Flex Gallery and the work of Amanda Carmer

In response to a lack of public art opportunities during winter, on January 11th, I launched Flex Gallery, a mobile public art space located on my left arm. For the project, I sent canvas armbands to six artists, requesting they turn them into artworks. Each artist works in a wide variety of media, and I provided them with no themes or limitations other than the dimensions of the band. Last month  for two weeks, I wore the work of Amanda Carmer, a local artist and curator who currently runs Wallless. I spoke with her last week to learn more about her work and creative process.

Amanda Carmer. #stilluntitled 16. Archival mixed media and acrylic on panel 2016

Amanda Carmer. #stilluntitled 16. Archival mixed media and acrylic on panel. 2016.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): How long have you been working with photo collage and how did you get started with it?

Amanda Carmer (AC): I graduated from Kendall in May of 2014 with an MFA with a focus in photography. [After that] I had whole year of not making anything, and then in summer of 2015, I started doing this. It started because I had boxes upon boxes of photographs, mostly digital prints that had been half started or failed projects that I just didn’t have the heart to throw away. So I started cutting them up and redoing them and then in some cases painting over certain areas. That’s how this all started.

ZJ: So then what did your work look like when you were in school?

AC: I was really traditional. Even though a lot of them are digital prints, the original images were shot on film and them scanned digitally. My thesis, the body of work that I showed for my exhibition when I graduated, was a combination of three types of work – it got pretty complicated, which is another reason why I do these fairly straightforward collages now. I [showed] large-format black and white portraits of my family members [as well as] black and white photographs where I purposely distressed the negatives. Those were environmental images of my mom’s house and some landscape work where the landscape was standing in for various relationships and psychological spaces. Then [I also had] photograms that were processed kind of strangely. They essentially looked like pink shadows or the inverse of a shadow, so the positive space was white and the surrounding area was a mauvish color.

ZJ: If you were to do your thesis now, how do you think it would be different?

AC: I probably would still be looking at my family members and our relationships to one another, but I most likely would be using more or this collage style. I’d deliberately be going in and altering faces and bodies and planting them in those environments, rather than keeping all of the formats separate. I would probably mash it all together.

Amanda Carmer. #stilluntitled 11. Archival mixed media and acrylic on panel 2017

Amanda Carmer. #stilluntitled 11. Archival mixed media and acrylic on panel. 2017.

ZJ: So you have this mixed background. I know you from Craft House initially and you’re an artist as well, but when I was looking through your information and saw that you originally studied art education. So, how do all of these strands come together for you?

AC: The best way to answer that is to put it in context of my job. First, you have to picture a room full of 16-17-year-olds in an art class. So they’re pretty into art, but they don’t know a lot. Every now and then when I’m doing a high school presentation, I’m talking about Kendall and our application process and some kind of ornery high school student will ask, “What do you do? What makes you have the authority on this thing?” So I’ll get to pull up my website and talk about how I started out studying art ed, and I taught elementary art. And then I really wanted to feel a greater connection to the art world and a community of artists, so I moved to Chicago and went to Columbia for a little while and then pursued an MFA. I’ll mention the curatorial stuff that I was doing in graduate school as well. [Those things] really do come together in a position like admissions for art school.

Sometimes it sounds like a bit of a stretch, but I get to kind of teach, I get to talk about art all the time, and in a weird way I’m helping pick and choose what students are going to come to Kendall, so that’s a bit curatorial. I’ve just serendipitously found these different paths to wind up where I am now. So, I never set out thinking, “oh, I want to be in higher ed” …it sort of happened that way. And I wish that I had more time to make, and more time to look at art, and write about art at a professional level, but I try to supplement that with seeing exhibitions when I’m out recruiting in different cities and the blog that I write.

ZJ: So you had Craft House and now you’re running Wallless. What’s your interest with Wallless and what’s the general premise of it?

AC: When I closed Craft House, a couple months went by, and I thought I needed to find a way to force myself to stay engaged in looking at art, writing about art, and thinking about it locally. So it’s my way to do that. I committed personally to myself to do it for at least a year, once a month. The intention was to look at what’s happening in West Michigan in terms of artists that aren’t represented anywhere major. But also when I closed Craft House, there was still a handful of artists whose work I didn’t show enough of or would have liked to show more of, so I’ve gotten to explore their work a bit more through the blog. And it’s also a really simple way to do something that feels productive, which I like.

ZJ: So as far as the armband, you’ve created, your artist statement talked about your interest in storytelling and its function and mechanics. How do those interests play out in this armband specifically?

AC: When I look at all of my work together, my interest in storytelling and dissecting how we tell stories encompasses everything. It’s a way for me to talk about the different bodies of work that I’ve done that feel really different visually in a way that brings them all together. But what the current work is doing is mashing up imagery in a way that is connected in simple compositional terms. There’s directional movement and a bit of balance in there and sometimes repetition, but otherwise the imagery is not connected. You have to just piece it together on your own. So in that sense, I’m interested in telling stories in a way that’s very much choose-your-own-adventure.

The really long, stretched out format of the armband was really a challenge. I had it laying flat, and I was testing out all of these different arrangements and then I would remind myself that you’re not going to see all of it at once. That completely changed my choice making.

Amanda Carmer. #stilluntitled 10. Archival mixed media and acrylic on panel 2017

Amanda Carmer. #stilluntitled 10. Archival mixed media and acrylic on panel. 2017.

ZJ: Oh yeah. I think the in-the-round aspect of the armband is the biggest challenge for the many of the artists who’ve made work for Flex Gallery. 

Last question, can you think of something in your life that was particularly visually striking?

AC: Large open expanses of water with nothing on the other side – when you just have a horizon line of water and sky. That’s the first thing that pops into my brain. Looking out of the window of an airplane feels similar – when there’s a super different perspective on something that feels like it should be familiar. A landscape seen at that distance feels completely different. My favorite thing is a combination of those two – when you fly into a place that has a giant body of water next to it and you get to see both.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Posts by Zachary Johnson are also available via instagram and tumblr under the name Vis Ed.

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