Rebecca Marino: You used to be a writer. Can you talk a little bit about what you used to write, why/how you transitioned to visual art, and how that influences your work now?
Kevin McNamee-Tweed: I started writing in art school. I guess I was rebelling but I had honestly lost sight of how to produce visual work and after a few incarnations of absurd “installations” and quote unquote conceptual work I turned to writing and found that it gave me much needed limitations and also allowed me within the strict medium of Writing to do anything at all (or say I was doing anything at all). Some of what I produced in the period starting at the end of my time in college in New York and the 3 or 5 years that followed was a result of kind of wanting to do art but not wanting to actually do it (like paint, perform, make, etc.) and some of it, more and more over time, was genuinely about trying to express myself via the tradition of writing words down on paper or on computer. By the time I moved to Austin and slowly stumbled back to visual art, I’d been rather lazily pooling my creative efforts to produce readable fiction as well as experimentations of some worth, both with minimal success. I rediscovered my huge, huge love for making marks on stuff around my second year in Austin and eventually began combining the things I liked about my drawing with what I could tolerate of my writing and the result is something I’m still kicking around now.
RM: As an artist, you have several pseudonyms/identities you use. Can you name some consistent ones and how they function within or around the work?
KMT: A lot of people know me as Cotton and I use it for like internet accounts and stuff. It started back in college when I found out that my parents had considered very briefly naming me Cotton. It was ultimately discarded because it would have meant that I’d have had two fabrics in my name. I adopted it for the use of deflecting credit for writing/art of dubious quality, but quickly came to like it and identify with it even. There are still lots of people that know me as Cotton or choose to call me Cotton even though they know my other name.
I’ve used tons of pen names when writing short stories and non-fiction that I’d on occasion release into the world by one means or another. None of those stuck. There are some names that have come and gone in my work in the last few years. Karl is one. Karl’s Korner was the name of a little exhibit I did, showing mostly fake flyers along with some more straight-forward artwork, zines, bits of current work. Karl has been a nice stand-in for myself that I do feel affection for but don’t feel any need to defend. Other names include Terry Turdson, Edgy Susan, Keven B., and most recently I’ve been feeling Jeff coming on really strong. I’ve started recording myself on my phone saying “Hey, I’m Jeff, My name’s Jeff…” and then I just start listing things Jeff likes, his interests, you know. I’ve got fifteen of these in Voice Memos. Listening back to them I laugh out loud hysterically for a second and then curdle with disgust.
RM: You are incredibly prolific, and coincidentally, you’re also a curator. What is the editing process like for you?
KMT: Most of my shows are presentations of pretty huge bodies of work that I don’t edit much. If I make something and I think it’s unsuccessful or it sucks, I’ll throw it immediately in the ‘maybe’ pile and keep it around to languish until maybe it becomes good. Things don’t really make it out of that pile unless they get drastically transformed. When it comes to presenting these big bodies of work in an exhibit I usually look to the creative process for clues on how to organize it. I like to let rigid, sweeping systems define the order, such as chronological or alphabetical order or linear narrative, rather than imposing a thought process that is detached from the creative mania. When no system is abundantly apparent, I just sit with the work in the space and try things out endlessly until something is acceptable.
My work as a curator at Big Medium has given me a chance to be close to and work with a lot of artists and I learn from every one of them. I approach art first and foremost as an artist, that is, I look at it to see how it can instruct my work. The process of making things is always rewarding in so many ways. I’m so grateful that I have this relationship with it. I know that sounds corny but really I don’t know what I would do or be if I didn’t have things I make to reflect back at me pieces of my experience as a person that is myself.
RM: While a lot of the work you make is super funny, a lot of it is super sad, some of it both, really. Do you feel like you’re usually coming from a place of cynicism or vulnerability, or maybe a pretty good mixture of both? Do you feel like living in Austin has tipped that in any sort of direction?
KMT: I don’t know. When I make stuff I’m usually trying to trick existence into letting me exist in a different way for a while. The things I create are the proof of that or the documentation, I guess. I don’t necessarily see a thing more conclusively after making art about it but the process of making the work about it allows me to make peace with it, sometimes dupe it, sometimes submit to it, sometimes just try it on and walk around in it. As a viewer of my own work I’m often having the same questions other viewers have, like Why, What, How, and again Why. But I don’t have a lot of uneasiness over not getting answers.
One thing about the way Austin has influenced my movement along the cynicism/vulnerability spectrum is I’ve come to resent singularly positive ideologies, lifestyle brands, you know. Austin really nurtures positive attitudes and lifestyles because its so beautiful and easy going, but it gets just disgusting at times.
RM: What do you listen to when you’re working in your studio?
KMT: I think I’m at my most productive when I have an album that I can listen over and over to. It keeps the vibe the same, which can be helpful. It’s not always you have that trusty record that can keep you entranced and buoyant for whole afternoons. Lately in the studio I’ve been listening to Furry Lewis, Satyajit Ray film scores, Arthur Russell, Harold Budd, William Tyler, lots of country always, and Mississippi Records compilations and mixtapes are the best things ever, a real treasure, and I’m always finding new ones I like and returning to old loves.
RM: If you were a book, what book would you be (because you’re actually on the dating game)?
KMT: Plants In Space
RM: I really like the little handmade books you make, but I know you’re having a book of your book covers printed—when does that come out and how can I buy one?
KMT: I love books. I’ve done a few zines and things but I didn’t really enjoy the process of making them so the handmade, one-off books were great, immediately gratifying, although by the same token it was pretty stressful to get no do-overs. They’re all done with Sumi ink on paper I can’t afford. I like them too, thanks.
I have a book of my book drawings coming out soon which is being produced by Farewell Books, Raw Paw, and Molasses Books. I think it’ll be out in June. It will be available in stores but you can email me or any of the other folks involved to join the pre-order list. It’s very exciting and I’m lucky to work with such good, smart people on it.
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest and works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX. Marino will be curating a solo show of McNamee-Tweed’s work at pump project in October 2015.