Artist John Feodorov discusses his painting Office Deity.
ART21: What do you want a work like Office Deity to lead people to think about?
FEODOROV: Hopefully offices and deities. The idea—I can’t remember which book I read, but it was from Vine Deloria, who was a Native American author, and he said something about the corporation actually being sort of the new manifestation of the tribe. I’m not quite sure I believe that, but I thought it was a really interesting statement. And so I thought of, maybe, seeing the corporation as like heaven, you know; and you have all these different steps of deities or angels or whatever, depending on what you believe or don’t believe. And so, basically, you have the head honcho—and usually in corporate America, I think it’s still a white man. And so, taking a cue from some really medieval art and early Renaissance, just using that as a model, I did this painting, with office employees as the angels and holding their offerings to the almighty CEO.
ART21: It seems to also relate to the form of Russian icons.
FEODOROV: Yeah, Russian—that whole era, really. I don’t know if you think the Renaissance ruined everything, but there’s some great images from—I think it’s Arabic, you know—from Spain that are just really frightening images. When you get into the later Renaissance, they kind of turn these frightening angels into little babies, cute little cherub babies, which really kind of corrupts the whole idea of deification.
ART21: Could you talk us through the painting?
FEODOROV: I was thinking yesterday, matter of fact—last year, we had the [World Trade Organization] protests here, and I thought this would be a great image for it. But basically it’s about the exploitation and inevitable destruction of the earth for the ends of the corporation. So, it’s very stylized—smoke coming up from the earth over here and the smoke rising from it and possibly from the ashes of the cigar.
ART21: Do you see a connection between this style of painting and German Expressionism?
FEODOROV: I guess, not like Kirchner and those guys, but more like Max Beckman and Otto Dix. There are a lot of medieval compositional things happening in their work. I think that’s why I’m drawn to them as well. You know, I would say that. Hopefully I’m not just ripping off Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, but I think those elements would be there.
ART21: There’s a lot of humor in this.
FEODOROV: Whenever I see something that’s meant to be funny from an artist, I usually end up not thinking it is. So, I don’t try to be funny. I think what I try to do is get the point across, and many times that may have humor in it. Maybe I’m just naturally funny, sort of a Don Rickles of visual art.
ART21: Tell us about your studies in art history and your background.
FEODOROV: In school? I went to school at California State University, Long Beach. And it didn’t really get me interested in it; I was already interested in it just by looking in books when I was young. And having my Navajo background and also kind of a Christian upbringing as well, those images were things that I grew up and was familiar with at a young age. So, I think I just drew that—again, I don’t think really self-consciously, but just that those are images that I’m familiar with. So, the Christian theme—even though I’m not Christian—is still a very useable resource, I think, for contemporary issues. And our American politics are still very much molded by Christian ethics, so that would make sense to me. And it’s a reference that most people could relate to, I think. You know, even if they’re not Christians, you know—even if they’re rebelling against it, they would still know the image. They would still get the frame of reference.
ART21: This painting was commissioned. How did that affect your work on it?
FEODOROV: Since I knew that these were paintings that were going to be in office spaces, I wanted to create paintings that were showing the environment that the workers were in. So, even though I think these were primarily, or totally, city offices where there isn’t a corporation, being in cubicles—being under fluorescent lights, being in these spaces—lent themselves to that sort of take, I think. I mean, that’s the sort of environment that a corporation puts you in, you know? So, I wanted to create paintings that people could respond to on an everyday level—as far as the environment in the painting and the environment that they’re working in.
ART21: What do you mean by the environment they work in? What interests you?
FEODOROV: Well, that there’s a hierarchy, you know, just as there is in religions, with deities in heaven. So, there’s always a hierarchy. And again, with this painting, I think that people could relate to the people in the painting that are making the offerings of golf clubs and martinis and charts to this CEO god.
ART21: Did your interest in Byzantine iconography somehow [come] through a family connection?
FEODOROV: Well, not really in my family. I mean, we weren’t Byzantines, or Eastern Orthodox, or anything. But it is just that I was raised as a Christian, and even though I don’t have any identity with that anymore, it’s still there. The sect that I was in didn’t really use these sorts of traditional images, but it made me want to research other manifestations—other visual manifestations—of theology.
ART21: Do ideas about spirituality surface in your work often?
FEODOROV: I think that’s probably the way to put it—spirituality or lack thereof— because I don’t really see what I do as spiritual art. I don’t really consider myself a spiritual person. But for some reason, this keeps coming out. For some reason, spirituality is an important part of what I make—not necessarily how I live but of what I can create. And I don’t know if the creation is actually the spiritual part of it. I don’t know. I don’t stand in front of an easel or something and go, “Okay, let’s make something spiritual,” (LAUGHS) you know, because when you do that, you’re basically just making a product. You’re pouring, making a batch of Kool-Aid. I think it’s just a—God, now we’re talking about the creative process. I think we better not get into that area. Spirituality is something that interests me, not as something that I want to try to be, but as something that I don’t think that you can ignore. I think that it’s in everything and it’s manifested in everything. It’s in decisions that you make, you know—why you pick a white phone instead of a blue one. I think it’s at the core of just about everything. And it’s not always so obvious. I think that’s what I’m more interested in—when it’s not—because when it’s obvious, it’s just kind of, “Yeah, that’s spiritual,” you know? It’s the vagueness that I think is the important part; that part worth investigating is that gray area, the area where you don’t know what the hell it is.