Deb Sokolow’s thoughts on Men

Those unfamiliar with the work of Deb Sokolow (NAP #41, 107, 119) might be surprised to find studio walls plastered with images of Kim Jong-un, conspicuously undetailed renderings of David Copperfield’s brain, paper models of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, as well as diagrams dissecting the psychological motivations of our country’s most notorious politicians. And over the past decade she has found excuses to cook up an impressive collection of home-brewed conspiracy theories that cover everything from subterranean pirate tunnels to coded messages in your McRib. Though while she has earned a reputation for drawing on eclectic source material, the most surprising thing about her work is its ability to synthesize all of it into something that’s not only visually cohesive, but as immediately compelling as anything in the National Enquirer.

Between exhibitions in Washington DC, Indianapolis, as well as New American Painting’s Midwest Edition show and another coming up at Chicago’s Western Exhibitions on September 17th, she has certainly kept herself busy in 2016, making it the perfect time to check and learn a bit more about what goes into her work. – Brad Fiore, Chicago Contributor

Deb Sokolow | Various notes and studies, 2016

Brad Fiore:  I’m curious about what your process is looking like right now. In the past, you’ve drawn from books on conspiracy theories, casual and not-so-casual spying on your neighbors, and what I imagine amounts to lots of time writing-out square lettering. How have you been spending your time in the studio? What kinds of things are you thinking and reading about? Who are you spying on?

Deb Sokolow: I might be putting most of my cards on the table by admitting that I have not been keeping up with any spying whatsoever on anyone in recent months. That activity has been replaced by a total obsession with the current presidential campaign. So "studio time” for months has meant watching CNN and reading every single news story on the election. 

Maybe it’s all so interesting to me because in another life I interned for a congressman on Capitol Hill. That gig opened my eyes to politics and a world abundantly populated with individuals, specifically men, who seem to exhibit one or more of what psychologists refers to as “the dark triad” personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. I’ve been reading Maria Konnikova’s recent book, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time, which provides a pretty fascinating analysis of these traits and why people are so drawn to individuals who exhibit them. I’ve also always been interested in male cult leaders, businessmen, drug lords, actors, artists and architects- not just politicians- who fall into this category. Certainly there are women who possess these traits, but it's the addition of copious amounts of machismo that makes it terrifying and ridiculous and ultimately more fascinating for me. 

Deb Sokolow | Various notes and studies, 2016

BF: What’s interesting about your work is how it often takes the form of political commentary, institutional critique, or social practice but then completely subverts them by leaning heavily into your own personal paranoias. Is your work apolitical and asocial or do you just have unique priorities?

DS: People and politics and institutional structures are so intensely strange and complicated, and while I love some political art and some examples of social practice and institutional critique, I find it hard to connect with it when it takes itself too seriously, when it presents just one side of a complex issue or when it pretends to be about something important but it doesn't really say anything at all. I don't know if what I'm making is political or apolitical, but I know I want to make something that someone would actually spend time with, and humor and paranoia are two devices I use to try to draw a viewer in. 

BF: As far as political, social, or institutionally focused work that you love, are there any examples that come to mind?

DS: I'm always interested in what Fred Wilson does. At the Speed Museum in Louisville, I recently saw "Urban," a fascinating photo and text series on homemade urban structures by Marjetica Potrč. And I'm a huge fan of both William Powhida and Mark Lombardi's drawings.

Deb Sokolow |
A hallway for sleights of hand and other illusions, 2016, graphite, crayon, colored pencil, acrylic and collage on paper, 8 ½ x 11

BF: I’m wondering how much this exhibition is an evolution of, or a departure from, your previous works that circle around issues of gender dynamics. Are you still nurturing a romantic obsession with fictional boxers and how much do you think Rocky is like the men you are talking about in your new work?

DS: I might still have a small romantic obsession with the fictional boxer, Rocky (just the Rocky in the first movie, and not the Rocky in any of the sequels). But Rocky might be an outlier for me. There has always been this common thread throughout my work that focuses on men who, unlike Rocky, exhibit a combination of dark triad traits. About a decade ago, I made a series of drawings on the imagined mansion-estates of various drug lords, and in the last two years, I've been researching the dark side of Frank Lloyd Wright. The men featured in the Men show will most likely be unlike Rocky. But who knows? I might decide to insert Rocky in at the last minute.

Deb Sokolow | Various notes and studies, 2016

BF: Anything else you want to tell us about the upcoming show at Western Exhibitions?

DS: This is where I'm at; this is what I'm thinking about. Dangerous men, devious men, unlikeable men with delusions of grandeur. This is what I've been researching for a series of drawings for the Western Exhibition show in September. I don't know what the final outcome will look like, since it's all currently in process, but it will most definitely be about men.


Deb Sokolow is a Chicago-based artist who has exhibited internationally for more than ten years. Her work has been shown numerous times at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of the 4th Athens Biennale, at Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen in Germany, and recently in New American Painting’s Midwest Edition Exhibition at the Elmhurst Art Museum.

Brad Fiore is an independent, Midwest-based art critic whose work can be found on his blog Palliate. Follow on Instagram and Twitter.


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