Karl Haendel

by Amy Marie Slocum

'Tis in Ourselves That We Are This or Thus
Karl Haendel’s studio is situated in a nice, family neighborhood nestled between the 10 and the 101. He offers me a Diet Coke, but I opt for water; throughout our meeting he will offer me a nicotine pill, two books, and a bag of vegetables from his garden, and I will accept the latter two. I am here to document the preparations for his upcoming exhibition in New York: Organic Bedfellow, Feral Othello, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, one of the galleries that represents him (Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles is the other) on display from October 22 to December 5, 2015.

An alum of UCLA (MFA), and Brown (BA), with exhibitions under his belt at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the 12th Biennale de Lyon, and Prospect II, in New Orleans in 2011, Haendel is perhaps too intelligent, too liable to get lost in an information hole;*  traits in an artist that make for some interesting shows. His meticulous large-scale pencil drawings are created from projections of 35mm slides that he assembles from found imagery.

Haendel’s exhibitions are often called “site specific,” a term that he feels gets thrown around too much. His last large-scale exhibition was at Los Angeles’ Night Gallery in February of this year; the large, open gallery space was cut throughout by visual markers on the floor, temporary walls, and pedestals with drawings perched on them, disallowing the gallery-goer to circumnavigate the space in an orderly fashion, and instead creating opportunities to weave throughout the space, appreciating the pieces in a unique order every time.† 

His upcoming show will reprise the tone of his Night Gallery exhibition, but his themes have changed in the last year. I ask him something I was asked by one of my first writing professors: what question are you proposing to your audience? “I think it’s ‘What do you believe, and how did you come to believe that?’”

When I come back several weeks later for the second part of our interview, Haendel has just returned from Zurich where he had displayed some pieces in a gallery. He has been busy buying a building and applying to hang his art in a Los Angeles Metro Station. Organic Bedfellow is close to completion; it will consist of three series: “yoga people,” or drawings of humans doing yoga inside vaguely claustrophobic geometric shapes, various species of monkeys balancing on perilous geometric figures, and a series of “still lives” consisting of groupings of objects, mathematical symbols, and QR codes leading to YouTube videos documenting an example of transformation.

The still lives, in particular, are loaded with meaning. In “Female to male, times square, glasses, handcuffs, hair,” the inclusion of a BDSM mask speaks to the desire to embody animalistic tendencies within a constructed, regulated practice, a razor and hair extension are both tools that allow us to regulate how much of our animal side we show, and the mathematic symbol—a theme throughout the exhibition—at once speaks to the laws of nature, and the constructs we build to understand it. The QR code leads to a video of a trans man’s evolution from female to male over the course of four years.

I ask how the concept has changed for him since we last spoke,  and we get into the idea of evolution and devolution, which is a concept he began with, but has taken to a deeper level. He brings up Paleo culture; this idea that we live in a time when we are able to extract the maximum amount of calories from any given acre of land, and this modern socio-economically specific backlash exists, which would eschew most agriculture in favor of a diet that could potentially be closer to what our distant ancestors ate. I point out that those ancestors were forced to hunt and gather, not brave the lines (and temptation) at their local Whole Foods. Haendel points out that many of those ancestors died of starvation.

We veer back to the concept of the viewer and Haendel reminds me of his uncle in Iowa, who we discussed during the last meeting.§  “Most people are not going to get all the stuff,” he says, “I think it’s ok; I like to think that if you came in as a casual viewer, you could be like ‘wow, these drawings are really nice, this is a cool thing, look at these yoga people everywhere, and they’re drawn so well,’ so I always like [that there is] a certain kind of democracy in realist drawing. At the same time, if you took the time to pick apart these symbols, and see how I’ve crafted it, then you could really get a lot out of it.”

*“I really have a habit of doing too much, but it’s the only way I know how to give that feeling of completeness and abundance and overwhelming awe in a viewer.”
† “Galleries, they are such beautiful spaces, and you go in and it’s just a bunch of paintings lined up. I think ‘god, what a waste of opportunity for people to interact with what is a fully open space!’ So even, for my first show there I tried to make drawings, which are interesting, but also to create a show where as a viewer, your body is considered, the fact that your head turns, that you can kneel down and look up, and sense things tactically, you can sense color, there’s more than just rectangles on a wall.”
‡ “The show is about, I guess, it’s about lifestyle, evolution, devolution; the idea that the more we develop, and the more we progress, the more we want to regress, or find something pure, or something true. [There is] something about technology versus the primal in nature, versus culture, this kind of dialectic, and how the two get around together. And it’s about language and symbols, and how we come to understand them.”
§ “Part of the reason I make realist drawings, [is] because, my uncle who lives in Iowa, he doesn’t understand it conceptually, but he’ll be like, ‘oh wow, that’s cool.’”