will be kicking off this summer at the Venice Biennale. Venice was built on a stolen Croatian forest and their new sea wall is built out of a mountain that they demolished in Croatia, and threw in the water. Some Croatians and myself will be reclaiming wood and stone from Venice and bringing them back by boat to Croatia. Ahoy!

WM: How do you see your work evolving in the future?

ZT: I find myself drawn more and more to film. I just finished a movie called Time Stau with my friend Dirk Skreber. Now I am working on a film called Madonna Mia Violenta with director Josephine Decker. There is something so powerful about movies. They are the language the world speaks. I want to write in that language.

WM: What is your WILD Wish?

ZT: I would develop a virus that would make everyone in the world throw their phone down on the pavement at once and stomp it, then look up the sky and laugh like hyenas while hugging strangers around them… perhaps some tears of joy and liberation thrown in, with a healthy dose of fucking to follow. Is that too much to ask?! 

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