Her Gypsum Cliffs, Her Marble Quarries: An Interview with Altman Studeny

About a year ago, I had my first encounter with Altman Studeny. It was at a live recording of the Rock Garden Tour, where Altman was a guest on the show. The topic? Jell-O. As Altman enthusiastically explained the role Jell-O played in shaping midwestern culture, I knew that I needed to be this guy's friend. 

It's hard not to be drawn to Altman. His seemingly infinite wealth of knowledge about the midwest, ranging from Jell-O salad to the Corn Palace, combined with his innate ability to tell a story, will leave you hanging on his every word. Altman has a love for South Dakota unlike anyone I've ever known and after meeting him, I can't help but walk away feeling a bit more love for my home state, if only for the fact that Altman Studeny is a part of it. 

Since meeting Altman, I've come to learn a lot more about him. For instance, he is an incredibly talented artist, community builder, and champion of rural South Dakota. And as it turns out, his gift of storytelling isn't exclusively verbal. His art is equally compelling, each piece with its own rich history.

During the month of November, Altman had a solo show at Exposure Gallery and Studios, so I thought, what better topic to write about than a behind-the-scenes look into Altman's work?

I sat down with Altman to learn more about his show, Her Gypsum Cliffs, Her Marble Quarries, and how it came to be. 

Tell me about your pieces in Her Gypsum Cliffs, Her Marble Quarries.
Most of my work has come out of returning to South Dakota after completing my MFA in Maine and trying to put into place what the role of art making in a rural area would be. 

How did you come up with this subject matter?
My biggest inspirations are the people and things I encounter on the road doing various projects with the South Dakota Arts Council. Like, stories somebody tells me, which are often just collections of half-facts dropped into conversations that happen in places like Gettysburg, [SD] and maybe I’ll research the pertinent details a little bit, but never so much as to actually find out whether the story is true or not.

"The Corps of Discovery Encounters a Band of Adolescent Megatherium on its Passage of the American West" Acrylic on lithograph

"The Corps of Discovery Encounters a Band of Adolescent Megatherium on its Passage of the American West"
Acrylic on lithograph

[My painting] The Corps of Discovery Encounters a Band of Adolescent Megatherium on its Passage Through the American West came from something I swear I read once but can’t seem to remember where or ever confirm. What I had heard was that that President Jefferson brought Lewis and Clark to D.C. to talk with researchers at the Smithsonian out of fear that, the further West the expedition got, it might be possible to run into Cenozoic megafauna. Which is to say: the country’s best biologists thought there would be saber-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths just roaming around out here, and also wanted to pass along their best advice as to just what to do if you crossed a group of such things. 

I think what interests me the most about that story is that, just 200 years ago, this area was so undeveloped and unexplored that it wasn’t crazy to think that there could be pre-historic creatures living here. And, I especially like the implication that, as development happens, big, strange things get pushed further and further into the wild. A little bit of that might still be at play in a really rural place. 

"Postcard Series" Acrylic on panel

"Postcard Series"
Acrylic on panel

Such an idea touches on what it would be like to go wild again: trying to understand what the wilderness is and what being our place in it means. That’s something that I got interested in towards the end of grad school when I knew I wanted to come home again. There is a story of culture that the things that matter are made in cities or on the coasts. So, in thinking about being an artist in a rural place, what does it signify to step out of that story and identify as an artist and attempt the interactions an artist would in a place where culture isn’t supposed to be made? Really, contemporary culture is evolving everywhere all of the time, but it’s just that this particular place is one that usually gets overlooked as one with a voice that matters. 

Exposure has done solo shows before, but those were usually a single body of work and this was several bodies of work. What is the common theme that connects them?
I see them all as addressing the practice of living in a rural place by looking with new eyes at experiences that might seem pretty fully mined after so many years of being around them. Exploring the local culture where I am takes different forms depending on what I want to accomplish or communicate. The text pieces with the photos (Hawk, Al’s 1-90, Fish Lake) are all documenting explorations around my home in Plankinton where I’ve spent most of my life.

"Hawks in November" and "At Al's I-90"

"Hawks in November" and "At Al's I-90"

What made you choose those topics?
Al’s I-90 was a pretty iconic cafe in Plankinton and when you are growing up in a place, you don’t often think about what a thing really is because there are a set of assumptions that come with it automatically. What I wanted to do in these scenarios was attempt to experience them in a new way just for my own satisfaction and mental health. Instead of going to Al’s for a quick breakfast, what if you just sat there all day long?

That’s what I wanted to try: just siting in the same booth for fourteen hours and staying curious about what might happen. I started as soon as the door was opened and stayed all day until it locked and the piece is called All Damn Day at Al’s after a phrase that used to be common in Plank. If one were a non-contributor, didn’t have anything to offer besides sitting around and complaining, people would say, “oh, they just sit all damn day at Al’s.” I thought it would be funny to see if one really could make something doing nothing more than sitting in this much maligned fashion. And, by noon, a quarter of the town’s population came in. I had an interaction with 25% of an entire town, which is something that can only happen in a small town like Plankinton.

Did they know you were doing this?
No, not really. I just picked a booth and kept nursing my coffee in it while folks came in and out. I brought things to read and to do while I was there assuming I would get bored at some point, but that didn’t happen. I was never alone! There was a really great moment, too, when some of those long-time “all damn day at Al’s” guys on their third and fourth trips of the day began to realize that I hadn’t changed my seat. That was a nice, unexpected direction for the interaction to take, because I’m sure they had never before been aware of how unnatural not passing through a space made for short stops really looks.

How did you decide to represent that experience in this piece?
I’m really interested in art projects that don’t result in physical objects. In grad school, I performed a lot of interaction-based work that was about looking for and finding things in the street: setting the rules about how I would engage with a space or just “weirding” the world around me. And what struck me about those weirding experiences is that you can’t turn them into an art object that goes into a gallery without really losing something vital in the translation. There seemed to be some power in that, so, with the hawk pieces, I knew from the very beginning that what they needed to be was words and some sort of stock photo image of a hawk: as neutral as possible, almost bland. I wanted it to be clear that a processed object, a thing, can never contain the totality of a first-hand experience. 

By the same token, I want that gap between object and experience to draw attention to things in this region that are often overlooked. “If I’ve been not seeing this many hawks all along, what else have I missed?” A friend of mine in grad school had a phrase: “art is what makes life more interesting than art.”  It stuck with me as a good rule for keeping my ego in check and helping me to remember the the ultimate goal is always to communicate how the things surrounding us here in South Dakota can be interesting, too. 

"Our Daily Bread 1 & 2" & "Jell-O Study (Raspberry Royale" Acrylic on lithograph

"Our Daily Bread 1 & 2" & "Jell-O Study (Raspberry Royale"
Acrylic on lithograph

Why did you choose to use religious imagery in so much of your work?
I grew up Catholic, was an unreasonably pious altar boy and for a little while really seriously considered becoming a priest or a monk, which means that I have years and years of what these symbols mean and how to perform their accompanying rites and rituals just stuck up there in my brain. So, some of the paintings which couple religious imagery with, say, Jell-O are a way for me to put into place what it is about these stories that actually matter to me as someone who now has very little functional use for them.

How does Jell-O fit into that narrative?
Well, the other element I’m trying to engage is a little convoluted Catholicism, but I think an act like making a Jell-O salad performed in the right way can be like a secular sacrament. That’s certainly the subtext of mourning food, which also really fascinates me. When someone dies in a small community, everyone brings heaps of things to eat over to their family’s house. That’s a truly great tradition with a definite religious component to it since, when people make something to ease your suffering, a lot of purposefulness gets funneled into it: “These people need my help now because they are grieving, and I can help them best by making them some cookies and buying them some cheese.” I think that such a practice of living with intent could be applied to many things, but I just happen to be really interested in the way that Midwestern food culture can represent that right now. The only background I have is my own, and when I think about casseroles, I think about the Catholic Youth Organization potlucks where both of those things came together. They’re stuck in my mind that way, so, why not paint Mary Magdalene bringing a casserole to the foot of the cross?

The exhibit include a site-specific installation. What made you decide to create this environment for your show?
I hope it makes a viewer ask some questions about the way we interact with art compared to other things we don’t think of or treat in that way: "Are these things that I can touch?" ”Is this supposed to be like my grandmother's house?" And, then, “what does it mean to bring a grandmother’s house into a gallery space?” I get used to seeing these things, paintings I’m working on and patches from Reptile Gardens and calendars commemorating the fifth birthday of the Fisher Quints, all together in my apartment and I’m most comfortable in that space, so I guess I have very little discernment about one type of visual stimulation having more value than the other. I want people to be able to walk into the gallery and have some symbols there to help them read the work on the walls. Each piece fits into a framework of visual culture: interesting stuff that has special, deeper purpose when seen relation to other interesting stuff. 

Everything in my grandparents house, souvenir-wise and tchotchke-wise, was in a case for people to see. Those cases gave me a framework for attributing value, because even though most of what was in my grandmother’s china closet couldn’t have been worth less, those Kewpie dolls and souvenir spoons were given a place of prominence. Their value existed outside how much they cost or how much they could be sold for.

I love the idea of seeing something and not knowing what it was, but knowing that it had to matter. The idea of something slipping into history. What does a thing that matters have? You just know it when you see it.