Flounder Lee is a photography professor at the Herron School of Art & Design at Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis, Indiana. I met him there after I did a presentation about my first book, "Art In King Size Beds: A Collector's Journal." I thought that he would make an interesting interview subject. I think you'll agree. After reading out chat, check out his website at www.photoflounder.com.
MICHAEL: Hey Flounder. Thanks for agreeing to chat. First, let's start with the question that I'm sure you've be asked a million times. Flounder is an unusual, yet very cool name. Is there a story behind it?
FLOUNDER: Hi Michael, I have definitely been asked that question a lot or at least some form of it. I can't convince some people that my name is not Lee Flounder, especially businesses. I wish that meant I didn't have to pay my bills! The origins of my name are shrouded in mystery but it came to prominent use in the Secret Snail Society. I should probably leave it at that. I legally changed it to Flounder in 2006. I find it helpful as a promotional tool and a conversation starter.
MICHAEL: Secret Snail Society? I probably already know too much. Moving on ... I love your photography, but what I've seen isn't photography in the mainstream sense. It appears that you splice and dice photographs to create totally different compositions. It's almost like painting with pieces of photographs. Am I correct?
FLOUNDER: I don't really consider myself a photographer. Maybe a photographic artist or an artist who uses photography. Sometimes I do video, sometimes performance, sculpture, etc. In my teaching I take a similar approach: I am teaching artists, not just photographers. My recent work has definitely been described as abstract painting. I think that some of it looks like Mondrian from a distance. Really what I'm doing lately is making work from a series of preset conditions. I'm taking as much control out of my hands to investigate the way things are instead of the way I want them to be. So if we stick with a painting analogy, it is more like programming a robot to do the painting.
MICHAEL: You just said you are teaching artists, not just photographers. Doesn't that really get to the heart of the role of contemporary photography? I visit these art fairs and exhibitions where I see great photographs but they don't necessarily rise to the level of "art" for me. It seems to me that even with preset conditions and lack of control, turning photography into art requires insight, physical manipulation and the introduction of unique elements. Perhaps my ignorance is showing.
FLOUNDER: I think it does get at the heart of it, I don't think the sort of contemporary photography that I'm making or trying to teach is just photos. It isn't about how pretty your sunsets are or how good your photoshop skills are, it is about the idea that drives the work. But that said, I think they generally need to be somewhat technically proficient and formally pleasing because we are past the conceptual 1970s. Dave Hickey helped change the notion that beauty is a dirty word in the art world. Work can be engaging and beautiful.
MICHAEL: I had the pleasure of walking with you through your exhibition called, "Own." It involves old Native American lands, map making and photography.
It's beautiful, engaging and has a powerful social and moral message. What's it all about and where did you get the idea?
FLOUNDER: It is always good practice showing someone around a show, so thanks for coming. In the current work, I am mapping treaties between the US government and various American Indian tribes. I have European and Native American ancestry. Most likely it is Choctaw and/or Cherokee, but it is really hard to trace when your family narrative says that they were the ones who hid from the government to avoid moving west and tragedies such as the Trail of Tears. I've never been raised with any real awareness of my family's history, but it fascinates and conflicts me. I have ancestors taking from ancestors. Not really sure how I decided to pursue this now, but I was mapping the borders of Los Angeles when I moved to Indiana and I wanted to keep mapping so this came up somehow. So far, I've mapped the treaties in their actual locations in five states. I find the original maps, import them, and follow the borders using GPS. I photograph at one mile intervals at set points in the four directions. This removes as much of my hand as possible from the equation. I want to show what is actually there, not what I want to be there. So if there is a casino or a Wal-Mart a quarter mile down the road and an empty field where my GPS says to shoot, I get the empty field.
MICHAEL: What you're doing incorporates photography, artistry, anthropology, sociology, politics and travel. It all makes for very heavy subject matter that will inspire some and incite others. Yet art is your venue. I liked the exhibition, but you obviously know that pitching this to collectors or even curators can't be easy. In short, it's not "entertaining" and you know how much people want to be entertained ... that's assuming you can even lure them into a gallery. Is this a concern?
FLOUNDER: I make work that is important to me. Quite often it will be important to others too. I sometimes make work that is more fun or entertaining but that is not generally one of my primary goals, except maybe when I'm doing performance art. I honestly haven't had many encounters with collectors at this stage in my career, but I've shown this work a few times already. A curator of a show in Europe liked it enough that she invited me to come make more work there for the show. I've also used this as a platform for teaching others about this history, including my own family. Even still, the patterns of images that emerge from my work can be enjoyed without knowing the history of what the work is about at all.
MICHAEL: Flounder, this brings up what I think is a great question. When you've busted your butt to make your art meaningful and true, isn't it a little irritating to have people look at it and say, "I like the colors!" or "Will it match my sofa?" I've even heard artists reduce the work of other artists to simple whims. You've done all of this work and they've missed the entire point.
FLOUNDER: Artists aren't the only source of meaning for their art, so art is going to mean different things to everyone. How's the saying go? "You can't please everyone." Well, things are going to be pleasing to people for their own reasons. I want some people to get my work but know not everyone will. I really dislike a LOT of art, I don't get it, but know other people do. I don't think this is an issue really. I've always thought that colors and matching and such are just levels to the work. Maybe levels that I don't care about, or even care to know about, but levels none the less. My wife isn't an artist and she is definitely more concerned about artwork fitting in with our other decorations than I am, she doesn't understand how I don't really worry about color schemes and the like.
MICHAEL: Many of the artists I know are totally "consumed" by art. Many, if not most artists consider art synonymous with who they are as individuals. Does this describe you?
FLOUNDER: Yes, I think it does and I'm sure my wife would agree. She has a hard time grasping that my work does not really have any sort of set hours. I can just be playing online but it is usually at least tangentially related to my art. I'll either be looking for blogs to submit, looking up new artists or shows, reading about mapping or science. I never know where my new ideas are going to come from so I keep constantly looking. But even all that said, I still take plenty of time to do other stuff if I can find it. I love to camp, hike, cook, and garden (although I rarely do most of these activities without a camera).
MICHAEL: You said earlier that you dislike a LOT of art and that you don't get it. Do you think this is more of a reflection of your personal taste or the artists' failure to communicate effectively? When people read my writing, I find it somewhat upsetting that they missed my point. They don't have to agree, but they do have to get the point, otherwise we're not really communicating.
FLOUNDER: I think sometimes it is a combination of both of those things and also the fact that some art really doesn't carry a lot beyond its surface. Art means a lot of different things to people and sometimes it is purely a visual exercise. Of course this is the art that I generally don't like and it rarely receives any sort of critical praise, but still might be popular with many people who think the best a painting can do is look like a photo and the best a photo can do is look like a painting. Ha! I like art that gives you something on multiple levels, it has the surface stuff that you can appreciate, but it has a depth to it that allows you to explore. Writing is sometimes similar, just because something is funny or exciting, doesn't mean it doesn't have depth of meaning. I'm currently reading a couple of books about geography and history. One is textbook type writing and I can barely stay interested even though I love the subject. The other is narrative style and I hate to stop reading it to do anything else, but I still feel like I'm learning a lot about the subject.
MICHAEL: When it comes to art, what do you think you'll be doing 20 years from now?
FLOUNDER: Well I'm really hoping that they come out with Dream Recorder by then because I think my dreams are really where it's at. Otherwise some sort of digital media and installations probably. But honestly who knows, 20 years ago I was 10, playing on a playground wanting to be a rocket scientist. That desire got me to 19 when I left the University of Alabama's aerospace engineering program to take a year off and move to Florida where I got my degree in photography.
MICHAEL: Sounds like the sky is your limit. Thanks for chatting Flounder.
Check out Flounder's website at www.photoflounder.com.