Ann Toebbe, “Death Beds,” 2012, mixed media on panel, 60 x 46 inches
Ann Toebbe is well known for her stylized, architectural paintings — paintings of empty rooms occupied only by objects. These are rooms at rest, between uses, and the furnishings within them stand enigmatic and remote, at once pointing to a network of human relations while being simultaneously autonomous; it is as though these things are preoccupied with a non-human work. Toebbe’s chairs seem to be doing very well for themselves, even when not fulfilling their intended, anthropocentric function. In her latest solo show at ebersmoore, The Inheritance, Toebbe introduces humans for the first time. The human figure shares space with its furnishings, pointing to a narrative that seems, at first, more accessible. It is a narrative that invokes the artist’s biography as well. By way of a press release, we learn that these ornate tableaus tell a story of inheritance and greed — “Dorothy and Jessie also left shares of their P&G stock to their handyman and caretaker, Ron; to their church pastor, and to a man from their church named Loreaux. But when Dorothy and Jessie died, Loreaux claimed a greater share and sued the estate. While the lawsuit was pending the stock market crashed; by the time it was all over, the fortune was all but wiped out. Toebbe’s parents had counted on the inheritance for their retirement, but because of Loreaux’s greed, all they inherited was frustration, disappointment, and anger.” While this narrative hovers like a background noise, the figures depicted seem remote from it at first. They stand or sit, static as any area rug, bed or book case. Together, these various, human and non-human, elements conspire to create an illusion of stability and cohesion, an illusion that ties in directly with our expectations of domestic life. The home is supposed to be a solid and reliable structure. It never is simply that, however, especially when one considers the transmission of its objects between generations. As a result the given narrative reminds the viewer that what one assumes based on a constellation of objects is only ever half of the whole story. While Toebbe presents calm scenes of the home, she nevertheless reminds us of an unpredictable and dynamic vitality therein, incorporating shifting POVs and gestural marks that evoke the emotional somersaults in a home and its family. Somersaults not always visible from the sphere of personal affects. It is perhaps the way any home works, being at once functional and flighty, recognizable and strange.
Caroline Picard: How do you think about the objects in a given space?
Ann Toebbe: I have a knack for flattening space. It wasn’t considered a great asset in my early training in drawing and painting but I have cultivated my skewed perception — often called folk or faux naïve — of space. I imagine objects flat first, then bend and fold them in creative ways to make everything fit in a given room.
Ann Toebbe, “The Benefactors,” 2011
cut paper, paint, pencil on paper, 42 x 35 inches
CP: Yeah, there are points in a given painting with the orientation of a viewer to the scene will completely shift form, for instance, a bird’s eye view transforms into an eye level sight line.
AT: I started out using predominantly a bird’s eye view. My early paintings look like cardboard boxes with the lid taken off. You’d look in and see a room in my version of three-point perspective. I drew the lines of the wall in perspective making the floor look like it was in deep space. As I painted more rooms the architecture flattened out — it’s simpler for me to unfold the walls rather than try to use extreme perspective to include everything. The rooms are unstable in terms of gravity but since I know from the start how the painting will be oriented and place things accordingly, they feel grounded.
CP: That’s what’s so striking to me: even though the POV shifts dramatically, the objects you paint feel grounded and stable — even the way you incorporate materials like doily fabric, or the grounding pattern running across the floor — everything has this visual tactile quality, but then you’ll suddenly twist the POV — can you talk about that a bit?
AT: The Inheritance is my first mixed media show. I included fabric from my mom’s wedding dress, yarn, store bought Christmas lights, and grass paper intended for train sets. My mom inspired The Inheritance and she loves kitsch.
Ann Toebbe, “Margie and Neal,” 2012
mixed media on panel, 32 x 40 inches
CP: This is the first time I’ve ever seen you incorporate the human figure into your work — how did that transition came about? Did the human form felt like an intrusion in your conception of space?
AT: I’ve wanted to include the figure for a while. I can’t count the times I’ve been asked why human figures aren’t there or if I’d ever include them. I wanted to give it a try — why not? I just had to come up with the right body of work. Without figures the mood or emotion in the rooms is very different — it’s still or even embalmed. The rooms represent many similar memories compressed into one picture — so the paintings are always in the past and the memory centers around how the room was decorated and the furniture arranged.
The Inheritance is a story about a specific time and place and also about a specific set of relationships. The people don’t feel like an intrusion in this particular body of work. It wouldn’t have been interesting to paint the rooms without them.
CP: What is the difference between living subjects and furniture in your paintings?
AT: It’s not evident from the digital images but the figures and furniture in The Inheritance are cut paper collage not painting. I constructed everything in the rooms with the same level of care and detail — a folk art thing. The furniture and figures are stiff, sort of like a carved wood sculptures. I carefully chose the figures’ poses especially how they positioned their hands and feet. A posed figure is different from placed and positioned furniture. The figures change the role of some of the furniture. Instead of being stand-ins for the figure, as in previous paintings, the chairs and couches become props for the people sitting on them.
CP: What is it about the domestic setting that compels you?
AT: I started using domestic settings in New York in my twenties. I lived in Brooklyn and was homesick. I had no real intention of returning to Ohio but at the time everything in my life was topsy-turvy and uncertain. I stumbled into painting interiors because it felt comfortable and so many things about living as an artist made me uncomfortable. The funny thing is now that my life is more like Ohio, I miss unruly Brooklyn; so I’ve made several paintings about my Williamsburg apartment. Painting interiors calms me down and allows me to focus on formal concerns — composition, color, shape, texture. I spend my studio time inventorying life and putting things in order, this works for me as an artist.
There’s a story behind each painting and collage. In the early work they were my stories — sleepovers at my grandmother’s farm, mopping my kitchen’s white tile floor, the neighbors messy house where I babysat. In the newer work I ask people to draw and describe rooms from their memory — my husband’s apartment with his ex-wife, my mom’s attic bedroom growing up, my uncle’s one bedroom apartment…
Ann Toebbe, “The Ex-Wife’s Plants and Things,” 2012
cut paper, colored pencil, paint, gouache on paper
39 x 42 inches
Collection of Fidelity Investments
CP: I am also really interested in your depiction of the outdoors — the “natural” landscape is always framed by a window, and your treatment of that outdoors is totally different, the way you describe trees, for instance, feels much more gestural and abstract — as though it is composed in a different vocabulary of mark making. How did that variation came about, and what does it say about the domestic tableaus you create?
AT: A friend told me that he knows my world until he looks outside my house.
I take a lot of liberty in painting the outdoor views that will be covered by curtains or partially hidden from view by furniture. I desperately want to paint loose and to be expressionistic and these obscured outdoor spaces give me the opportunity to be painterly. I use washy, sponged, and pooling paint in the window views in the newer work. Another clue that the room is a painting and isn’t grounded in reality.
CP: Maybe this also ties into a similar idea of framing and mark-vocabulary, but I you also quote other paintings — you know, because it’s a domestic scene so of course these people have paintings on the wall, and then you copy them. But here again, there is a stylistic break that I’m really interested in. What happens in those moments? Those little framed images also feel so pastoral, or decorative, and that seems like a kind of meta-conversation that you are having as a painter painting these very decorative, domestic tableaus…..does that make any sense?
AT: Perfect sense! My compositions are made up of the all objects in a room. And as you said this includes the artwork or pictures on the walls. My approach or technique for depicting the art within the art is to do what is most economical. For cats or fruit I look online for simple images and abstraction often comes from cut outs of paintings made by my young daughters. The miniature art works channel the Sunday painter in me along with my admiration for dollhouse craft. It’s much easier to paint small — each little artwork can be very detailed but only takes an hour versus weeks to make.
The stylistic breaks you mentioned, the outdoor spaces and miniature artworks, are ways for me flex different artistic muscles and at the same time ride the balance between modern and folk and representation and abstraction.
This week: Duncan MacKenzie, Brian Andrews Abigail Satinsky and Bryce Dwyer begin an adventure in caring and sharing called “Open Engagement.” These four adventures of love check in with all the haps in Portland over the next 6 episodes. This week they kick it live with Jen Delos Reyes and FRITZ HAEG! Take that internet.
Jen Delos Reyes (From PSU site…)
Jen Delos Reyes is an artist originally from Winnipeg, MB, Canada. Her research interests include the history of socially engaged art, group work, and artists’ social roles. She has exhibited works across North America and Europe, and has contributed writing to various catalogues and institutional publications. She contributed writing to Decentre:
Concerning Artist-Run Culture published by YYZBOOKS in 2008. In 2006 she completed an intensive workshop, Come Together: Art and Social Engagement, at The Kitchen in New York. She has received numerous grants and awards including a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant. Jen is the founder and director of Open Engagement, a conference on socially engaged art practice. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Art and Social Practice MFA concentration.
Fritz Haeg From Wikipedia… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Haeg
Fritz Haeg (born 1969) was trained as an architect, but his current work spans a range of disciplines and media including gardens, dance, performance, design, installation, ecology and architecture, most of which is commissioned and presented by art museums and institutions.
His work often involves collaboration with other individuals and site specific projects that respond to particular places.
Haeg’s recent architecture projects have included the design for various residential and art projects including the contemporary art gallery peres projects and the Bernardi residence, both in Los Angeles, CA. He studied architecture in Italy at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia and Carnegie Mellon University, where he received his B. Arch. He has variously taught in architecture, design, and fine art programs at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Art Center College of Design, Parsons School of Design, and the University of Southern California.
When considering architecture, I find it difficult not to revert back to that well-worn Le Corbusier trope of a “machine for living.” The Modernists gave us a legacy of sleekness and functionality in the field of design, taking inspiration from a systematic approach to production where every part incorporates itself seamlessly into the overall whole. Within this model, it is impossible to separate form from function, and in recent years, this binary has manifested in the innovations brought to the formal compartmentalizing and hybridizing of our 21st century live-work-ways. The work of Ann Arbor-based architect and founder of Alibi Studio, Catie Newell, unpacks functionality to reimbue space with a sense of experiential wonder. Her installations investigate the materiality of volumes, and cultivate a relationship with the ephemeral that relates to practices of landscape architecture as well as urban planning. Newell refers to her process as creating inhabitable textures—remixing the material and spatial constructions of spaces to draw attention to the volumes themselves as liminal, tactile essences.
Newell founded Alibi Studio in 2010. Even though it is not an official firm at this point, Alibi was created on the platform of collaboration, and emphasizes a collective practice involving open discussion sessions and the random mashing of skills. Newell has cultivated a rotating cast of characters who are involved with Alibi’s projects, and this holds true for Second Story, which opened last week at Extension Gallery in Chicago with assistance from Lauren Bebry, Katie Schenk, Grant Weaver, Chuck Newell, Lisa Sauve, Carolyn Newell, Maciej Kaczynski, Drake Tolliver, and Cheyenne Pinson. Last week, Newell and I had an ongoing conversation about her practice, Alibi Studio, and about Second Story.
Discussed: Urban salvage, fleeting aspects of texture, skinning a house, sillways, throws and pulls.
"Salvaged Landscape" in process, Detroit, 2010
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What brought you to Michigan?
Catie Newell: I came to Michigan as the 2009-2010 Oberdick Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Prior to that I was working as a project designer and project coordinator at Office dA in Boston.
SMP: What prompted the transition? How have your interests shifted and/or been actualized since relocating to the Midwest?
CN: Firstly, I had been working for about 4 years at Office dA, and loved it. But needed to take a risk to start doing my own work. The fellowship was a way to have project based funding and to see if teaching was a path I wanted to follow. Secondly, I did my last years of grade school in Michigan, so I was familiar with the area, and a bit tuned into Detroit.
My work has definitely been sparked and facilitated by working specifically in Detroit and this region of the Rust Belt. There are aspects of the material and spatial conditions here that have resonated with my own work and interests, and taking me in paths I could not have predicted.
SMP: Something that draws many artists, architects, and designers to the area is the accessibility of salvaged or repurposed material, which I’ve heard referred to as “new natural resources.” Beyond that, Detroit has this profound history with craft and the processes of making that, I feel, infuses the creative sensibilities of those working here. I’m wondering if through your architectural work you’ve also been able to articulate a relationship with craft, either through material, making, or both?
CN: I am not entirely sure how you are using the word craft here. I do however think that making is at the root of my work. Clearly I find an interest in built work, and as importantly, work that I can physically build. Therefore the realities of making add constraints and interests in the work. Ideas are often work through strategies and logics that respond to exsiting conditions, material applications, and performance over time.
I think that the Detroit area is very much so embedded in the realities of making. The history of production and fabrication demonstrates a population of makers. Often for me, it is the intelligence and creativity that can be found in actualizing a project that gives it resonance, strength, and the unexpected twist.
SMP: Sorry! I should have been more articulate… I was thinking of craft as Glenn Adamson defines it—as an approach to making organized around material experience that is more conceptual rather than categorical. What I’m getting at, is that your process involving the physical rendering of materials seems to diverge from the tradition of the architect in his/her studio digitally conceiving of these impossible projects. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on why this process appeals to you?
CN: For me the root of architecture is in the creation of space. I find that for me that necessitates an on-the-ground, through the dirt way of working. My sensibilities lie within how volumes come together. Ultimately, sometimes that most powerful aspect of a space is something that can’t even be drawn amongst our conventional architecture standards. This would probably most specifically apply to our explorations of illumination and intentional darkness, but could also include the more ephemeral or fleeting aspects of a texture, accidental resonance with a space, or an unexpected, but necessary, response to a situation on site.
Salvaged Landscape is a work I did [in partnership with Detroit's Imagination Station] that reappropriates the material and volumes of a house that was hit by arson in Detroit, Michigan. The work can be seen in an interesting way as a curation of the demolishing of a portion of the house. This was a necessary maneuver given the fire damage. I tapped into this moment by creating new masses and volumes within the house, utilizing the materials that of course used to create the house in the first place. The burnt material was collected and sorted, and placed piece by piece back into the house, using the stable portions of the house as the literal formwork for the piece. In accumulation, the work makes new spaces within the house, as well as an larger inhabitable texture of beautiful, dark black, and shimmering wood, bulbuous and no longer of perfect geometry.
"Second Story," Extension Gallery, Chicago, 2011
SMP: I like your description of the affect of the ephemeral within our everyday interactions with space. Particularly within the context of Salvaged Landscape, which is, in essence, a landscape– unlike (permanent, enclosed) architecture, built to be liminial, and activated through the natural elements and bodies moving through it. I’m wondering how you negotiate the ephemeral, or this “unknown” aspect of the design process, when planning your projects?
CN: There is an aim to capture the ephemeral, but there is also the openess and embracing that I won’t be able to predict all of the affects. Instead, I remain aware and willing to change midstride, grabbing on to what are the unexpected and accidental resultants, seeing them for their spatial presences and overwhelming effects. This happens at all stages from mock-ups and tests, to remaining quick on my feet during the entire process of making. Even after the project is at a stable moment it still has the chance for surprise. Grabbing on to that as a design opportunity keeps me excited, challenged, and never sure (in a good way) what will come next.
SMP: Not to return to your use of reappropriated material, but Salvaged Landscape seems to express this ephemeral-ness further through the use of the charred wood– subverting what is destructive in order to give a second (or third, or fourth) life to a structure. Is this a concept you are bringing to Second Story as well?
CN: There is definitely an underlying discussion of repurposing material. There are two very different ways this is happening: one in the concept of the work, and the other in some of the process. As for the concept, one of the main drivers behind Second Story is actually to reconsider the repurposing, or reconfiguring, of the existing volumes. In this sense, the expression of the volumes is what is being reused. In given it a new life in location (both geographically and even in elevation) as well as the new volumes that are created by distorting an altering what could be considered the skinning or casting of the house to make new volumes for a very different occupation.
One could compare the reuse of the materials that made Salvage Landscape as a way of conceivably altering the exact volumes of the house. In this case densfying the volume (though maintaining the exact same materials). As for Second Story the volume is captured and agitated amongst what was once its enclosing boundaries. This time they are set askew to one another, opening up space present in the house (example: the wall thickness because a room, and the window sill becomes a passageway — that we call the “Sillway”.).
To speak directly about material reuse. There is another aspect of translating these volumes that continues to occur as we move and reconfigure the house. We’ve of course had to transport it on formwork that will allow it to hold its shape and to become suspended in its new location. This formwork has also had many lives where the form of the exterior skin, once utilized, was reconfigured to be the formwork of the interior skin. Within this process we have watched the print or ghost of the existing house come and go in mass or implied volume repeatedly.
SMP: So, if I’m understanding this correctly, (and tell me if I’m not!), in Second Story you’re displacing and then remixing volumes for sake of reimagining the experiential qualities of space. Could you speak a bit more to the more logistical aspects of this project? What will viewers see when they enter Extension Gallery?
CN: Displacing and remixing the volumes is an appropriate way to consider the installations relationship to the original house. The resultants of this maneuver provides new volumes and space otherwise once unoccupiable. So there is an ‘other’ occupation that emerges. This happens with moving the volumes from a second story height to ground level (thus the ability to inhabit the exterior volume just beyond what was once the wall to the outside), pulling and expanding open what was the windowsill into a passage way (the sillway), and slipping the volumes to create a room out of the former wall thickness. The installation in essence removes the mass of the wall thickness, creating a negative space that is now both visible and occupiable.
Logistically, the original house (Spencer’s Funeral Home) was evaluated for its existing volumes. The portion of the house that was chosen as the base for the installation provided dimensions that on this translation would maintain an appropriate and intimate scale to the human body. After this volume assessment, a geometric pattern was established based on the verticals and diagonals existing on the house. Maintaining these existing angles prompted working parametrically with a pattern that could wrap strategically around the house, permitting what are vertical maneuvers on one face to hit corners and become diagonals, and vice versa. This allows for the manipulation of the pattern (and each rod) to have a base logic and structure that moves cleanly around the space. This pattern was then flattened to allow for its construction. This as the base pattern is what remains as the flat surfaces tracing the existing volumes. After contributing to the base pattern, the acrylic is bent again out of plane to stretch and agitate the atmosphere (referred to as the “throws.” There are densities and lengths set for these moves around the space. Zones that are quite close to the base plane, and those that ‘throw’ quite far. The final alteration to acrylic, the ‘pulls’, stretches the acrylic down to whisker allowing for a flee of the material and its own capturing of space.
Second Story suspends from the ceiling of the gallery. Dramatically lit from several angles, the transparency of the acrylic in compliment with the reflection, refractions, and shadows embraces the space of the gallery. The volume hangs as a ghost trace, though manipulated of the Flint house, offering new occupations and relationships to this translation. Holding the room, occupants are encouraged to move in and around the space, changing their relationship and occupation of the volumes, and visual experience of the resultant.
SMP: Does this relate to your notion of inhabitable textures? What do you mean by this phrase?
CN: As architects, we are inherently interested in inhabiting spaces. Acknowledging a context and manipulating volumes, the core investigations of our work employs alteration, and amplification of existing spatial conditions as a means to both inhabit a space through a construction, as well as allow for human occupation within the texture. In other words, while textures focuses on material sensibility, volume and depth, assembly, and tactile qualities, it is within the depth of the work and its interstitial, occupiable spaces it moves beyond just simply being textured. The implication is that there are scales to the texture, both micro and macro; the macro scale is inhabitable, the micro is tactile.
Second Story will be on view at Extension Gallery, (located in ArcheWorks – 625 N. Kingsbury St., Chicago IL), through August. To make an appointment, visit here.
Architect Catie Newell is a founding partner of Alibi Studio, and on the faculty of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She received her MArch from Rice University, and a BS from Georgia Tech. She was recently awarded the 2011 Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.