Michael Stipe’s personal art studio is in a weirdly public place—the gallery for NYU’s studio art school, 80 Washington Square East. But he only works there when it’s closed.
During the day, through a fence, visitors can see signs of progress, like the stack of cardboard boxes that started rising on the windowsill. To the kids they probably say “pizza,” but up close it’s clear they’re shaped like machines. The column (shout-out to Brancusi!) celebrates the first piece of personal tech to influence Stipe’s life as an artist, the clock radio.
Sometimes, he has to explain to the students how this magical device worked when it was awakening his generation to the Archies back in 1969.
Stipe’s age of 54, posted prominently on his wall, is an underlying theme in his artist-in-residence stint at NYU–in his wistful memorials to obsolete 20th-century gadgets, and in his idea to stage his collaboration with an undergrad art class on a specially designed Tumblr. “The generational differences are significant to me,” he says. “They’re bringing me into their interpretation of the world.”
The project marks a homecoming of sorts for the former R.E.M. frontman, who quit music to make art three years ago–31 years after he quit his art major at the University of Georgia to make music. The idea to bring Stipe back to art class came from 80WSE director Jonathan Berger, himself an artist best known for his “investigative portrait” of Andy Kaufman (lately revived at Frieze Projects).
Together, Stipe and Berger developed the class they’re teaching in tandem. “New Sights, New Noise” is at once an art course, an art show, an artwork, and a conversation about ideas using pictures.
The easiest way to describe it is as an intellectual scavenger hunt. Weekly themes come from guests, including the musician Peaches and artist Taryn Simon. Using search engines, archives, and real-life discussions, the 18 students find or make images related to these “prompts.” Stipe, the guest, and the students post their finds—from 50 to 100 a day–on a private class Tumblr. Then, via an interface commissioned from Damon Zuconi, they take turns picking slides to appear at the gallery’s 15 projection stations. Last week’s guest was Douglas Coupland, whose prompt, “The New Domestic Landscape,” unleashed a stream of sinister, useless products and failed utopias. This week’s theme, “Outlaw Cultures of the Future,” comes from Dean Sameshima.
That the students describe this work as curating delights Berger, who knows most scholarly colleagues wouldn’t approve. “In contemporary art there’s a proscribed way of doing things,” he says. “Ultimately there’s not much imagination and openness. This is an intentional decision on the part of the gallery not to be teaching them how to be curators, or artists. There’s no real expectation for the show to perform. If anything, it’s like an atelier.”
Meanwhile, Stipe continues toiling (at off hours) in his studio, chasing his obsessions with early modernism, sea creatures, pyrite, and obsolete technologies. A bronzed cassette takes on the status of a bronzed baby shoe. Elsewhere are ghosts of 8-track tapes and a Polaroid. A Le Corbusier book is encased in Plexiglas. On the wall, Warhol smiles beatifically from a creepy photo of a party for Roy Cohn, the infamously closeted lawyer whose archive provides another of Stipe’s fixations. And the New York Dolls get a refresh with pink coffee-cup covers.
When the show ends, on November 8, Stipe will pack up the whole thing and move on. He’s already looking for another studio in New York.
80WSE Gallery at 80 Washington Square East, bet. W. 4th St. and Washington St. Gallery hours Tuesday – Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.