Conversation with Paul Somers

By Katherine Harvath

Hit So Hard
Paul Somers’ playful sculpture, assemblage, and performance pieces use dark humor to reflect the ills of late capitalism. He uses imagery from American culture to satirize masculinity and sports, among other practices, but always with a fervent optimism that we can be saved.
You Will Know

Your work definitely evokes childhood, whether with found toys embedded into the sculptures or with a general sense of play – what’s important to you about revisiting childhood?

I grew up in Ohio in the 70s. There were a lot of kids on my suburban block. Growing up we played sports everyday. I had a next door neighbor who was a few years older than me named Crazy Chuck. His wardrobe consisted of a pair of Van Buren Jr. High School issued gym shorts, no shirt and no shoes. I never saw him in the winter. One day we were playing a game of tackle football at the church lot up the street. Chuck was going deep for a pass and unknowingly left the field to catch the ball. After he caught it he looked ahead for a fraction of a second and saw a wood fence. Because of his momentum, Chuck could not stop, so he crashed right through the fence. He scored a touchdown and left a big hole, unscathed in the process. I was astounded. This to me was a superhuman feat. To some of the older kids in the neighborhood this accident marked the beginning of a much bigger game.

For the next year or so we drove around neighborhoods in search of fences that would be good opponents for Crazy Chuck. By the end of that year, it was hard to find a fence that he did not crash through. One time he “streaked” through a fence naked. Watching this hillbilly performance art adventure was amazing and exciting to me. I was probably 12. I like to revisit childhood for this feeling. This moment. This aesthetic. Childhood to me is a goldmine that I return often to recover some of the gold left behind. Gold to be used in creating work today.
Back Off

Maybe through this shift in masculine standards they can create a world with less fighting and more understanding.

You skewer masculinity with both your assemblage pieces and performances – can you talk about your perspective on masculinity in culture?

I think in our culture often times masculine behavior defies reason. I was raised in a time and place where you were male or female and you were expected to behave accordingly. As a boy for some reason you were expected to act like a man. Maybe our parents and friends were worried we would not become men by acting appropriately as boys. There was a lot of pressure at a very young age to conform to certain standards.

Today in our decompartmentalized society a divide is occurring. On one side masculine standards have moved in the wrong direction. A misunderstanding of “survival of the fittest” is leading some to accept and promote standards of masculinity which have devolved to be more violent, ignorant, and egocentric. Their sports and interests of choice are more dangerous, unhealthy, and risky.

But for some there is a broader conversation occurring today. A positive shift in the standards ofmasculine behavior. A new generation of intelligent children learning from each other, communicating and solving problems as a group. Maybe through this shift in masculine standards they can create a world with less fighting and more understanding. A respectful place where kindness and empathy would be considered a strength in men. A behavior system which serves all mankind and not just capital. It is certainly a work in progress.

You evoke a lot of pathos with your performances, your characters can be rather pathetic or have a veneer of aggression, can you talk about how you build these characters? 
Sure. I think about the problems my characters will have to represent or solve in the piece I am creating. I think about people in which I have encountered and stories I have heard. Then I cobble together parts and characteristics of people which I have known in my past. Starting with personal connections, sometimes a family member, friends, a boss, or a mediated pop culture figure. I skew, merge, and distort their personalities and traits until the appropriate character arrives. I imagine who these characters are and what they do when they leave my performance. I think about what would unhinge them. What would bring them joy. What is their kryptonite. I exploit and celebrate their frustrations, strengths and fragility. I keep them around forever. Sometimes I use parts of them to create other characters. They live in my house. They don’t pay rent.
1 F
I have always had environmental concerns. It is the existential topic of the moment and I feel I have neglected to talk about it directly in my work. I just feel it's time to do this. 
Never Wanted
You use a lot of accumulated objects including animal figurines and you had an exhibition of football sculptures which proposed that only football can save the planet -- can you talk about your interest in the environment? How can football save us?

I have always had environmental concerns. It is the existential topic of the moment and I feel I have neglected to talk about it directly in my work. I just feel it's time to do this. 

I proposed that only/maybe football could save the planet with work in a show which I participated in. It was a bit sarcastic but I think there could be some truth to the statement. Football is highly organized and very popular with a large portion of the public. It has a huge following of stakeholders including fans, spectators, vendors, promoters, and sponsors. As a sport it has a lot of power.You have a number of players training, practicing and working together with one ultimate goal in mind and that is to win. Each team has plays that are practiced and perfected and used as strategy to defeat an opponent. There are stars of the team that get media attention and others behind the scenes doing the hard work that is unseen by the spectators. Cheerleaders creating excitement and rooting for their team and exciting the crowd.

What is necessary is to change the ultimate goal from winning a game to saving and conserving the planet. We use the structure and participants of football as a model on how to work together, strategize, practice our plays and ultimately win by creating a healthier planet. This enterprise could be structured as a game. We could tune in and see what species are saved and what body of water was cleaned. Teams could be responsible for their mascots not becomingextinct. Let's hear it for planet earth!
Ghost Runner
Lucky Seven
Your work also uses the aesthetics and culture of sports – from found footballs to patches from jerseys – I know you’ve played sports, is there a love/hate relationship with those rituals? 

Absolutely. I hate sports and I love sports. Playing them anyway. I am not always such a good fan. I think there is a lot to learn from playing sports. Dedication, teamwork, loyalty, commitment, sacrifice, etc. The idea of being part of something bigger than yourself and accomplishing a common goal with others is important. But there can be negative aspects that may need more attention or at least a broader conversation. It's hard to hear about these issues through the sound of victory and the excitement of success, and profit. It is imperative to talk about concussions and physical and psychological damage to athletes, star culture, financial misconduct, sexual exploitation, doping, and the list goes on. I believe a call for decency and accountability from the profession is in order. In the sports entertainment industry many people contribute, few are rewarded, others are injured, and our society pays. I find this out of balance with what a healthy society should be championing.

I taught at a small liberal arts college in the midwest. I had many athletes as students. For the most part these students were not going pro or even continuing to work or coach in the sports industry. Every term three or four players would come into class on monday wearing casts, bandages or crutches. I would ask them “What happened and was it worth it”? “Yes” was the answer every time. Maybe it was worth it for them but I question the price we are paying to win. “Who” is winning and “What” is winning.
Lately you’ve been using industrial felt as a base to make assemblage on the wall and out in space with cultural signifiers like bottle nipples, toys, and patches sewn into the surface, you can weave a lot of content into one piece. Can you talk about your use of material? What qualities in a  found object are you drawn to?

I first started using industrial felt to make a wrestling mat for a performance piece I was working on. I taped together random pieces to create a giant animal skin shape. I used a bicycle tire to paint a circle in the center where the opponents would face off. I enjoyed working with the material. It was cheap and available everywhere. Later I was thinking about making a piece about competition and rewards. I thought of the felt animal skin mat. I started experimenting with the felt material. It was hard to dye, impossible to bleach and I could not use it on my sewing machine. But sewing the material by hand was enjoyable and worked quite well. I started making animal skin trophies that referenced landscapes. I liked the fact that industrial felt is something that is not seen and is walked on. It is actually protected by the carpet above. I also liked the reference to Joseph Bueys’ work.

The qualities I am attracted to in other objects for my work vary. Usually I am using them as language or symbols, so a baby bottle nipple may mean comfort or may be talking about infantilization depending on how it is attached, where in the composition it is placed or how it is used. I also enjoy the rubber transparent quality. I need to modulate a certain feeling so I choose hard and soft objects to be embedded or attached. Sometimes I need to find an object or for a composition which evokes a personal or collective memory. I feel this is a good strategy to create a connection between the work and the audience. I deconstruct and reconstruct names and numbers from sports jerseys. Through this act I feel I am blending and changing identities of teams and players bringing them together as one entity. I use other emblems and patches as well to reference Identity, location, or awards. Their shapes, color, and formal qualities are considered as well.
You have a background in design and illustration, how has that informed your sculptural and performance practice?

Yes. I am trained as a graphic designer which is a process based discipline in which problems are solved in steps building and expanding on the previous form. Sometimes I have to intentionally rail against this type of thinking so I can find space for magic to happen in the process of bringing a piece to fruition. Occasionally capitalizing on a mistake, or something unexpected and taking a different path late in the development process ultimately arriving at an unexpected solution.

Years ago I created a cartoon illustration style which is bright, flat and scratchy. I use this in my creative process and have recently started using it more directly in my work. My cartoon illustration informs my work in the sense of exaggeration and pathos.
And lastly, seen any great exhibitions lately / any other contemporary artists you're excited about?

I saw the Lynda Benglis exhibition at The National Gallery in DC. I have seen and admired her work in the past but I never have seen so much of it together. Her use of form and color is inspiring to me.

I like what Ebecho Muslimova is doing with her counterpart alter ego Fatebe. Crass, in your face, contorted and literally embedded in every surface. I think she has a fresh approach formally and conceptually.

Louise Bonnet, I enjoy her exaggerated proportions and grotesque features jammed within the framework of the canvas, in her weirdly nostalgic inspired paintings. I think of Popeye in a fever dream.

I am amused by Urs Fischer ‘s “Roman candles.” One of which he transforms a statue [Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Women], into performance art by creating a wax candle replica and lighting it. The statue melts and contorts in real time and in the process softening and mutating into abstract shapes and in the end creating a puddle of wax. There is so much to these pieces which are enjoyable and thought provoking. The performance aspect, The transformation, deconstruction, and historical reference. I think this piece was done around 2012 but with all the conversations circling around our national monuments today maybe this work points to a possible solution for our controversy .

Paul Somers

My work is based on a personal investigation of societal institutions, rituals and the exploration of their influence on our culture. I am interested in examining automatic and collective beliefs and how they impact and shape individual behaviors. My work evokes memories and feelings of childhood. I question the boundaries of masculinity within contemporary society and if and when the toys must be put away. Often times my work resides in the realm of the pathetic. I celebrate the reject and the dysfunctional, a reflection of a part of us. I want to examine closer the disregarded and find beauty in the disenfranchised.

I am attracted both mentally and aesthetically to the proving grounds of manhood, the court, the mat, the racetrack, and the field. These grounds are sectioned off in our world as the ritualistic and sacred arenas to partake in battles to the death, places to kill boyhood by becoming a man. I conjure the memory of the nervousness, the smell and loud sounds of clocks and buzzers, the cheering and screaming. I can almost feel the mat, burning skin and the smacking sound of bone on the hardwood gym floor. I remember the excitement of the colors, bright lights, the taste of blood in my mouth, the victory, and the loss. Through the disjointed curatorial groupings of objects, material choices and the finishes applied to them, these memories and experiences reside in my work
Katherine Harvath is an artist, curator, and art worker based in Chicago. She is interested in finding meaning in material and form. Quick gestures, familiar objects, the history of painting, and the semiotics of color all play a role in her painting and sculpture. Harvath received her MFA from the University of Chicago in 2013 and BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. She has been included in exhibitions at SPRING/BREAK, Los Angeles, 2019; Outback Arthouse, Los Angeles, 2018; Produce Model, Chicago, 2016; and Spears, Chicago, 2016. More about her at