Interview with Adam Grossi
by Julie Sokolow
Adam Grossi is a fine artist, writer, and yoga practitioner operating out of Chicago, IL. My first exposure to his work was by fervent recommendation. A friend of mine with a passion for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, had noticed my own fixation with suburban America’s dark side, and while working at the Mattress Factory Art Museum, had come across the art of Adam Grossi. At the time, Grossi was a widely exhibiting BFA student at Carnegie Mellon University, who had just been named Emerging Artist of the Year by the PCA. Grossi’s talent for distilling the tensions and anxieties unique to American life in a single image was on a lot of our minds here in Pittsburgh, PA.
Since leaving town, Grossi has gone on to achieve an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, broaden his art practice with an ACRE residency and art-related writings for publications such as BOMBlog and Requited, and become a full-fledged yoga teacher informed by his training at the nationally-renowned Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO. I was eager to pry into the mind of Adam Grossi to glean his thoughts on art, mental health, yoga, and the intersection of the three.
HEALTHY ARTISTS: Let’s start with your suburban upbringing. Did you ever rebel as a teenager? If so, was art a part of your rebellion?
ADAM GROSSI: I was an incredibly square little dude. I was good at school, good at sports, proficient at drawing, and I mostly did what I was told. I spent a lot of my energy playing basketball. I think I modeled myself after kids who were respected in Reston, a suburb outside of DC, where the ideals were maintaining self-control and keeping your chin up. I did make some attempts at social critique through visual art as a teenager via cartoons and didactic paintings. They were, as you might expect, beyond terrible.
For a while I used the suburbs as a convenient archetype in my work, but I’ve come to realize that suburban development is far more complex than my early generalizations afforded. What I was actually interested in was the general psychological impulse to run away from, ignore, and self-deceive. And of course, a city is just as convenient a place to observe this as any suburb might be.
Your titles often strike me as clever and inextricably linked to the works they represent. What were your thoughts when titling, “A Pleasure Together”?
I really believe in the power of a good title, so even though finding one can be difficult, I try to wait for one to emerge that feels just right. There’s a famous line from Marcel Duchamp: “Titles are like another color on an artist’s palette.” I’m with Duchamp on that one. Sometimes, a title will just come to me as I’m working. When it doesn’t, I am banished to flipping through books in my studio in hope that some turn of phrase will inspire.
“A Pleasure Together” is a very direct description of what happens in the drawing. Two faces come together and form a smile. The easy sunshine of the title is a little bit of a counterpoint to the tone of the drawing, which has an anxiety to it. I like the question of whether the two faces are forming something or whether they are uncomfortably mashed together…whether this pleasure is a goal or a trap.
How did you develop the spatial gymnastics in your pieces “Family Room”, “Proposal for Intimate Space”, and “Proposal for Complicated Affair”?
I think the painting “Family Room” was the initial “a ha!” moment. The other two pieces, which are drawings, were attempts at further exploring the visual technology of “Family Room”: the projection of images onto walls. There is more territory to explore there, but I’ve never had much luck with forcibly focusing on one aspect of my visual language over a body of work — what many artists would refer to as a series.
I’ll embark on an initial inquiry into cultural meaning along with a contemplation of visual forms. There are many possible points of intersection between the two. However, if I focus on the form without the meaning that is associated with it, I really lose my flow. I feel the work loses its purpose, and the second drawing or painting in any attempt at a series is never as powerful as the first one.
You write about a process called “deep painting immersion”. What does this process entail?
Paint is the messiest and most attention-demanding of materials that I use; it requires a fair amount of preparation and some time to really get in the zone. I am a pretty tidy thinker in that I like to think of compositions in discrete images or layers of images. But when you get deep into painting, you have to let the cleanliness go. Paint as a material eventually makes you go play in the mud. Often I will have worked on a painting for a while with a very tedious hesitancy, and then suddenly, I’ll get sucked into a more immersive place where I’m responding to the colors and surface in a more open way. I lose my agenda, and that can be unnerving. So with almost every painting, I have to reenact this ritual of trying not to let this happen, and then surrendering at some point to the inevitability of the process.
Your work conjures a sense of American pleasant life, but there is a darkness that lurks under the surface. What do you think that tension arises from?
“Conjure” is a great word, because I believe that this pleasantness itself, as it appears in our culture, is the result of phenomenally intricate and perpetual conjuring. If we didn’t work ourselves to the bone to keep re-performing pleasantness, it would vanish like a vapor. So, to me, this perpetual magic trick of normalcy and pleasantness is actually itself very dark. It seduces with notions of peace, beauty, and harmony, but it is actually an aggressive attempt at keeping us ignorant of the deeper experiences of those very concepts.
It is as though we are nursed by a small army of images that keep us detached from a sense of labor, of nature, and of history. If you aspire to communicate with a relatively mainstream audience, you have to traffic in its language. And so, when you approach the pleasant on its own terms, but with a desire to extend its shape or poke holes in its continuity, that’s where this tension comes from.
When and why did you start practicing yoga?
I credit Mark Dixon for stimulating my interest in yoga. He was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon while I was an undergraduate, and I found his work and philosophy really influential. He had been a very dedicated yoga practitioner and it was probably this fact that led me to take a class at the university gym. I loved it immediately, and found it to be a great release of mental tension. But I didn’t stick with a regular practice.
A couple years later, that mental tension I was feeling ballooned into a manic episode. At 21, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was a terrible event at the time, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but being confronted with a potentially debilitating mental health condition became my personal initiation into deeper yoga practice. I had a pressing motivation to find ways to heal and balance. That being said, it would take a few years, and another psychological event, with the ensuing protracted stay in a hospital and blizzard of psychotropic medication, before I both took my diagnosis seriously and harnessed the discipline to start pursuing yoga as a viable vehicle for wellness.
Did you have to overcome any cynicism in order to devote yourself to yoga?
Because the actual practice of yoga felt immediately effective for me, I never had much cynicism about it. I did have copious amounts of skepticism about my ability to understand it, and I still do. I think skepticism is a perfectly valid response to have, especially in a culture that rabidly consumes foreign cultures’ exoticism without comprehension, with a recent history of corrupt gurus and in today’s era of capitalist plundering and distortion of spiritual traditions: without skepticism, the yoga industrial complex will eat you for dinner!
To make sense of yoga at all and to benefit from it personally, skepticism and an openness to possibility have to be in constant communication. If you blindly follow a teacher, I think, you’re screwed, and any good teacher will never ask for that kind of idiocy. But if you walk in the door convinced everything outside of your understanding is bullshit, there’s not much of a point in walking in the door.
Do you have any advice for cultivating discipline for healthy activities like yoga?
I think the first step is the conscious acknowledgement that spending time doing the activity will positively influence the rest of your life. Suffice to say that today I am more patient, resilient, and lucid as a direct result of yoga practice. I can’t overstate how essential it has been for my life and my work.
Most people see it as an extracurricular thing that they can squeeze in if they have time, but nobody ever has enough time, and it is often one of the first things to get dropped. I like to keep in mind that on days I don’t practice yoga, I’m not as sharp, I don’t have as much energy, and I’m not as comfortable in my skin.
After that, the name of the game is realistic expectations. A daily 15-minute yoga practice will be incredibly beneficial; not all of us are going to spend two hours a day with it. It’s important to avoid turning the desire to practice regularly into a vehicle for self-criticism when you don’t meet your own expectations. I feel this is a very fragile thing, at first, and it has to be approached with plenty of tenderness.
Have you ever struggled with access to health care?
After my bipolar diagnosis, my coverage options were almost nonexistent, since I had a pre-existing condition nobody would touch. For a few years I was able to stay on my mother’s policy, but now I’m on my own plan, and it’s really expensive. I am incredibly fortunate to have a generous and caring family, and over the years, they have often pitched in to help cover my health care costs. If my family was a step or two lower on the economic ladder, and unable to help, my life might have taken a devastatingly different course. I might be homeless, or I might not be alive.
I think truly affordable health care is way too hard to come by. I have many friends who are uninsured and I’ve seen a lot of twenty-somethings just holding their breath and hoping they don’t get sick. That’s not a strategy, and it seems a waste that people have to take jobs far outside of their expertise and interests just to have access to health care. The two groups of people I am most often around, artists and yoga teachers, are chronically uninsured and it seems a risk that they should not have to take.
What would you like to see from the US health care system in the future?
I am eagerly anticipating what Obama’s health care reform will actually look like when the rubber meets the road, which I hear will happen this year. The fact that we collectively pay for highways and other public services is a sign that we collectively believe in infrastructure, and health care is the fundamental infrastructure of human life. To me, single-payer health care is an imperative and its absence in this country is simply a disgrace.
What are you working on now and how can we learn more?
I’m working on a lot of new drawings right now and I just wrapped up a solo show in Chicago. I also have some writing projects in the works. One is about my experiences with yoga and mental health. People can learn more about what I do at adamgrossi.com