Tom Pazderka: Interview with an (Inward) Immigrant
By Debra Herrick
Conjuring memories from his childhood in the former Czechoslovakia, Tom Pazderka explores a dark, morbid sense of the immigrant experience in a solo show of haunting new works, “The End Is the Beginning,” presented by LUM Art Zine, at The Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science and Technology (SBCAST).
On the occasion of the exhibit, LUM interviewed Pazderka, examining the personal history of the artist, immigrant and homeland.
LUM: Tell me about where you are from and what your childhood was like?
Tom Pazderka: I was born in Cesky Brod, a small town about 30 minutes east of Prague in what used to be Czechoslovakia. I’d consider my childhood to have been quite ordinary, but with hindsight I’m tempted to rewrite history a bit.
I was born into the 1980s communist normalization of Czechoslovakia, which in a nutshell meant culturally stern conformity and forced austerity, all of which was upturned at the end of 1989, when an age of unbridled wild west capitalism was ushered in. We were poor and lived in what we colloquially call “panelak,” concrete block housing built by the Communist government. These were generally government-assigned apartments. They were small and utilitarian. But despite the lack of money and resources, we lived comfortably, making do with the little that we had. My family owned a mountain cabin where we used to spend weekends and holidays when travel abroad was forbidden. This wasn’t a luxury though. Mountain cabins were cheap and required lots of work because many were falling apart.
I think that my childhood was quite typical of 1980s Communist Czechoslovakia. Basic human needs were met, culturally and politically the country was stagnating but not suffering, full employment—at least at the official level—meant stability. The country was enveloped in a feeling of an “end time scenario” soon to come, as if the place was in a permanent state of waiting—for exaltation, for the new, for Armageddon. It happened in other places, Romania, Yugoslavia, Russia. Czech went with the “decent” revolution. I think that got burned in my memory. Even the break-up of the country into Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992 happened rather uneventfully and without fanfare.
I remember school as a mixed bag. We learned things differently than in the US. I was drawn to the arts, but there were no schools for those sorts of things nearby. Of the things that I still remember, I remember that we had communal toilets in apartment buildings, the cabin had a dry toilet instead of indoor plumbing—that came in the late ‘80s—we used to have a water pump where we’d get water, and black and white TVs with one to two channels. After the revolution we got four channels and our first VCR. I used to spend a lot of time outside.
At what time and for what reasons did you move to the US?
1994 and I was 12. My mother married a man who had also moved to the US from Czech, but much earlier in the 1980s, and I suspect it was her way of “getting out.” He was living in New York City after he escaped from the country. After the break, he began visiting. Shortly after the marriage my mother moved, while I lived with my grandparents to finish the school year. I think the early 1990s was when the third large migration from Czech to the West happened. The first was after the Communist coup in 1948, then after Operation Dunaj or the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. When the borders opened up, many people emigrated because nobody was certain how the political situation would evolve. We were part of that last migration.
In what ways has being an immigrant in the US contributed to your artistic vision and practice?
The work I’m doing right now is exploring the incompleteness of the immigrant experience. It is something that I found inescapable. The immigrant experience is one of rebuilding a life over elsewhere and the challenges of doing that, while at the same time keeping intact the cultural background from which one came. Everything in my life and practice hinges on this incompleteness. I observe it and I live it daily. It makes life and work interesting, funny and challenging. It is also a very existential way of living life.
Uncertainty is tough to live with, but for me, the fact that I don’t know certain things, and knowing that I will for a fact never know certain things, has an aura of mystique and mystery to it that I find seductive. Almost all of human endeavor beyond self-preservation deals with minimizing uncertainty about the world, like science, philosophy, religion, and so on. They are all limited in their own ways and for me, art is the method I use to investigate the world.
What was your path to becoming an artist?
There were ups and downs, but I knew from an early age what I was good at and what I wanted to do. I began drawing at an early age, and I can thank my grandmother for nurturing that talent despite the fact she wasn’t very good at it. By grade school, I was drawing daily. After we moved to the US, I had a few early successes in school, getting awards for my drawing skills. Yet at that time I wasn’t being pushed very much by the teachers. For a little while I thought I was going to be a cartoonist and had a good gig drawing cartoons for local newspapers. But in high school, painting finally won me over. I spent my entire senior year in art classes, but I didn’t continue onto college right away. In between I attended a year-long art and architecture restoration course and worked as a studio assistant for an artist. I felt the need to work rather than to be educated. I look back at this now as pretty pivotal, because I learned discipline as an artist. I learned the importance of being in the studio, pretty much all the time or as much as possible, even if one isn’t making anything. I ran a studio, learned all sorts of skills like carpentry, furniture making, design, landscaping, we remodeled entire houses on top of making and selling artwork. I learned that being an artist is much more complex that stretching a canvas to paint on. Eventually, I went back to school and got my BFA and MFA.
Can you describe the process you use in creating your current body of work?
I’ve worked this way for about two years now. I start by building plywood panels and then burning them with torches until they’re entirely black. The panels are then smeared with ashes, and finally painted with white water-mixable oil paint. Each layer goes on separately after the previous layer has dried. First layers are very watery, almost like watercolor and the paint mixes with the ash. I then reduce the amount of water with each layer. I keep building layers to make the white highlights come out. The result is that the image really does look like it’s pulled out of the blackness.
Your work has changed over the years, for example, you ceased to use color, you moved from environmental portraits (clouds and mountains to lists and cataloguing to historical and familial portraits). Can you talk about what inspired those shifts or others in your practice and thematic?
Yes, the familial is definitely a new addition. I’ve used historical events and research in the past, but the way I use it now is a little different. The clouds and mountains are still subjects, they’re just a part of a greater series. But I think the reason I’ve begun the family portraits is because of what happened earlier this year. My mother left my stepfather and moved back to the Czech Republic after 25 years of living in the US. This means that I am now the only member of my family—if you don’t count my wife and the in-laws—living in the States. I am now looking more deeply into what makes a family a family, a home a home and an immigrant an immigrant. This definitely gave me the idea of the incompleteness of the immigrant and inward immigration, both in real life and online.
The choice of reducing my color palette to black and white was definitely a conscious one. I wanted to simplify as much as possible. After grad school I felt that I’ve tried so many things, some of which worked, some did not, but that was the point, to experiment. I wanted to move away from that and focus. I also wanted my work to retain the rawness I got out of working with raw material, but with all the skill sets I gained.
If I could make work that looks and feels like the early Black Metal albums I was listening to, then I would be happy. I don’t like music and art that is over-produced. For me, if I could pull off work that is simple and complex at the same time, lo-fi yet skilled, that is the top.
Do you have an idea where your work is headed in the future?
I never know what’s coming next. It is part of the process for me. I like to respond to the moment and the place. This is why I am intrinsically opposed to works of art and exhibitions that are preplanned months and years in advance. But I do know the work will change, I just don’t have any inkling as to how. I do want to make larger work at some point. Right now I’m looking into residencies because that is where changes tend to happen.
Do you consider your work political?
Yes, but I also consider Rothko’s work political for example. But I don’t want to give the idea that because I think of my work as political that I want to change the world or the hearts and minds of the people in it. I’ve heard my work described as socially engaged, but I don’t like that term for what I do at all. I suppose the best explanation I can give is this, I am driven by that which other people are not doing or thinking about. Almost always I tend to take the contrarian position and I like to find those things that are most obscure, most hidden. I think one can find that politics and culture are often driven just as much by that which is obscure and hidden as they are by that which is everywhere and visible.
What artists have had the greatest influence on your work?
Rothko for sure. Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, Ilya Kabakov, Leonardo Drew, Theaster Gates and Zhang Huan. I could go on, but those are always my go tos. But I’m really heavily influenced by music also, Black Metal and extreme music in general, Dark Ambient and experimental noise, anything lo-fi and raw. That is what I strive for in my work.
Describe the art piece that you’ve created that you most like?
That is an older work and it’s called “Drawing for Genius and Maddness, the Thoreau Kaczynski Tableau.” It’s a sort of ridiculous title, but it sums up the work nicely. The work is comprised of two panels made of salvaged true two by fours onto each of which I drew the cabins of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber. It was the first piece that started off my more conceptual phase and what got me into grad school. It was with that piece that I started thinking in terms of the what and why instead of how.
Describe yourself as an artist in three words.
Building Dwelling Thinking
Who are your “guilty pleasure” artists?
Banksy and Koons, each one for a different reason. I actually enjoy some of Banksy’s work, while I completely detest everything Koons, or rather his stable of assistants, has ever produced. After watching “The Price of Everything,” I don’t think Koons even deserves to be called an artist anymore. And I find it odd that Banksy, despite being one of the most commercially successful artists in the world, still enjoys a kind of notoriety and reputation for his supposed transgressive and irreverent acts. His work is clever, cool and detached, which makes Banksy a rather typical postmodernist, but there is literally nothing transgressive about his work. The elites revel in that kind of behavior and love the type of art that validates it, by that I mean attitudes of self-conscious condescension, self-deprecation, irreverence, a brutal kind of honesty about it all, opulence, life-styles that are entirely driven by wealth and material gains, and showing it off, vice-signaling. The elites are now in a way owning up to what is bad within that culture, knowing full well that life will go on exactly as it has been. There is no need to even be polite anymore, because who cares, and people like terrible shit anyway. This attitude makes Koons and Banksy the perfect counterpart artists for the elites.
What is surprising even to me, is that Koons may actually be more authentic than Banksy, who is unlike Koons, not an idiot. Banksy knows how to play on the frayed and tenuous morality of the rich, so he makes his work politically and socially engaged so that the morally compromised and ambiguous in the crowd feel they’ve done public good by consuming his work. Koons on the other hand knows that the elites truly don’t care about politics or any of the struggles or concerns of the lower classes and he makes his work specifically only for them. He knows it’s trash, but trash with a huge price tag, and in the end, that is what matters. I talk about these guys in this way because I like to attack the sacred cows. That is the guilty pleasure for me. Koons is the artist I love to hate. I could talk this way about other artists, Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman, Hirst, Serra, Mapplethorpe. But I’ll finish up with Banksy and Koons. EF Schumacher said that works of art fall into two categories, either it’s entertainment or propaganda. This may be a surprise again, but Banksy is entertainment—his work keeps the status quo, so that the rich and the poor who follow his work can each be satisfied by having a good laugh, as if one’s watched a stupid sitcom, while Koons is pure propaganda for the elite life-style, a sign of power of which the price tag and stupidity/kitsch of the medium are markers of a knowledge unavailable to the masses.
“Tom Pazderka: The End Is the Beginning,” presented by LUM Art Zine, at The Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science and Technology (SBCAST). The exhibit, “The End Is the Beginning,” will open on Dec. 6, and run through Jan. 11. An opening reception will be held on Thursday, Dec. 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. at SBCAST, 513 Garden St., Santa Barbara.
In conjunction with the exhibit, on Thursday, Dec. 13, at 6 p.m., SBCAST will host a one-hour panel discussion on the condition of the immigrant in artistic representation. Participants in the panel are First District Supervisor Das Williams; UCSB Art Professor Marco Pelijhan; Artist Tom Pazderka; LUM Art Zine Editor & Curator Debra Herrick, and Moderator Ted Mills, host of The Funk Zone podcast.
New work by Tom Pazderka will be on view in “POV: Tosh Clements, Arturo Heredia, Madeleine Eve Ignon, Tom Pazderka – A LUM Art Zine Show,” January 18 to February 8, 2019 at the Santa Barbara Center for Arts Science and Technology, SBCAST, 513 Garden St., Santa Barbara.
An opening reception will be held on Friday, January 18, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at SBCAST. Drinks, music, art. Open to the public.