About the Artist
with Lucy Commoner, April 2019
You were awarded a Wassaic Artist Residency this winter. How did the residency experience influence your work?
It had an amazing influence because I started making things I never planned on doing. I went there with certain ideas and then completely surprised myself. Having the time and space to explore/be in a new, beautiful environment was really wonderful. I also loved the quiet and stillness of winter, and found the natural surroundings of Wassaic to be especially generative. I am really grateful for my time there, and also so happy that I get to come back again for the summer season.
You are a multi-faceted and prolific artist who works primarily in sculpture and video. You are also a web developer. Can you speak about how your practice developed?
The more I worked on the computer at my job, the more skills I gained, and now I am able to integrate a lot of these into my artwork. This saves me a lot of time and has created a unique process for me. I still sketch out all my ideas on paper, but when I’m ready for the final piece, I draw everything with vectors in Adobe Illustrator, and use a machine, whether a vinyl cutter or a CNC router, to follow these vector paths and cut out my drawings mechanically. I really love this process, and it makes me feel so much less precious about my work — if something is destroyed, I can just make another copy! It’s empowering to feel like a little factory unto oneself.
Typography, text, poetry, voice and music all seem to be aspects of your work that you often utilize in a playful manner. What role do you think subtle humor plays in your artwork?
I like humor because it offers a great point of entry to something that is sometimes inaccessible, like contemporary art. Also, I like humor in general because it makes life a lot more interesting. My pieces aren’t solely about humor, but I definitely use it as a tool, which makes the process more enjoyable for me, and potentially for the viewer, as well.
I use humor as a foil to work with subjects that may be too heavy or pathetic for me to deal with on their own. When I add a little humor, it can lighten the mood while also still letting us think about sad things.
Using different elements like text, voice and music also allow me to follow my instincts and use whatever elements come to mind. Sometimes I get really obsessed with a certain song and I have to make a video including it, or write dialogue based on conversations I hear. I use videos as a diary of what I’m thinking of at any given time.
Your current installation, The Icebox speaks to the power of familiar foods that we recognize, but here they are presented as generalized two-dimensional “cartoons” of the real foods, mounted like labels on cans. You have wonderfully called these items, “image-objects.” Your installation creates an industrial and literally cold atmosphere — even the women are blue with cold! What is happening here, as the food cans appear to move on a shelf into the representation of a hole and then reemerge transformed into something else? How do you hope the viewer will respond and where will their experience of your installation take them?
The Icebox offers viewers both a visual and sensual experience, almost like double synesthesia: the graphics represent the cold while the room is literally cool. Maxon Mills is a historic building without modern HVAC, and I thought this was a really great opportunity to create an immersive environment that is in direct contrast to the rest of the exhibition. The Icebox is the only air-conditioned room in the building, and this will be especially evident in the summer season. I hope visitors will experience the room as a refuge on hot summer days.
As for the items on the shelf, they will be various freezer-friendly foods, subtly suggesting a scarcity in the world of The Icebox. I call these “image objects” because each is a flat image mounted on a three-dimensional object. Just like cans of food, the outer image suggests that the actual object exists inside. But since the viewer will never be able to look inside of my “image object” cans, they are left with only the idea of the food inside.
As for their purpose in the room, the items are lined up on the shelf and lead to a “hole" in the wall. A few feet down, another shelf emerges from a "hole" with a finished canned product: all the foods have ostensibly been processed into some kind of nutritious, synthetic cocktail. The foods have been combined into a giant smoothie — a smorgasbord with no single identifiable form of food. This "meal" is not far off from how we experience many foods today, and may represent how we experience food in the future when we are dealing with the consequences of climate change.
The Icebox is inspired by places such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. I see places like this as a final effort to preserve our food sources from the impending disaster of climate change. I like to imagine The Icebox as existing after this catastrophic event, and as some kind of commercial/corporate attempt at normalizing the food we have left. Inside the room, the environment is cool and controlled, but outside the temperature may have already spiraled out of control...
Even though climate change is a really serious issue, I still wanted to integrate my playful and colorful graphics in the installation. Ultimately, if we're going to deal with some serious consequences, at least I hope we can still have humor to see us through. If we can’t even enjoy beautiful things like art or laughter, then we have really come to a dire place.
with La Keisha Leek, January 2019
You've explored the everyday object in your previous work, and have used interesting modes of installation to bring them to life, suggesting movement. Can you talk about the project you've been working on at Wassaic?
Sure. I created an installation that I call The Factory. It consists of a ‘conveyor belt’ which is really just a shelf, and several white tubes of varying sizes with images of objects on the front. The objects are depicted with adhesive vinyl that I cut out with a machine, so the colors are vivid and the lines are precise: I like to think of them as cell animation brought into our reality, similar to the cartoons inserted into live-action footage, like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The tubes are similar to product packages, like how tennis balls come three per tube. But depending on the object, this packaging can range from realistic (a baseball) to ridiculous (a martini). Each object on the ‘conveyor belt’ is supposed to be symbolically representative of an idea, while also being a physical object that is packaged as a product. For example, a clock can represent ‘time’ while it can be sold as a physical product; but while cash can represent ‘wealth’ or ‘luxury’, it makes less sense when packaged in a tube. But in reality, there are many products sold simply for the ideas they represent. By mixing physical and symbolic ‘products’ I tried to blur the line between physical products and ideas.
And, yes, I definitely meant to suggest ‘movement’ with the presentation. I installed the works on a shelf made to look like a conveyor belt which never moves but suggests the potential for movement. I like to have my sculptures exist in a space of suggestive potential, because I think that is more exciting for the viewer. The tubes are also opaque and covered in order to obscure the contents from the viewer, and allowing them to wonder what is actually inside, if anything. The suggested movement, and the invisible contents of the tubes creates a tension for the viewer, allowing them to imagine the possibilities and thus enter deeper into the installation.
How has the space in which you are in influenced the making and the form this project is taking?
The space has very much influenced what I am making! I came with a completely different plan to work on a domestic interior, but when I got here the high ceilings and industrial nature of the whole town — from the mill next door to the original condensed milk factory across the street — really seeped into my consciousness and I made my own ‘factory.’
You have a web development background as well. And I can see a bit how that translated through to your sculptures. Are you thinking often about that connection?
I don’t think about the connection a lot but I definitely use my skills with computers to execute my work. I love precision and efficiency, and using the computer to make these projects definitely satisfies that need. First, I roughly sketch each object on paper, but from there I take a photo and trace it in the computer, translating the lines into vectors. I love vectors, because they are like drawings in code: if you draw a vector that is two inches, you can instantly translate it into two hundred inches without losing any quality or changing the form. I use Adobe Illustrator to draw with vectors and then use a hobbyist machine to cut these vectors out of adhesive vinyl (the machine is like a printer, but instead of using ink, it has a small blade). Once in vector, I can cut out the same drawing a hundred times in hardly any time. So, in a way, I do have a little factory of my own.
I'm really interested in the hieroglyphic female figure you've been working on. She shows up in several different contexts. Can you share how she entered your work and how she's in conversation with other pieces you're working on, if at all?
She was another surprise from being able to work in Wassaic. I haven’t used human figures in my work for a while, but I suddenly felt like drawing figures like the ones on Egyptian scrolls or Greek vases. I stylized her to fit my aesthetic, and ended up making her life-size and placing her next to The Factory shelf. She really activates and humanizes this kind of inscrutable row of what look like random objects. Sometimes my work with everyday objects can feel cold or impersonal, probably another hidden influence from writing code and using computers, but she acts as a great entry. People are always drawn to images of people, since we can relate to them. I am using her as a kind of entryway into the rest of the piece. She is holding an apple and walking, as if she is going to place it on the ‘conveyor belt’ shelf. I like the idea that she places things there and they become packaged and sent out to wherever they’re going. So she is acting as the creator, or generator of objects in this instance. I hope to use her in future works as well. Really, the possibilities with her are endless.
What did you hope to gain during your time here? Do you feel like you got there? Were there any surprising manifestations?
I gained a lot. I had the beautiful peace and quiet of winter, which was sublime. I had the time to let my mind ramble, and like I mentioned earlier, I got to surprise myself, which was really pleasant. I had the space and time to focus solely on my practice, which was much needed. I also was able to be surrounded by really interesting and wonderful peers, and I made some lasting connections. I am really grateful for my time at Wassaic.
Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby