Monday, April 26, 2010

A talk with Nils Folke Anderson

(Work in progress, Nils' studio, 2010)

Molly Stevens: Would you agree with the following cliché: We approach our work in the studio like we do our lives.

NFA: In art and life my values are continuous—I find pleasure in things like spaciousness, grace, sensitivity, humor. However the threshold of the studio is essential. My studio is a place for action, and a particular kind of contemplation.

There are also things I do, like playing music and cooking, that influence how I work in the studio.

MS: Then there are artists who cook in galleries.

NFA: Discursive food gives me indigestion.

I like how Rauschenberg spoke of desiring a tension between art and life. The two blur into each other constantly of their own accord. By pulling them apart, making each more strange to the other, we make both richer. Then again, art is contained in life—it’s not like apples and oranges. Comparing art and life is like comparing apples and fruit.

MS: I think art should be different too. But there is a certain personality we bring to both. A certain pace. What I mean by pace is a rhythm, a personal beat. For example, there's the stereotype of the dark and depressed artist. I suppose that’s one pace.

NFA: There's a great Ray Charles song called “¾ Time.” That’s a pace I relate to. And polyrhythm is important to me—in the sense of working with multiple paces or modes at once.

MS: Does your work in the studio follow ¾ time?

NFA: It’s different, my brain engages differently with time when I’m in the studio.

But music is an influence. In musical time empty space is meaningful, because those gaps occur within a structure. Something similar happens in visual art, especially sculpture, and music has helped sensitize me to the possibilities that this presents.

MS: I think we can see a slower beat in your work. It's not the same beat that’s in my work, which is set to an alarm clock.

(Molly Stevens, Long Line Mountain II, 2010, 40" x 60")

NFA: I don’t see the alarm clock in your work. Where does that show up? Is that being regimented or just wired?

MS: It’s a bit of both. It’s both a discipline and a panic that I’m up against the clock. I tend to make, make, check email, meditate, do something else, make. I rarely sit in the chair and look for more than 5 minutes. I think you can feel that my drawings happen immediately. I often wish I were more of a planner. Are you a planner?

NFA: I sometimes feel like Robert Burns' mouse – my best laid plans "gang aft agley." So I make plans but also let go of them; or move myself just to the side of plans I’ve made.

MS: And what’s the advantage to your work when you slow down?

NFA: There’s a better continuum between me and the thing I’m making. Going slow allows for making adjustments along the way. The opportunity of all the failures along the way is more available. When I work at a slow pace I also notice that works can come together rather quickly, that slowness can lead to very satisfying moments of effortlessness.

MS: Sometimes I'll work endlessly on something, wrestle with it, and the next piece I make spreads like soft butter. I love that. For me, fast is just more natural. That said, there's fast that’s frenzied and scatterbrain, and fast that’s present and exact.

NFA: The alarm clock.

MS: Actually, the alarm clock is mostly a pain in the butt. It tells me I only have five minutes left. Or it already rang five minutes ago. It’s more psychological than anything else. But, sometimes there’s just an upbeat pace that feels right. Sometimes.

NFA: As far as the alarm clock goes, I had a different image. I pictured going to one's work as being akin to waking up.

MS: That’s an appealing thought. I do think making art raises awareness.

NFA: How does pace relate to the line for you?

MS: Every line has a pace. In drawing there's the fly away line that’s super-quick and uncontrolled, there's the heavy and slow line, there's the loose line. And each of those lines has a movement and a speed and a spirit and maybe we can call that pace. Also, electric light makes one kind of line, metal another.

NFA: In the case of electric light, radiant light, there are multiple directions occurring in the line, of unequal intensities. The path of the light in the directions it goes, and the path of the object producing the light.

MS: That's what I like about your piece in the show. It has contained and uncontainable line at the same time.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A talk with Elana Herzog

(Elana Herzog, 2007, Southeastern Center for the Creative Arts)

Molly Stevens: The other night, I met an artist whose sculptures I liked. Then she started talking, using tremendous terms and offering extensive explanations.

Elana Herzog: And it killed it. She lost you.

MS: She pretty much should have not said anything.

EH: That’s a lesson! A word to the wise!

MS: I think there’s a delicate balance you have to strike, between explaining and not.

EH: Do you think she was over-zealous? Or do you think she learned that approach in school?

MS: I think that’s it. I bet she just got out of school. They must have said to her, “Know your position. Promote meaning. Shape the culture.” In any case, all this to ask you my first question: at what point are you thinking when you’re making something?

EH: It depends on how you define thinking, but it’s a bit of a back and forth process for me. I know that over the years I’ve made a lot of decisions based as much on what I don’t want to do as on what I do want to do. For example, I won’t do a certain thing because it reminds me of something else, or because it implies something that I don’t want to imply. And so sometimes I make decisions by a process of elimination. But really your question is how I use thinking. It’s a process, of course. I’m not a conceptual artist in the sense that I don’t start with a concept that is larger than the form that the work takes. Everything I think about it is embodied in the materialization of the work.

MS: It’s in front of you.

EH: Right, I think so.

MS: I have an elimination process too that’s based on “not.” I say to myself that I don’t want to go in a certain direction. But that can turn out to be the voices in my head. “Don’t do that.” It’s a judgment. It can be hard to distinguish between what’s not-wanting to go in a certain direction and what’s a judgment. Sometimes if you find yourself going in a certain direction, you just have to go.

EH: And that can be a really liberating moment. You start realizing that it’s a bias, and not actually a meaningful choice in a good sense. It’s really important to become aware of that and also to abandon the voice on your shoulder that comes from either your teachers or your parents or wherever; and also to abandon the idea of perfection. Because if you’re hyper critical, which a lot of us are, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for you to move.

MS: It’s really a process of letting go. I’m trying to become comfortable with not knowing where a work is going. It’s not sloppiness. It’s that the work is taking its own course. I have control over it, but somehow I’m in the back seat. To me, it’s frightening, but also liberating. And when I can do that – move to the back seat – it’s a moment when I’m not thinking. What I mean by thinking in this case is a certain kind of planning. Control.

EH: When you start a piece, do you start with an image, do you start with an idea?

MS: I always start with something. But the finished work rarely ends up matching what I had in my head. How about for you?

EH: Sometimes I have to go back to what’s in my head when I’m working, but I also have to give it up. Because it can stand in the way of seeing what’s in front of me. It’s really important to be responding to what’s going on, and to not be too attached to the initial idea.

MS: Plus it gives the piece some freshness.

EH: For me there are also certain technical challenges to materializing something. Not because my work is technically complex or highly produced, but a lot of my work is in spirit very much dependent on the surroundings it’s made in. It’s either on the wall or in the wall. It’s contingent on where it is. So, if I’m going to prepare work like that in my studio, and then move it and reinstall it somewhere else, it has to have portability built into it. So the technical challenge of figuring out how to make something works in tandem with the impulse or idea I had to begin with. I have to be thinking actively about both those things, and responding to everything.

MS: Right, there are limits and considerations. In many ways that’s a blessing because when you have a certain structure, you can really go wild within it.

EH: And you also have to be resourceful. Sometimes technical limitations generate important formal decisions.

(Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #146. All two-part combinations of blue arcs from corners and sides and blue straight, not straight and broken lines)

MS: It reminds me of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawing instructions, when he gave instructions for other artists to carry out. The end result is always different.

EH: Right, I have seen the same LeWitt piece installed more than once and it was different. And at the same time, I know there have been instances where those pieces have been installed wrong. And they get corrected.

MS: In the artist’s talk I’m going to give during the run of the show, I refer to those Sol LeWitt wall drawings and how satisfying it can be for artists to carry out that work even though they’re not at the source of it. It’s like playing in an orchestra, which is how one artist described it in an interview I heard. I can understand that.

EH: I’ll be making a piece for the New Britain Museum, which is in Sol LeWitt’s hometown. In my mind, and also in the museum’s mind, what I’m going to make there is something of an homage to him. Part of what I have to do when I’m trying to work on a piece, or work out a piece - especially when it’s going to be an installation –is to look for reasons to do things that make sense in that context. I look for things inherent in the architecture or in the place that give meaning and life to the project, that tie things together on several levels. It always amazes me how long it takes me to figure out what to do. Even though when I figure it out it seems so obvious.

MS: It’s not obvious at all. If I were to choose the same space it would turn out completely differently. So it is indeed personal. The problem arises when we – or I – try to label things in terms of a dichotomy; for example, obsessive or not obsessive, random or structured, as if one were good and one were bad.

EH: But that’s already random to even think in terms of those definitions.

MS: Right, and also things can be a lot of things at once. When I draw for example, I’d like to be completely uninhibited and uncensored. That’s some kind of goal. I never get there, but I set up a dichotomy between uninhibited and uptight and I try to get away from the uptight. But, then I think that a little bit of uptight is ok. I mean it exists.

EH: And also, it’s possible to be totally uptight about being uninhibited. Which means that there’s a degree of artifice in everything.

MS: True. And it might be important to know that and it might not. Who knows. When I start thinking like this, it’s a good point for me to turn the thinking off. I can think myself into a corner. To me what’s important is to keep going.