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Upside Down & Inside Out with Casey Stewart

Words & Image by Lily Moskowitz

The logic of wrong is defined by fashion theorist Maria Mackinney Valentín as “the exaggerated violation of fashion codes,”or “the social paradox of celebrating the old, imperfect, or outdated in an age stuck on youth, perfection, and the new.” The democratization of stylish dress has birthed an era of aesthetic subtlety in which contemporary fashion is fashionable for its ironies: purposeful ugliness, deliberate decay, conscious anachronism. Below is a conversation on subverting aesthetic convention with Tempe-based multi-media artist Casey Stewart. 

Casey Stewart works under the alias Lutheran Miracle ( @lutheran_miracles ) with fellow artist Joe Denzak. Their debut gallery in February of 2023, "Big Fun Never Ending Nightmare," featured music by Laron Steele and designs by Maxwel Reede, Jackson Soloman, and Auberi Zwickel. Pieces by Casey and Joe often resemble bricolage style mural and graphic collage, utilizing incongruent pieces to create a loud, playful viewer experience. Examples include sharpie and acrylic applied to broken mirror, graphite and pastel on cardboard, painted door frames, and inked mannequins. Apart from mixed media, Casey's work in fashion design plays with negative space and suggests a pregnancy of objects that can be used or worn in multiple ways at once. Several of their garments have been assembled with solely pins and needles rather than stitching. You can find Casey at the Phoenix Art Museum as a part-time gallery attendant. @lutheran_miracles

Q: Can you introduce yourself to ENVY?

A: My name is Casey Stewart.

I am surrounded by noise.

I want to harness it into something constructive, and I am figuring out how to do so.

By any means necessary.

Q: What does beauty mean to you?

A: I think beauty is just something that..

[Casey pauses for a while, at a loss for words.]

I feel like beauty and ugly kind of mesh together for me, because both of them just gauge a huge reaction from whoever is viewing whatever they are perceiving as beautiful or ugly. I would say the negative connotation goes towards the ugly and beauty gets the positive connotation. But what you view as beautiful is wholly subjective.

Q: Do you think ugliness is also subjective?

A: Oh, one hundred percent. 

Q: You make music on Soundcloud under the username tartan.
These tracks embody quite a bit of musical dissonance and rough audio texture.
Do you find there to be value in art that is unsettling? Uncomfortable?

A: A hundred percent. I feel like if you’re not exposed to things that make you uncomfortable, or make
you question certain realities or foundations in your life… it makes
it very hard to build a wide worldview.
Whether it be art, fashion.. anything that you are consuming with your mind,
you need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. It needs to be raw.

I think a lot of art focuses on purely traditionally beautiful things.
And if you’re trying to convey raw emotions, I don’t think raw emotions are
necessarily beautiful, or positive, or bright and shiny.
Some of them are horribly dark, or just kind of garbled in your brain.

Q: What do you think, then, about the term ‘fine art’?
Do you think that connotes beauty, if something is ‘fine art’ or ‘high art’?

A: High art just seems like a barrier people want to place
so they can divide the big names vs. the smaller names,
or the names they find disrupting, disgusting, or just generally unsettling.
There's high art out there that I get very little
impact from and there are some [expressions of] low
art that I find extremely impactful. 

Q: What do you think classifies as ‘low art’?

A: Fringe artists, and artists that don't get exposure for
whatever variety of reasons,
could all be categorized as ‘low art’ because they're not being
viewed by the critics, or being bought by the galleries
or museums. But it’s a very broad spectrum.

Q: You often use unconventional materials in your art
pieces (dead birds, honey, grass) or wear clothing differently
than it was intended (upside-down, inside out, backwards). Themes of
deconstruction and rejection of convention seem to guide your
personal aesthetic & style. Is this a conscious choice?

A: In the beginning, I would say, yeah. Growing up, I don't know,
I had a pretty… I played sports, and I played video
games, and I shopped solely at REI with my parents.
And then COVID hit- a little context,
a little backstory– then COVID hit and
I was stuck in my house, stuck in
my room. The only thing that my parents would let me
do at the time was go to the library. And
so I started going to the library. I read three
books on early twentieth century art. What caught
my eye the most was Dadaism. And the fact that
it was just art for the sake of doing. There wasn't
necessarily a hidden meaning or anything.
It was just I found this interesting or I found this
subverting.. One, I think that resonated a lot
with me because that period of art was
kind of kickstarted from Europe being in shambles
after a World War, or during a World War, or
before a World War, just that whole period.
In my own life, it felt like the world was in shambles.
At that moment, cause it was COVID, everything
was lockdown, people were dying, my mom
was in the hospital taking care of very,
very sick people– my whole world just felt like collapsing
and I was like I need some absurdity. And that’s
when everything started to kind of pivot for me.
And I would find things, whether it be clothing or
materials that I would utilize in an artwork. I would be
like I don’t know if this would work as a piece of
an art piece, or a piece of clothing in
my wardrobe but I’m going to try it, because it looks interesting.

“I’ve tried to maintain that philosophy. As of now, I try to combine that, at least in clothing, with comfort. I wear really fucked up t-shirts because they drape really nicely on my body. And it feels more comfortable and flowy.”

Q: You say you’re drawn to the reactionary element of Dadaism.
Do you think that subversive art forms are born out of times of suffering?
Feeling like there’s instability or chaos externally– you think that's what triggers absurdist art?

A: Yeah, I would say so. If art is a reaction to something,
then the times where art has been the most absurd
has been after periods in which the world has been a wreck.
People just need a way to cope. And sometimes
the way people cope doesn’t make sense, but
who gives a fuck? They’re just doing what they want.

[ LM: There’s a great quote about how art is seisomographic, you know like earthquakes? That art is this field kind of sensing the pressures out in the world, stretching its little feelers out and being able to detect where there’s movement or something about to brew. ]

Q: The theory of the logic of wrong asserts that characteristics and qualities considered undesirable are deemed as such until they are rebranded, in a sense, as desirable or ‘in fashion.’ Do you notice the logic of wrong appearing in contemporary art, fashion, music, film? Are there any creators or designers whose celebration of ‘wrong’ is appealing to you?

A: In fashion, I would say Miguel Adrover. He doesn’t really design clothes anymore but in the early 2000s– the things you see on the runway now? He was doing that. One of the most notable things he did was completely rework a Burberry coat and then put it down the runway at New York Fashion Week. Then he got sued by Burberry. It’s an impactful ‘wrong.’ It was a catalyst for a lot of offshoots of ‘wrong’ in fashion.

I would say music wise, Genesis P-orridge and the whole Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions universe. They were one of the first groups that really exposed me to how ‘wrong art’ can be hugely impactful and beautiful. Just because it's raw. Not necessarily understandable– I don’t think it’s necessarily meant to be. But it’s meant to convey an overarching message: They’re queer artists. They lived through confusing times. Especially in the 70s and 80s when they were most prominent. They were one of the first bands to introduce the industrial sound and industrial music to the world. They would use very, very harsh sound, mixed with very, very  disturbing audio. Mixed with some really beautiful and innovative synths. A lot of their music makes me feel static and terrified, but it’s a feeling that hits close to home for me. I’ve felt the way those songs feel.. and I find comfort in that.

Ron Athey is the artist that I am most interested in and captivated by right now. I read a book called Queer Communion basically cataloging his entire life through his artwork, writings by himself, by close friends. [Athey] c[ame] from a very religious and abusive household and us[ed] very extreme visuals and audio – to many viewers graphic violence and sexual themes–  to convey what he need[ed] to say. Athey was also very heavily into COUM Transmission and Throbbing Gristle and the whole industrial and goth music scenes. He still embodies the ideals of that. It’s beautiful.

Q: Is it true you once posed in a dumpster for a photoshoot?

A: Yes, I did.

Q: What’s your take on Balenciaga’s destroyed Paris sneakers and ‘homeless chic”?

A: Homeless chic. I’m kind of conflicted about it, but at the same time
I feel like visually sometimes I embody that look. For me, the tearing
of fabric and clothing creates new ways in which you can wear a
garment. Particularly if they’re large holes– new head holes,
new arm holes. The way torn fabric works in general has always interested me.

Those shoes, you know, I would just get a pair of sneakers and beat them up.
I wouldn’t pay an exorbitant amount of money for those shoes.
At first glance, when I first saw them, I said okay, that’s a cool shoe. I wouldn’t buy it.

Q: What do you think it means then, for people who have money
to be dressing as if they don’t have money? For people to be spending $2,000 on a pair of
shoes that look like something you threw at the wall and shat all over?

A: I think that for a majority of fashion consumers it’s kind of unconscious.
That just entered the fashion zeitgeist and then people went along with it
and saw it as high fashion and kind of ignored the dark underbelly of where that came from.

Q: Last season, Miu Miu sent all of their models down the
runway in this very librarian chic style, with hair super frizzy and messed up.
What’s your take? On dressing as if you don’t care, purposefully presenting
yourself to be nonchalant (think no-makeup makeup) that weird
juxtaposition between I have purposefully tried, to look like I didn’t try, to look like this.

A: It’s non-glamourous glamor.

[LM: Maybe it’s only glamorous because it’s deliberate? It’s not necessarily fashionable to have really messy hair, but if you have deliberately really messy hair, that can be fashionable. But only if it looks like it wasn’t deliberate.]

I guess it’s always been this way but I feel like especially now with the
scrutiny of social media and the internet, everybody is consistently trying to
one up everybody to a greater degree. And that is just calling for crazier and crazier means.

Q: There’s a fine line between sensationalism – creating a
spectacle just for the sake of causing a spectacle–  and doing something that is
disruptive because that is what feels true to you. Do you think that sensationalism
is becoming mainstream, that subversion is becoming popular just
because it is startling? Like fashion clickbait?

A: One hundred percent. The fashion show started in the salons of couturiers
and it was a pretty closed society. Only people of the upper echelon
could come in and view the super expensive clothes.
Then Cristobal Balenciaga started doing the
catwalk type things with the numbers.
Since then, it’s been exponentially growing.
Fashion shows are like, if it is not immediately
holy shit that is fucking crazy, odds are, it’s not gonna capture a wide audience.

[ LM: Like the Coperni spray-on Bella Hadid dress? That kind of effect, where the show is not about the clothing, it’s about the show? ]

Two seasons ago, the Diesel show. They’ve been using huge
inflatables and there was a big pile of condoms..

[ LM: Sex in your face! ]

It’s like a kid in the middle of class screaming poop or shit and all the kids are
like oh my god and they erupt into laughter. I think visually it can be very
intriguing but I think for myself I want a little more. After a while, I lose interest.

Q: As subversion becomes more fashionable in the mainstream,
what happens to counterculture? Or subculture? What does
difference or resistance look like under this new lens? How can
protest be inscribed onto the contemporary body?

A: That’s a question I don’t really have an answer for.
We’re in the early stages of that. In
Athey’s book– gonna reference it– I think it was an
interview with him, and he was talking about how
back in his day tattoos had significant meaning,
whether it be some kind of ritualistic meaning or
assigning you to some fringe group.
He said that now, every suburban mom has some kind of tattoo.
Every cheerleader, every fraternity jock has tattoos.
So it’s kind of lost that luster. Counterculture
can still exist, you just really have to
work and sift through the sensationalists.

[ LM: It’s maybe just harder nowadays to look at someone and be able to identify whether they’re wearing that Throbbing Gristle t-shirt because they listen to Throbbing Gristle, or because they found it and thought the visual looked cool. There’s more subtlety or nuance to dress now in order to convey these status or identify signifiers.]

I don’t personally believe it’s inherently wrong to find
something and just think it’s cool because it looks cool.
There’s merit in just being aesthetically interested in something.

Q: Are there particular fashion codes or aesthetic norms that you
enjoy to exaggerate or violate in your art? Certain conventions – of construction, materiality, gender –
that you find are fun to play with or distort?

A: I love assemblage in art. Finding little pieces of the world scattered about.
Taking them and somehow working them into something I find meaning in.

“For clothes, I am not immune to the “logic of wrong” sensationalist approach to clothing. Everytime I dress I’m not having a very introspective thought about what I’m putting on. I like a good mess.”

ENVY Magazine