On Chicago’s North Side, on the southeast corner of the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Clark Street there sits an unassuming and eponymous art gallery. Its proprietor is Jason Pickleman, known in the city for his diligent commitment to the Chicago art world on all fronts. We sat down at Lawrence & Clark in late August to discuss collecting, design, civicidentity, and regret.
B: Should we start with what you just did outside the gallery?
J: I just cleaned up seven pieces of pizza that were thrown onto the sidewalk in front of my gallery, which were an invitation for ants that had already started to crawl all over it. And seeing as though I wasn’t going to be here for another week, it seemed as though it was probably a
good idea to get on my hands and knees and clean up the pizza. It’s not like someone else will come along and take care of it.
B: Do you ever regret opening up a gallery?
J: I have no regrets having the gallery. The gallery has become a practice, like a studio practice. Something I diligently go to on a weekly basis, and something that I think about when I’m not here. I think about works I want to show, artists that I’d like to collect, relationships that I would like to put together within the gallery.
B: Where does the gallery fit into your overall practice? You have your design studio JNL, you have a show of your own work up right now at the Ken Saunders gallery, where does the gallery practice lie in relationship to your other pursuits?
J: Lawrence & Clark is just another project. I don’t think of it as an art work, I don’t think of it as a commercial space, I don’t think of it as a job. In some respect it’s no different than the opportunity that my exhibition at Ken Saunders presented. I had made a couple neon pieces, Ken offered me a show, so I made fifteen more. It was a project.
B: What do you think of your occupation as, considering the scope of your projects?
J: I’ve never labeled myself. No one title seems to cover the range of my interests and activities. I’m primarily a graphic designer, and since I own my own studio, I’m a self-employed business person. I’m also an artist. I guess once a week for four hours I’m also a gallerist.
B: And occasional art dealer, yes? You occasionally have commercial shows here?
J: We have sold a few things in four years, which I could count on one hand, maybe two.
B: You don’t see very many noncommercial/collection-based galleries in Chicago. What was the intention when you first decided to open--was it meant to just act as a space where you could see something you bought twenty years ago next to something you bought last week?
J: That was the initial idea, yes.
B: Has it done what you hoped it would do?
J: It’s become more social than I expected it to be. I’m not putting barriers on what the gallery becomes. I’m putting work up on the walls, and I’m coming here on Saturdays from 1pm-5pm. What happens because of that is a bit outside of my purview. I do leave the lights on 24/7, and you can see about 85% of the gallery from the street. So I do feel as though when I’m not here the gallery is still doing its job. I know--I know because people have told me--that they have driven by or stopped on the street to look. And that’s as satisfying to me as people coming by on Saturdays.
B: I’m interested in the relationship between what you display here and what you display in your home and your studio. I know your studio has wall-to-wall art, is your home similar?
J: Yeah, the home is choc-a-block, things stacked on top of each other. Things are leaning against the walls.
B: How do you decide what goes home, goes to the studio, or comes here and ends up hanging in the bathroom?
J: There’s no rhyme or reason.
B: And no record?
J: No. I don’t have an inventory.
B: Does everything you own have a context for you?
J: It has a location in my mind. I always know if it’s at the studio, at the gallery, or at home. If it’s at home it’s either upstairs or it’s in the basement; if it’s upstairs, it’s either on the wall or it’s in a closet; if it’s in a closet, it’s in one of four closets. At the studio, it’s either upstairs, downstairs, or in the basement. So I have a vague mental inventory.
B: How often do you go to the basement to get one thing, and come back upstairs with another?
J: Frequently. I get distracted in my storage spaces. Which is what they’re good for.
B: You seem to cast a wide net, in terms of what piques your interest as a collector. Since you buy in the moment, are the works you own tied for you to specific times and places in your life?
J: Oh, very much so. Especially the early work. The stuff I bought in the ‘80s, early ‘90s. Things I bought from artist-run spaces like Randolph Street Gallery. Those have a special place in my personal history.
B: Has your relationship changed over the years to those works?
J: I think of them in the same way, but I also think of them in such a way that I know I couldn't afford some of them now. I have a Tom Freidman photograph--early, actually, it might be his first, he’s not known for his photography--called Spitbubble. For a while he was a Gagosian artist. So I’m very charmed that I can own a piece by an artist whose career has evolved beyond the scope of what I could reasonably acquire. But then I have other things that I bought at the same time, from similar galleries by artists whose reputations haven’t ascended quite so commercially, and some of those things mean as much to me as pieces like Spitbubble.
B: What’s the impact of living and working in spaces where so much of your collection is around you all the time?
J: Having the work around all the time constantly feeds my curiosity. It absolutely gives me a charge.
B: You do a good deal of buying, how often do you sell works from your collection?
J: Not often. I regret everything I sell, equally. I’ve only sold four or five things total, since about 1987.
B: Is that when you started collecting?
J: Yes, not counting things I acquired when I was a kid, still living at home. Things like a Jacob Fishman neon flamingo. Paintings by Bob Fischer, who thought of himself as the Andy Warhol of Chicago.
B: Weren’t you briefly his studio assistant?
J: Yes, I worked for him when I was in high school. Gessoing his canvases, doing his laundry, typing his letters, running errands.
B: Is that part of what lead you towards the art world?
J: Well, I went to college in Boston. While I was there I spent a good deal of time at the Institute for Contemporary Art, the ICA, looking at shows, going to lectures, attending performances. It was very formative. It was where I first saw work by Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Brian Eno, Jenny Holzer, and that kind of art making is still very important to me. And that was the first time I recognized it.
B: Were you studying art?
J: No, I was studying English Literature. I moved back to Chicago with no professional ambitions, and luckily after a year of floundering around working in a vintage store and a flower store, and doing little odd jobs, I was offered an entry-level position in a design studio run by Michael Glass. I didn’t have a portfolio, I didn’t have any experience, he just sensed a certain aptitude. We met at an art dealer’s loft at a post-opening cocktail party for a show at the
Randolph Street Gallery. I was maybe twenty-two years old. By then I was finding my way towards meeting people in the art world.
B: At that point, graphic design was still an analog, entirely hand-wrought process. Did you have an existing skill set? How did you manage to step into a job like that?
J: On the first day, I was tasked with designing a logo for the renovation of the Rookery. The thing that would go in the window to cover the glass during construction. The drawings were horrible.
B: Did they use them?
J: No. They were ignored. They didn’t know what to do with me.
B: Did you have a sense that this was going to be your career?
J: No, I wouldn’t have guessed at that time that thirty years later I’d still be doing this.
B: Your design work traffics in cultural production, primarily--museums, galleries, restaurants, books and catalogs. You’ve recently rebranded Chicago’s Millennium Park, as well. A job I heard you offered to do, not one you were asked to do.
J: That’s correct, to a point. I was invited to give a lecture at the Chicago Humanities Festival, on communication and graphic design. In it, I made a snarky comment about how bad the initial logo was for the park. It got quite a laugh. There was someone in the audience who remembered the comment, and later enlisted my services for the foundation associated with Millenium Park. The foundation had never had a logo, and had come to realize they needed one to operate more proficiently. Along the way, I suggested that if we were to do the foundation logo properly, it would necessitate redoing the park’s logo. I showed them what it could look like, and they were supportive. It took about eighteen months, and it happened in this kind of backdoor way, but the park has been rebranded.
B: You’ve not just had a hand in projects of that scale though--I doubt I could make it through a whole day in the city without seeing your work on the side of a bus the front of a restaurant, the shelves of a convenience store. Has twenty-five years worth of cultural production of your own making changed your relationship to the city?
J: I’m fifty-four years old. I’ve lived in Chicago fifty years of my life. So there’s that. But I’m still always tickled when I see my work out on the street. It does make me feel a certain connection.
B: As an artist who is accustomed to making credited works, does the anonymity of your high visibility design work ever bother you?
J: When I think about that, I think about going to the supermarket. Every one of the thousands of products on the shelf has a design studio behind it. In context, being the originator of one particular brand or product feels very insignificant. That keeps me humble.
B: How does that fit in to being an art collector? Who the originator was of the thousand or so individual works in your collection is significant.
J: That’s astute.
B: Thanks. Do you have any feelings about being at the intersection of those two things?
J: No. None.
B: What about the visual identity of Chicago apart from your involvement? Do you suppose you would make or collect the same work if you had decided to live in New York, or stayed in Boston?
J: Chicago in the thirty years that I’ve been collecting, has had two significant schools. The Imagists, who predate me. And then the ‘80s conceptualists who were influenced by the Pictures Generation in New York. This would be like Tony Tasset, Judy Ledgerwood, Jeanne Dunning, and it was the latter group that I befriended and started collecting. So my collecting was definitely influenced by that Chicago crew of young artists.
B: You’ve done most of your collecting in the city?
J: Virtually all of it. Mostly from studios, galleries, artist run spaces. Occasionally from art fairs. I’m never looking for anything specific. I’m just looking at what is bubbling up around me in the spaces I visit, and then the artists that are in my milieu, the art that I like, that makes the hairs on my arms stand up, and I can afford it, I buy it. It’s different than the person who is trying to “build” a collection, and is consciously trying to put a group of works together that reference a larger dialogue or have market pedigree.
B: What works or artists are you most pleased to have found out?
J: I had Sterling Ruby’s first large fiberglass sculpture, about six feet tall. I no longer have it, unfortunately. They brought it over to my studio in the back of a pickup truck. I seem to remember these two guys sitting in the back of the truck, holding onto it rather cavalierly. I’m also very fond of Puppies Puppies. I have about seven works by Puppies. I wish I had more. I regret all the things I don’t buy.
B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?
G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career
one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.
B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?
G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.
B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?
G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.
B: What made you start work on that series?
G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.
B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.
G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.
B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.
G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.
B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?
G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.
B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.
G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.
B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?
G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.
B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?
G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.
B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.
G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.
B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?
G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.
B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?
G: Yes, around forty years.
B: Companion volumes.
G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.
B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.
G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.
B: What else is on deck for you?
G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.
B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.
G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.
B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.
G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.
B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.
G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.