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.


  1. Molly & Elana, this is a good interview. Thank you. It makes me think of what I call "seeing in the dark" as a way of not seeing what you're working while you're working. When I was little and we lived out in the woods, sometimes I would have to get home in the dark and the way to find the path was to look to the side. That way, you could pick out the bare outlines and find your way better than if you stared hard straight ahead. It's become a guiding principle for me when I get into the thick of a picture. After the initial high has worn off and I'm in it for the duration, sometimes the only way to get through is to look askance until I'm "out of the woods". Yoga helps too, because I find myself holding my breath in the rough patches.

  2. Thanks, Lady Xoc. That's a really poignant memory. I can see it.