In The Hour of The Wolf: A Conversation with Artist Chris Edwards
"Popular culture notwithstanding there is such as thing as right and wrong… In my investigating murders I have seen some terrible things. So many of them would take the wind out of any body's sails. But because I am a romantic, I still believe that we have the potential to be nobler than we know and better than we think. That the darkness I’ve seen is only a shadow on the potential of the Human heart. I urge you to keep your heart’s compass on the true north of your dreams. Be free to be romantics - to reject cynicism....Because when the hour of the wolf comes - as comes to all of us sooner or later - those are the things that sustain us. Thank you and goodnight."
- J.B. Fletcher from the 2001 T.V. special Murder She Wrote: A Story to Die For.
Chris Edwards is an artist based in Chicago. I was introduced to his work several years ago while taking a break from waiting tables at Kraftwork. I sat with Zach Rawe (editor of this issue) and the Chicago based artist and curator Matt Morris who was in town for To Fade and Spill Out (and Look at another's whole) at Fjord. We were discussing clothing, research and meaning and Matt told me about Chris Edwards’ work. I called chris recently to ask him about the images and objects that he makes. We talked about the things that inspire us and how to carry out investigations with care. Here is a part of our conversation in the typical interview format.
SUZANNE LOU SEESMAN: Your work often dialogs with characters simultaneously outside of popular memory and somehow formative, foundational, archetypal even like the protagonists from films such as Parker Posey Party Girl which I saw in the theater as a teenager or Rosalind Russell's Auntie Mame which a VHS staple at my grandmother’s house growing up.
While I recognize these characters, they are also not the obvious set. I find myself referencing things like Party Girl to my peers and getting crickets in return. For me there is a web of recognition between the characters you've chosen to represent in your work. Your Nylons are a good example of what I'm thinking of. What - if any - is the thread in your thinking between people like Posey, Mame, Sandra Bernhard and Oscar Wilde?
CHRIS EDWARDS: I asked my boyfriend this question because he gets tired of the pop culture references that I assume everyone shares but they don’t. His answer: they are queer, they are not accessible, and their weirdness is not intentional. They set out to live their lives, and are told they are weird without them signing on to it.
I would add that they are fancy, they are kind, and their comedy is gentle. They were not things I sought out, it was always either just there in my house or stumbled upon. They share a cultural specificity. They revel in artifice. It is a queer pop culture canon that definitely formed my ideas about how the world existed outside of small town Iowa. Camp was a refuge before I knew what it was.
Sandra Bernhard was on David Letterman in 1991 and quoted Paris Is Burning. He asked “Does anyone have any idea what the hell she is talking about?” Her response was “Yes.”
SLS:Sandra Bernhard is a great example. In her many appearances on Letterman she consistently shows him up. It’s always in a loving way but she continuously dismisses his performances of normativity and his attempts to make her seems strange. Her clothing is central to this. Is this related to the attention you pay to clothing? What is the significance of clothing and pattern for you? How do clothes and pattern operate in your in your work?
CE: Focusing on clothing is an attempt to pull away from the reference and toward a representation of my love of the pop culture object. I don’t expect people to care about the deep, stupid love I have for Brittany Murphy in Uptown Girls, but I can diligently catalog and document all of the outfits that she wore in the movie, and I can put them through the filter of my brain and my hands. The clothing is specific to the source, and was intentionally chosen in the world of the thing. I think maybe work/labor is a way to love something correctly, and in giving time to go through the layers of translation, I give myself time to process my relationship to the thing I love.
SLS: This idea of labor in relation to clothing and communication is so real. It’s about maintenance and consistency too. This reminds me of how I came to know about your work through Matt Morris. He told me about your cataloging work specifically about your 2011 series One of Jessica Fletcher's Outfits from Every Episode How did your interest in the life and work of Angela Lansbury come about?
CE: In 2009, I found photo albums from the 1940’s that my elderly gay neighbor Bob threw away. I held onto them until he died right before Christmas in 2010. I had to figure out how to illustrate his impact on me without exploiting him. I started working on replicating the patterns and visual detail from his photos. This process led me to the realization that I am allowed to choose things to love and to dig deep to show I love them, and that process will help me love things well.
I had access to all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote, which is a massive object, 12 years, 263 episodes. Like Bob’s albums I had it was a complete document of a certain thing. I wanted to pay close attention, and slow down. It was a process of watching, screen-capping, and picking the best shot or crop of an outfit.
People were skeptical until I got close to illustrating the whole thing. About 150 collages in someone who had seen the project progress said, “Oh, I get it now”. It is easy to say you love something as culturally disposable as Murder, She Wrote - as this kind of campy cultural object. So, I had to prove it by building that love.
SLS: After our last conversation, I started watching Murder, She Wrote from the beginning and now I can't stop. What do you think it is about this series that takes such a hold and how is it different from more recent or current habit forming mystery shows like Law and Order or How To Get Away With Murder?
CE: In an interview, Angela Lansbury described Murder, She Wrote as simple, like doing a crossword puzzle. The stakes are low, if there is something you don’t understand it is a closed circuit that doesn’t ask you to think beyond itself, and you can look forward to the next installment. Murder, She Wrote is comfortable, it isn’t asking much from you, and it will give you exactly what you expect.
Murder, She Wrote was built as a family show to pair with 60 Minutes on CBS in the 80’s. The network viewed as something to keep the lead in on Sunday nights and for people over 50 even though its popularity was much more widespread. It was in the top 15 rated shows until it was put against Friends on Thursdays in 1995. It was gentle, the violence was only implied, and most episodes end with a freeze frame of Angela Lansbury laughing at a friend’s joke. It is kind and comfortable. It aspired to be somewhat sophisticated. The theme of the show is that plucky curiosity and a drive toward justice will win in the day.
Murder, She Wrote was turning away from depictions of violence and sexuality that they saw on television in 1984. In 1998’s Mature Audiences: Television in the Lives of Elders Karen E. Riggs interviewed older women about their long term interest in Murder, She Wrote. Her interviewees identified Murder, She Wrote as a “salve to relieve their anxieties about the decaying morality in entertainment television”. They also identified it as a pleasant way to mark the time and said it represented a set of ideals that they enjoyed seeing celebrated in each episode.
Television mysteries have progressed, the story telling is more complicated, season arcs are the norm, and writers are pushing the medium forward. Show like Damages or How to Get Away with Murder that use this freedom to create nuanced, complicated female characters that Jessica Fletcher couldn’t and wasn’t trying to be.
The idyllic Cabot Cove and Jessica Fletcher are simple in a way that television isn’t any more, but it is nice to go back there.
SLS: In the second half of the very first episode of Murder She Wrote (a two parter with a To-Be-Continued ending between) there is a scene in which Jessica takes a bus in New York City and is subsequently followed off of that bus by a young black man. The music and camera-work conspire to play up our expectations in terms of television representations of young black men. Close-ups of the mysterious young man's serious-looking face and intensified music foreshadow his involvement in an upcoming scenario of violence against J.B. Moments later, (just as we are suspecting the worst of the show's writers) Jessica is attacked and pulled into an ally by a pair of middle-aged white male muggers. The young black man from the bus moves in, defends her and then reveals himself to be a fan of her writing who has followed her out of concern for her safety. At the end of the scene they fall into one another in a friendly, casual yet supportive embrace. Then they laugh together as the scene ends. This reminded me of your description of the show’s focus on care and attention. Even in its heavy handedness this gesture feels genuine in its intentionality and there seems to be a clear politic here. Do you think this focus on care and representation was a part of the agenda of this show from its outset?
CE: That sort of heavy-handed messaging is a symptom of the time and TV landscape that the show was made in, and the show’s focus on safe, cozy entertainment. Angela Lansbury described Jessica as an everywoman who viewers could identify with and as liberal, fair, honest, and just. I think they wanted to insert a progressive ideology into the show in a palatable way using the framework that they had.
Murder, She Wrote presented diversity in an easily digestible and non threatening way; minority characters were still firmly middle class and even when Jessica travelled to faraway places things were never outside the reference level of middle- America.
They were trying to tell the viewer that you can trust the world, and also softly nudge viewers toward a more open mind. In Mature Audiences, the respondents talked about how they identified with a woman who could go out into the world and have new experiences and learn new things. One interviewee talked about how Jessica learned how to use a computer in her 60’s and that it showed that you can always change. I think that was important to the show and to Angela Lansbury especially after she became a producer in the early 90’s. Jessica was resistant to switch from her typewriter to computer, but adapted, and also adapted to moving from Maine to New York City. It is a very gentle nudge, but in a progressive direction.
Angela Lansbury brought a level of control and kindness that made the show what it was. My favorite story about Murder, She Wrote is that there was an actress, Madlyn Rhue, who was confined to a wheelchair due to MS. Angela Lansbury was a producer on the show and made sure she appeared as the town librarian each season so that she could continue receiving SAG insurance.
SLS: The series is full of scenarios that seem designed to test expectations in terms of representation and relationships. This holds true for Jessica Fletcher's love life as well. Brushes with romance come and go for J.B. but these never become the focus of the show's plot or narrative. I know that you have read quite a bit about Lansbury. Why was it so important to for her to make sure that J.B. remain relatively uninvolved in this way?
Jessica’s only romantic kiss in the show was in the pilot episode, and the man she kisses turns out to be the killer. In interviews people who worked on the show discuss wanting to not have a woman who was bailed out by a man in every episode. They wanted the show to be simple and romance complicates things, especially in a show that is basically an anthology with only one central character who appears in every episode. She would either go through a new hunk every week, or introduce a love interest they would have to work into the weekly disconnected plots.
Jessica is a spiritual descendant of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple who was similarly uninterested in romance. Jessica is a woman in her 60s whose husband has died. There was a conscious turning away from sex in the same way the show avoided explicit violence or car chases. Angela Lansbury talks about not wanting the show to evolve in a soapy direction.
The loves in Jessica’s life were friends and family. She had a different cousin or niece or fashion designer friend or friend who owned a coal mine every week. Her closest relationship was with Seth Hazlitt, which seemed like companionship but never romantic. There were other recurring good friends Amos Tupper, Mort Metzger, or Eve Simpson who live in Cabot Cove and pop up other places if the story needs them. There was a romantic through-line in her nephew, Grady who only appears in 12 of the 255 episodes. He ends up marrying Donna Mayberry who is the killer in one episode. Don’t worry, it was self-defense. The actors who played Grady and Donna are still married in real life’; of course they are.
SLS: It seems like one of the things you share in common with Angela Lansbury is an attitude of attention and support. It seems like this approach shapes all of your work. What are you working on recently?
CE: I have a few bodies of work that are coming together at the same time. I recently started living with someone, which shifted my focus even closer to me. I have never reached far to find starting places, and now I am working with making work about relationships and domesticity and the right way to process that. I am finishing a series of foam/papier-mâché/wood/acrylic cactuses that are a sloppy metaphor for my boyfriend. I had to work through actually making something for/about someone I love who can actually respond to it, and develop a nuanced way of thinking about the work about that allows me to show that love without damaging it. We have also been doing household science experiments, and making borax crystal sculptures together. And sewing stuffed objects and stuffed paintings, trying to cobble together an understanding of where I am right now in terms of domesticity and family and junk.
SLS: When we last spoke you said something along the lines of "not everything that is disposable is garbage". I really like this idea but I wonder if you would mind explaining what you mean by this in terms of your work or the work of other artists.
CE: I mean that there’s something valuable in taking the time to love something when it doesn’t matter. The world is flatter than ever, there is so much content, it is all disposable. Learn something by loving stupid things.
I think it goes back to Bob, he threw away this record of his life in the 40’s and 50’s of himself and his boyfriend Bob and their gay friends. Totally disposable, was literally disposed of, but also totally worth caring about and learning from. ⊗