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An Interview with Joseph Lappie

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 22, 2008 8:30PM

TheGather.jpgIn addition to running a printing press, participating in the Allegoric Space collaborative project and earning his MFA in the Book and Paper Arts, Chicagoan Joseph Lappie also produces straight-up paintings and drawings. Tonight Lappie's Before There Was Us And Them There Was We, a solo show, opens at Bucktown's the Believe Inn (2043 N. Winchester) from 6 to 10 p.m. The show is a collection of new drawings, prints and paintings that focus on relationships between the self and others, communicative constipation in word and deed, and other themes. "What's this about constipation?" You ask. Read on.

Chicagoist: What sort of things will we see in this new show?

Joseph Lappie: This show is a bit of a break from what I have been doing for the past few years. Lately I’ve incorporating text and multi-media/installation style work together with traditional visual work, creating three-dimensional prints and artist’s books. This show is focused more on straight 2d visual art. It’s predominantly new material: Three large drawings on handmade paper and placed on Masonite cutouts, a couple of new relief prints, a few old prints, a couple of new paintings, one new book, a couple of old books, some little army people…and I think that’s about it.

Chicagoist: Where did you learn to draw, and when?

JL: The easy answer is that I have been drawing since I was a young boy. I distinctly recall hours spent tracing comic books at home, sea battles doodled at church, and new G.I. Joe designs penciled during class. This went on in one form or another all throughout elementary and high school.

The rub is that I wasn’t very good at it. Sure, I made lines, and those lines vaguely resembled my intentions, but inevitably I was always unhappy with the results. One could argue that I was just a kid, and that learning to be interested in making the mark is the important first step -- and refining comes later (which I do believe to be true). But it took a long time before I could competently draw (well past undergraduate schooling), and there are still days when I am racked with self-doubt. Instead of letting this feeling wear me down, I’ve made it one of my strongest reasons for continuing to create art.

I’m at a point now where I feel confident about my “style” and my work in general, but all of the final results come through hours, days and weeks of first drawing crap. It makes me a better artist if I occasionally fail. I don’t need to get it on the first go-around. It forces me to grow and continue to evaluate my skills.

What I mean is that I am still actively learning.

C: Can you tell us more about "communicative constipation"? Has the concept changed as you have developed your work?

JL: Communicative constipation is the inability to either internally or externally realize one’s emotional expressiveness. It’s a figurative clogging-up of excessive feelings. You cannot emote to others, which then leads to stressed relationships. The lack of healthy expression causes inner confusion, so that you eventually don’t know what you yourself feel. Or worse, you do know what you feel, and have forgotten how to let it out. You become a gray person.

It is not a lack of relation -- there’s still empathy, still anger, and even understanding inside. It just has some trouble being set free.

The concept has changed. I’ve been working around it for about five years. In the beginning it was more about the external communicative qualities and less about the internalized, unaware, but very present emotion that it is becoming. There has also been a substantial development in the visualization of how it is shown. Some of my early etchings just have weird expulsion coming from the facial orifices of figures. That is still a big part of how I interpret the idea, but now different expulsions mean different things: aloofness, identity dissipation, determination, etc. The animal heads are also symbolic of the “true” personality, or more specifically, a dominant “truth” to a personality.

C: What are some of your main sources of inspiration?

JL: Comparative mythology is a major source of inspiration. I’ve spent the past several years researching the works of Joseph Campbell and Sir James George Frazer -- studies on humanity’s development of faith, religion and community. Jung’s theories on archetypes and the perceived categorization of people is another. I’m not a spiritual man, but I often wonder about the connectivity of life, how we can sometimes be or feel so alone and at the same time be so very present. Space, science, psychology, individual morality and ethics all play a part in the development of my work.

I’m a person watcher, so seeing how people hold themselves, and carry their weight (both physical and emotional), is a visual source of inspiration. Artistically I draw from the early 20th century Austrian expressionists, from comic books and vintage photography, and from illustrations of fairy tales. I guess I also look at a lot of animal heads.

C: How did you come to settle on animal-people as a subject?

JL: It started with a fascination for mythology and storytelling. Every myth, and nearly every religion, has some form of human/animal amalgamation. Gods and goddesses can turn into animals; shamans and witches keep familiars. Animals in all cultures have been imbued with characteristics that define human personality. It’s our attempt to make sense of it all and to justify some of our “animalistic” actions.

It’s also a scheme that is used by tens of thousands of people over the course of tens of thousands of years. I’m not claiming to be the innovator of animal heads plopped onto human bodies. So if I am going to make them, I should have a reason, right? It is imperative for me to develop a personal mythology regarding these ideas. Each animal does develop a specific meaning or personality that plays an important role in my art. When present, they represent the most dominant, but perhaps hidden, trait in my characters, or sometimes their assumed archetype. It’s a way to let them be mine, to own my thoughts.

C: Do you draw certain types of animals with personality types or historical eras in mind? Do you have a background in cartooning?

JL: I don’t think about historical eras too much. I typically try to keep the men in suits and the women in non-descriptive dresses to minimize the time placement. It is an attempt to focus more on the emotional struggle (one that is timeless and omnipresent) and less on the commentary of a particular decade.

Other than reading comic books I have no background in cartooning. (I think that means I have none.) There is a lot to learn from the genre: narrative, fundamental properties of design, development of quick one-liners, but it is not something I am really interested in pursuing at this moment.

C: Tell us about Peptic Robot Press.

JL: Peptic Robot Press had its first book in the Spring of 2003. It was a little handmade artist’s book in an edition of 25 called I’ll Never Be John Wayne. Even though I managed to sell the entire edition, it still holds the title for “worst thing to come out of the Press." Since then I have published eight books, produced a brief broadside series with Powell’s Books here in Chicago, developed a line of blank books and completed half a dozen design jobs under the name.

C: What are some of the major projects it's produced?

JL: I think I can emphatically say that none of my projects can be deemed MAJOR accomplishments, at least to anyone other then myself. One book that I completed last year -- The Articifer Arisen, The Articifer Fallen -- has garnered a small amount of praise both nationally and internationally and is actively being placed into collections and collectors' hands across the world. It recently was in Seoul, Frankfurt and Marseille, which means it is much more traveled then I am. I like to make a big deal out of it, but it is still just a small, personal beginning.

C: What are your goals for the press over the next year?

JL: There is a lot of activity occurring within Peptic Robot Press in the next year. I am in the middle of creating the ninth book – a collaboration with New York poet Steven Karl called State(s) of Flux. Shortly after this is published I’ll begin a broadside series with Hobart: Another Literary Journal. Most excitedly, for me, is the development of my next artist’s book, The Antediluvian. I’m in the process of fleshing out the content and will soon begin making paper for it. Hopefully it will be completed by the end of 2009.

Currently I’m working on an letter-pressed artist’s book told in 12 parts that is sent monthly (or recently bi-monthly) via mail to subscribers. At the end of the twelfth month they will receive instructions on how to bind the book. The idea came after reading that some of Charles Dickens' literature was originally produced as serialized novels. It allows me to change the direction based on viewers' reactions and my own personal whims. I’ve sent out three months (six pages) already, with two more months in the wings.

Fellow artist Brandon Graham and I created a collaborative press called Chimera Press about a year and a half ago. The rule is that it can only be used when two or more artists create a book together. Last year we made an offset book entitled God’s Country, and are now in the middle of creating the second book from the Press. God’s Country is a textual artist’s book, and so we are moving in the opposite direction and focusing on a significant visual narrative.

C: What is your involvement in Allegoric?

JL: My involvement with Allegoric is a pretty simple one. They put their faith in me to create quality work that they are willing to showcase in galleries and at art fairs and I put my faith in them to do the best job they can do and champion me as much as possible. I’m very grateful for Allegoric Spaces and think they are doing a wonderful job of coupling established artists with emerging talents. They are a supportive and conscientious non-gallery.

C: You're also involved in the You Are Beautiful projects. Tell us more about that.

JL: You Are Beautiful is a revolutionary, non-profit anonymous collective that has spent well over half a decade displaying an honest, non-superficial phrase that is all-too-often absent (or distorted) in contemporary society. I fully support its existence as well as its continuation and longevity. I think that is as exact as I can be.