The work of multimedia artist Mark Creegan celebrates identity crises. A painting is forgone. Instead, Creegan chooses to exalt the paintbrush in 3D assemblage. The overall effect challenges both perception and insight, triggered through neon drips and a tower of colorful hair combs. Creegan’s installations might feature mazes of zig-zagged graph-paper, a site visit into a deranged map.
At first glance, Creegan’s work can appear whimsical. Which isn’t a description he’d repel. But a second look reveals his exploration of the identity of material, name and form, temporality and impermanence, even the pliancy and permissiveness of visual art. What is exactly “allowed” into the gallery space? Creegan explores this same aesthetic, in different capacities, through song and performance. Creegan is a longtime educator at FSCJ Kent Campus, where he and fellow artist-educator Dustin Harewood also curate shows at the campus gallery. Creegan is also one of the funniest artists this city boasts as a resident.
Void blasted Creegan with questions; he lovingly returned with a volley of answers. Here’s the field report:
Let me kick off with a question it took me two years to eventually ask any artist: How would you describe your art?
I’d say it’s all kind of an art-nerdy, waggish, hodge-podge of paintings, sculpture, installation, and performance. I use a lot of objects in my work like combs or tennis racquets. And color, texture, and shapes all seem to predominate. It’s awkward like me. It’s confident yet uncertain like me. Overall, I hope it comes off as delightful but in a cheeky way.
Has the past year and the big pandemic-pillow-party directly influenced what you’ve been creating during that time; or not at all?
Not really. I love making art but I don’t love being an artist so it’s been nice not feeling the pressure to have and go to shows this past year. Really I should say “openings”. Having and going to shows is wonderful, but the receptions not so much for me.
Tell me about the You Were There project at Wiley Park where you collaborated with Dustin Harewood. What brought that about?
Dustin and I have been playing tennis at that park for over a year. We hit balls and talk shop about art and teaching almost every Friday. That “show” came about from wanting to see how art hung in that space. It seemed like a natural thing to do plus we were shown the great example of Roosevelt Watson and Shawana Brooks’ 6 Ft. Away Gallery. There is an art podcast from Chicago called Bad at Sports. I’m pretty good at sports. Good at tennis at least. But the experiment continues with the wizard Chaz Back. We are setting some art tours at various tennis court sites in town. You’ll see some great local art on tennis court fences. Check out the ACE Tours Facebook page for more deets!
I still want to immediately tag you as a “process-based” artist but I don’t think you are, at least in the purist sense: a kind of hyper-materialist. Your work does seem to celebrate a kind of hyper-inspection of the material, the fundamentals of substances, but not how the piece is made via process.
Yeah, I think that’s a good distinction because I don’t mind the process being revealed but it’s not the main thing. Mostly, I collaborate with materials in making stuff that seem logical yet absurd. Some examples include sticking shark’s teeth into a wall, stretching hairnets over a grid of nails, or arranging combs alongside bathmats. I find more often than not that if I let the objects do what they want to do they speak for themselves. They offer the most interesting moments if I keep things uncomplicated but it is hard not to do that.
I remain interested in why, say, hairnets will be heavily explored and used in your art while hair pins are not. Is your criteria based on a fascination with the tactile as well as visual qualities of something?
Yes, the tactile and visual but also the associative contextual aspect of the object is important. Hairnets are more interesting than hairpins for all these reasons. Layering stretched-out hairnets creates wild op-art effects but the fact that I remember the nice lady who made sure I had a good lunch each day in school wore one is also important. Hairnets are about caring for others and wanting the food you serve to be safe and germ-free. But they’re also loaded with socio-political meaning. The origin-story example is while I was in grad school my wife began teaching elementary art and one day I saw her cleaning the used watercolor sets in the kitchen. I loved how the individual watercolor pans looked like small, oval minimalist paintings. I also dug the fact that these were used by kids to make their own art and so became residue of art-making. It was funny to me to then use them in this different art context.
In the future, do you feel like you’ll hit, or see yourself hitting, an impasse in utilizing specific art-making materials [paint drips] and tools [paint brushes] in your work?
If I understand the question correctly I am pretty sure I hit those impasses all the time. I am not one to repeat things too much like I haven’t made a paint can drip piece or a watercolor pan piece in a while but I’m open to the possibility if another way into those works presents itself. At the moment, I don’t plan on getting more combs. I will try to use up the ones I have and move onto something else probably, knowing me.
What’s the story behind the Dopey Formalism series? These are the most “painterly” things I’ve personally ever seen you create, or at least in recent memory.
Those began around 2015 when the idiom “zombie-formalism” was out there and I was trying to find a way to make objects again after a decade of mostly doing installation. I really wanted to paint again because I find the act of painting is so enjoyable. But I had a lot of anxiety about this because making a painting seemed antithetical to my installation practice and attitude towards art. For me, there is a zealousness in making a painting. To be a painter requires confidence that you can put something out into the world that deserves attention for at least a couple hundred years. So this series could come about because they are dopey shapes with dumb color combinations and titles that refer to Saturday morning cartoons. So, no big whoop.
Your work has playful qualities. Do you feel like there’s a kind of mandated sacredness reserved for art that is more “serious”? Do some people have an intolerance or prejudice towards humor or lightness in visual art?
There may be an intolerance towards humorous art in some circles but I see it all over the place in artists like Cary Leibowitz, B. Wurtz, Sarah Lucas, Brian Belott, Martin Creed, etc. The list goes on and on. David Hammons selling snowballs was such a liberating image/idea for me. Humor and seriousness are never antithetical: they are both sides of the same coin. One needs the other to really have an impact and be truthful. Truth equals humor plus seriousness, remember that: there will be a test on it in the morning. But really I find it harder to fit in as a witty musician than I do a witty artist.
The installations I’ve seen that you create seem almost gleefully anticipating their own demise. You’ll routinely use tactile-yet-fragile things like giant reams of paper. Does the actual looming expiration date of the installation something that gets you off?
The temporary nature of installation art has always appealed to me because it’s never a final, definitive statement. The installation is up for a few weeks then the materials go back into their boxes to wait to be put into future arrangements. That’s why making paintings was (and still is mostly) so difficult for me. I cringe at the idea of my things sticking around after I’m dead. I know that the photographs of the installations stick around too but it seems not as tangible as an art object. They are like vacation snapshots.
As an artist and also educator dealing with younger artists, do you think the “Emperor’s New Clothes” paradigm is alive and well? As in: “I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, so there must be something going on I don’t understand here so I must be an idiot.”
The other day I showed students a photo of Chris Burden crucified to the top if his Volkswagen. But that was after they learned about Christian icons and iconography in general and how artists use them to express ideas. They knew what Burden was saying about the Vietnam War. I’ve learned there is no art that is too difficult to understand because there is always a way to enter into it and reflect on it. If an idiot like me can understand art then anyone can. More importantly though: art isn’t asking to be fully understood by anyone, especially the artist.
With the sheer glut of art images, resources, blogs, writings online, etc. do you think aesthetics or just simple appreciation could become or is already becoming somehow “weaponized”? In the sense that the art world is both staid with both heels dug in and volatile—and in many ways arguably can’t be anticipated. At the very least, the internet can become a bloodbath when people’s passions are deranged from know-it-all-ism.
I love this question even though I don’t fully understand it [writer’s note: me either!] I find it both fascinating and worrisome what Instagram is doing to art. I think it’s the modern-day Salon but the masses have usurped the academy which the “small-d” democrat in me loves but it is also cringe-y. Subtlety, both visual and conceptual, is lost in this corporatizing context and it’s hard for subculture to flourish authentically under that influence. It makes me feel my teaching art appreciation and design is more imperative than ever before though.
Barring someone like Banksy or Shepard Fairey, who are both talented but whose prominence also seems to have snowballed through pop news outlets, do you feel like truly radical, political or agitprop art winds up chasing its tail within a kind of echo loop?
I like political art that is funny–art like Phillip Guston’s, Amelie von Wullfen’s, or yours [writer blushes, reflexively deflects compliment]. Humor gives the political room to breathe and doesn’t immediately repel regardless of agreement. But capitalism will always co-opt radical art and ideas because capitalism is itself radical. No artist can out-astonish Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Bezos just bought a yacht that is so big it needs its own yacht! I could try to make something that highlights that fact and put it next to an image of a starving refugee child or something but ultimately the Bezos-blackhole is just going to feed off it. But maybe the way corporations have been responding to the latest voter suppression in states like Georgia shows that capitalism isn’t totally unaffected by its acquisition of progressive culture. But the pace of change is too glacial for the environment and people’s lives. In about 20 years you and I will be a couple of old guys floating on a barge together around “Waterworld” and when the Mona Lisa floats by we can scoop it up into the boat and use it as a plate to eat our BBQ seagull on. Fun times!
Was your first performance piece ChewbaCAGE (2010)?
That was the first in a museum context but before that came a duo performance with Nestor Gil Jr. at Czigan and Rummel Gallery in 2001. It was on Valentine’s Day and we cut up paper hearts using a large manual-chop paper cutter and passed them out to everyone.
What originally inspired this move into performance; is there an ultimate motivation for each piece?
Each is different. For the “s” performance I started carrying my check drawings in an old briefcase and showing them on clipboards so it seemed like a logical step to create a business type character. And Clark Lunberry was kind enough to invite me to do an installation-slash-performance at UNF.
Since performance is rendered in “real time” and tactile works and installations sort of slowly arrive at the gallery space destination, do you feel more vulnerable presenting a performance piece?
My songs certainly hit differently and I get a totally different reaction to them than from the visual stuff. I have an absurd song called “Sh*tty Sperm” that is about my inability to reproduce. One night after performing at an open mic, a young couple came up to me to tell me of their struggles with that issue. So yes, I am totally more vulnerable and my connection to an audience is much more intimate. I also like the immediate feedback!
Do you think it’s a fallacy to view conceptual or even unreadable works as being non-narrative?
Well, they’re probably less obviously so but I don’t think anything is totally non-narrative. An artist can use it to help a viewer enter a work, but even if there isn’t intentionality a narrative can be found.
When you were a younger artist, did you feel any interior pressure to make only “serious” work?
Oh lort, yes! I remember as a student the first painting assignment I had that was totally open I tried to paint ballerinas because I thought that was what art was even though I had no connection or interest in ballet at the time. My early paintings of drums were like that too. These aren’t exactly “serious” but I thought these fit the accepted norms.
Anyone starting out in any life-path or endeavor who has to endure the criticizing committee in their head. Artists who consistently put their finished work into the public deal with a new committee that even makes a living criticizing the work. As a successful, well-documented artist, how have you reconciled that experience?
Other than the likes and emojis my art gets I’m not sure I have to deal with any outside committee of critics. For most artists like myself, our discourse with the artworld is mostly a one-way conversation. That’s why only crazy people like me continue to art because we are used to mumbling to ourselves.
Who are some local artists whose current work excites you; are there any local unknown or emerging artists you think deserve greater attention?
I’m continually amazed by the inventiveness of Aysha Miskin and Kenny Wilson. And the recent installation by Clark Lunberry at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum blew me away. He submerged books into cookie jars filled with St John’s river water. I will think about that piece for a long time. I also really dug the badass work of Morgan McAllister that was shown recently at Florida Mining Gallery.
What do you think Northeast Florida lacks in the visual arts community?
It lacks people other than artists doing things. Us artists just want to make the art and have other people put on the shows, advertise, all that stuff. Especially as we get older. I think that there has always been a lack of diverse models of how a creative person can exist here. With very few curators, collectors, dealers, critics, etc. the only available option has been “artist.” So, we have a lot of artists without much support. But mostly we all lack that great youthful mix of confidence and awkwardness. In fact we have its exact opposite: fear and refinement.
I think one of the most valid expressions of art is to acknowledge that one is in fact a terrible visual artist and just hang it up. Go start a band, write a book, open a restaurant, etc. Do you agree?
Years ago I wanted to start an artist group called L.A.M.E. (Local Artists Making Effort). I never started it because I chickened out. How lame.
Check out Mark Creegan’s work at markcreeganart.com, @mark_creegan.
A version of this article originally appeared under the headline ‘Media Blitz’ in Void Magazine’s June 2021 issue.