Jon Horvath’s interdisciplinary practice adapts systems-based strategies to photography, performance, and new media works. His work is influenced by American literature, pop culture, and his interest in experimenting with narrative strategies within transmedia projects. Horvath received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008, and a BAS in both English Literature and the History of Philosophy from Marquette University in 2001. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally in venues including: The Print Center (Philadelphia), FIESP Cultural Centre (Sao Paolo, Brazil), Gyeonggi Art Center (Suwon, South Korea), OFF Piotrkowska (Lodz, Poland), Newspace Center for Photography (Portland), the Haggerty Museum of Art (Milwaukee), INOVA (Milwaukee), Colorado Photographic Arts Center, and Johalla Projects (Chicago), His work is currently held in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Haggerty Museum of Art, and is included in the Midwest Photographers Project at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Horvath has been a full-time Interim Associate Professor in the New Studio Practice program at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design since 2015.

This is Bliss 

2014 – present

A Welcome Message from the “Prince of Bliss”

The quiet kingdom of Bliss sleeps on a hill above the Snake River. It is dilapidated barns in fallow cornfields and white potato cellars stuffed with the future french fries of America. Cowboys ride their horses through the country as they guide their grazing cattle. The locals satiate their thirst at Jenny or Frank’s bars and fill their bellies at Ziggy’s Gas and Grill. Life in Bliss is simple, but not simplistic. Our hamlet is content, yet proud of our humble community and gracious natives, so we eagerly show it off to all who come and visit.

This Is Bliss is a transmedia narrative project investigating the vanishing culture of a rural Idaho town named Bliss. The project is rooted in a broad consideration of how mythologies of place and mythologies of happiness collide in a location with a complex narrative of booms and busts and reflects the complicated history of American Idealism and Manifest Destiny.

The historical significance of Bliss is evidenced by its positioning on the Oregon Trail, its emergence as a railroad town in the late 19th c., its positioning on the Snake River Valley, which was photographed by the likes of Ansel Adams and hosted Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump a gorge with his motorcycle, as well as being the home town of Holden Bowler, the inspirational namesake for J.D. Salinger’s malcontent, "Holden Caulfield". Bliss’ heyday came in the mid-20th century as a necessary crossroads until I84 was constructed and redirected traffic away from town. Bliss has seen slow decline ever since. All that remains is two gas stations, a small school, a church, a diner, and two saloons to service its 300 residents. Through a thorough look at the landscape and its inhabitants, "This Is Bliss" contrasts romantic visions of the American West with its contemporary reality and considers how idealism is obtained on both a personal and cultural level.

Q&A: Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design

Why Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design? 

I teach in the New Studio Practice program at MAID, which is a fully interdisciplinary fine art curriculum. Where MIAD differs from many schools is that instead of requiring all students to choose a primary discipline for their degree, we allow for a broader experience for students who desire it, as well as the freedom to move throughout different disciplines as students gain an understanding of who they will eventually become as an artist. So, the NSP curriculum was developed in order to reflect the growing interdisciplinary nature of the art world, in addition to supporting students who might be more singularly focused in a particular medium. And the NSP faculty is fully comprised of working interdisciplinary artists, so we’re well equipped to guide students through this type of program.

Why NSP? In addition to having freedom to direct their own path through our arts curriculum, students take professional practice seminar classes in their sophomore, junior, and senior years.  This, to me, is huge asset.  So many art students struggle to maintain their practice after graduation or even understand what steps they should be taking.  NSP has made it a top priority to make sure our students know what options they have when they graduate, how to set themselves up for the transition from being in school to not, and how to build a supportive and engaging community of peers. These things were very mysterious to me (and so many others) as a student and MIAD is trying to eliminate that mystery.  

For the photo-interested student, MIAD can be a great environment for a college education. The size of our department is a little smaller than many schools, which allows us to have a true community spirit, non-competitive access to our labs (both digital and darkroom), and great faculty mentorship. I teach alongside Naomi Shersty and Kevin Miyazaki in the photo area and we all make it a priority to provide a stimulating learning environment, as well asthink about our students lives post-graduation, whether they want to continue an individual fine art studio practice, pursue more industry related opportunities, or balance both. We have a great student organization called “ISO” that conducts artist talks, print sales, studio visits, and field trips, that all happen extra-curricularly.  And our students are encouraged to bring as much visibility to their practice as possible, so we have many who have had the opportunity to exhibit nationally, be featured on major online platforms, and work as assistants and interns throughout the country, for both fine art and commercial photographers.

What courses do you teach? 

MIAD is a completely undergraduate program. I personally teach a wide range of courses from photo-specific techniques classes to interdisciplinary theme-driven classes to upper level professional practice seminars. Pertaining to photography specifically, I regularly teach a digital course emphasizing basic capture/edit tools and concept building, an experimental darkroom course that allows for student-directed explorations with everything from 35mm, medium and large format, to historical and alternative processes, and a studio lighting course (team taught with Kevin Miyazaki) that introduces students to a full range of lighting strategies from fine art to commercial.  One of my favorite (and most challenging) classes to teach is a studio elective in Humor and Play. It really pushes students to step outside of their comfort zone, experiment freely, and question the choices they make within their studio practice.

How does your program bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary photographic practices? 

This is a point of emphasis in our program. We encourage our students to think as broadly as they can about what might be considered a photographic experience. So, we have many students that have returned to the darkrooms to become better acquainted with unfamiliar-to-them historical techniques, but we also have many students who are thinking about new media, as well. This past year we had a student who took a digital capture of the surface of a wave crashing, made a 3-d printed model of the topography of that wave, turned that model into a mold that was then filled with cyanotype chemistry and frozen, and then let the cyanotype ice melt on a piece of paper to make a new abstract print. It’s this type of student experimentation across numerous historical and contemporary forms, which makes my days pretty exciting.

Describe the output for photographs. 

Output at MIAD is expected to be in the form that most effectively communicates a student’s intentions. Because students have access to a wide range of facilities, they have the ability to pursue a variety of output forms. Just looking at some of our junior/senior level work over the past couple years, we have students that are using traditional inkjet prints, large-format digital prints, 3-d printed models from photographic sources, and a variety of darkroom techniques (cyanotype, van dyke brown, tintypes, photograms, etc.). But then we also have students that are experimenting with the convergence of photography and painting, sculpture, installation, and performance. So, really, whatever the students’ ideas call for, the faculty expects that they will work as hard as possible to achieve the ideal material form, whatever that may be.

Describe the critique format. 

Classroom critiques change format quite a bit depending on the faculty member. Some will follow a more traditional format and others will experiment regularly.  We attempt to make sure that students are guiding the critiques as much as possible and taking responsibility with their practice, coming to critique prepared with questions and areas for discussion with the group. Nobody likes a quiet room or one that is only congratulatory. We ask students to push each other and try to establish an environment of support and trust where that type of conversation can take place. MIAD is also great at bringing in outside guests for class critiques and studio visits. It’s an enormous privilege for our students. There is no shortage of working artists, curators, and writers, living in and traveling through Milwaukee on a regular basis. Especially in some of the advanced studio and seminar courses, students are often introduced to new artists on a weekly basis and those artists will commonly join our critiques.

Where can we keep up with your department online?