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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Richard Serra “Surprise Attack” (1973)