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In the Studio: a.r. havel

Gabriel Burgos poses in a light-box inspired by Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors album cover. Concept, set, lighting, and photo by a.r. havel, make-up, hair, styling by Koko Barrios, lighting assist by Pasha Jovanovic, floral design + arrangement by Megan of Pistil & Stamen.

a.r. havel is a New Orleans-based artist who was an Artist-in-Residence at the Joan Mitchell Center in Spring/Summer 2021. We interviewed him about his work and residency experience in August 2021. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.


In my creative work, I feel pretty multidisciplinary. I know people use that phrase a lot, but for me, how that manifests is that I become really obsessed with one form for a while and then let it go. So, that has ranged from things like making linocuts, and doing creative writing, a lot of scripts and short stories, mostly fiction. And, most recently my form has been photography with a heavy emphasis on set building.

My photography work really came about serendipitously during COVID quarantine. I have a theatrical background where I was doing set design and builds within collaborative community theater-making projects. And because that sort of group activity was an impossibility during the early phases of COVID, I realized that I could still create worlds and have people interact with them in very performative ways, but mostly for the capturing of a still photograph.

Musician Sabine McCalla models with a dramatic Grace Jones roar for this Vegas backstage fantasy, originally inspired by Annie Lennox + Sophie Muller’s Diva. Concept, set, lighting, and photo by a.r. havel make-up, hair, styling, and direction by Koko Barrios lighting assist by Phoebe Vlassis custom wire costume by Pasha Jovanovic floral design + arrangement by Denise of Pistil & Stamen (special thanks to Kat Sotelo, Carl Mack, Eva Foldy and Alex Moreno.)

Coming from a DIY theater background, and consistently having no budget, I'm always working with what’s available to me, using these shitty old tungsten theater lights that no other photographer is using right now. I don't know if that should really be my claim to fame, but it’s just what I do. So, that really does produce this very high drama theatrical aesthetic.

While I had the Joan Mitchell residency, I was continuing this satisfying studio photography form. I had a bit of a funny relationship with the residency program, in that I didn't have a studio space where I was really able to create these large scale kinds of work. So, I used the residency mostly as a granting agency with a stipend to cover the costs of my practice. I also used the stipend funds to buy dinner and drinks for people involved with the shoots, the models, the make-up-artist, and other collaborators. I wanted to remind ourselves at the end of the day, yes we're creating work, but the value is to be together, to have fun and enjoy the process.

Before the residency, I had been receiving unemployment throughout the pandemic, treating it like a government-funded arts grant. So, when that ended, my financial reality was suddenly very different; I went from feeling really lush to having no income. So, within that framework, I had to start thinking: what is going to be my money-making scenario going forward? Can I potentially market myself as an art director? Or collaborate with people to create images in a way that would be financially sustainable for me?

Koko Barrios poses in a set inspired by a photograph by Cristina Garcia Rodero, reimagined as a fictional magazine cover. Concept, set, lighting, and photo by a.r. havel, make-up, hair, styling by Koko Barrios, lighting assist by Pasha Jovanovic, floral design + arrangement by Megan of Pistil & Stamen (with thanks to Kat Sotelo, Alex Hennen Payne and Alex Moreno.)

I was curious about the process of working with queer businesses to create images for their promotion, but then also wondered if I could bring my own aesthetics into that. So, I did an editorial series for my friends who have a queer, trans-owned leather company based in Massachusetts called Leather Coven. Those images were all inspired by 70s feminist performance artists. Afterwards, I reached out to Pistil & Stamen, a local queer-owned floral company, wondering if they'd be interested in doing editorial photos highlighting their work. I think it was a little bit of a stretch for them because their aesthetic is much more ethereal. So, for me to bring in these very in-your-face, campy, 1980s inspirations, mostly from pop divas—Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, Cindy Lauper—it was a bit of a stretch, but they were excited about collaborating and creating floral spreads for a very different scene aside form a wedding or traditional kind of event.

What's really satisfying for me in making these images is mashing up different kinds of aesthetic worlds and eras. The Pistil & Stamen series is not quite as representative of that process as some past work, where I've started from a 1870s photograph by Rejlander and then juxtaposed it with some Valie Export feminist work from the 70s and a 90s punk album cover by X. But, you can still see this way in which I really enjoy, for example, looking at a book of Cezanne's landscape paintings and then wondering, "Okay, how do I bring in some diva glam into this kind of painterly aesthetic?" That process is not always so conscious, sometimes they just sort of come organically.

The image that is most representative of that approach from this series is Finocchia Floreale, which means floral faggot. The original inspiration for that image was the Caravaggio painting of the boy holding a basket of fruit and flowers, but then amped up with this very 80s/90s Pierre et Gilles iconography of boys standing outside of gay clubs adorned with lots of sparkling glitter.

Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, c.1593. Finocchia Floreale / Floral Faggot with Logan Totty with stems from Pistil & Stamen’s garden. Styling by model, painted backdrop, lighting, and photo by a.r. havel.

I’m proud of the work that the collaboration produced; I think it's really beautiful. I had created these worlds and in my mind’s eye, they seemed complete in and of themselves. But then, Pistil & Stamen would bring in their element, filling the sets with their awesome floral arrangements, it really felt like I was living some fantasy of being this Parisian fashion photographer of another era. It heightened the work to another level that was really, really inspiring. I also gave over directorial control on set to my friend and make-up artist Koko Barrios who made the models feel so hot and comfortable. I realized that giving over control can be very liberating. I was able to focus on lighting and camera and trusted that the outcome would be way better when we were all working from their strengths.

Another thing that was really powerful about the residency at the Joan Mitchell Center was the connection with curators. Because of COVID, we were able to have Zoom meetings with people from all over the world. What those curators and other art professionals allowed me to do was to ask questions about the way I’ve been working. I can get so entrenched in a certain way of doing things, and what begins to feel like my own oppressively created schedule and routine. I had gotten into this groove: go to the studio, work all day on a set, model comes in, take a photo, tear it down, start all over again. And, because I had become so accustomed to that scheme, I was not really able to think about what other ways of working might be more satisfying or exciting.

To have a curator ask me boldly and directly, "Do you really feel like a photographer? Because, these read like documentation photos of something else." That really rang true for me, to have someone give me explicit permission, and to remind me that my creations could be much more expansive than just leading up to a still photo of something. What I enjoy doing is not necessarily taking the photograph, it's creating a world that people can inhabit in a joyful way. So, I began to think, "Oh, what if I was to create large scale installations of worlds that people can interact with?"

There’s also a question of how these images relate to me, personally too. I have become very adept and skillful at recreating aesthetics that inspire me; if I'm inspired by this exploitation film or cultural iconography of the 80s or 90s, it's very easy for me to go about reproducing those as aesthetics for people to imbue themselves in. But, the question of, “how does my personal biography interact with these things?" It is, I think, really fruitful, but also really scary.

It's funny, even my therapist has said things to me like, "You need to do personal work within your art." And, my first thought was, "Oh God, am I going to have to put like beige carpet from my childhood in a set?" I have done everything to run away from that world and yet, I wonder what might happen if I embraced it in my artistic practice.

Chile Verde with Anna Karina. Make-up, styling, and direction by Koko Barrios. Set design, construction, lighting, and photography by a.r. havel. Set assist by Logan Totty, and on-set assist by Chris Bradford. Special thanks to Kat Sotelo and Lindsay Rowinski.

Right now, I am in collaboration with Xiamara Chupaflor, a friend who's a pro-dominatrix and tarot divination practitioner. We're working on a series of photographs that center sex workers in New Orleans who have a relationship with votive spirituality. We're basically inviting workers in Southeast Louisiana to pose within creations based on Mexican votive candles that they feel a strong affinity to. Thus far, we've done Abre Camino, which means “road opener,” and Chile Verde, which is a candle for warding off chismosas, gossip—which is pretty funny since we were talkin’ shit the whole time while we were making that work!

Because I want to get away from producing static images, the ultimate goal for this work is to create votive altars—these light-up box icons that people can come, pray to, and leave offerings to the sacred whores who are embodying the spiritual intentions of the votive magic. This all feels very exciting to me! We are in the process of acquiring more funds to continue this work and hope to present it in the Spring of 2022.

Aside from that project, I've also written a couple of short film scripts that I'm trying to get funding to create. I'm open to a lot of collaborations right now, and I’m trying as best I can to work with the intention that I don't need a lot of money, but I do want enough to keep making work that is enjoyable.

Learn more about a. r. havel's work at https://www.arhavel.com.

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Artists' Voices