Eli Craven: reassigning the lost meaning in found photography.

Hi Eli, please tell us something about yourself
I am an artist living in the U.S. and I recently relocated my studio practice to Indiana where I am now a photography professor at Purdue University. I have packed up and moved my studio so many times this past decade and I am looking forward to staying put for a while. Each move has influenced my work in various ways and I’m eager to see what unfolds in this new studio.

I read you had an early encounter with a John Baldessari monograph that changed your way of perceiving art. How was that? What did Baldessari teach you about art?
Yes, I think it was his book “Pure Beauty.” I was a photography student when I discovered the book in the library. At the time I was already drifting away from taking straight photographs. I was soaking up influences, and trying to figure out what “art” is to me.  His work and words really struck me and still influence me. In an interview he mentioned something about “being interested in things we don’t call art.” I think that’s how he said it. It got me thinking about materials and subjects previously outside my consideration. 

Also, I never met him, but he seemed very genuine. A nice person. I know it shouldn’t matter, but I tend to like an artist’s work more and more as I discover they are kind and generous people, and I felt he was. 

Your work lies in between various art fields. How would you describe it? Where do you feel you are positioned?
I think of myself as an artist that uses photography. I come from a photography background and I teach photography, but I don’t think of myself as a photographer in a traditional sense. I do love photography and I learned the necessary skills so that I can create photographs if I need to, but really I am more focused on how the image can be used in combination with other materials and how it can be transformed, physically or contextually. 

Eli Craven,  With Hold Be Held (Corner), 2019

Found materials are an important part of your art. As a photographer, what does found provide you that you cannot find in your own images?
I create my own photos when I have a concept and the image in my mind doesn’t exist or I can’t find it, but I get excited about the search and discovery for found materials and I get lost in imagining the material’s history. I often think about the value of the photograph or the found object and what factors into how a photograph becomes obsolete, or when the love of a photograph is lost. I enjoy looking through lost family photos and imagine the previous owner and the unknown scenario where the artifacts are no longer needed. It seems that the attachment to physical belongings is fleeting, especially when everything is digital and virtual. I often find myself thinking “how can something once so precious be discarded?”

Which issues are the ones that you want to comment/make reference using found stuff?
I’m interested in death and time and how quickly history is forgotten. Also, issues of desire, sexuality, and censorship and how images or photographs play a role in shaping these ideas. I have a tendency to cover or distort pieces of the image in order to draw attention to overlooked details or distract from its true intention. Does the act of censorship create the desire to see, even if what you’re wanting to uncover isn’t worth looking at?

There’s an important material aspect to your work. Many of your works rely on a three-dimensional approach to your pieces. How did you arrive from photography to this spatial approach?
When I started collecting photographs and adding them to boxes of my own prints, I saw how much space they take up and I couldn’t help but focus on the fact that they weren’t just images, they were objects. Then, I wanted to frame my prints and the cost was an issue. I wanted to do it myself so that I wouldn’t have to pay someone else to do it. The result was an equal, or sometimes greater amount of work put into framing a photograph as I did into taking and printing one. I saw the frame as an accomplishment. At that point It was difficult to separate the two and I viewed the finished work more like a sculpture than a framed print. 

Also, I always felt the exhibition or the event of viewing an artwork in person is special. Viewing art on your phone or on a screen doesn’t compare to walking around an exhibit from all angles and seeing the details. That focus on presentation and wanting the viewer to experience something physical led to more sculptural and interactive work. 

Eli Craven, Screen #1, 2020
Eli Craven, Screens, Installation, 2020

Your approach to framing goes way beyond the regular object to contain an artwork and are key elements in some of your artworks. Can you talk more about the importance of framing in your work?
Well, as I began to see the frame and photo as connected, I eventually considered the frame as something that could communicate with the image or collage inside. Initially it was an aesthetic collaboration, but eventually I started altering them to serve a purpose like the corner pieces with mirrors. The mirror and image needed to sit in a corner and the altered frame provided the support for this to happen. In other works the frame is more important than the image inside. In the series “Sad Landscapes” I find images of nature in trouble, or distressed forms of the land and I frame them in drooping, curved frames. It is comical to me, but also sad and the frame is the means to deliver that idea. The frame is what makes the emotional statement. 

Your work is related with collage via the idea of reappropriation and decontextualization. How do you feel these two concepts operate in your work (if you feel they operate somehow)?
They definitely do. I think of my work as collage, but it might be more like assemblage in the end. Changing the context of appropriated imagery is central to a lot of my work, but I don’t want it to be everything. I have been thinking about some new projects using my own photographs, which would lead me away from the history found imagery brings to the work. Found image discoveries keep pulling me back though and it’s difficult to ignore a box full of beautiful photographs. 

What is your definition of collage?
One of the dictionary definitions of collage is “a combination of various things.” I like to think of collage as a combination of materials as a means to re-consider their meaning or purpose. I enjoy collage and I often sit down and just make collages when I don’t have projects driving the studio work. Collage can be part of the process as the results of those sessions become sketches for larger bodies of work. If the image is moved, re-made, and re-considered I think of it as collage.

We have posted your work at TWS in 2013. How do you feel your art has changed these last 8 years? And where do you feel it’s heading.
Wow.  Has it been that long? I like to think it’s growing in various ways. It has definitely become a more physical process. Considering Baldessari’s words and defining what can be “art” or even what we consider “collage,” it seems there is a lot of room to grow especially with digital and virtual tools being applied to the medium. For me, I have been experimenting with some computer programs and how to process images or transform them. I hope that will go somewhere, but I know I’ll continue searching for found materials. I’ll just be searching for a new way for me to reinterpret them. I do get bored easily.  

I also want to collaborate with more artists and institutions in the future. I’ve been invited to be part of Jono Boyle’s new project LIE Gallery. The website is launching in the next month or two and will offer access to print editions and original work from an excellent group of collage artists, including Max-o-matic. I am really excited to be a part of that and people can follow @liegallery on instagram for updates. Other than that, I’m adjusting to life in Indiana in the new studio and making new work.

Learn more about Eli Craven’s work here

Eli Craven, With Hold Be Held, 2019
Eli Craven, With Hold Be Held ( Hunker #1), 2019
Eli Craven, With Hold Be Held ( Hunker #2), 2019
Eli Craven, Candle Boys, 2019
Eli Craven, Split, 2019
Eli Craven, Sad Landscapes (Cold Tree), 2018
Eli Craven, Human Figure #7, 2019
Eli Craven, Human Figure #1, 2019
Eli Craven, Human Figure #3,4,5, 2019
Eli Craven, Human Figure #6, 2019