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Interview: Joshua Littlefield's Gradual Understanding

Interview: Joshua Littlefield's Gradual Understanding

Tell us about yourself, how did you become an artist?

I'm not sure there's a legitimate "how" or "why" to becoming an artist, at least in my case; essentially, that creative drive was always there, somewhere. There was no singular catalyst that prompted acting on instincts, and there was no instantaneous moment of clarity resulting in any career-goal rerouting; instead, it was more a gradual understanding. When I was younger, particularly during my mid-to-late teen years and within the accompanying contexts of navigating high-school, there were many personal and internal struggles occurring within me, primarily regarding an all-consuming queer loneliness.

I wasn't then and am not now particularly special or unique in any way, but as a young, overweight, closeted LGBTQIA+, introverted, antisocial loner homebody, communication and relationship-building were never easy to instigate. In that way, art-making somewhat fell into my lap - it, for whatever reason, provided a conduit of discussion and expression and release that seemingly never presented itself anywhere else. Most of my friendless free-time, in school or out, had always been spent doodling bad fashion, or playing with paints, or making intricate maps of faux-worlds, or crafting poorly Photoshopped (and highly filtered) images, etc. . . On a whim, I took a photography course, and kept with it because it was unexplainably gratifying (which I'd later come to discover was because of the near immediate nature of the medium). Then, in an eleventh hour switch, I decided to pursue art school because it seemed much more alluring than obtaining a communications degree from a local college that I was already committed to attending simply because-it-was-there, and, well - here we are.

What is your background? and how did it inform the focus of your creative exploration or the medium you're currently working with?

Being born and raised in Florida gave way to nothing besides wanting to leave; there's no particular genuine dislike in me for where I'm from, but it never felt like "home", or like there was anything waiting for me there, personal or artistic or otherwise, beyond a childhood. When the opportunity arose to leave, I took it. Interestingly, despite spending the ages of seventeen and eighteen in a dark room processing poorly shot black-and-white portraits that mimicked traditional Madonna paintings (their forms always intrigued me), the beginnings of my college career and artistic practice were more fashion-based, though it was quickly discovered I had little patience, skill, or mathematical prowess for pattern-making or operating industrial-grade sewing machines. Eventually, I fell back into traditional film photography because it was what I knew, what I was most comfortable with, and what had initially aided in outward expression, but that conformity came with problems of its own - at some point undeterminable, much like the isolation and inabilities of my childhood, the mere notion of making another photographic portrait became suffocating and limiting and impermeable. Such a sobering realization provided a much-needed kick-in-the-pants to begin letting go of rigid medium-specificity, and to allow my practice to evolve in whatever way "felt right" rather than what I perceived as the correct way to exist as a photographer.

Enclosed Loop, Archival Pigment Print of Digital Collage from Enhanced Polaroids and Magazine Clippings, 6 ft. x 3 ft. 2 in., 2020

What ideas interested you in the beginning of your practice, which ideas have you continued to explore, and where have they led you?

When you fall into something because you're socially inept as a child, there's not much room for growth - photography encompassed the beginnings of my practice because of availability, and it took me quite some time to realize that isn't sustainable. By the fourth or fifth year of "being a photographer", I'd reiterated the same series of black-and-white portraits innumerable times over - photography worked as an initial medium of choice when I had less to express (or, really, had less confidence in expression) because of its inherent limitations, but as my personhood evolved, my practice reached a point of stagnation. Straight photographic imagery, which had previously been a gateway to overcoming emotional uncertainty, began unveiling its (or my) unwillingness to bend. There was always so much happening outside of the frame (i.e. the abject terror swimming in my head while having to interact with a model, the heat of a Georgia summer baring down while setting up a large format camera outside, the car passing in the background of a shot that triggered some deep and hazy and unclear memory) that couldn't be captured on a single slide.

DAY (OR NIGHT) CYCLE 06 - AN ERSATZ HEART, YOUR FELLOWSHIP UNFORTUNATELY NOT MEANT TO BE, Archival Pigment Print of Digital Collage from Enhanced Polaroids and Faux Fur, 2 ft. 3 in. x 2 ft. 3 in., 2020

At some point, I realized I could communicate these invisible aspects of experience by shellacking texture or color or shape onto negatives / prints, or altering / combining images digitally, post-shooting. The initial "ideas" I'd ascribed to photography - that it was and should be a stringent documentation of reality - have receded into the background of my practice. I use my imagery as a starting point (a backdrop of sorts) - a literal representation of what I see when photographing - but my post-processing collage work or alteration, however strict / gridded or free-flowing (or physical or digital) it may be, now serves as a spillway of those happenings, either relating to current or prior life experiences, depending on what occurs around or inside me while I'm photographing.

Who were and are the biggest sources of your inspiration?

I hesitate to allow too much inspiration based off of the works or careers of others because it is important to understand, first and foremost, who you are as a person and creative rather than trying to exemplify or aggrandize the practices of hyper-famous artists, but when restructuring my approach to artmaking, exposure to people such as John Baldessari, Beverly Semmes and Shay DeTar illuminated an understanding that relegating oneself to a specific medium isn't necessarily apt or applicable for one's practice. Observing artists who used images in ways that weren't entirely about the contents within the picture frame allowed me to look at photography through an additive lens rather than a be-all-end-all of who I was or could be as an artist.

DAY (OR NIGHT) CYCLE 05 - THE EASTERN SIREN WAILS FOR PEOPLES LOST OUTSIDE, Archival Pigment Print of Digital Collage from Enhanced Polaroids and Faux Fur, 2 ft. 3 in. x 2 ft. 3 in., 2020

Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere and everything. I'm not synesthetic, but color, texture, shape, light, smell, sound, movement, etc. . . can all be alluring in their own notable ways. When I'm photographing, or rooting around the dozens of multi-gallon bins stored around my apartment containing collections of fabric, paints, dyes, stickers, metal, rope, wallpaper scraps, rubber bits and bobs, tapes, glues, found images, and so-on and so-forth, and that are often the result of years of accumulation, or messing around in Photoshop twisting, turning, repeating or manipulating a singular or multiple images, there's usually no starting point or intended goal in mind. I've gotten to a place in my practice where I allow discovery to happen rather than forcing some falsified deep-meaning, or trying too much to "make art". Sometimes what is appealing is surface-level (i.e. enjoying the curve of a curtain or the way the sunlight hits a curb), and sometimes it is genuine and meaningful (i.e. paint spilled on an unintended section of an image that does, for whatever reason, conjure up and force confrontation of those-times-my-loneliness-feels-overwhelmingly-crushing). Sometimes the connections are obvious (i.e. sparkling red nail foils laid over photographs of the alley behind my apartment relating to the literal feeling of the wind chill biting my skin as I was taking out the trash in the dead of winter), sometimes they're completely incongruous (i.e. photographs of my white apartment walls and black t-shirts that, when arranged in Photoshop, somehow encircles the realities of living in and barely leaving a 700 square foot basement apartment during the near entirety of 2020). It varies widely depending on a wide array of variables, so to say.

DAY (OR NIGHT) CYCLE 07 - CATATONIC UNTIL A SHAKY BREATH IS USHERED INSIDE LUNGS THAT WORK ONLY PART OF THE TIME, Archival Pigment Print of Digital Collage from Enhanced Polaroids and Faux Fur, 2 ft. 3 in. x 2 ft. 3 in., 2020

Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory?

Absolutely - I was working on a series of large (approximately 3 ft. 5 in. x 1 ft. 5 in. x 8 ft. 5 in.) collages printed onto treated silk chiffon and hung from freestanding metal and wood structures, titled Synaptic Breezeway, from 2019-2020. I'd been in a sort of wax and wane battle between the physical versus digital nature of my work (and was making some truly terrible miniature material collages on Polaroids) - for example, what was the purpose of collaging onto negatives or prints if the end result would be a scanned and reprinted facsimile of that physical alteration? Could the same effects not be done purely digitally? Approaching Synaptic Breezeway via its scale and material helped a confrontation and work-through of these questions. As with many prior artistic struggles, the resolution turned out to be a happy medium between the two - nothing needed to be purely digital or purely physical, purely flat or purely three dimensional, purely tangible or purely permeable, etc. . . Since sidelining the project (for the meantime), I've made more new work I'm excited about in the last eight or nine months than I had in years.

Front Room, Archival Pigment Print of Digital Collage from Enhanced Polaroids and Polaroid Color Swatches, 2 ft. 2 in. x 3 ft. 5 in., 2020

How did it begin? and how did it evolve?

Even far past when I'd loosened the stranglehold on my practice in terms of media, it was often the case that false meanings or purpose were still being shoehorned into finished products after-the-fact. I wasn't necessarily being conscious about ascribing significance to the choices made during making, or what came of them (which is fine - sometimes choices can be conscious and measured, sometimes they can be happy accidents), but every finished pieced ended up feeling hollow, like they were empty forms that the answers to could only be filled in when someone-other-than-myself required it. As mentioned earlier, I'm bad at determining the beginnings of things - they're usually blurry - but towards the end of 2019, and into 2020 (right when the pandemic was announcing its foothold), and after some deeply personal conversations and revelations, I circled around to bask in the glory of one central gospel; I'm a complete and total liar. An avoider. I've been ineffectual my entire life regarding dealing with anything of personal gravitas, and it was far-past time I told myself to "grow the fuck up" - works produced during 2017-mid 2019 existed in a state of nothingness because they were nothing. My practice became separated from personal life issues and struggles, and personal life issues and struggles (past basic acknowledgement of them) had typically been shoved into some un-openable box towards the back of my brain. Synaptic Breezeway resulted from this recognition, and it cannot be understated how much of a needed catharsis the series was / is - it allowed for the confrontation of so many critical life moments that had gone completely ignored, ranging from internal queer hatred / acceptance, to childhood bullying, struggles with intense body dysmorphia disorder, agoraphobia, isolation, self-hatred, etc. . . It helped to release some unseen shackles and move forward both personally and artistically.

What were important lessons in the process that you’ve carried forward with you?

Don't put all of your stock in one effort or one aspect of your life - making artwork is just as important as taking the time to care for yourself mentally. When everything is evened out, the various aspects of being a conscious practitioner of the arts and of being a complex, multi-faceted person can inform each other rather than interfere with progress.

Floor Map (Tone), Archival Pigment Print of Digital Collage from Enhanced Polaroid Color Swatches, 7 ft. 1 in. x 2 ft. 1 in., 2020

What are you working on now?

As of now, I'm concurrently working through three new series (some of which are here) - Paradise, Dream (For Me Alone), Apartment Mania, and Land Of Carpet. All are pandemic-related on some level or another; while fortunate enough to have a day job that allows me to make a living working from home, like many other people, my living space has become much more than that - it is now not only where I exist in my free time, but also a studio where work is made and an office where money is earned. Since March, 95% of my time has been spent in the same four rooms of the same English basement apartment in the same city - despite being reclusive by nature, it's been somewhat maddening on a level unexpected. This has given me an allowance to explore what it really means to be both inside and outside of the home in a time of invisible danger.

Bathroom Hallway, Archival Pigment Print of Digital Collage from Enhanced Polaroids and Polaroid Color Swatches, 2 ft. 2 in. x 3 ft. 5 in., 2020

If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your art practice and give your younger self a single piece of advice what would it be?

Perhaps more than one, but all points are related to the same principle:

Loosen up! Breathe. Don't torment yourself over your status compared to others, or your status in the medias you employ, or your status among artists in general. Allow yourself to make freely and without the overbearing pressures of pre-imposed, entirely faux notions of success. Lean into and learn from your failed works and abandoned ideas - don't be embarrassed by them, don't ruminate over them in a way that is unhealthy and obsessive, and don't try to pretend they didn't happen. Remember - making art should be exciting, not something to stress over.

Group 01 ( Everything Is Easy If You Don't Do Anything ) [Made Up Of Individual Pieces; Happy Meadow Full Of Lovely Flowers (Left), Yet, Blueberries Give Us Stomach Aches (Middle) and Summer Brought Only Endless Rainstorms (Right)], Mixed Media Collages Printed on Silk Chiffon, Metal, Wood, 3 ft. 5 in. x 1 ft. 5 in. x 8 ft. 5 in. (each), 2019-2020

About the Artist

Based in Baltimore, Maryland

Joshua Littlefield (b. 1995) is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in the contexts of photography, collage and sculpture. Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, he obtained his B.F.A in Photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2017, and his M.F.A in Photography and Electronic Media from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2020. His artworks have been exhibited nationally and internationally in galleries and institutions including RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Denver, CO, The Masur Museum of Art in Monroe, LA, Scarab Club in Detroit, MI, The Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA, and Gologorski Gallery in Krakow, Poland, and printed in publications including The Hand Magazine and Pastiche Magazine.

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