Conversation with Jeremy Tarr

Jeremy Tarr’s work crosses the disciplines of performance, video, sculpture, painting, and photography; dealing with post-industrial settings, their decay, abandonment and the new narratives that emerge from within and constructed around them.  The Pittsburgh native has had recent solo exhibitions in New York and Germany. The following conversation between YCP Gallery Director Matthew Clay-Robison and Jeremy Tarr digs into the artist’s ideas and offers context to his exhibition, Et in Arcadia Ego, which runs August 22 – October 5 in the York College Galleries in Wolf Hall on the main campus of York College of Pennsylvania. The closing reception for the exhibition will be held Wednesday, October 5 at 6:00PM in the Wolf Hall lobby and Jeremy will be giving an artist lecture that same day at 7:00PM in DeMeester Recital Hall, which is adjacent to the exhibition and directly next to the reception area. The event is free and open to the public. Please join us!


Matthew Clay-Robison (MCR): I would like to jump right into talking about the exhibition and use that to work back into your personal history and how that informs the work. First, let’s talk about the title of the exhibition, Et in Arcadia Ego. Are you referencing the Poussin painting? What are you communicating with that title?

Jeremy Tarr (JT): The title has a little reference to that but majorly it stems from the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian. The judge is a character who is this abomination of a being, he’s beyond the devil or god, it seems to me, and has it etched on the side of his rifle. This idea of “even in heaven I am there” for me comes from this idea that the working class and lower class are people who develop these kingdoms. Without getting into the extremes of my political and religious beliefs there is a movement happening in America, christian nationalism, that believes in an ideology that the wealthier you are, whether social or monetary, will allow you into heaven. This ties into capitalist ideology that melds together church, state, and even the afterlife, at the expense of the working class. 

I like this idea that the working class can remind the world that no matter what I’ve always been here and always will be. I feel like Kathe Kollwitz brought these poetic ideas into her work that I attempt to have a conversation with. But within all this I find that heaven is not this pristine state of being but rather these post-industrial areas that people still live in. That there is something special about these places where rules and structure begin to fall away. 

MCR: That is not the answer I was expecting, but it makes so much sense. The color palette of your exhibition evokes the landscape I experience in my mind’s eye when reading McCarthy, especially The Road, but also the work of Kollwitz as well. I had never made that connection before, but reading McCarthy feels like looking at the Peasant War cycle by Kollwitz. It’s funny that I asked about Poussin’s painting because its softness and bright palette feels almost like the Teletubbies compared to McCarthy and Kollwitz. Well, maybe a scene in which the sun/baby reminds the Teletubbies that someday they will die, but still, a more pastoral, abundant setting than the spirit of McCarthy and Kollwitz that you are capturing in this exhibition. I am interested in the sense of hope and possibility that the phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” inspires in you. In a comfortable, plush setting it is sobering, but in a desolate, perhaps apocalyptic setting it offers hope. Am I understanding you correctly that you find some reassurance amidst upheaval and chaos in knowing that these elements are always present and that the removal of guardrails that protect a certain way of life, especially for some, may give way to the possibility of creating something better?

JT: Exactly, there is this great quote by McCarthy in The Road that has always resonated with me: “Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave”. That has always reminded me of this thing my father said to me growing up, I think it could’ve been someone else or something famous. It’s a blur at this point, but along the lines of “the only places that remain in these neighborhoods are churches and bars”. The people, flora and fauna who remain in these places or rewild these places make the best of their situation and generate culture even when these promises that capital generates fails them. So a lot of the work is referencing religious iconography without fully taking into account its total meaning but reimagining it for a new purpose. In a sense, and I guess this is a good time to bring this up, but using religion and the leftovers of capital as the ghost(s) or chaos of unknowing that we live with and instead choose to find solace in, rather than considering it a stain on the pristine ideas of America. Generational ghosts or something, memories that live. 

MCR: I am interested in the theme of rewilding in this exhibition. I’m thinking of this passage in Mary DiPrete’s powerful essay for the exhibition, “God’s dog, the coyote, ranges over the abandoned land which is his chapel. In the darkness, honeysuckle pollinates the night … When the emptiness of the after moves, absence pulses with what lives on.” It reminds me of David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, which felt like a desperate plea to the audience to take note that humans are not immune to the extinction crisis he has previously, perhaps too gently, tried to show us was happening. I think one of the failures of the environmental movement has been its faith in humans to care deeply about other life forms. What Attenborough demonstrates, and I believe you are also alluding to, is that we are part of the ecosystem that we are destroying and we will perish along with it. And then something new will grow in our absence. The planet will rewild one way or another, and it can happen much more easily without us than with us. I feel like a rude guest at a party who has just put something bluntly that everyone else was delicately speaking around. Your visual and written language is more poetic than my own interpretation, but are we in the same room? The “rewilding” process can involve humans picking up the pieces of a ruined city and rebuilding, but it can also be a process that happens much later when the humans are gone.

JT: Definitely same room. I like to think, and hope, my work does bring up those ideas with viewers. That we need a new ontological turn as a species, one where we don’t see ourselves outside of “nature”, whatever that is, but a shift in thinking that we are a part within everything. 

MCR: What in your life experience has brought you to this awareness of humanity’s connection to other living things? Was it the teachings of others whether friend, family, or mentor?;  insights gained from books; cultivating plants; forest bathing? 

JT: All of the above. My parents, my Mother mainly, always had dogs, her maiden name translates to dog breeder, so we had dogs and I was very close to my childhood dog, “some Norman Rockwell sh*t”, as my Father describes it. But I spent spring and summers fishing, catching crawdads and frogs; waist deep in cricks at the edge of a trailer park. I think in those moments I grew an understanding of how connected everything felt, a sense of oneness. 

When the best spots to catch tons of crayfish for catfishing in the evening are found under discarded tires and car parts in the creeks, that refracts and it changes your lens on things. Pittsburgh is a city of trees, rust, and creeks, so my world view at the time really shifted when I left and realized how different the rest of the world is. 

I also had another really seminal moment growing up in that I was the kid who lived in the haunted house on the street. A man had taken his life in the basement, a rather sad story close to kin story, and growing up all the older kids on the block would tell their siblings and we know how that story plays out. But in hindsight that kind of idea of living with ghosts or memories is a larger idea I focus on in my practice. When does emptiness or a void gain so much weight it becomes present? Funny enough when I moved as a kid I went right back into a house where the same thing had happened. A girl who lived down the street told me one day on the bus that people had died, again in a not so easy way, in the house I now lived in and it was haunted. I approached my Dad about it and he confirmed telling me to never let my little sister know (she just found out last year). And I think of all these things becoming tied together, the landscape, the people, the animals, all living things with these histories together because of the steel mills (capital) and the effect it has had throughout the entirety on the rust belt. It all becomes one in a fragmented history but passed down as a metaphor and ghost stories as an ecology. 

MCR: Your stories make me think of how open to possibility children are and how my six year old son responded to your exhibition. He stopped for a moment before going into the larger gallery due to the darkness but when he realized the lights were responding to his motion he was delighted by that. A little too delighted because he started running around, so I took him to the other side and he yelled out, “oooh, honeysuckle, my favorite!” He wanted to eat it and play with the dirt. He had so many questions and was very interested in learning about everything in the show. Some adults are able to protect and nurture that curiosity, but society will beat it out of you if you’re not intentional about it. I would love to hear more about your background and your experience growing up in Pittsburgh and how the materials you work with relate to that experience. 

JT: I love that about your son, I feel like that is one of my target audiences in a strange way. I once had a little girl around 4 or 5 let out the loudest giggle during an open studio when she found a pile of werewolf masks I had in the corner for a piece I was working on. I feel like younger people give me a good gauge in that sense. 

My materials and even the research that goes into my work all stems from my experiences. So the carbon fiber rods are the same carbon fiber rods that archers use today. That piece also is in reference to Saint Sebastian. The honeysuckle was something my grandmother would take me to do along with picking black berries that would grow wild around her house. She told me as a kid that was her candy store and putting two and two together it dawned on me that she was so poor growing up that was what was available, so it became this loaded symbol. The motion detectors in this setting can be both playful and a deterrent. Those come from doing things I shouldn’t have been doing as a teenager and a motion light kicks on and everyone runs but is now a symbol of privatization of land. The VHS scans were built out of an idea of wanting to point a xerox machine at a tv screen and that came out of putting my face against the tv as a kid and watching the colors move along with the image. I decided to print them aluminum so it has that moment when you’re watching a movie and it goes black and you can see your silhouette. A moment where suspension of disbelief is seized.  

MCR: Coming back to the motion activated lights, they lead you through and provide the light necessary to see certain aspects of the exhibition, but they also suggest different possible themes; there are two things in particular that I feel and they are related but not necessarily the same. The first is a feeling that you just confirmed; that the lights are a security system protecting private land and potentially alerting someone to my presence. The second is that there is nobody to alert and that these lights are among the technological detritus of human civilization that far outlast us. What do you think of my interpretations?

JT: Those are perfect interpretations, I mean I would hope my work has many different lenses to be viewed through. I was thinking about private property and vast swaths of land that are empty parking lots, abandoned strip malls and how they are fenced in or have security to protect the property that is essentially a tax writeoff for whomever owns it as a business loss. But how those areas are haunting grounds for outsiders. But I wanted to make something that both engaged and deterred its viewers, occupying both spaces. I refer to those sculptures in a series called Ignis Fatuus essentially translates to Will-o’-the-wisp or fools fire. Something that misleads and is tied into the ideas of Jack-o’-lanterns. 

MCR: The technological advances of the Industrial Revolution transformed society in many ways, one of which was skyrocketing emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that have a significant impact on our climate. It seems sometimes like there are two paths moving forward and one of them could be perceived as moving backward, which is to say returning to methods of sustainable farming, reducing our consumption, living simply, etc. versus the other option which is to place our faith in technology and hope to innovate and discover our way out of the mess we’ve made. Most of us can’t go fully in either direction, which I think causes significant moral anxiety, and this exhibition seems to speak to this reality; you have brought live plants that you cultivated yourself into the space along with other animal bones and references to natural forms, but your work is also heavily invested in technology and new ways of making. Are you challenging the notion that there is a dichotomy between rewilding/return to nature and developing new technologies?

JT: I think it’s definitely built into it. I don’t believe it’s as black and white or as binary as presented. I think on one hand technology is great as a new set of tools but its utopian advertisement is fraudulent. 3D printing won’t save lives or even more importantly change hearts and minds. I also think, as I mentioned before, there needs to be an everyday shift in ontology but on the other hand it’s something like 90% of our carbon emissions come from a couple of companies who control a ton of policy. Even if all civilians went totally green, car sharing, growing a portion of their food, reducing waste etc. we would still be facing this existential threat. In the grand scheme of the universe things go extinct with or without the human perspective. But that is not to say there shouldn’t be a fight for a better existence, I just think it comes along with more thoughtful ideologies. I guess a long way of saying that ultimately we are animals and our tools and technologies affect other beings and we have a wildness together with other beings. I feel like it breaks down because it’s not binary but ever shifting between rewilding and technologies. New technologies are still tools for animals.

MCR: I love how interdisciplinary this exhibition is in terms of inspiration, material, and content. I am imagining three students entering the gallery; one majoring in Biology, another in Sociology, and a third in Supply Chain Management. What are some things specific to their disciplines that you hope they are picking up on in your work or taking away as inspiration?

JT: I think there are individual things they each could take away but also a general idea. Biology being about the study of animals and plants in post-industrial areas and how humans have had an effect on their evolution; Sociology being a shift in how we study humans and species together rather than as separate things i.e. people are generally happier and have better lives when there are green spaces everywhere; Supply Chain Management in how we develop and use materials and the future effects. Generally though, I would hope they could see how connected they all are to each other and why it’s important to fold things together. In the past we’ve talked about how important we both think STEAM is and I think it brings up an idea of if we exist interconnected and find poetics in how we exist there might be a shift in ontology.  

MCR: Beautifully stated. Before we wrap up this conversation, will you please share where you find the urge  to keep making your work and who or what are some of your most important influences? This can include writers like Cormac McCarthy, fellow visual artists, other forms of art like film, music, or even types of activities that feed your creative soul or jump start ideas. Where do you go to keep the creative fire burning? If that’s too trite a description of what it actually feels like, how might you describe it?

JT: I think it comes from a want to understand the world and having these abstract ideas that I have a difficulty using words to describe. It sits somewhere as an atmosphere and environment for me. It also feels necessary to play in the world as a means to better understand it, to shape it. I know a long time ago, it feels, I gave myself over to art as a reason to exist and define my existence. 

As far as influences I have a number of artists who I look at: Tatiana Trouve, Pierre Huyghe, Bela Tarr, Tarkovsky and so on. I also find influence in things like demolition derbies, strange occurrences that I experience. I was camping during COVID and purposefully camping in an area in Vermont called the Bennington Triangle where strange occurrences happen. And during the night I was collecting wood on this dried rock bed and as I stuck a group of leaves with a piece of wood and unveiled a wasps nest. And seeing this swarm lazily move around in my headlamp just struck me. Those little moments where things feel out of control but bewildering I try to bring into my practice. Trying to capture disparate moments together to form something new. 

Overall, my practice is always perpetuating itself. I’ve often described it as walking in the woods or through a swamp at night with just a flashlight and seeing something in the spot, trying to understand it and then realizing there is something else up ahead. Something there about sticking with the fear of the unknown and how it reveals and conceals simultaneously that fuels me. I know for this exhibition I had been sitting on these ideas for a couple years and seeing it all come together completely stoked a new fire and body of work, one going back to smaller more traditional sculptures with these materials. It kind of webs in and out of itself. 

I know my answers tend to be long-winded but I will leave with one more example of how my practice flows. I was visiting my parents and my father had told me a group of coyotes had moved into the strip of woods behind their house. The same strip I would build forts and light fires and so on, as a teen with nothing to do. One morning while there I saw a coyote move through that area and it felt like this collapse of time and space. As a kid finding solace in those grounds now a new “vermin” finds itself haunting there. Using the material and things I knew, I set up some of my dad’s trail cameras to capture them in these dumping grounds. The photos have the same grainy aesthetic as punk show fliers and acetone transfers, things I’m drawn to. I started to research where and how trail cameras came about and it turns out a conservationist, George Shiras III, came up with trip wires to take dry plate photos of animals in the dark in the late 1800’s. Also, I guess serendipitously, he was born and lived in what was early Pittsburgh, PA, Allegheny City. Just following this path of what is this and how it functions leads me to different ideas within my practice. I end up taking from these different moments in time and collapsing them together to find this common area between them where the possibility for something new and unknown can form. 

MCR: Wow, that is fascinating and offers valuable insight into the images on the wall. Thank you so much for this conversation. Your thoughtful responses have deepened my understanding and appreciation of your work and I am grateful to you for sharing this work and your ideas with the York College and greater York communities.

Exhibition Essay by Mary DiPrete

Even in Arcadia, there am I. This is a landscape of the after, the behind: post-industry, post-promise, post-America. A specter traces the topography of the back of beyond, where the trail camera catches refraction in its teeth. This landscape shivers at the edge of the knowable, where the familiar becomes dissociate and the illegible is unblurred. Where the void of capitalism is haunted by the fantasy of the whole, what is shown to be salvageable is the fragment which resists interpolation. Each piece is not object but abject, discarded to feed the delusion of capital. Here, the wilderness of the aftermath reveals what survives. What remains is what can live as revenant: the ghost of narrative, the skeleton of what was. Each trace is an animal trap for the light. Even in Arcadia, I am to be found. This is a landscape that receives collapse, a space which can withstand the disintegration of binary. Here, the forgotten and discarded is elemental, hallowed. Here, the profane is sacred. Fragment throbs with presence. God’s dog, the coyote, ranges over the abandoned land which is his chapel. In the darkness, honeysuckle pollinates the night. This landscape knows that its fracture is not its nullification. When the emptiness of the after moves, absence pulses with what lives on. I (death) too am present in Arcadia. Beneath the facade of capital, what is left undead by its failure breathes. Where capital pretends the disenfranchised as the death which haunts heaven (the lethal in it), the site of collapse—the back of beyond—exposes capital as that death, the excommunicated as that heaven. In this landscape the holy, the divine, the consecrated is reversed, rewired, reclaimed, and remains. Holes in the blackness (light which follows body) avow this heaven. And in Arcadia I am.

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