Gary Setzer is a local abstract interdisciplinary artist who says his works are "pretty weird." An Ohio native, he taught for several years at Bowling Green University, but moved to the Old Pueblo nine years ago to, instead, create wonky, thought-provoking performance video art pieces and teach at the UA. For more on Setzer and his work, go to www.garysetzer.com.
You're primary medium is a combination of video, music and performance arts, yes?
Yeah. I think so. That's fair to say.
Why did you choose those mediums for your art?
Well, I think, at the end of the day, we are who we are and I'm not so sure I actually had a say in it. I was a painter originally and I slowly sort of found my way to the mediums. They were not mediums that necessarily stood out to me, originally. Let me just say—it was feeling right.
I worked very hard at [painting] and I feel I gained a fair amount of proficiency, but I think I hit a point where I realized the questions I was asking myself were questions that had been kind of belabored already in history and in the margins of the field. I was trying very hard to find a way to do that with painting—and I love painting, my favorite artists are painters in many cases—but I ended up breaking my wrist and started doing performance art because of that. I liked it so much I never turned back. The conversation was so fresh to me—not to say that painting wasn't fresh, because I still think a lot of the fresh start out there painting. But just in terms of my own contributions, it wasn't the right fit, and I didn't notice that until I tried other things.
What are common themes your projects focus on?
The works that I make kind of hover in and around issues with language, and mostly on the shortcomings of language and their inability to encapsulate experience. Although it's the primary mechanism we use to relate our experiences, I often find it's a cruel tool for doing so. But I also think that its inability is what allows us to be poetic. It's just kind of an estimation between what we say and what we mean often can lead to subtlety and poetry and beauty, and I believe in all those things. I know we're supposed to think beauty is dead as artists, but I don't think that's the case. I still think there's a lot of things we can sincerely connect to in the world and in museums or galleries or wherever.
How would you describe your art's aesthetic?
I think [my aesthetics] relate more to minimalism than they do to the history of performance art, in the way that things are framed and perceived—I think that's the painter in me that tried to overlay that compositional consideration onto whatever my practice might be. I really like things noise-free, so to speak, to boil things down to archetypes so there's no confusion as to what is being presented...I want the information to be available to the viewer instantaneously and to be burned into their eyes, in a way, so they can walk away two weeks later and still have the image burned into their head so they can think, "What does that mean?" For me, it's more about the subtlety of idea than the subtlety of image. I want it to be very singular, straight-forward, and almost easily dismissed in the means of aesthetics.
So simplicity is bliss.
I believe very highly in symmetry, which I know is a no-no in some art circles, but when you look at the films of Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick, everything there is perfectly centered. To me, that's kind of a great technique for cutting through that noise and allowing people to really focus on what you are trying to say in the work through what you're trying to show them. I believe in beauty in that very strict realm—it's almost a more scientific-method approach rather than, you know, "Oh, if you tilt the camera, the composition will be better." I don't really buy into that.
Do you have any projects or exhibitions, local or not, coming up?
I'm working on a few larger projects right now. I want to say it's a video screening that's coming up in Denver—it might have already happened. Sometimes you lose track of when stuff happens. What I'm trying to focus on now is trying to get together a tour for my performance work over the summer. And I don't know where that will take me—it's just very efficient with the work I do to try and line up several dates around the country and do a number of things.
You're a professor at the UA. What type of classes do you teach? I do a number of different things. I teach anyone from undergraduates to graduates. My favorite class is a performance art class that I teach, but I also do video art classes and teach a lot of 100-level classes. I also chair our First Year Experience Division, which is what a lot of schools call foundation programs. It's set up like a salad bar, so the kids get a lot of broad exposure to a lot of different types of artistic practices in their first year so when they go to choose their major, they make an informed decision based on their actual experiences rather than whatever skill their high school had available. We try to give them the room to spread their wings a little bit before they channel in for the next four years.