Artist Feature: Casey Curran
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
Seattle-based artist, Casey Curran's art, turns and twists, moving in ways that explore systems, symmetry, and patterns. However, after speaking with him about his art, his philosophy and his why, it's clear that one brief conversation or one simple descriptive sentence isn't enough to understand Casey Curran or his work.
Let’s start off with your definition of art.
This is the only time I’ll quote someone else for an answer but Justice Potter Stewart sums up my feelings on the matter pretty succinctly, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography" (read as ART)], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
Okay, then why do you make art?
I’m not sure what else I would do… At this point it’s more a compulsion to make art. I find it both relaxing and challenging. The act of problem solving and seeing a tangible outcome of those solutions brings me a lot of joy.
Was there a moment when you considered yourself an artist?
This is a strange one to answer, because it’s hard to draw a line, point to and say, “On that side I wasn’t an artist, but on this side I am.” I was always that art kid growing up, but never took on the identity of artist until college, when I was more or less locked into it.
How does your personal background and upbringing impact your work?
I grew up in a semi-rural part of Washington state, the neighbors had cows and my backyard was a forest with the Cedar River running through it. My home was always under construction proving true the old adage “a carpenters house is never complete.” It was probably in my fathers shop a got my first taste of sculpture. I grew up around constant remodeling and was deeply acquainted with the inner workings of my home. One month my room would be a bed stacked behind a pile of boxes, the next a cot where the kitchen use to be. I think the omnipresence of a shifting home life, changing and exposed but stable, has probably played into my earliest fascinations with structure, order, and motion.
When you were asked to describe your work you said that you “make things move.” Why do you describe your work in those terms?
Honestly, I was probably being semi-flippant responding in that way. Its a substitute for trying to explain what kind of artist I am. It’s difficult to convey an accurate description of my work so I usually just go with the shorthand. Unless, you know, I’m given the opportunity to open up about it, and point to specific examples of work. More often that not I just say I’m a kinetic artist and explain the latest thing I’m working on… or pull up my website.
What about movement interests you?
THE FORTH DIMENSION! For me it’s not enough to paint an image or sculpt a figure, I need to see those things move. I want to see life in these worlds I’m trying to create.
Why do you use a crank for most of your work?
To break that barrier between the viewer and the work. My art is only complete when it’s in operation, be that cranking it by hand or motorized.
You said that you have found “no reason for ‘why’ plants grow, bodies die, or birds sing but there should be a ‘how’.” How has the exploration for how over why shaped your work?
Why is really the realm of philosophy and as much as I love pondering those big questions any answer I come to always feels lacking. ‘How’ on the other hand firmly rest in the world of empirical science. I'm captivated by the obsession and drive that compels a person to question our most sacred assumptions about the world. I don't think there is anything more satisfying or cathartic than destroying one thing to make another. It's the dance of Shiva over and over. And this perpetual collapse and emergence isn't just limited to objects. They are ideas and nations, religions and Gods, truths and lies. I find a personal stability in science and the “how” of things, the ways it questions and tries to define the world. But I do believe there will always be more to know and understand, places science can't probe. I believe there will alway be a need for humanity to find sacred space in objects and action.
When you describe your work, it seems as if you are exploring a scientific hypothesis. Is that how you approach a new project?
I probably approach the mechanical side of the work that way, if I’m trying to create a new motion or mechanism. Though, there are a few projects I can point to that involve social experiments. In the piece “Grass on Grass,” I created an inverted oblique cone covered in sod which mimicked the central water feature in a local park, and inserted two elements of social interaction. The first, was by keeping the park a park, inasmuch as allowing the visitors to use the sculpture in the same way they would use any other area of the park. Secondly, I placed a single watering can on the piece, and without instruction or prompt, visitors took ownership of the sculptures health, keeping the grass watered and alive throughout the hottest months of Seattle’s summer.
A lot of your projects seem to be inspired by nature. Why is that?
I think maybe it’s less about nature itself but more of what is our modern concept of nature and how do we fit into it. Where do our cultural prosthetics end and nature begin. I live in a house made of chopped down trees with electrified metal dug up from the earth twisting its way though the walls, built with machines that run on dead plants millions of years old…. is that natural? Is it possible for humans to exist in a state of nature without becoming beast? Is civilization/culture/society a natural state of being…? I’m fascinated by this middle ground between animal and human. But it is true that my work tends to focus on observations in nature, but always twisting through them are these questions I ask myself.
You don’t want viewers to be swept away by the ‘magic’ of your work but to easily understand the technique. Why is that?
Have you ever looked at your phone and though… “fuck this is magic”? I have. I do it all the time, but more often than not I glaze over how totally unbelievable this little computer is. In a similar way I don’t want the viewer to glaze over the art. I want everything to be in front of them, exposed and raw. If the viewer can trace the action of a bird flapping its wings or a flower opening and closing its petals to their own action, a closed system is formed, one that the viewer is integral in manifesting.
What about people engaging with your work do you enjoy?
Other than the initial concept and designing phase, seeing peoples faces light up when they realize they’re invited to interact with that art is truly amazing. It’s the best feeling to know I brought a moment of joy to someone, even better when they pull something meaningful or inspiring away from it.
I’m especially intrigued in your interest in Ernst Becker’s Denial of Death. Particularly, do you believe that you have a hero complex?
Possibly in the most general sense on the word… I don’t think I’m saving any lives by the things I make. “Denial of Death” was mainly used as a background for these question around the human animal and what really separates us from other animals. The big idea I took away from the book was a basis for how societies form and how the values of a culture can shape the pursuits of an individual. We’re all engaged in our own causa sui projects
What color scheme are you?
Gold, wood, and shiny black