Art in America November, 1995
The Shape of Things to Come
by Raphael Rubinstein
The following interviews with four sculptors [Charles Long, Jessica Stockholder, Jeanne Silverthorne not included here] are a counterpart to my discussions last year with four painters [see A.i.A., Oct.’94]. Once again, I was interested in speaking with artists in their 30s and 40s whose work is publicly visible but who have not yet received extensive critical attention. And, also as before, I was seeking to bring together to bring together artists who share some common ground. This is not meant to be a report on the state of sculpture,” something one could never hope to accomplish in four interviews, especially in a period when (as one of the artists commented to me) the work of artists as diverse as Robert Graham and Felix Gonzalez-Torres is indiscriminately categorized as “sculpture.”
Accordingly, I narrowed my focus to sculptors who make object, who build and shape materials with their hands, who grapple with long-standing sculptural issues. Steering away from both the explicitly figurative, and the strictly installational, I suppose I was looking for artists whose work is still in communications with modernism. Yet I was just as intently looking for artists with an open approach to this open medium, artists in search of a new visual language, who believe that such a thing remains possible.
Charles Long’s search has led him to a fluid identity, where styles and materials are altered for each exhibition. But through his varied and, at times bizarre work (I’m thinking in particular of three teardrop-shaped rubber sculptures each topped with a single human hair purported from the head of Abraham Lincoln) there is a focus on what he terms the “abstract, freestanding mass.” Long’s latest project, “Amorphous Body Study Center,” began when he invited the London-based pop group Stereolab to compose music to accompany his sculptures. The group’s revival of futuristic electronic music from the ’60s-hence the title of their 1993 recording, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music-meshed with Long’s fondness for visual artifacts of the period, like Eduardo Paolozzi’s sci-fi pop sculptures and the props in A Clockwork Orange. Their interdisciplinary collaboration ultimately took the form of a gallery of functional items, each paired with one of Long’s biomorphic sculptures which, in turn was connected to a CD player and a set headphones. WHile relaxing on a sofa or slaking their thirst at a water cooler, visitors who donned the headphones could listen to Stereolab’s hypnotic tunes (imagine the soundtrack to a sci-fi version of the ’60s film A Man and a Woman). The centerpiece of the show, Bubble station, was a mountain of pink artificial clay which visitors, while seated on stools and wearing headphones, were invited to sculpt into new forms.
In here choice of materials, Jeanne Silverthorne is possibly the most consistent of these four sculptors, but the predominance of black rubber in her work hardly implies stasis. Silverthorne’s casting of the props in the artist’s environment-from bubble-wrapped paintings to light fixtures to picture frames-are imaginative re-creations of what she calls, with a hint of glee, her ” disaster site” studio. (In fact, Silverthorne’s studio, at least when I saw it, is relatively orderly which suggests that the “disaster” is of a philosophical nature.) Hanging from the ceiling, leaning against the wall, plopped down on wooden tables, the elements of Silverthorne’s black decor sneakily annex the space around them, while suggesting a set of rather Beckettian narratives.
At first glance, it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than between the black ensembles of Silverthorne and the color-obsessed work of Jessica Stockholder. And yet Stockholder also makes use of the odds and ends in her studio and likes to ponder the afterlife of architecture. One way of viewing Stockholder, whose assemblages are never as makeshift as they first appear, is as a formalist who chooses to work with the materials of anti-formalism. Her installations and more compacted gallery works combine plastic, cloth, furniture, fragments of architecture, appliances, food, trees, fruit (this list could continue ad infinitum), all held together visually by the vibrant colors the artist paints across these various elements. Stockholder’s distinctive artistic grammar allows her to retain the specificity of the found objects she uses without letting their functional origins interfere with the overall formal energy of the work.
Daniel Wiener is adamant about using only things he has made with his own hands. As a result, he has acquired an arsenal of techniques for constructing his carnival-hued, biomorphic sculptures. It’s not unusual for a single work to involve casting, carving, modeling, dyeing and sewing, plus the various kinds of twisting and bending the artist uses to support his attenuated structures. His work can sit on the floor, hang from the ceiling or be attached to the wall; it ranges in size from pieces that you can hold in the palm of your hand to snaking 20-foot-long configurations. Wiener’s weird inventions are distinctly hybrid not only in their variety of materials and methods but also in their multiple allusions to plant and animal forms as well as to the realm of human sexuality.
To repeat, this is not meant to be an overview of contemporary sculptural practice, such as the one Wade Saunders undertook in these pages exactly 10 years ago [see A.i.A., Nov. ’85]. But I hope that in the comments of these four highly individual, New York-based artists, readers will find , as I have, numerous reasons to value the three-dimensional object in an age which seems increasingly committed to the disembodied and the virtual.
Interview with Daniel Wiener begins here.
I don’t believe in the idea of integrity -the structural integrity of Richard Serra’s pieces, for instance-where the physical integrity of a sculpture is equal to its moral integrity. That doesn’t wash with me, and so I like to add something that sticks out, something that tells you that a willful, fucked-up person is making the thing up, that it isn’t just happening on its own. I like the especially when something is both arbitrary and necessary, even though these terms are supposedly mutually exclusive. It may be that “mutally exclusive” is my favorite category.
I grew up loving Duchamp and Jasper Johns, but I rejected them and found substitute parents in Picasso and Gonzalez, and in a group of sculptors from the ’50s like Ibram Lassaw and Herbert Ferber who later seemed to disappear. I was also heavily influenced by George Sugarman. About the time Minimalism came along, certain kinds of forms were just thrown out because they seemed cliched or used up, heavy-handed or over-emotional.
While I still enjoy what might be called a conceptual tradition, I find this overlooked earlier wok to be really more dense with ideas and layered with associations and formal inventions.
When I moved from California to New York in 1982, the dissonance on the street here was so much stronger than the dissonance in my work that my sculptures-at that time, large ensembles, almost piles, of found objects that hung on the walls-ended up looking tasteful and quiet in comparison. I spent a long time trying to get back the real drama of difference between the parts. My materials and techniques changed when I started focusing on how the individual pieces-which were now made of things like modeled artificial clay, painted plaster and dyed cloth-were creating a fictional world, a kind of narrative. I discovered that found objects broke this fiction Ultimately that’s why I stopped using them. I got really obsessive about making all the elements myself. For example, in one piece I needed to button two elements together. I thought I could use a store bought button, But even this small detail burst the bubble. When you saw the button you thought about things like Brooks Brother s shirts. It brought in the outside world in a way that is too specific for me. I always want the references in my work to float so that one form could refer to several things at the same time. I feel I succeed when an element seems familiar but you can’t quite place it.
My sources are varied. Among painters, I’ve looked at Mondrian a lot, which no one would guess. And, on the opposite end, Philip Guston, who has influenced me a great deal. It’s not the look of his work that is important to me but his ability to invent a personal iconography and use it again and again without it becoming tired. Another of my sources is jewelry, which through the ages I see as a great sculptural source. I also look at furniture and costumes.
I have always focused on the connections between the elements in my work, but recently I’ve begun to notice that the connections are as diverse as the forms. I’ve realized that I’m not just inventing the shapes and putting them together in improbable combinations, but that I’m also inventing the way they “sit” with each other. Sometimes the movement form one form to another seems narrative, as if there were a “natural” development. In other cases, one form grows out of another, like a leaf, a flower, a fungus, a tumor.
People have called my work ‘whimsical.” I’m not that whimsical a person. I always get nervous when I hear that word because I think it can be a way to dismiss what I do I hope it doesn’t get reduced to that. Some of my pieces do have clown like quality. to be a clown is to stumble over yourself. Clowns are experts in the choreography of falling down and I think I share something with them. My pieces aren’t slapstick but they do have a kind of physical humor and often seem to be on the verge of collapse.
Frequently I make things that are long and stretched out, attenuated. they are about a certain kind of emptiness, about making space with as little positive form as possible. But I am also interested in the fullness of space. In Ball, three large, purple, stuffed-cloth spheres are held up in plaster structure. The piece seems goofy and funny at first, but there is this empty ‘sack” on the floor loosing like a balloon that has lost its air. From the moment added this element, I thought the sack referred to an empty scrotum. Underneath the awkward goofiness, the piece is a monument to defeat, as if it were saying, “The battle is over. I have given up. I have been castrated. Look , here is my empty sack. There is nothing left for me to do. ” The combination of empty sack and full round balls on top could also refer to tumescence and detumescence. I should add that these interpretations come after the piece is made. I can never have exclusive rights on the interpretation of my work. I leave it open on purpose, so the audience has room to enter with their own experiences and memories.