Mike Osterhout, Artist
9.29.14 Glen Wild, NY
One of the less appealing aspects of living in the countryside is pissed off neighbors. How brilliant would it be to have Osterhout's Sorry piece in your front yard! It's rare when an artist's work makes me laugh and reflect simultaneously, but then I'd never met anyone like Mike. Welcome to the wonderful world of Mike O!
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
UD: Sportaldislexicartaphobia was the title of your recent lecture in San Francisco. What does that mean and what did you talk about?
MO: I needed a title for the lecture so I googled 'fear of art' and it came up; probably somebody just invented it. I thought, "Ah, that's perfect!". I gave an overview of my work, starting with The Cardiff Giant. This was a hoax in the 1860's. The actual sculpture is in the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown. It started with a guy who was an atheist, who got into an argument at a revival meeting about giants walking the earth. He paid someone to create a sculpture of a 10 foot long carved man. He then secretly buried it out in his field. A year later, he hired a couple of guys to dig a well, and he said, “Oh, dig over there.” So they found this “man” and thought it was an ancient artifact! It became a huge phenomenon even though it’s a crude looking sculpture. It drew huge crowds; they made loads of money on it; PT Barnum even wanted to buy it. Well, it was the first piece of art I ever saw when I was 12 years old. And it was a hoax. So I used that as the starting point of my career. So much of my work is pranks and hoaxes and conceptually complicated.
UD: Why the “fear of visual arts”?
MO: I think I need fear all the time. I think fear is a great challenge to have and to overcome constantly. The fear of success, the fear of failure, the fear of where's the next piece coming from? It’s a fear that never goes away.
UD: Tell me how you ended up here in Glen Wild, NY.
MO: Well, I'm from the area, and I had spotted this church in the '80's and I was blown away by it. Part of my work has always been working with religion and religious imagery. So, I left a card that said, "If you ever want to sell this church, let me know." So, years went by and the guy who owned the church called me and said he wanted to sell it and so, I bought it in '95.
UD: What is about religion that you're drawn to?
MO: I'm not religious at all. Everybody makes fun of it; it's like a church without religion. Once I got to college, art history seemed to be all religious imagery. I started doing pieces that had a Sunday school theme. I wasn't knowledgeable at all in religion, so when I graduated from art school, I went to seminary, but as an artwork. Religion became one of the larger themes in my work. Church of the Little Green Man started in '86 down in the East Village. It's come and gone over the years, and this is the most recent incarnation up here, which started maybe five years ago. The first service that we did here was The Mortgage Burning, because I had paid off the house and church. We do various crazy themes — like Hillbilly Heroin, Confederate Flag Burning Church — in that you burned a confederate flag instead of a dollar.
UD: You must tell me about The Gaza Strip Club, are strippers included?
MO: Since I now own a Synagogue, I've just started using that as an overall art project. I'm utilizing it as my object studio, and using the outside to do different signage and things like that. I had the idea to do The Gaza Strip Club — but it’s just a sign, not an actual club.I've used Hebrew on my signs, like God Love Fags and God Loves Dykes. I use Hebrew — not to offend, but to engage the community here in the Catskills. So, The Gaza Strip Club, although I think it's really funny and would be great — I’m afraid the Hasidic community wouldn't have a sense of humor at this point.
UD: Tell me a little bit about your work process.
MO: It's all over the place. Sometimes, I work strictly conceptually. I have an idea of something I want to do, and I follow through on that. But more recently I'm becoming a studio artist, which is something I always kind of despised. I stepped away from that very early in my career, but now I'm finding — like hunting — I'm really into it. I sit in the studio and have no idea what's going to come, and eventually something does — a drawing, a painting, a sculpture. I'm becoming more open to various ways of working and not restricting myself to being purely conceptual.
UD: Is hunting part of your conceptual art?
MO: I grew up hunting, as did so many kids in my generation. When I was about 19 or 20, I stopped hunting because I was maturing, thinking about — do I want to kill something? But many years later, I decided to contextualize hunting within my work. So, I started small — hunting squirrels. Then I skinned them, salted them, deconstructed them, and put them into a sculpture. I realized, "Okay, this is giving me not only specific objects, but also some source material." The whole process was helping my work. I think I needed a reason. I couldn't just go hunting again. I needed that intellectualization to drive me forward, and it did.
UD: You created Kristan Kohl, an Alter Ego.
MO: I decided to create art under the table, nobody knowing about it and I invented the artist, Kristan Kohl. I started with just monochromes. I told people she was a German woman who didn't like to travel. That's how I could have an opening in New York, and when people would ask, "Well, where's the artist?" I’d go, "Oh, she's back in Germany." At a certain point, I wanted Kristan Kohl to die. So Carlo McCormick wrote an obituary for the East Village Eye. Now the gallery handled “her” estate. And we had an unlimited supply of artwork! So, people would go, "Oh, more Kristan Kohl paintings? I thought she was dead?” I’d explain, "Yeah, we just discovered more in storage somewhere." But eventually, the joke got out, and people knew. There are still people who think Kristan Kohl existed.
But now I'm finding that all the “personalities” are too cumbersome. Like, maybe 20 years ago there was a reason for it. So, it's Mike Osterhout now!
UD: So you are “coming out of the closet”? [Laughs]
MO: I'm coming out of the closet, but not entirely. [Laughs] The billboards are done under the name, Tobias Zintel, who's a real artist. We traded for the use of his name for a year. I showed billboards under his name for that year.
UD: So, is it Supermodels or Playboy Bunnies?
MO: Supermodels. I started a blog, Hunting with Supermodels, because a friend of a friend was a Victoria Secret model, Morgane Dubled, and she wanted to go hunting. My brother and I took Morgane hunting, and I just said, "Oh, man, this is such a good name for a blog.
UD: What's not art in your world?
MO: Oh, many, many things! I mean this kind of life as art, which is the tradition I came from can be very problematic. I was very influenced by people like Tom Marioni and David Ireland. But, what I didn't like about it was the banality of life. Making banality art didn't seem that much fun. So, if I was going to make my life art, I wanted my life to be fun. That's why the rock band became art, became a sculpture — not just a rock band. It became a conceptual work. I'm developing my life and using it as art. As a hunter, as a studio artist, as a musician.
UD: So you think, in a way, is it about learning?
MO: I think all of life and all of art, is about learning. But then, how do you gauge? Was it a good rock band? I don't know? It wasn't good enough to be a famous rock band. It wasn't good enough to get signed, right? But, we did record; we did play many gigs. We played all over. So, is it good enough to be a rock band as art? Yes. Most definitely. And then when you contextualize it, like, in a lecture, you can talk about it in those terms. It's exactly like an object to me. It's like that stretch of time when I was in seminary, that stretch of time when I had a gallery, that stretch of time when I had a rock band. Completely sculptural, using time and space as material.