Interview Series: Clay Cavender

Clay Cavender is an American visual artist whose work blurs the boundaries of image-making and photography through a multi-media practice. Whether through photographic manipulation, photo books, or full scale installations, Cavender’s work sets the scene for elaborate and meandering narratives that reflect on identity and ways of living.


LIVE FAST: There are a number of themes in your work – chance, synthesis, intangible to tangible, gesture, identity… Where are these themes born? And which are you most drawn to?

CLAY CAVENDER: Identity has definitely been the main point of inquiry for me. Capturing something so seemingly intangible, exploring its relationship to all those other themes, and figuring out how to shape them within a narrative image has always fascinated me. Mediating the process of regarding myself and in turn, what I perceive in how other people exist in the world, informs every aspect of my work, from subject to medium. I’m interested in the psychological components of the image, the subject and the viewer, and for this reason, I’m drawn to synthesizing photo process with other expressive mediums outside the historical scope of photography, allowing gesture and chance to come into play. Usually the decision whether to capture something or not hinges on the potential of the moment to work symbolically as an image, which is where the element of chance becomes involved. I like how artists like Jamel Shabazz are able to encounter a moment on the street and turn that into something which elevates the image and the subject into something transcendent. I’ve been really influenced by the role that photography has been able to play in the cultivation of aesthetics of place through sequencing. The photographic look of the American heartland has been sculpted from collections of relatively banal images, but orchestrated by photographers like Steven Shore to become works that were able to highlight the beauty, humour, and sadness of those communities.

LF: What is your creative process or philosophy when shooting?

CC: Most of my personal photographic work has ended up being more of an exercise in pairing and sequencing rather than shooting for an individual project. I started carrying a camera on me at all times about four years ago and have amassed a sizeable archive of film. Mostly, the images are of strange, funny, or poetic things that catch my eye in the day to day. Being able to go back and build narratives from those moments gives the story some objective distance and lends itself to speaking metaphorically. I realised that working in this way functioned kind of like a playlist, allowing each captured frame of reality to speak it’s own truth and then lend that to the unifying themes within the sequence. Reading Taki Kōji’s essay “Eyes And Things That Are Not Eyes” was a compelling push in this direction; working with fragmented realities speaking to a universal truth. Ed Templeton’s photo books are also exceptional examples of this and have been a profound influence. Research is central to my process surrounding shooting, and within that cinema is my go to. As one of the more accessible visual languages that people are introduced to early on, cinema is an excellent reference for communicating a heightened sense of reality. Gaining exposure to narrative structures used by non Western/ East Asian film auteurs like Jia Zanghke, Takashi Miike, Bong Joon-Ho, and Ang Lee have helped my work free itself from bondage to the traditional three-part story arc of beginning, middle, and ending. Carving out narratives with an open-ended framework for themes like ‘fear’ or ‘returning’ is cathartic for me, and hopefully the viewer as well. It abandons the expectation of resolution and allows for an appreciation of beauty in the highs and lows that take place through a journey.

LF: Tell us more about your choice to be ambiguous with location, how does “displacing the viewer from a specified geography” allow them to connect with your work?

CC: In the last series I worked on, The Gifts Fear Gave, and my current work in progress Re:Turn, the themes of fear and returning to something are universal to the human experience. I find that anchoring work too much in a specific place or set of circumstances is alienating to the viewer and them from engaging with the work. I’ve come to learn over the the course of my image-making practice that ambiguity can be a very powerful tool for democratic expression. The goal for Re:Turn especially is to provide scenes that evoke emotional landscapes which have room for the viewer to fill with the echoes of their own experiences. I know that being brought up in the States and having lived primarily in the West, there are cultural perspectives that subconsciously manifest in my photos, but that’s something I’m trying to be cognizant of in order to speak on a global level. For instance, my experience of having to move back to the US from the UK and live with my family for a brief time has been very different from friends of mine that have had to do the same thing in China, yet there is a depth of profound human experience that we’ve shared in that process.

LF: You’ve spoken at length about your interest in capturing the energy of movement and fascination with the physicalities of individuals in your portrait images. What is your approach to capturing these elements of the subject?

CC: My first experiences with photography were taking pictures at hardcore house shows in Salt Lake City, then later on skateboarding, and as references for paintings, so I guess I’ve always had a degree of attention towards capturing the energy of an experience in an image. I’m working on developing my approach and transitioning it into a more staged environments, like working in a studio. Image pairing/sequencing is another invaluable tool for communicating the energy of a subject, even if the individual themselves may be completely static in the literal sense. Enhancing and expanding narrative through pairing is an important component in my attempt to understand or speak to a specific aspect of the subject in my work. I often discover things I had been intuitively and/or unknowingly looking for in the subject when seen in the light of an accompanying image(s). In some instances putting images together leads to the realization that the real subject isn’t what’s depicted, but something else entirely. In one of his essays, Berger equates the sequencing of images to constructing a thought word by word.

LF:Looking at your photos, they are quite intimate and have a feeling of disclosure to them. Would you consider portraiture to be your favorite arena of image making in your practice?

CC: I approach photography as a tool for image making along with painting or illustration so it’s rare that I think too much about genre within it. I am endlessly fascinated by people, so I suppose portraiture has always had a draw for me. I have mild Asperger’s Syndrome and as a kid I was always a bit outside of things, so that probably allowed me to pay attention to the dynamics of interaction and attempt to discern the stories behind the people I observed. Growing up I wasn’t allowed to watch television growing up, so reading authors like Tolkien and Jack London who painted such detailed pictures of the characters in their respective worlds was very influential when it came to crafting my own stories. Through my undergrad in Utah, this manifested in painting and has transitioned into photography in the years since.

If we’re talking about favourite use of medium, there is an assumption with photography on a subconscious level that what the viewer is looking at is ‘real’ in a way that a painting isn’t. What I absolutely love is being able to distort this sense of assumed truth through altering the image with things like double exposures and manipulated print process. I find warping something like photography, which is essentially based on implied reality is engaging and keeps me curious.

LF: You clearly take a lot of interest in subculture and artistic movements, from contemporary Chinese cinema, skate culture etc. Given the opportunity, is there an art movement that you would have liked to be a part of?

CC: This is difficult to say because I tend to be creatively ADD and love the breadth and openness of everything available to the world right now. There’s literally never been a time when there’s been more access to technology and information than there is at the present. I think that photography had a really interesting moment in the late sixties early seventies, specifically around the scene of Japanese photographers and writers who came together to make Provoke Magazine. There were really interesting questions posed that stretched the boundaries of what photography was considered to be technically and how it existed as a social practice in post-war Japan. Conversely I think it could have also been cool to be a part of a past artistic movement which was more inward-looking and craft oriented as a sort of work / spiritual practice. I’ve always been very drawn to Ukiyo-e woodblock printing for this reason.

LF: Following on from that, are there any individuals or brands that you think are making significant contributions to culture right now? And is there anyone that you would like to work with or any projects you would like to pursue?

CC: From my perspective, the people or companies that have made the most meaningful contributions to culture have those championing an empowered DIY mentality and strong community ethos. Music has always been one of the most important components of my life, so the opportunity to collaboratively contribute to that creative process, especially with friends, would be a dream come true. Album covers and band merch were some of my first sources of inspiration, so I’ll always have a soft spot for that sort of thing and being able to provide that for someone else is a privilege. Working in tandem with friends in fashion design has also been an amazing experience and something I definitely want to dive much deeper into. The ideal situation there would be to reach a point with a designer where you both speak the same language, are able to move each other forward creatively and give form to a story together. It might sound a bit childish, but my greatest satisfaction comes from working with friends who can push me and whose work I respect.

Something I’m currently striving towards is figuring out a way to work painting and photographic image making work together so that both are pulled away from the contexts of their mediums and can exist as neither strictly a painting or photo. I’ve really enjoyed repurposing materials like print, enamel, embroidery to provide that distance and new context for actually seeing the image. The exhibition project that I’m currently working on, Re:Turn, is going to incorporate photographic and mixed media pieces that will work together to speak to the experience of coming back to a person, place, or state of being. I have some ideas for mixed media pieces, like photo/painting amalgamations on Cadillac hoods, that I’m very excited to get into. Ideally I see my work sitting between a fine art and commercial practice, engaged in the cultural sector of music, fashion, and writing on an international scale.

LF: Do you practice a different art form or creative outlet?

CC: Yes, I do. I work as an illustrator and an art director in addition to photography, and love to paint. For me, being able to maintain different practices which inform each other allows for new processes and provides fresh perspectives as to what the other areas of my practice offer. Similarly, it prevents me from getting stuck in the same thought pattern day after day. Ultimately, I think the different sides of my work are all centered around communication of feeling or idea through visual form and each offers a different voice as to how to approach it. Music is my primary source of inspiration and self soothing, so I play a little bit and enjoy making themed mixtapes on occasion, just for shits and giggles.

LF: How FAST do you live? What role do location and travel play for you as a practitioner?

CC: Too fast, too furious. I’ve been back in the US for six months today and I’m feeling the itch to get on the road again soon. Travel and location have played monumental roles in shaping my practice and who I am as a person. The perspectives I’ve gained, the connections I’ve made, and big opportunities I’ve encountered have all been the result of getting outside of what I’m familiar with and having my eyes opened to see things from a global perspective. The photographic portion of my practice originated from a necessity to have a way to make images while traveling. Most airport security would probably frown at anyone attempting to transport the chemicals found in an oil painting setup to a plane, so I had to find an alternative. That alternative has ended up shaping my work and life in ways I would have never guessed. Immersion through in culture and learning to harness the material and communal strengths of a place is now something that I actively pay attention to and seek out. I’ve been based in East London the last few years, and tapping into the cultural depth of the UK’s print/publishing culture has greatly influenced the possibilities of how I see my work potentially taking shape. As soon as travel conduits reopen, I’m hoping to return to London as well as stopping in to Korea and China in the near future.

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