Printed Matter’s Los Angeles Art Book Fair, which ran February 24-26, was just as ripe for people watching as it was for book browsing. While the fair was obviously centered around art books, there was an underlying emphasis on style. People came to see, but also to be seen. A unisex uniform emerged from the crowd: a ribbed beanie, a denim or leather jacket tossed over a hoodie or a tucked tee, tapered bottoms (either carefully rolled or artfully chopped to reveal the perfect slice of white socks), and thrashed Vans – the epitome of laidback Los Angeles cool.
I wondered if people dressed up for the fair. Events in the art realm generally seem to encourage a form of sartorial code-switching: my former high school classmates will swap out their day-to-day Lululemon leggings for button-down suede skirts and wide brimmed hats for days at the museum. I was certainly more conscious of my clothing when I was at the fair than when I’d been getting dressed that morning or when I was walking with a friend to get Chinese food afterwards.
Perhaps it is the unsoiled starkness of gallery spaces combined with the art world’s infamous stereotype of intellectual snobbery that pressures attendees to play dress up. “Art exists in a kind of eternity of display,” Brian O’Doherty writes in his book Inside the White Cube. “This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body seems superfluous, an intrusion.” Clothing choices simultaneously become a form of armor and a means for the intrusive figure to blend in ever so slightly more with their surroundings.
It would be lazy to dismiss the longstanding ties between art, literature, and fashion. Frequently, those who revel in museums or bookstores hold a similar appreciation for a finely tailored jacket or the unusual drape of a t-shirt. I was flipping through a Daido Moriyama photobook when another fairgoer tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could snap a photo of the Issey Miyake bomber I was wearing. Formal lines between fashion and art have been smudged over the decades – Rick Owens’ furniture collection being displayed a few steps away from the LAABF at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Pacific Design Center, Helmut Lang shredding six thousand garments from his archives to create installation art, Ruby Sterling’s iconic work for Raf Simons, John Galliano’s collaboration with artist Benjamin Shine for Maison Margiela’s 2017 spring couture show, and Korean-British model Sang Woo Kim’s dual career as a working artist are just a handful of examples.
And this informal exchange between art and fashion isn’t one directional; texture, color, and drape have never been exclusive to clothing, which was readily apparent when flipping through the publications at the LAABF. Exhibitors such as MACK, which publishes work from “writers, artists, and curators,” presented publications with an undeniable eye for design. A book such as photographer Aleix Plademunt’s Almost There – with its black and white depictions of skulls, bones, caverns, snow dusted landscapes, and volcanic rocks – feels like it could be a dream mood board for the aforementioned Rick Owens. As the LAABF demonstrated, boundaries between art and fashion have and will continue to be crossed, hinting at a near future in which the distinctions between the two are rendered obsolete.
Vincent Hung’s 4’ x 6’ installation, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, presents the viewer with a screen of thirty TVs—stacked in rows of six—that flash between static, large-scale images of a building, and smaller images of young adults from a range of ethnicities and genders: a woman poses smiling hand-to-hip on a spiral staircase; a man dressed in a red t-shirt and shorts sits on sloping rocks; another man wears a black hockey jersey and pours lean; a woman in her underwear holds a yoga pose while clutching a sword across her lap; a man blocks his face with the beer he grips; another stands awkwardly on a front lawn.
The installation was conceptualized by Hung and created with the help of artists, Aurnab Saleh—who collaborated on the video and screen—and Leander Knust—who helped build the wood frame. Originally titled “The Problem That Has No Name” after the opening chapter in feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Hung decided to change the name of the instillation because he felt the implications were too negative. Instead, he chose the title of another preexisting work, Tupac Shakur’s posthumously published collection of poetry, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, which features poems that the late great rapper wrote between 1989 and 1991.
Hung’s work was inspired by the video sculptures of Korean artist, Nam June Paik. His original idea was to stack a number of CRT TVs on top of one another, but he realized the installation would be too expensive and difficult to bring to fruition, so he opted for a single screen instead. The installation also owes something to 90’s photography books like Adrienne Salinger’s In My Room: Teenagers in Their Bedrooms and the persona-based self-portraits of artists like Cindy Sherman.
The Rose That Grew From Concrete offers a subtle commentary on social media, social class, diversity, and representation. “A lot of the images that I created were based off of photos on Instagram and Facebook,” Hung told me. “I was really interested in self-representation. Nowadays, we're growing in society to have this as a norm to promote our lifestyle, and have our own stage, and have people watch and like us, and feel like we’re being watched to have our voice be heard.”
Hung grew up in Naperville, Illinois—one of the wealthiest cities in the Midwest—but did not have the type of childhood stereotypically associated with his hometown. Hung’s parents divorced after his birth and, although he lived with his mom and sister, he identified himself more with friends than his family. Hung “saw both sides of social class” and “was in a constant flux of friends from different financial standings.” Hung’s formative years appear to have given him the ability to comfortably straddle two different worlds—an important attribute for a photographer representing friends from various walks of life in a single piece of art.
Hung seems particularly fascinated with the ethics of representation, so it makes sense that artist-subject collaboration played a crucial role in the creation of The Rose That Grew From Concrete. Hung told me that “none of [the photos] are candid—they’re all staged. I would sit down with my friend and tell them my idea and give them the long story because I felt like they deserved it. If they’re going to help me with this project I would want them to understand where all this is coming from because I knew, if I took these photos, I might not be putting some of my friends in the best light.”
Part of the reason Hung may have been so open with his friends during the staging process is because of his perspective on the lack of truth in photography: “It’s crazy because images never tell the truth—like ever—but it seems like we can curate our own reality, so it’s dangerous to get caught up in it.” Yet, Hung still wanted to create “something that seemed like it was real or truthful,” which is why he chose to photograph each subject “like it’s a lifestyle portrait.”
Hung’s choices in creating The Rose That Grew From Concrete speak to the (un)reality of social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Like these platforms, Hung’s installation presents the viewer with images that are simultaneously staged performances and representations of real human beings. Hung’s subjects helped choose their settings and poses, which speaks to their interests, as well as the boundaries they are, and are not, willing to cross—a fitting metaphor for how so many of us position ourselves within social media, whether we realize it or not.
In many ways, The Rose That Grew From Concrete is a communal bildungsroman: by gathering representations of his friends within a single frame, Hung also represents himself, where he comes from, and how he sees his peers. And while wanting to show your friends to the world through your eyes is a common wish for many young artists—and young people, in general—Hung has created a piece of art that is compelling because it speaks so precisely to the blurring of truth and fiction at the present moment in time.
Stephen Eichhorn is meticulous. There is an immediate precision in the way he styles himself (when we meet, he’s wearing a black quilted Oniki Liner Jacket, dark navy Engineered Garments BDU Pants, and a pair of black Common Projects Original Achilles Low) to the way he arranges materials in his natural, yet architectural collages. Known within, and far beyond, Chicago for collage work that pulls inspiration from often obscure photos of plants, animals (especially cats), and minerals, Eichhorn has already cemented a place for himself in internet culture and numerous art worlds.
With an orchid-based show, “Nighttime Tropicals,” at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, OH and “Sedimented,” a four person exhibition at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago, currently open as well as a book from zioxla due out in the spring, Eichhorn’s work continues to gain a wider audience as it grows in both scope and size.
Stephen and I sat down at MEYVN to talk inspiration, process, internet misinformation, and even a bit of Star Wars.
Jacob Victorine: For people who aren’t familiar, I was hoping you could quickly describe your artistic process.
Stephen Eichhorn: I mainly do medium to large scale hand-cut collage. What that means in terms of scale is the work ranges from, let’s say, 18” x 24” on the small side to 6’ x 4’ in terms of piece size, and the components these things are made up of range in size from a finger to something that is about an arm’s length in terms of hand-cut components. I do a little bit of sculpture, as well, and that’s also based in this component collage process of using a lot of deadstock jewelry components from 70’s Hong Kong and some stuff from Japan. It’s a lot of floral stuff that gets negated down through either a matte acrylic coating or this dipping and coating process with graphite and matte medium varnish mix.
JV: Where do you normally pull the raw materials from for the collages?
SE: It’s a lot of source and guide books. If I’m working with orchids I’ll hunt down a lot of vintage, and some contemporary, orchid books—same with house plants: cacti, succulents, all of that. The stuff that I don’t pull from—there are some rules in the studio: no Life Magazine, no National Geographic. There is such ubiquity to all that imagery, and especially in terms of collage where you’re like, “That’s all National Geographic.” It has a certain tone, feeling, and I feel like you end up using or relying on the kind of nostalgic quality that those images have. So, in terms of my practice, this is reducing all of those images down to almost a stock quality. I tend to stay away from any artist’s book—not pulling from photographers. It’s more using this stock imagery that’s readymade and not mediating it in anyway way. Nothing gets scanned and then printed out or upsized, or anything like that. It’s kind of an homage back to collage where it’s all found, all hand-cut. The only difference is, in terms of mounting, I use dry adhesives and stuff like that, basically turning the collage components into stickers
JV: What’s the relationship between process and product for you? Is that something you think about during the making process or do you tend to let it lead you to your eventual product?
SE: It gets real cyclical in that way where the process can lead to the product in terms of this gathering of imagery and usually there’s a moment in there when there is a couple of formal aesthetic decisions like, “This piece, this individual component, is what I’m going to base this larger piece around.” Typically, that jumping off point gets lost in the larger, let’s say, arrangement. And then sometimes it’s the flip of I’ll have a specific idea in mind for a piece and then I gather all of the components for that and—despite it being shared in terms of process—it’s a different search for components and for imagery.
Primarily, especially in terms of honing of craft in terms of collage, I guess that’s where the cliché thing comes in as not wanting to transcend collage as a medium. It’s a removal of hand and then honing my craft down to cutting all these components out where there’s not that obvious collage mark-making, but also showing all of that in terms of layering. Once you’re on that piece it becomes readily apparent that, “Oh, these are all individual objects that were gathered.” That’s where, especially early on in terms of thinking about collage in a serious way, that’s what I thought about the most: “If I’m going to be serious about this, I should take it in a specific direction,” and honing that craft and almost making it like reductive drawing made sense for me.
JV: In the case when you have an idea, do you ever sketch it out or is it something you keep in your head and then, as you’re collecting the materials, let it take shape?
SE: It’s a bit of both. There are the pieces that were here [at MEYVN] for the orchid show that had the inlays—I sketched all those out then built around those, so there was this jumping off point, this mapping of the inlay, and then I went in and built the pieces around that; kind of like setting up some limitation or parameters for the work. Then other times—especially for those mirrored pieces that were here [at MEYVN], those diamonds—I laid down all the pieces and let them arrange themselves. And that’s a really redundant process in terms of like, “Lay all these pieces out, take reference photos, take everything off, make tick marks,” and stuff like that, and then usually all of that stuff shifts. It goes through so many iterations before it’s finalized. Even if I’m framing something up before an object leaves the studio I usually add in pieces as a finishing touch.
JV: In light of that, do you feel like you’re a perfectionist? Do you appreciate that space for imperfection, with things potentially shifting, or is it something that drives you crazy?
SE: It used to drive me crazy and now it’s something I let go of in terms of process. It gets so tight with the cutting out of all these materials that that’s where that compulsion happens. Even the making process can fulfill that same need in terms of making, not the same thing over and over again, but working in seriality that can then lapse into something else. Those mistakes can happen and then shift onto the next piece and let that thing grow as opposed to stifle it and keep it perfect.
JV: It’s interesting that you bring up seriality because I was going to ask you about that. Do you feel that you generally work in series—for example, “Floral Burst”—and when you do create series, how do the pieces communicate with one another?
SE: It’s usually whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment. In the past, it’s been driven by hunting down imagery. I started with the more abstract foliage, then gathering up all the imagery led to the floral stuff and these leaf pieces, which led to finding a lot of orchid imagery; then I went real deep into that, the sort of cult around orchids and cultivating orchids—what it means to different cultures. Then I started doing these cat collages as a sort of joke in the studio and part of that was born out of the cat imagery, but I was also gathering up a lot of cacti and succulent imagery and for some reason it made sense to combine those. There was a moment when I was like, “These would be hilarious together!” That was purely based off the cat photography that’s its own thing. Then all the cat pieces led to working with cacti and succulents and even those have transitioned to just cacti, just succulents, just air plants. Usually, when I go down the rabbit hold of something it’ll split off to, “Oh, air plants are really awesome,” and I’ll want to hunt down all this imagery.
Recently, and part of it was due to the MEYVN show, the orchids came back into the fold, which then led to this conservatory show that just opened. When we first started talking I was like, “I have all this work from MEYVN—let’s shape a whole show around that,” which got me working with a horticulture staff and starting to make live, actual objects based off the collages, which is the flip of making these collages based off of live things.
JV: It seems like meta collage.
SE: In terms of a dialogue, it all exists in the studio, typically, at the same time. There was all this rock and mineral stuff, as well, that was born out of cutting out cacti and succulents and there would usually be some rocks in the image and I would set them aside. It would just be this gathering until I knew what do it with it. There’s this box in the studio full of mushrooms, mushroom cut pieces from four or five years. Possibly, it’s going to just exist in this box. It may never be anything other than these loose components. There’s a box of loose flowers that are the same. I’m not making these floral bursts anymore, but there’s still that urge to cut some of that stuff out.
[The show] will be interesting. There’ll be this mirror diamond piece similar to what you had [at MEYVN] alongside these cat and plant stand-ups that are like one-to-one cat size with collaged pieces. I’ve never shown that really formal object with this informal thing. It’s at a museum and they were like, “Both of these things are perfect together!” I don’t think I would have ever put them in the same room, but it’ll be interesting to see that forced formal dialogue happen. Even producing the cat stand-ups I couldn’t have them made for me—like those crappy movie stand-up cut-outs were never right—so I thought, “I can just do this myself.” So all of those are hand-made, actual collage, hand foam stand-ups. I can’t escape having my hand touch any of that stuff. That’ll be a nice nod back and forth, but it’ll be weird outside of the studio to have that stuff exist.
JV: A lot of your collages fixate on the natural world and I’m wondering where the fascination comes from.
SE: First it came from this kind of really formal mirroring of natural components and manmade components—a kind of natural architecture and then abstracting that. Part of that came from, in terms of school, I studied drawing, sculpture, and any sort of academic focus was in architecture. Coming out of that and messing around with collage in the studio, for some reason those components made sense: using these kinds of natural things and natural forms.
Since then some of the orchid pieces, some of those forms are based off of ritual and death rites. Some of the earlier pieces are based off of these floral wreath headpieces that were funerary or that nuns, or I guess pre-nuns, would wear before becoming nuns.
At this point, the imagery drives the next thing. Other than having this stack of material, the jumping off point for the rocks and minerals was thinking about pattern and abstract painting and seeing that in these natural forms. But then once I started making those, anything natural about them left the inner dialogue for me and became about these large, expansive—I think about them as voids—terrazzo-like surfaces. I’ve talked about them being the closest thing I’m going to get to abstract painting: just these fields of undulation.
JV: Do you feel like you’re developing your own visual language?
SE: For sure. It’s been interesting. There are some repeater forms that happen. They’re almost based off an asterisk in terms of the cacti and even the orchids, which started out with draping and almost garments. Then in terms of tightening stuff up with cacti and succulents there are axis points that these things grow and drape out of. A lot of the visual language grows out of the studio rules and ways of making.
JV: I did a little deep diving on the internet and you’re from South Carolina, right?
SE: No. I’m actually from Lenoir, North Carolina in the Blue Ridge foothills. It’s in the mountains.
JV: I guess some people have gotten it wrong on the internet and then it’s proliferated, so I’m glad we can clear that up.
SE: Either way I’ve corrected it.
JV: NORTH CAROLINA will be in big block letters. Do you feel like that has played a role in the imagery that you use? Did you find yourself in nature a lot?
SE: There definitely is a connection there. I was born in North Carolina and then we moved to Dayton, Ohio when I was six or seven. Some of that imagery is actually born out of—my dad is a Lutheran minister, actually a retired Lutheran minister—growing up in the church and within religious imagery and finding a lot of the formalism really interesting. Even with the orchid pieces it’s like a Dutch Master still-life that has a religious reverence to it. So some of that is born out of growing up being outside in nature, but then there is this other context for all of that, if anything, shapes the abstracted forms: some of the stacking and floating shapes harken back to church days.
JV: I can see how they allude to shrines.
SE: It was really interesting, when we made these live orchid pieces for the Columbus show one of the emphases was the conservatory wanted to make one of the spaces more shrine-like because we made one that was large and floating. So even the approach: you’re coming up steps and the thing is framed and there’s this quiet moment with this almost chaotic figure. Especially with the shaping of the most recent show that’s all orchids with then the live orchid component, that really went into a shrine—amassing of objects when people leave things or light candles—when it takes on this other form. That kind of side of the collage process making I’ve started to pay attention to more and think about in a more critical way in terms of how these things formally get made.
JV: Do you feel like there’s a spiritual component in the process of making, as well?
SE: It’s very meditative. It’s a very relaxing. I can cut tiny orchids out for eight to twelve hours a day. It’s something that somehow has never gotten old and that goes with any of those forms. I can just cut and cut and reduce this information down and it’s exceedingly relaxing, so I could say that taking on that meditative, repeating, spiritual side.
JV: Again, according to the internet, you interned with some Star Wars toymakers when you were a teenager? Is that correct?
SE: That was maybe eighth grade, ninth grade. For a couple summers I was an unpaid intern at this small office in Cincinnati, Ohio—my grandmother’s from there. I think I got a tour of their office and that’s what led to the internship. I was just like at the end, “Is there any way I could come hang out here like once a week all summer? I’ll come clean up!” And for some reason they said, “Yeah.” The office was the three original engineers who helped come up with all of the Star Wars original action figures. They worked for Kenner, which is based in Cincinnati, and then they opened up their own office. It was really odd, funny. Their office space was in a two-flat and that’s sort of how I set up my house in terms of the first floor being all studio space and the second floor being domestic. They had the run of the house with a spray booth and messy stuff in the basement, drafting tables by the bay windows. I have not really thought about those two things, one thing shaping the other, until now.
The first day I worked there a filing cabinet fell on me and I didn’t tell anyone, since I was so embarrassed. I was maybe twelve or thirteen and I had done a lot of mechanical drafting, so the second week I was there they had me finish up drafts for this giant play set and it was one of the most intimidating things ever because they were like, “Finish this up because it needs to go to Hong Kong tomorrow.” It blew my mind and from there they taught me quite a bit about drawing and seeing. I took them quite literally when they said to learn how to draw a straight line and to be able to freehand certain things and take something 2D and think about it on all sides, and breaking down visual information in that way, kind of like an engineer. Cause I don’t think any of them had gone to art school. And that had been my decision in terms of, “I want to do this,” since I was three or four. Whenever I’ve had conversations with adults, this has been it, so having them shape some of that is pretty amazing, apart from also being a nerdy Star Wars fan.
JV: I was going to ask about that. Are you familiar with how a lot of the set design and costumes are made for the original Star Wars, in terms of pulling from junk piles?
SE: Yeah, yeah.
Have you ever thought about that in terms of your own artwork? It may be a coincidence, but I think it’s an interesting connection that you had these years working with these Star Wars action figures whose costumes are based off of these preexisting raw materials and that’s now how it seems much of your process takes place.
SE: So the way that they’d mock up some action figures—and of the Star Wars stuff that I had anything to do with was helping with some colorways for Episode I - The Phantom Menace—was cutting up preexisting pieces and using those components, so in that way that definitely makes sense. As well as, I spent hours—years—combing over all those set drawings and paintings, and then even going to flea markets and hunting down all of those vintage toys and that kind of active gathering and colleting, but more in a, “These things are toys,” not “These things are collectible items. They go on a shelf and just sit.” If anything, it’s that collector mentality and the patience that is inherent to it. But it also has this sort of immediacy to it where you are waiting on that thing, but you’re always moving onto the next thing. You’re never done. There’s never a, “The collection is complete,” moment. There’s always something else and that’s kind of how it’s been in the studio, especially with once I find a lot of repeater stuff I’ll hunt down imagery, which is what happened with the cacti and succulent stuff; just finding a lot of US stock imagery, and I started hunting down books from Japan, just to get different photography and that opened quite a few doors in terms of collage component avenues.
JV: You went to SAIC, right? Who were some faculty members and classmates that influenced your artistic development and how so?
I didn’t do any collage work—that was maybe the first year out of school in terms of setting up a studio. If anything, it was a honing of craft and figuring out what I do want to do and what I don’t want to do. At I certain point, I thought I wanted to go into architecture and almost made that leap. If anything, it’s been dialogue with artists post-school and the people who are still around here in Chicago. The Creatures of the Wind guys were SAIC—they live in New York now—and I’m really good friends with Cody [Hudson]; we talk about different projects and executing different ideas.
JV: Did you have a particular moment when you decided to try collage? Did it feel right immediately? Did you have an epiphany? Did it happen right after you graduated?
SE: I’d been talking to this architect in San Diego who’d been making these really large landscape collages—they were really interesting—and that piqued my interest in terms of this process. Also, throughout school I’d been friends with painters and either they’d sketch stuff up for a painting or they’d make a collage and then paint that collage, and typically the collage was better than the painting. All of those really great gestures and decisions were made already, and then reducing all of that you lose spontaneity. That also piqued my interest in terms of, “This is really cool. Why aren’t’ you taking this thing seriously that you’re basing this formal work off of?”
In setting up studio practice, I was drawing a lot and then I had a lot of National Geographics that came with the studio—our studio space had been an architecture firm and they left behind a bunch of National Geographics and I got 500 off of Craigslist—and I just went through, cut a bunch of stuff out, and made several collages just as this informal whatever—similar to the cat collages—[and thought], “This sounds fun. This doesn’t have to be for anybody but me.” And, from there, had some curator studio visits where they were like, “What’s going on with this? Have you thought about taking this seriously?” I showed a couple of those collages and that shifted things dramatically for me where I thought, “This is really interesting for me.” After researching the history of collage I thought, “I didn’t want to do this, but how can I exist in the collage world without making another collage?” When you picture collage, it’s definitely not what I do—for better or worse—and that removal of hand, showing of hand thing, has been an interesting component. Within the past couple years, I’ve really been trying to tighten all of that craft wise.
JV: Are there particular collages you look toward or do you feel like you’ve developed your process enough that you’re moving in your own direction?
SE: What made me want to get a hell of a lot more compulsive with how I excise everything is I was looking at Mary Delany’s collages from the 1700’s. I wouldn’t say the first collage artist, but she’s definitely up there and what she was doing was painting paper and then cutting out all of the components of a plant and assembling them like a flattened flower. And she was late in life when she was doing this—she was in her 70’s or 80’s and made hundreds of collages—and the detail captured through this process of dissecting plants and reassembling them through collage was pretty amazing. Looking at her work and her process shifted things in terms of my practice, in terms of tightening—I know I’ve used this word a lot—and in terms of honing.
Indigo is a dyestuff vibrant in both hue and history. Extracted from the Indigofera genus of flowering plants, indigo has been used to dye fabric for over 6,000 years. From ancient Peruvian, Egyptian, and Indian civilizations to modern day Nigeria, America, and Japan, indigo carries a near endless number of complex, intertwining, and sometimes violent stories, which may be the very reason so many current designers, brands, and consumers have fallen in love with it (whether they're aware of the social, political, and historical meanings that permeate the dye or not).
In the era of Facebook, Instagram, and Tinder, when so many individuals are concerned with shaping their personal brand and so many brands are concerned with shaping their personal story, indigo seems to infuse garments with a level of authenticity that is difficult to fake. Used to dye work garments in the Americas and Japan, among other places, for hundreds of years, indigo implies a beautiful ruggedness that may be best defined by the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi.
Yet, these days, just as many jeans are factory faded to mimic years of real wear, most indigo garments are colored using the dyestuff’s synthetic form. Created by chemist Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer in 1880 and turned into a commercially viable dyestuff by 1897, synthetic indigo almost completely replaced natural (plant-derived) indigo by 1913. Does this make synthetically dyed garments less authentic than naturally dyed ones? The answer may depend not only on an individual’s interpretation of authenticity, but on who is doing the dyeing and how the dyeing is done.
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A Jewish man in Chicago writing about – and often as – people who have set themselves alight in Tibet, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Tunisia seems inherently voyeuristic. Yet Jacob Victorine’s first book of poetry, Flammable Matter, is anything but. Victorine does not creep around his subject matter. His poems, stripped of both superfluity and vulgarity, probe unforgivingly into social unrest and political conflict, spanning cases of self-immolation abroad and as close to home as Chicago, as well as September 11 and the Vietnam War.
Flammable Matter grew from a single poem, “Morocco,” that Victorine wrote for an appropriation craft seminar he took while working toward his MFA in Poetry at Columbia College Chicago. Instructed to pull language and narrative from the news, Victorine immediately knew he wanted to work with a lesser known story. “I came upon an article dealing with protesters in Morocco,” he said. “There was a protest at government headquarters and police were refusing to allow food to be passed on to protesters and one man, in protest, lit himself on fire. He self-immolated. Something just kind of clicked for me, this idea of someone lighting themselves on fire as a sacrifice, as giving up their body for a greater cause.”
As Flammable Matter evolved from a poem to a final project to a senior thesis and ultimately into his first book, Victorine continued to utilize documentary poetry. “It allows me to be my political self and my personal, vulnerable self,” he said. By sourcing and adapting material from news stories, interviews with loved ones, official statements, and social media, Victorine offers a platform for messages to continue being broadcasted, long after their speakers have been muffled by either government or by flame.
It is difficult to disentangle Victorine’s political self from his poetry. His first foray into poetry was through the lens of conscious hip hop, which he grew up listening to. Victorine recalls watching HBO’s Def Poetry, a television show highlighting spoken word that was hosted by Mos Def, Victorine’s favorite emcee who is known for his social activism.
“I was too self-conscious to rap because I was – less aware than I am now – but on some level aware of my whiteness in relation to my connection to hip hop culture and the way I dressed,” Victorine said. “I do think New York City is interesting because things are more muddled between what’s hip hop culture, what’s black culture, what’s New York culture or Brooklyn culture or Bronx culture. But I think I was aware of that. I was very, very hesitant and ended up taking a poetry class my senior year of high school with a really wonderful teacher. She focused a lot on slam and that was my entrance into poetry.”
Victorine fell into poetry during a period of self-discovery, when he was experimenting with his personal style, growing out his hair, and had pierced his ears. “I was attempting to grow out of myself / into myself,” Victorine said. “I was becoming more aware of who I was and even the body as a public entity. Poetry gave me a way to deal with that.”
As the medium became a constant in his life, Victorine’s poetry has evolved to reflect his personhood. Much like his demeanor and his way of dress, his writing is subtle, his words careful and measured. Writing Flammable Matter also offered an outlet for Victorine to reconcile with his own history. “At the time I didn’t know it, but I think there are all these connections that I saw that then surfaced in the poems,” he said. The multi-part poem “The Helicopter Concerto Makes One Sound” delves into his father’s experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Numerous pieces reference September 11: Victorine, who grew up in New York City’s Upper West Side, attended a high school near the World Trade Center. While he was absent on September 11, Victorine recalls seeing planes crashing and people leaping, and returned to find dust from the aftermath still lingering in the air of his classroom.
Yet, just as Flammable Matter is rooted in introspection and connection, distance and disassociation threads through the pages. One unnamed poem composed of various anonymous quotes runs through the course of the book; as the reader progresses forward, new lines are added as previous lines fade into the page. Victorine reveals that these are poeticized appropriations of comments on news articles that he came across while researching. Some comments attempt to be understanding, others are crass and critical of the deceased. “I saw people in the comment threads who would crack jokes,” Victorine said. “Really awful things that I think represent the ways people subconsciously disconnect themselves from violence, or poverty, or racism, or really anything that’s disturbing, as a way to insulate and protect themselves.”
Victorine’s empathetic approach to his poetry and his frank openness about his familial background serve as the foundation for Flammable Matter. “I think the book would be far less interesting and impactful if the poems didn’t also look at myself and bring into question, and acknowledge, the distance,” Victorine said. “By writing into myself, I was also able to write outward.” Flammable Matter holds up a mirror, urging its readers to be vulnerable, to confront their own complacency, and to draw parallels in experience across physical and cultural divides.
Jacob Victorine was born and raised in New York City. He earned his MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago, where he is a part-time instructor in the Creative Writing Department. He is also the manager at MEYVN, a menswear boutique in Chicago’s Logan Square. Flammable Matter is available for purchase on Small Press Distribution and Amazon. More information about the author can be found on his website.
Text by Leslie Zhang. Photography by Todd Diederich.
Shop New Arrivals for the pieces Jacob is wearing
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