Isha Tripathi Interviews Aay Preston-Myint
Aay Preston-Myint is an artist, publisher, and educator currently working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to this, Preston-Myint spent many years building his career in Chicago which included creating several community related projects. His studio practice primarily investigates themes such as memory, place, kinship, embodiment, and disembodiment, often relating to the specific context of queer history and community. He is currently the Program Manager at Headland Center for the Arts, and supports Southern Exposure as a member of the Curatorial Council. In addition, he is the Co-director of the Chicago Art Book Fair, the founder of the art partnership, No Coast, and was formerly the DJ and organizer of Chances Dances, a party supporting and exhibiting the work of queer artists in Chicago.
I sat down to talk with Aay, where we discussed his studio practice, how he balances artmaking while working as an arts administrator, the art world, and the myriad of impressive projects and collaborations he has done over the course of his career. It has been an honor to shed some much-deserved light on Aay’s powerful and insightful work.
I: Hi Aay, Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today! I was the past Community Arts and Development Intern at Southern Exposure. So let’s get right into it! Firstly, can you tell me a little bit about yourself as an artist and your practice?
A: Sorry I just came out of a very non-creative meeting, *laughs*. I mean I guess my creative practice in general spreads out into a lot of different areas, but in terms of my studio work at the moment I've been focusing a lot on just 2D work, mostly drawing, painting, and printmaking. My background in terms of my training is mostly in printmaking as well as fiber arts, and sometimes the intersection of those two things. Lately I’ve been more fully in the 2D world, I’ve been doing a lot of murals, and I’ve been calling them wall drawings because they involve a lot of direct drawing and kind of like mixed media application on the wall, and they are often not permanent the way a painted mural might be. I’m creating a lot of different kinds of reflective and shadowy surfaces and then using colored light in the room to create different kinds of reflective and dimensional effects as your eyes embody and pass along the surface.
Most of the subject matter has been queer night life. A lot of what I'm depicting are these abstractions or amalgamations of different real and imaginary queer spaces like: bars, clubs, dancefloors, spaces, bath houses and things like that. That kind of comes from a lot of my work in the queer community, so a lot of my creative practice kind of spills outside. I used to be a night life organizer in Chicago for this party called Chances, that ended up becoming a really interesting platform for a lot of emerging performance artists, musicians, drag artists of course and for queer artists in general who needed a boost in the Chicago area. That was a really meaningful intersection of different creative interests that I’ve had across running art spaces, consignment shops, galleries, collaborative studios and things like that, where I sort of had these practices where I was creating public space for people but then also had this other studio practice, and I think the newer work is kind of like really starting to synthesize those things and dealing with ideas of shared space and imagined space as the actual subject matter of the work.
I: I admire your work a lot, particularly your works on paper and your large-scale mixed media wall drawings. Could you tell me a little more about the marks that you make in your drawings and screenprints and the environments you create in your wall drawings? What is your process like, and what are the concepts behind them?
A: Just to fill things out a little more, In my training and school I was working a lot at this kind of 2D/3D juncture, and I found fiber arts to be really useful for that because cloth is a 2 dimensional surface that can be manipulated into a 3 dimensional surface, so I kind of did a lot of work that went back and forth between these 2 dimensional and sculptural spaces. I would talk about queerness, but a lot of times in this allegorical or mythical way, that wasnt explicitly linked to my lived experience. I sort of kept my social practice out of school, because I just didn't need it to be critiqued in academic settings. It was doing what it was doing for who it was meant for, and those people would give me feedback, but I think I became more invested in surface, and minimalism, and queer formalism toward the end of grad school just through research but also through some of my contemporaries, and that kind of led to the wall drawings where I was thinking of surface, volume, light, and shadow and what those things held for me in these queer spaces. Like, the mirrored surface of a wall in a dance club, or the back corner in a dark room, or a vanity or a bathroom stall, a bar counter that held the history of like the three bars that were there before. Just the way that these surfaces that are often either in darkness or in intense club lighting kind of hold all of those memories and histories and change shape depending on how the light hits.
In developing that body of work, I really found a way to integrate my interests in and out of the studio together and as I really started plunging into that 2D space, I started going further back to how I just got into drawing and gesture and mark making, and other kind of like formalist conceits or fundamentals of 2D space. It gave me permission to dip into my upbringing as like a gay comics nerd and so I started this other body of work that mostly exists as drawing and prints, so off the wall, and that really borrowed from that language - the language of comics and illustration. Some things I was looking at were Roy Lichtenstein's mirror drawings or Jim Shaw, I also really like Mike Kelly’s - I think they’re called garbage drawings, so I was looking at stuff like that, and I started realizing that what I was interested in kind of always went back to ideas of embodiment or disembodiment, and the way that queer people experience those things, so if you go back to the wall drawings I kind of think of them as these spaces that are communal spaces but its just the architecture right, and I think just because i was a bartender and a DJ for so long, I often was in these space before everyone got there and after everyone left. For me there’s a sense of anticipation of the bodies that are to arrive in that space or the sense of loss for the bodies that have just left or for the energy that has just left.
Not to get too heavy about a drawing or whatever but if you expand that out, there's so much about anticipation of presence and loss of presence that is a part of your experience, like: waiting to arrive, waiting to become, waiting to see yourself, waiting for acceptance, and then of course there is this inherent trend of mourning and loss that runs through contemporary queer art because of all of the things: the AIDS crisis, a higher suicide rate, a higher violence rate and things like that, or even violence in the club. I remember the first wall drawing was exhibited right before the Pulse nightclub shooting, and so that was a really intense debut where I was kind of thinking of all of these things in abstract and then the week that the mural went up, that happened.
So they are all about embodiment and disembodiment, and the way this goes back to the comic book gesture drawing is that I started those first by drawing mirrors because I was thinking about the club and literally seeing yourself. Tourmaline or Reina Gossett has a really touching description of being in a club in LA and looking at herself in the mirror alone under this purple light that I often go back to when I think about my work and how queer people go the club to see themselves and find themselves. So I was drawing these mirrors and I was captivated by how this complex phenomenon of reflection - like you have this surface that replicates exactly what is in front of it, and we draw this surface in comic books with like a series of diagonal lines, like it's really so reductive and silly but you know that's what that is right? The easiest way to draw a mirror also renders it not that thing, you aren’t drawing a reflection you’re drawing this empty space with lines and so that took me down this embodiment and representation rabbit hole you know, like looking at this surface that doesn't reflect back or whatever and I started thinking about other ways in which comics show traces of movement or a body or energy by using line.
Movement in real life does not leave a trace necessarily, but in comic books you see the lines and the swishes and the puffs of smoke and things like mental energy that you could not possibly see get depicted visually, and so there is all this visual shorthand for the different ways a body can move or be present or absent or act on another body, and so all of those newer drawings are combinations of those marks and gestures and it's kind of like again everything without the body, but suggesting it. This isn't necessarily what the work is about, because it's very abstract but when I look at the work I kind of think about this queer lens. There’s a lot of that in queer experience, there’s like dysphoria, feeling like you don’t belong, there’s excitement and transformation and stuff like chronic illness. I think about my material body a lot in this weird way because I’m HIV positive and we’re at this weird juncture where we actually have an amazing amount of tools to manage HIV, but most people don’t know how to use them or don’t have access to them, and we’re also at this weird time where the AIDS crisis is simultaneously being historicized as over, but is spreading into new populations at a really alarming rate. I just kind of think about these invisible bodily forces a lot, and the comic based drawings are just a way to think through that.
I just have one more thing to say about that. During the pandemic I was at Kala Art Institute for my fellowship and I sort of dove deeper into this series and it was kind of like while all of the riots were spreading around the country and anti-black violence was pressing on everyone so heavily, and so I started thinking about how to respond to that, and again, even though my work has political origins in my head and very much comes from my identity position, that's not always what I'm literally depicting in my work. During that time I started collecting all of the gestures and visual shorthands I could find for signs of destruction like: flames, smoke, dust, exploding particles, crumbling rock, things like that, and kind of collecting snippets of all of the different ways those are represented and assembling those into drawings as well.
I: As an artist who has worked as a professor at SAIC, and is currently the Programs Manager at Headlands Center for the Arts, how do you make time for your own art practice and how does that dichotomy work? Do they feed into one another?
I’ll just say it's really hard. It's not easy at all, and I have had to do a lot of work recently to remember that I'm the only one that can validate my creative practice at the end of the day. Whether you work at an institution or like a studio or whatever, you can't depend on these other forces or people or groups to validate your work, like it's just not going to happen. I’ve loved being an arts administrator, I love helping artists, I've loved being a teacher - my students gave me so much life, but these things are still jobs and it's really hard to have a fulltime job and be an artist at the same time, and you have to learn how to give yourself space and learn how to work at the pace that works for you and also kind of realize that everything you do is kind of going to be for the first time. We don't really have role models or systems or examples. There is no system really for professional artists, there is no model to be a professional artist. Even growing up I knew I wanted to be an artist, but kind of understood that I didn’t know what that meant. I had this sense in the back of my head, I was like: “Well, like there are a couple of people who are really famous…I’d like to be that… but in my head I know the probability of that is not very large, even if I’m really good.” And since I was a kid I didn’t really think about what that meant in terms of difficulty, but I was just like “Well I guess I’ll see, I’m gonna be an artist anyway, we’ll find out. ”I think that's sort of my advice, especially when you find yourself hitting a wall, remember whatever it is you are doing, it is for the first time and in that way it can only be the best you can do and everything you do for the first time is the best right, and you can only learn from that.
Again in terms of validation, like there really is no structure for healthy professional validation in the art world, what will really get you through is: allyship, transparency, honesty, boundaries, camaraderie, and I do want to say that underneath all of this is just economic reality. Like I said, I love my jobs, and I actually consider things like being on Curatorial Council, the way I approach programming at Headlands, stuff like that, I do consider that very creative work that pushes me, but at the end of the day if I had enough money, I would be working for myself and those who do have enough money are able to do that, and that's what they do, and in that sense there's no use comparing yourself to those people because you are doing the best you can with the resources that you have. That statement doesn’t bring us closer to justice, but it does bring us closer to sanity maybe, or coming to grips with our different positions and being transparent about our different positions. I think that's super important because I think so much of the art world runs on us kind of being silent and assuming that no news is good news, like, “Oh you must be doing fine because look at all this output.” So yeah you know, I think as long as we find ways in our jobs, in our work, in these interviews, and in these collaborations to speak our truth, that's the most important part and that's finding solidarity through being transparent, and that is one of the best things I could offer to an up and coming arts worker or artist.
I will say one thing too, that another part of transparency is like, I think I mentioned boundaries before too, but I think for people who are dealing with less money or less resources, the best thing that we can do is protect our time and figure out how to invest our time, just like being very wary of who stands to benefit from your transactional relationships and being very clear about the limits of your time and energy. It's funny, even though I work in the arts I'm continually shocked at how many people in art schools and in arts nonprofits are befuddled by the fact that I have a fulltime job. I once had a department chair express confusion or uncertainty that I wanted to take on more coursework because it would possibly interfere with my studio practice and I'm kind of like: “Well I understand that but I have to work. I can’t just make stuff in my studio, that's just my reality.” I’ve had that with other supervisors as well like: “Is this going to conflict with your studio practice? Will your advancement here mean you have to make compromises at other places?” and just sort of show concern over that, and I’m like: “…Yeah that's sort of what I have to do. That's my life, I have to make compromises. You can either accept that reality and facilitate those compromises or pretend like we’re all coming in with the same amount of resources and make it more difficult for me.” The tension is definitely really difficult and its there but its real and we can all at least support each other in how we move through these systems by pushing for that openness and that transparency, and it's hard because that's what we’re owed from up above right, but hey, at least we can do it for each other.
I: In addition to your practice and other work, you founded the artist partnership No Coast, and you are the Co-founder of the Chicago Art Book Fair, can you tell me a little bit about both and how you got into that?
A: Like I said, I’ve always been involved in art spaces and have training in printmaking so that's the very short answer, and those projects are like a culmination of those interests over time, but basically comics were in a certain sense my gateway to zines, combined with my printmaking background, became my gateway into the artist book world. Silkscreening was the first class I ever took in undergrad, you know Monday, 9am, first year, and it just stuck you know. That's when I was at Oberlin College and I transferred to the Art Institute where there were a lot more options in terms of printmaking, and that led me into fiber because I took a Print for Fabric class so I was really getting into the world of print. At the same time, when I moved to Chicago, I decided to move into a collective artist space, like basically a punk house and really from that end got into apartment galleries, underground spaces, and art spaces. Chicago has a really strong network for that kind of thing because there are so many artists there you know, it's a big city, a lot of museums, a lot of schools and things are changing by the year. I don't know how long I’ll be able to say this, but it's also way more affordable than the coasts, so you have this confluence of artists with cheap rent and institutions all over tend to engage with local communities through programming, but in comparison they don't spend a lot of money investing in local artists artwork, in collecting their work, in showing their work, in investing their practices in hiring them. Institutions always want to hire from outside and stuff like that. Where you have enough artists and enough space, artists will do it for themselves, and that’s what we did in Chicago.
No Coast was kind of a coming together of those two trajectories, and after finishing undergrad I was looking for a place to continue my practice and just friends and friends of friends: when someones looking for a studio, you hear about it. So my co-collaborator, Alex Valentine had found a storefront in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, we all went in on it and just built a really dirty scrappy silkscreen shop in the basement, and cobbled together some tables and display racks for upstairs, like in the old corner store front part and made that into a consignment shop as well as a venue. and we called it No Coast. That sort of lasted a few years in that iteration just because people were going in different directions like going to grad school, moving, or not being able to afford the studio space anymore so the time for a physical space kind of came to an end. Alex and I stayed in Chicago though and we went to grad school at the same time and when we graduated we wanted to start up again, but didn't feel we had the energy to run a physical space in that way anymore so we reconceived No Coast as an artist editions project where the two of us would approach artists individually and work on fabricating an artist edition with them. We released those in batches, kind of like curated batches of three artists at a time.
We did that for a while, and then again just as life changes, felt like that wasn't the format that was sustainable anymore, but we had been touring with these editions through all of the art book fair circuits, so like New York Art Book Fair, LA Art Book Fair, the Printed Matter events, you know every city has an art book fair now even Detroit, even within New York City there’s a Brooklyn Art Book Fair right. So we had kind of toured North America and Europe and Japan through all of these fairs and had this huge catalog of all the things we loved and hated about all the different ones. I’m a dreamer, but Alex is more of the dreamer out of the two of us, and I think someone asked us casually: “Why is there no Chicago Art Book Fair?” and Alex was kind of like: “Huh..is this our job?” We had no idea what we were getting into but we were like yeah I guess maybe this is the next move. We have all this experience and all this networking and we know what we want to offer people, we know what we don't want to offer people based on all of these experiences, we know who we want to be here, we know who should be here that's been excluded, and we just kind of went for it.
I think just a book as a sight for ideas that normally encounter resistance in the art world, it's just so ready. Even just looking at an established artist like Tauba Auherbach, that’s someone who uses print to meet needs that couldn’t be met and to do things that they couldn’t do in a gallery system. I think just the accessibility of it and the way it can be just so cheap or so refined but still kind of occupy a similar space.
I: You also founded the publication, Monsters and Dust, and as an artist myself who is also interested in the intersection of art and publishing, how did you get into that?
A: That came around the same time that No Coast was developing as an idea. I was continuing to look to prints and publishing as a way to get my ideas out. I think that the other ingredient is also a way for me to encounter other ideas, and if you can’t tell from the interview so far, I get a lot of my friendships and relationships and a lot of emotional sustenance from creative collaboration, and Monsters and Dust was just another project in that vein. Another thing about publication is that artist books or art magazines - Monsters and Dust was more of an arts magazine or artists magazine, it's one of the easiest ways to collaborate across disciplines, it involves writing, it involves design, you can go across media as well because a lot of publications have digital versions. A lot of the distribution networks for publications are also similar to distribution networks for music and video, so I think it's a lot easier to work across disciplines not only within the arts but outside of the arts as well.
Monsters and Dust was a collaboration with two non artists, my friend Christopher Pappas who was one of my Co-DJs in Chances, and his expertise is in music. He’s really great with thinking about music and talking about music and thinking about culture through a musical lens, Popular music specifically. My other collaborator was Joe Proux, and Joe’s a writer and really invested in creative writing and poetry. So we just wanted to make something together and wanted a space where we could collect some of our creative thoughts, but also the creative thoughts of the people we love and the people that we admire and we were like: “Oh Maybe it’ll kind of be like Butt Magazine meets Cabinet or like Triple Canopy.” That was kind of our mash-up, we wanted this nerdy, theoretical approach that was also fun and very visibly queer, and we wanted to be a space for queer thought around art and poetics.
Queer thought or thinking was an important phrase, it wasn’t necessarily queer art or queer poetry, or queer writing,but queer thought in all of these things, and a queer poetics that contained them all. In a sense it kind of led in a lot of ways to my work for the Curatorial Council because it was about kind of curatorial experimentation as an editor, about how to make all of these things make sense together and flow together and be very obviously seen through a queer lens whether or not the material itself was queer. In a way that’s often how queerness operates, we take existing things and find ways to recode them for our own purposes and that was sort of our curatorial gesture. It was also really helpful in terms of thinking about prompts and themes because we would have a different theme for each issue, and sort of how to take a word and expand that into infinite possibilities and varied responses, and how to bring those together and lead a reader through why it all makes sense or why it's all in the same place together.
I: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, so I have one last question for you! As a Black, queer artist, do you feel that you are starting to be seen as much as you should in the current art world and within institutions? Or as an artist who has worked on many projects and collaborations, do you feel that creating alternative platforms in these communities allows for more exposure for queer and BIPOC artists?
A: It sort of depends. I’ve been doing a lot of emotional work around not relying on these institutions or benchmarks, or pedigrees, or whatever to validate my work. It's sort of a losing game at the end of the day. I have different answers for different parts of that question and different parts of my practice, you know, though like in terms of these platforms and collaborations I mean I'm really happy to say that I'm just so proud to look back on these accomplishments. None of them really made me any money. None of these things ever sold ads, had corporate sponsors, or even had that many donors, a lot of these things were crowdfunded. The magazines, Monsters and Dust was mostly crowdfunded, Chances was just supported by the community just through ticket and drink sales that we then gave back to the community. We did have some folks in the community who had more resources who would donate more to us and we were super grateful for that, but for the most part these things were labors of love and the thing that makes me feel good about those is that people will tell you.
You don't always hear it right away, but I heard, later when we did a retrospective exhibition about Chances in Chicago, someone who I had known for a long time and had just figured them to be this really amazing person who was doing their own thing and was just supporting Chances, said to me that Chances was part of them learning how to be queer. It was a direct comment, and it was like a flicker moment where I was just like: “Oh wow, this is actually doing something for people.” This is creating a sort of rift in which people can see themselves and each other in a different way, almost existing out of time, like this queer time. In terms of the Art Book Fair, people would just say: “This is always my favorite fair.” And that just means so much. Especially because the book fair circuit, it’s fucking tiring, it’s festival after festival after festival and its just really exhausting, and I’ve been to so many that I’’ve regretted going to or felt like they were just not interesting or not put together well, and to have so many people whose work I respect say that they just have fun at mine? Like: “Yours is the fun one.” or even just little things like: “Hey, are you the one who writes all the emails? It sounds like a real person.” Not to toot my own horn but you asked, so I feel very accomplished in those things. *laughs*.
In terms of recognition in my own studio practice, I feel that's a little more complicated because I work in abstraction and it’s funny because I rarely get approached for shows about identity, and if I do its usually from a queer lens. I have never been approached to be in a show that centers Blackness specifically. But also I’m mixed, I’m half Asian and it was not until I moved to the Bay Area when I was asked to be in a show about Asian identity, and that was actually at SoEx. That was at Kim Acebo Arteche’s show a couple years ago and I think a part of it is Kim’s a really great curator and does her due diligence, but I think in the Bay Area the concept of Asian American identity is just more expansive and in terms of Asian American identity and experience, California is this weird sort of like postmodern nexus and that category is much more broad and expansive here.
I’m not saying I feel underrecognized, I understand that that's a consequence of working in abstraction, but I think it's even more so because I work in abstraction at an intersection of multiple identities, so I think it sets up some professional obstacles in that sense, but it's the authentic place from where I work. It's not like I'm not showing and most of the people I’ve worked with have been great, but most of the people I ended up not working with have shown a lot of laziness in the way in which they approach me and my work, so I do think that the art world has more work to do in terms of being able to recognize artists in more than one capacity at the same time. Conversely, I am also starting to think about: “What can I be doing as an artist to position myself and my identity more visibly, while not changing the work itself to be more didactic?” That's something I’ve been thinking about too.
I: Thank you so much Aay for all your time, energy, thoughts, and candidness! It’s been really inspiring and informative, and it’s just been great having a conversation with you about your work!
A: Yeah! Loved it! I always appreciate the time, and it’s a way for me to reflect on my own work too.
Bio: Isha Tripathi is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who primarily works with drawing, painting, and photography. She is a recent Fine Arts graduate from California College of the Arts and wrote for the college’s student-led art publication, Rewind Review Respond. Most recently, she was the Community Arts and Development Intern at Southern Exposure, and previously worked as an Archives Assistant at A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently based in Brooklyn, New York and is the Gallery Intern at Peter Freeman, Inc.