Alex Podesta

Glumly Industrious: An Interview with Alex Podesta

New in Pelican Bomb this month, Nick Stillman travels to Grand Rapids, Michigan and speaks with ArtPrize 2014 contestant Alex Podesta.

After helping New Orleans artist Alex Podesta install a sculpture in Grand Rapids’ Grand River for ArtPrize 2014, I’ve witnessed the gamut of reactions his life-sized human-bunny figures inspire. I’ve seen disbelieving gawkers, couples betting on whether they’re real, dogs cowering in fear, kids screaming with delight, everybody snapping selfies, and sometimes the dismissive or just plain creeped.

Much of Podesta’s meticulous, carefully produced sculptures use animal motifs, and his series of self-portraits in full bunny suits engaged in incongruous busywork has developed into his signature motif. Installations of the “bunnymen,” as the sculptures have invariably come to be referred, are bizarrely confrontational. Whether installed in a gallery, in the ground-floor window of New Orleans’ Saratoga Building, or atop a roof peering down at the street below, Podesta’s work commands total attention and gives none of it back; the figures are forever frozen in industrious, seemingly joyless tasks.

In early 2014 the Arts Council of New Orleans was selected as a venue curator for the ArtPrize 2014 Grand River site, the first time a Southern curator was asked to manage an ArtPrize venue. In September the Arts Council traveled with Podesta to install Self-Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers) in the river, wading around in wet suits until we found a spot with the appropriate depth. ArtPrize, in just its sixth year, has developed into a full-on street carnival of contemporary art—much of it brutal, some of it outstanding—and a new model for audience engagement. All artists who show are eligible for two $200,000 grand prizes: one determined by a jury, the other voted for by visitors to the show. Podesta’s The Bathers didn’t win one of the prizes, but was a top 25 selection in the popular vote category and one of 20 finalists in the juried category. Irrespective of this type of financial thinking that ArtPrize inevitably inflicts on everyone who engages it, the experience exposed thousands of new viewers to Podesta’s work; the piece was impossible to miss as it bobbed about in the river’s current.

Closer looks reveal a lot in Podesta’s artwork. A close look at The Bathers reveals that the gazes of the two figures facing each other are actually downcast, oblivious to the other’s, sadly unmet. Are the multiple figures in the self-portrait series installations adversaries? Multiple angles of the same personality? Melancholic servants to whatever labor or fetish-enactment they’re up to? In our interview below, I try to lead Podesta down some of those rabbit holes.

-Nick Stillman, Deputy Director, Arts Council of New Orleans