Dusk is Dawn is Day

August 19, 2013 · Print This Article

As I was walking through the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago not long ago, I noticed a late Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989, on view. A wall-mounted, boxy, red and black sculpture, vacillating between image and object, I found myself walking around it, going from side to side, taking it apart in my mind. Despite its seeming simplicity, the work drew me deeper into the implications of its facture. From a slight distance, it looks virtually immaculate – by the standard of most artistic mark making, it is. Of course this was typical of minimalist work from this artist and others of the 1960s. The shapes have a certain predictability verging on total blandness, like a Steelcase office desk. One reads about the importance of the gestalt of this experience from artists like Robert Morris, which he believed lead to a more holistic, unified apprehension of the object. “Unitary forms do not reduce relationships,” he says. “Rather, they are bound more cohesively and indivisibly together.”[1] On the one hand, the rectangles empty out the object, being everything and nothing, though they might lead to some kind of mathematical spiritual reverie. Yet on the other, in this particular work by Judd, we can perceive a distance from aspirations toward a unified experience in a few ways. Looking closer at the surface – the fasteners, the corners, the paint – I feel a certain fascination for its proximity to, and utter failure to join, that virtual phantom world of forms. The “resemblance” to an imagined perfection makes the distance from this realm seem all the greater. The corners in the metal have a diameter. There is nothing instantaneous, simultaneous, intersecting, coexisting. The screws, though each meticulously tightened and turned to top dead center[2] (“dead” in that turn of phrase being particularly appropriate to the general inertia), announce their absurdly disruptive presence, like boulders being dropped in a glass-smooth pond. The surface of the paint, machine-even, still betrays the slightest speck of dust or fluctuation in thickness. And the colors, well, they don’t actually seem like they follow any particular logic at all, save that they were commercially available as is. In the sphere of this type of artwork, these aspects are magnified from being mere details to critical features. We go from what is presupposed (“it’s held together somehow”) to what is foremost in our consciousness (“the screws are exposed and meticulously turned”). This leads me to thinking in general about an aspect of the art that I am often drawn to, and the art I like to make, where one looks for ways to investigate the liminal areas of the process of making and enlarge upon ways of becoming. Beyond the physical, it seems important to consider how the object’s resulting attitude relates to issues outside of itself – whether it wants to or not – allowing the work to be permeated by contextual notions. We can observe a world where the particular diameter of a metal corner is a metaphor for the problem of actually doing what one thinks. The speck of dust on the surface can be what happens when ideas are tested, moved around, creatively misread and complicated by personal and social circumstance, material, process, and even broader subject matter.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989

Donald Judd
Untitled
1989

In the 2011-2012 exhibition at Chicago’s Museum for Contemporary Art, The Language of Less: Then and Now, we were reminded of how the echoes of minimalism are still felt in vital, current artistic practice. I take Gedi Sibony, whose personal biography of being the son of a contractor seems to have informed much of his often slight, provisional work[3] as a prime example. Included in the exhibition, The Cutters, 2007/2010, a dry-walled portal adorned with sketchy paint, spackle and loose canvas, seems quite direct in its relationship to the artist’s life experiences, though the manner of its presentation leaves us at a definite remove from these facts. There is a way the work slips past us and lets us wander without being pinned down, though no doubt the particulars are also what charge it with presence. The title for the show and catalog actually derive in part from conversations like the one between Sibony and curator Michael Darling, where the artist wanted to avoid the term “minimal” to describe his practice. Instead, he talked about “maximizing space”.[4] While I might hesitate to go that far in describing his work, there is doubtless a greater assertion of content and experience through the use of spatial relationships, involving somewhat idiosyncratic motivation, and more particularity than one would expect from something in the minimalist canon.[5] On the other hand, what Sibony seems to draw from this tradition is its ability to make us notice not only the space we’re in and how we relate to it, but to make us look more intensely at what is actually there – as with the fasteners on the Donald Judd. So what we have here is something more like a methodology of focus, than that of reduction, per se.

Gedi Sibony, The Cutters, From The Center, Her Trumpeted Spoke Lastly, 2007/2010

Gedi Sibony
The Cutters, From The Center, Her Trumpeted Spoke Lastly
2007/2010

In my own practice, small perturbations are to be multiplied and dilated; brought forward to be enlarged. Fissures between potential and imagined, present and executed are widened. Any time I can find a troubled intersection of intention and doing, imagining and becoming I want it to be fore grounded. Prioritizing space, form and material rather than image, metaphor and text doesn’t preclude the latter, but allows me to focus on what is happening in the made object, what happened during its making, and how bringing that experience to bear in the viewing situation acts a kind of demonstration but also as a site for instigating and considering ideas and their implications.

Things should stop short of anything too transcendent or settle only for what is concrete or commonplace. Dealing with the facts is important, but I don’t expect things to stay put there. Better to look for an experience that shuttles back and forth between something like the transcendentalism of Suprematism and the facticity of the readymade – a dyad of artistic renunciation of the temporal and embrace of the spirit and intellect.[6] On some level, things should be a little dirtier, interfered with and multifarious. I mean by “dirt” a sense of something that isn’t necessarily supposed to be there by some tenet or other, or is in a way incongruous with it; a complication that has a complication.[7] So with regard to some framework, the artwork should take a step in and a step away. Something meticulously “designed” in a CAD system can be made by hand with rudimentary tools. Painting can be done with “brushes” that are whole images, letting them interact on the surface in a way that multiplies context, so expression is built up not only from each successive mark but from the baggage the marks carry. Personal histories and studio histories can be starting contexts. A finished piece is a context for another through it actual use in part or whole. The branches in the process of construction can be turned toward another project. Perhaps this is a version of the deliberate cataloging that R.H. Quaytman does, except it’s not being declared so such as much as its being done genetically, so to speak, in chains of production that cause each other. Even more than this I see reason for exhibitions containing objects that are out of phase rather than exhibiting a single end point of a creative stretch of time, avoiding monolithic bodies of work to be shown at once. Perhaps two, three or even five different aspects of a view on things is called for. The problematic for me here is a kind of foreshortening effect of cultural production and its vacillations. Taking a cue from Walter Benjamin’s ruminations on the melancholic,[8] no particular idea becomes overly reified, nor is there too much trust lain in detached universals. It is a basic predicament not only of importance to art, but in life. Ideas are placeholders, and reality is often beyond our tenuous grasp. We can perhaps hope to try to widen the island we stand on, but we can never know the ocean.

Of course, a countervailing force to whatever direction I’m headed need not only be found in bodies and processes external to the one I begin with, but can be discovered inside them. Things contain their own undoing or re-emergence. For instance, repetition is a well-recognized minimalist impulse, but it can be used not to eliminate the presence of the unique and idiosyncratic, but as a means for things to transform and estrange themselves, taking them to another place perhaps even opposite of where they started. For example, a repeated line, a layered image or a structure turned on itself can be made to collapse and then crystallize into a different appearance or meaning. To borrow a word Chicago artist Steven Husby has been fond of using, we could call this type of repetition or self-transformation recursion. It’s a term used in mathematics and in the study of nature. What I take from it is the notion that sometimes doing the same thing repeatedly doesn’t produce the same results; that feeding something back into the same process can cause it to change exponentially.

I think here of Eva Hesse and some of her not-quite primary, post-minimalist forms. Even her relatively simple structures, like boxes, cylinders and lattices were greatly complicated by the potential readings of their fabric, latex or metal components. Especially interesting here is a piece like Accession II where what the material could do took it well beyond its default reading as plastic or steel. In particular, the way the plastic tubing is inserted into the structure, piece-by-piece, generates an altogether different experience. It is holistic but of a totally different order than early Robert Morris’ geometric gestalt. The entirety is radically different from the parts as opposed to the parts servicing the entirety, or even the parts just fitting into the whole, which was a complaint Morris had about painting.[9] This is an aspect that makes her work not only post-minimal but potentially instructive for us today as it opens up the end-gamesmanship of minimalism for future use – again, the aforementioned methodology of focus rather than less. But it’s not at all the formalized focus of a hierarchical academicism, but the character of a certain specificity of the experience. Other transformative uses of material that take minimal precepts beyond even this to other subject matter to include the likes of Felix-Gonzales Torres’ candy installations, with their heartbreaking references to loss and Janine Antoni’s Chocolate Gnaw, 1992, a form reminiscent of Tony Smith’s Die, 1962, made thirty years hence from chocolate with large bitten-off chunks taken out of it, subjecting the austerity to obsessions over body image.[10]

Samantha Bittman, The Longest Distance Between Two Points, 2011, Acrylic on hand-woven textile

Samantha Bittman
The Longest Distance Between Two Points
2011
Acrylic on hand-woven textile

A local, contemporary artist who fascinates me with subtle material play in a fixed framework is Samantha Bittman. It’s a very close game of ruffled repetition in her textile-based painting-like pattern works. We’ve seen many attempts at the dialectic of image/object, painting/support in our time, but very few demonstrate a consistent talent for intertwining these issues in such a cohesive and distinctive way. There are patterns painted and patterns woven in the support and neither quite adds up to the other, as they incessantly confuse their figure ground relationships. The patterns themselves really are only pseudo patterns since the actual weave is nearly as varied in warp and weft as a gesture and the painted overlay is often equally complex in a more macroscopic way. At times the painted surface is almost indistinguishable from the support, but a tension always remains; a serene overall surface threatening to break apart from itself and its background. The material and its differing implications disappear and reappear into each other like sfumato ten times removed, born of a seemingly cosmic sense of humor.

From the standpoint of the process, we could take cues from artists like Hans Haacke or (former) team of Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Haacke takes variously hidden or opaque critical stances toward larger institutional issues in his workings with natural phenomenon, such as in Condensation Cube, while Fiscli and Weiss deal not so much in formal visual tension but the actual tension of gravity in their photography and film, especially with the filmed running of a highly complex Rube Golderg machine in The Way Things Go. I will often consciously interleave some sort of external chance or physical process into things, ala the fluctuating Cube, so that whatever I’m thinking is shifted or channeled if not completely determined by it. The incorporation of a complex event like a crushed object, or the grain in a piece of wood can spin things around formally while the determination to involve bodies, events, and physics in this way is critical to the desire to foster interplay between idea and outcome, connotation and fact. Alternately, Fischli and Weiss’ film is not only another example of physical phenomenon (gone hilariously absurd) but that it was filmed and edited, to the point where we really have to question what did and did not happen, is of great interest. At several points the artists seem to hide their transitions in plain sight. The viewer can be convinced – by the extremely well worn and nearly invisible trope of the dissolve transition in film – that two connected takes really do match up with the same chain of cause and effect. Letting yourself pause on it, the realization comes that it probably went all wrong and they had to kick start it. These breaks transition us between natural and cultural facts; the will and desire to make the system keep going, or at least make it appear to keep going despite contrary realities.[11] This sense of dealing with gaps, losses, and non-sequitirs enters my work on a regular basis.

Looking closer at this, I see my sculptures, for instance, as reactions to broken, self-contradictory and attenuated geometric structures. As I work with them, I’m trying to bring them to a place beyond themselves, to have the initial breakdown re-emerge as some new cohesiveness that in its own way seems kind of inevitable, but really is more like one of many potentialities. There are cascading decisions to make. First, I have to think about the sculpture being a practical object that can hold together physically. Some forms of sculpture contain tabs, rods and armatures, but I will tend to make those parts that bear the structure a part of the form that one sees. Having a certain range or degree of relief is important for the objects status as something for the wall or floor. I consider whether they are balanced or unbalanced, try to involve myself in convolutions or extricate myself from them in some way, and try to recognize a character that emerges. This character can appear after one or two moves or after 50 moves, or even on the last touch. In one case, with a piece I called Double-Sided Painting, I didn’t realize what it was until I tried to hang the piece on the wall and noticed that both sides of it fought to be the “front”. So I hung it on a mount that suspended it in space so each aspect could have its say, not to mention point toward something like traditional panel painting which often involves using both sides to tell a story or perhaps simply to recycle a costly wood panel. Other times, the character involves a certain sense of gravity or volume, a particular structure that presents itself as needing to be built “around” or is relevant to something I had to do to the piece to make it “go”. One I titled Twoohsix really had something to say to me after I stood on it with all of my weight to make it do something – the compressed words of the title being my approximate body weight.

Fourteen, 2013, Primer on aluminum

Fourteen
2013
Primer on aluminum

Living between polarities, looping through historical and contemporary artistic practice, taking an ending as a beginning: these induce for me a constant state of movement in the art. On a personal level, for whatever reason, life has led me to change my place of residence a number of times over the last several years. So in a way I feel like these disruptions, beginnings and endings have become a bit ingrained in my psyche as much as it has been a part of my art practice. One apartment was on the 6th floor of a building in Edgewater that had a view of the lake. The vista was framed by a couple blocky apartment buildings. It made for a striking image of nature and construct and I would regularly take pictures of the sunrise as filtered through these concrete monoliths. Looking at the images over time, I thought if you didn’t know the time and location, it might be hard to tell if it was morning or evening. Astronomically speaking, it all may look much the same – the star bears a relationship to the horizon of the planet earth from my vantage point that produces a characteristic range of hues in the sky. The sun being 18 degrees below the horizon, according to accepted standards, defines both. Those are the facts. Most likely our circadian rhythms or some other such way finding apparatus make it easy enough to distinguish dawn from dusk as you’re there in it. And to me that’s the part about spending time in the studio that will probably never get old for me is not quite knowing what will spin the one into the other until it is experienced, whether it’s something in front of me or something from history considered from a given moment now. The title above was taken from the first line of the R.E.M. song Low, released on the Green CD in 1988. The video for that song has always struck me for its imaginative use and technological reanimation of La Confidence, c. 1880, by Elizabeth Jane Gardner. It complicates and broadens the experience of an otherwise rather academic scene of innocence and intimacy, combining “high” and “low” impulses and values of visual production. The very meaning of the painting seems vastly different by this act of recycling.[12] As I’ve related elsewhere[13], this sort of play of past and future, and how something upon which the sun has set can be given new life, is a cornerstone to my own practice.

 

 

 

[1] Robert Morris, Notes on Sculpture, essay, first published in Artforum, February, 1966.

[2] On even closer inspection, I think one screw isn’t at the same angle on this piece!

[3] Michael Darling, The Language of Less, essay, in the exhibition catalog for The Language of Less: Then and Now, 2011, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, curated by Michael Darling. p. 27.

[4] ibid., p. 23.

[5] Even when looking at the usual suspects like Morris, Judd, Flavin, LeWitt, McCracken, etc. there are a lot of different approaches, some even opposed, such as Morris’ and Judd’s differing views on whether ideas of painting and sculpture can be commingled or not. At least early on, Morris seems to have taken a hard line against the admixture, though I’m left wondering – for another place and time – about his felt reliefs for the wall.

[6] For an interesting discussion of this, see Barbara Rose, ABC Art, essay, 1966.

[7] See Brazil, a film written and directed by Terry Gilliam, 1985: http://youtu.be/KyHilwSRo28

[8] Such as he ponders in works like The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 1925. (See, for instance, the translation by John Osborne, London: Verso, 1998, paperback edition, pp. 138-142.) It is important for me to note a fascinating passage later in the chapter on the the ancient views of the saturnine disposition being countered by the influence of Jupiter, or Jove, the origin of jovial. For starters, making art is, to me, in itself a jovial thing to do. This is the dialectic I’m touching on, not to take melancholia as some kind of prescription.

[9] This seems to be alluded to in Robert Morris, Notes on Sculpture. The issue was also discussed in Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood, Artform, 1967.

[10] Minimalism, ed. By James Meyer, Phaidon, paperback edition, 2005, p. 42.

[11] I am indebted to Jeremy Millar’s book from the Afterall: One Work series, Fischli and Weiss: The Way Things Go (Afterall Books, published in 2009) for his excellent, in-depth analysis of the artists’ film.

[12] http://youtu.be/QqVI_CHlFAI

[13] See my post, The Outward Spiral, published on Bad at Sports art blog, June, 2013. http://badatsports.com/2013/the-outward-spiral/




I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed : An Interview with Judith Brotman

July 25, 2012 · Print This Article

“Loose Connections: A Love Story” Judith Brotman, Installation of mixed media including paper, thread, fabric. Dimensions variable, DeVos Art Museum, 2011. Photo by Sean Stimac.

I have many favorite stories — some of which were never written down, but for instance, end up being repeated by close friends to other close friends, as though in repeating and remembering those stories we become closer for our shared history. One of those stories, which happens to have been printed, is Homer’s old epic poem, The Odyssey. That book centers on Odysseus; his adventures are vibrant and colorful and occupy the most prominent space of the book. Over the years I have grown more intrigued by Penelope’s position and life — that segment that remains on the periphery. What we know is that she stayed at home, her house grew full of suitors who waited for her to give up on her husband’s return. We can suspect they ate and drank and reveled the hours away. We know she led them on while always keeping them at bay, unrequited but ever hopeful. She Penelope promised to choose one of them whenever she finished her tapestry. And, of course, we also know she wove and unwove the same piece of fabric for many years. When first told the story it seemed like she did this to protect herself, to assuage their pressures. Now think she made that game for herself. Because she was undecided, unwilling to either rebuke or encourage the men in home. We might imagine that she kept these suitors to flirt with and cajole and take comfort in. But never to commit to. The act of weaving is connected to time (think of the weaving fates, for instance) and Penelope kept herself in suspension. Undecided, fickle, old and young at once. When I saw Judith Brotman’s show at The Bike Room, time felt similarly suspended. These works seemed caught between mid-breath, a moment brought into focus with stitches and cracked plaster putty, as bones and limbs and celluloid surfaces.

“I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed” Judith Brotman, detail from an installation of mixed media, The Bike Room, 2012. Photo by Clare Britt.

Caroline Picard: I feel like there is a real engagement with the physical body, in your work. How has your sense of the body changed over time, as a system to engage via sculpture?

Judith Brotman: A few years back, I made a number of deliberate attempts to try to eliminate or minimize references to the body in my work, thinking it would prove to be an interesting experiment. The most interesting result was that my efforts proved to be futile. In fact, the harder I tried to remove these bodily references, the more they seemed to appear. In a way, this has been liberating, as it suggests that I have the freedom/luxury to “look away,” and manifestations of the body will still be present; they seem to be key/core concerns of mine. Working with the body as a referent has indeed involved shifts/changes over time. The older I get, the greater my awareness of the body’s fragility. Paradoxically, it’s also the case that the body is absurdly resilient and bounces back repeatedly from all manner of things…until it doesn’t. I find it really interesting that the fragility & the resilience are both true, and that there is such a delicate balance. There are all kinds of things we can do and choices we can make to try to tip the balance in favor of strength and longevity, but there are other factors, including luck and random events, that impact what happens. My sculpture pieces and their precarious-but-still-standing aesthetic tend to reflect and respond to this paradox. I don’t, by the way, recommend leaving everything in life to chance & luck. Actually, quite the opposite.

I was also a bit of a latecomer to making art, having originally planned (approximately since birth) to be a doctor. My father was a doctor, and this was back in the day when patients would actually call our house for appointments and graphically describe all their ailments, seemingly undeterred by the fact that the person answering the phone was 10 years old. I worked in my father’s office for years.  Sometimes patients left his office, claiming to already feel much better, which implied that there was something in addition to medicine/treatment that impacted perceptions of wellbeing. An awareness of illness, health, & the body are part of my earliest memories. I was actually a pre-med student for 2 years before realizing that I had virtually no interest in becoming a doctor and left school for a time. An improbable series of events happily led me to the School of the Art Institute where I enrolled in Anne Wilson’s Intro Weaving class; it was life changing. I spent much of my undergrad years working in the Fiber Department — I had an interest in work that was process-oriented and in ritual garments and textiles. I also spent years, going to the Field Museum and making drawings of tools and objects that were useful/useable and relate to a lived life/the body. Those drawings seem quite related to the work in my current Bike Room show, although the function of my objects is never clear.

I now look back & refer to my first few years of art making as the honeymoon years, although I wasn’t necessarily calling it that back then. Keeping in mind that I had never so much as held a pencil, everything was brand new and filled with unlimited potential. Perhaps it still is, but as the years pass, this seems increasingly difficult to remember/know/see. It almost takes a bit of work to hold this thought, although, I confess that I still retain an unabashed pleasure in studio time. The paradox here is that although I’m long past the honeymoon years, I do have more clarity about what I care about in my work. And there also comes a point in working with a material when you begin to know what it does/what it does not do. There’s a big pay off after the extended getting-to-know-you process especially in conjunction with years of thinking about the same/similar forms. The work starts to feel more fluid/less forced. I’m less concerned about the work resembling anything in particular.  Sadly this magic moment is almost certain to be fleeting!

CP: On the heels of that question, I want to ask about the ethereal quality of your work: it’s whiteness — almost as though (aside from the sewing wire interventions) it has been blanched — it’s fragility, it’s almost precarious balance; much of the work looks like it might fall apart given a strong enough breeze. Somehow you’ve managed to conjure corporality and dreamlike-ness at once. Is your work defiant, somehow? Suspended? Magic? Do you think about the body and the non-body at once?

JB: Not only does my work look like a strong breeze might blow it away, but it is often the case that I will leave the studio & return the next day, and everything has collapsed!  The work tends to look best right on the edge of “anything could happen when you turn your back.”  When I set up work in a show, I have to force myself NOT to over-stabilize the work &/or pin it in too many places.  I am, on the one hand, wanting the work to stay hung throughout the duration of an exhibition, but also keep it on the edge of toppling over.

“I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed” Judith Brotman, Installation view of mixed media (includes paper, thread, wire, modeling compound), Bike Room, 2012. Photo by Clare Britt

CP: How do you think about sculpture —  a field that historically gives humans a chance to leave large iron footprints in a landscape —

JB: My very short answer to your question is:  I am far more inspired by the work of Eva Hesse then by the work of Richard Serra.

And then there’s my longer answer. I think it’s a fairly common human response to want to leave a footprint…art or otherwise. We’re only around for a comparatively short time, and we never really know how our own story will end. We also want to be remembered. I do think that contributes the desire to leave something that will outlast us. That is a very reductive & simplistic view, and I do not think it’s the sole reason artists want to make work. Neither do I think it’s the sole reason people have children. But I do think it can contribute to the desire for either or both. I’m a bit pragmatic about this: I’m not going to live forever and there’s no way around that. I don’t have children & my work is very impermanent. (Please note: 1) I make vast distinctions between artists and parents.  2) I frequently admire the contributions/dedication of both.)

I’m visiting New York City now & have spent a disproportional amount of time at The Met, looking at Greek & Roman sculpture: figurative, monumental, stunning. Personally, I’m glad they didn’t fabricate those works out of paper or something fragile, or I wouldn’t be seeing them now. But despite the fact that they have endured for centuries quite a few are pretty messed up in a variety of ways. Many of them are broken and held together with steel rods & other modern day fabrications. Some of the heads & other body parts are missing. We no longer know who many/most of these people are — let alone the identity of the artists who made these pieces. They haven’t completely succeeded in eternal life. Furthermore, most of these sculptures were stolen from their countries of origin. But they are gorgeous. I could stay in those galleries for days.

Immediately before working with paper, I fabricated my sculpture pieces out of industrial felt — not marble or steel, but stronger (& itchier) than my current work. The work was fairly dark in both tone (referenced armor, bondage toys, prosthetics, and animal traps) and color. I switched to mainly white paper after that (I was already integrating touches of it in my industrial felt pieces) for several reasons. For one, the tone of my work usually is somewhere on a continuum of dark/quirky/curious and I was interested in using an opposite kind of material, primarily to focus on the details. Everything resides in the details: the crumple, the sheen, the decorative flourishes, the distress, the bit of map information (I use atlas pages in some of the work). This is something of the reward or payoff you get from careful looking. I am aware that my work can be taken in at a glance — a lot of white, a lot of paper, some odd/eccentric stitches. I like that there is extra visual information available if you stop to look. I suppose there is a defiance about that, particularly as people typically spend about 11 seconds (on a good day) looking at art work. And I suppose there is a defiance — quiet defiance? — in making such ephemeral work. I recently threw out a huge installation of paper pieces. I had shown it once as entire immersive environment and selected a few individual pieces to exhibit a few other times. I started re-hanging the pieces in my studio this summer, and they looked like hell. They had lost their “body” through the hanging/re-hanging/packing process; they were limp in an uninteresting way.  I would leave the studio and hope I was mistaken, willing them to look better the next day. But, of course, they never did. When I finally threw the whole collection out, it felt really good & very right. Somehow the new work began to come with greater ease. The bottom line for me in terms of materials I’m currently using: white paper, wire, thread, modeling compound, packing tape — is that they seem to be the right choices for the implications and contradictions of my current work.

“I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed” Judith Brotman, Installation view of mixed media, Bike Room, 2012. Photo by Clare Britt

CP: Could you talk about your interest in alchemy and how that has influenced your practice? Does the quest for gold somehow translate into a quest for aesthetic fulfillment?

JB: An extremely brief intro to alchemy for anyone who doesn’t know the history:  The alchemists were the precursors to our modern day chemists. Their intention was to transform ordinary metals — through a series of processes like heating, cooling, and distilling — into gold. Needless to say, they were unsuccessful. They did, instead, frequently start fires, cause explosions, and some of them lost their lives. I would argue they were as interested in their on-going experimentation as in actually realizing their goal. Theirs was a lifelong pursuit and like all lifetime pursuits, the actual achievement of the goal can be overrated, or at least, anticlimactic. There are a number of things I really respond to about the alchemists. First and foremost is the concept of transformation which was central to their experiments and to my work. Material transformations have been a part of my work since my weaving days. And a central theme of my work is the pivotal moment when something could, but might not, happen.

I do also really love alchemical images; they are strange and wonderful. They include a weird symbolic language in which the union of opposites (in the form of sex between “the king and queen”) results in the desired transformation. Everything is somewhat cryptic and coded; theirs was a secret language, philosophy, and society.  I am intrigued and a bit inspired by their love and devotion to process. And although they didn’t ever create gold, or anything close modern day science owes them a debt of gratitude. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good finished product! I’m not sure I could be as committed to my art practice if each and every thing I made was exactly the same failure as the last time. But I love the fact that I’m never done or finished…that each body of work unfolds one to the next. I’m also rather grateful that my art practice is a way of learning and understanding the world around me. It’s a kind of “onion skin” of delving deeper that fascinates me about the alchemists and my own art practice.  I would say the “quest” — for me — is for successive bodies of work to dig a bit further into core concerns. And to not (literally) blow anything/anybody up in the process.

CP: Can inanimate objects possess drama? Is that something you are interested in? How does it manifest?

JB: I do believe inanimate objects can suggest a kind of drama — sometimes more literally and other times a bit more metaphorically. Long before I started working with paper, I would give my students an assignment in which they take a huge stack of copy paper, an especially innocuous material, and separately transform each and every sheet. Drawing on the paper is not allowed. The paper can be ripped, torn, cut, or shaped, and only the use of scotch tape, white out or white thread is permitted.  This assignment, which I call “The Something From Nothing Project,” is not necessarily my most popular one. But there are always a few students who clearly respond to it and find it expands their notions of making art. Many students lose patience/interest before they even get started — what is there to do with a sheet of crappy paper? But the ones who persist and are curious find that a fold or a cut can convey meaning or that a heavily twisted sheet of paper can carry the “memory” of the hands that created the impression on the paper — I find this a kind of embedded action or subtle drama.

In my past installations, (not so much in my current exhibition at the Bike Room), sculpture pieces were interconnected and/or set up in conversation with each other; often they faced off in dramatic or tense moments.  I am particularly inspired by love stories ranging from Othello to the soap opera, All My Children. (the latter is now cancelled, & this has nearly broken my heart)  I am really interested in short stories as a genre as they tend to hinge on a climatic ending. I considered the sculpture forms in my immersive environments to be characters in somewhat theatrical situations — sneaking up upon, ignoring or confronting each other. Delineations between inside and outside were fluid, and the viewer, too, could unexpectedly become part of the drama.

In the past few years, the drama of each installation does not reside solely within any given object or even in the relationship between objects. It is additionally a function of how the objects respond to the architecture of the space. The activation of the sculpture pieces — the tone of the exhibition — is increasingly determined by the space. The Bike Room has been a particular pleasure to respond to — the space is quirky and raw and has a variety of nooks and crannies. There are a couple of hidden sculpture pieces that you might or might not notice; how they were hidden was totally a function of the oddness of the space.

“I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed” Judith Brotman, detail view of mixed media, Bike Room, 2012. Photo by Clare Britt

CP: What is your experience of distance (metaphorical or narrative or geographical) and time? 

JB: The passage of time, the distance between moments and/or decades, is more relevant to my work than actual geographical distance. On Kawara is a huge inspiration to me although there is seemingly no connection between his work and mine — certainly not a visual one. I am incredibly moved by his date paintings and the dedication of counting all the days of his life. I am also awed by the objectivity of his documentation, as I possess little to none of this quality. The counting of days, the passage of time, how the past typically informs the present except when it doesn’t — these are of great interest to me. I’ve talked about my interest in pivotal moments and potential moments of transformation, but I’m intrigued by the fact that we don’t necessarily recognize them at the moment we experience them.   There are certain marker events in our lives — the days we look toward as the big moments:  graduation or wedding or major exhibition, just to name just a few. But it’s likely that we don’t recognize the most critical moments of our lives when we first stumble upon them; they’re often quiet and not announced with bells and whistles.  The work in my current show is more of a reflection or response to the ordinary extraordinary. The title of the exhibition, “I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed,” is excerpted from a longer prose piece I wrote, a rumination on what happens during a typical (or at least MY typical) day or week, and so on. The works in the show are stitched drawings (some on mylar, others on packing tape) and mixed media constructions (paper, thread, wire, modeling compound). Most of the objects do not look new and many look as if they have just been casually hung in the space, without too much thought. Things look a bit haphazard at first—two drawings, one object, etc., but if you spend a bit of time, hopefully you see that there’s an echo from one object to the next. Most of us have the notion that we keep changing throughout our lives; hopefully that’s true.  But it’s a bit like reading your old diary or looking at your old art work. In some respect, you might feel like you no longer know the person you once were. On the other hand, there are these eye-opening moments where you realize that what you were thinking about years and years ago seems identical to what you were thinking about just yesterday. I find these moments quite stunning, and in a way, oddly comforting, too.

Judith Brotman’s show, I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed, is open until September 1st at The Bike Room, 1109 W. North Shore Ave., Chicago IL 60626 (CTA Red Line, Loyola Stop). To schedule an appointment, please contact Director Nancy Lu Rosenheim : nancy@nancylurosenheim.com /  773 329 7879. There will be a closing event on Saturday, September 1, 4-7 pm