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Feb 12: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Art Review: CMU exhibition resounds, responds
Jan 23: The Pitt News:
CMU gallery challenges viewers
Jan 23: Forward Retreat, San Francisco:
Benevolent Nepotism: Plastic Poetics, the cause collective
Jan 21: The Tartan, Pillbox:
Plastic Poetics opens at Miller Gallery: Exhibition showcases fusion of text and image
PLASTIC POETICS - Ian Finch, Maya Schindler, Sarah E. Wood and Colin Zaug curated by Cara Erskine
January 18 – February 22, 2008
“…I usually refer to them as diagrams. You referred to them as drawings earlier. That also works. Lawrence Weiner and Glenn Ligon are dubbed conceptual artists, while Emmett Williams and the de Campos brothers are visual poets. I don’t really see the difference.”
CARA ERSKINE: Your Venn diagram poems call to mind the work of the Imagists, Oulipo, Edward Tufte, and the flow-charts of the late Mark Lombardi. Do you see your work as part of a particular lineage?
IAN FINCH: Yes, the lineage would include things like: puzzle books, E.E. Cummings, atlases, hypertext, speech bubbles, and Mary Ellen Solt’s Concrete Poetry: A World View. Tufte has definitely been a good source for understanding how relatively complex information can be conveyed through diagrams. Even though I usually consider this work to be visual poetry because of my own background, it could also be called graphic design. Or conceptual art. Or information architecture. Right now I have a bunch of different devils on my shoulders, and they all have a say.
CE: Plastic Poetics presented the opportunity for you to work on a large scale. How has this affected your practice as a visual poet?
IF: The larger size may have had a recognizable effect on a reader’s interaction with the poems; the text becomes public, like graffiti or billboards, and it loses some of the privacy of a poem that lives in a book. The poems for this show started out small, but they were altered to suit the architecture of the gallery. Trying to situate the work in a gallery space, especially in relation to the other artists’ work, is what changed the writing process. Some of the forms were directly affected by the presence of architectural details—kick plates, sockets, and ductwork. The shape of the other artists’ work also influenced the overall structure of the relevant poems; I wanted to hint at the connections between the various works without creating a redundant form in the gallery.
CE: What was the catalyst for making Venn diagrams?
IF: The form came out of an argument with some friends about the Pittsburgh Steelers logo and what the diamonds (technically hypocycloids, for you geometry nerds) inside the circle represent. I had assumed they represented the three rivers in Pittsburgh…totally wrong. Today, the hypocycloids represent the materials used to produce steel: yellow for coal, orange for iron ore, and blue for steel scrap. Originally, according to the U.S. Steel Corporation, the three symbols represented the idea that “yellow lightens your work; orange brightens your leisure; and blue widens your world.” This concept seems strange to me, especially as a marketing tool. Poetic, even. The logo’s circle was originally labeled “Steel,” much like a Venn diagram. I wanted to take it one step further by adding more circles and text to make some nonlinear poems.
CE: Moving laterally, crab-like, the poems amble rather than progress and present a possibility of visions or combinations, but without being too wide open. How do you shoot for this range?
IF: Early on, I was mostly interested in shorter forms for poetry, and spending a lot of time on haiku, tanka…I think brevity in poetry, if done well, results in maximum possibilities. Expounding isn’t necessarily expanding. I’m a fan of the French poet Jean Follain, a master of the wide-open vignette. He was able to use parataxis to create scenes and characters in a way that dips into the surreal without losing control. I want these diagrams to work in that way, hopefully allowing readers to make connections between the words and phrases without limiting their interpretations. I spend much of the time on word play between the parts, and creating scenes or landscapes that can be read in both a concrete and abstract way. The presence of the diagram form itself—the circles and dotted lines—complicates the meanings, because although it might help illustrate relationships between the words, it can also confuse or allow unexpected readings. Without the diagram form to show combinations, proximities, and scale, the words would mean something else.
CE: Were you seen as a misfit by other poets in the MFA program at University of Pittsburgh?
IF: I might have been the only person there whose work became primarily “visual poetry,” but looking closely at anyone’s poetry, there is always some visual structuring to the printed word. Line breaks, spaces, stanzas, and punctuation are all evidence of either purposeful structuring or unconscious imitation.The printed word is not just a record of orality, but is an object on a page, something poets have to wrestle with. It’s a golem, and we have to figure out what goes where. Visual structuring might be a way to hint at how a poem should be read aloud, helping the reader break down the rhythms or breath, but it can also be used to help (or hinder) our silent reading process. The form is not just a vessel.
CE: You've constructed a shield out of foam, duct tape and cardboard. What are you protecting?
IF: My honor on the field of battle? A couple of years ago, my brother-in-law and I created a sport called VikingBall (plug: http://www.vikingball.com), which is a variant of street hockey. The main difference in VikingBall is that instead of a blocker and goalie stick, our goalie (the Viking position) defends the goal with a large hammer and a round shield. It has been described as a performance art-sport. Strangely, I think the Venn diagram poems helped to create the sport because I had circles on the brain, which is what gave me the idea for the round shield.
CE: What have you always wanted to be asked about your work? What am I, or what is anyone, missing?
IF: Does calling the work “poetry” limit the viewer’s (or reader’s) perception of what the things are, or how they function? I wish I knew. I’m not sure what people expect to find in a poem, but it seems different than what you’d expect from a piece on a gallery wall. I used to call them Venn poems, then just poems. Now, I usually refer to them as diagrams. You referred to them as drawings earlier. That also works. Lawrence Weiner and Glenn Ligon are dubbed conceptual artists, while Emmett Williams and the de Campos brothers are visual poets. I don’t really see the difference.
Ian Finch is a poet from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“…English is my second language and I think maybe because of that it allows me to see strange possibilities for meaning in words, but I am mostly interested in the simple logic behind interpretation, and I believe language is a code, and we can each relate to it differently...”
CARA ERSKINE: You’ve talked a lot about humor being in the work, but I see it balanced by cynicism, it’s both sunny and very dark.
MAYA SCHINDLER: I think humor is part of my work as it’s part of me, at least you may say it’s a kind of a tool or a filter for understanding. I guess the term “understanding” is underlying in my work. This term can be very personal, but also very impersonal at the same time. It can be very pointed— at you or me, but it’s also a very big generalization of the idea behind it. All of my work, even if it’s text-based, or image-based—sometimes that is even the same thing—comes from that, from the simple notion of searching for meaning, trying to understand, or simply put, existentialism. So, I use humor to clarify or create a filter or an opening for someone that just walks into the situation that I’ve created.
CE: Text serves as a clarifying agent for you. I remember the “We Love To See You Smile” text piece you made at Yale, and at the time it was a Mc Donald’s slogan, which was one your first text sculptures...
MS: My use of text is intuitive…English is my second language and I think maybe because of that it allows me to see strange possibilities of meaning in words, but I am mostly interested in the simple logic behind interpretation, and I believe language is a code, and we can each relate to it differently.
CE: I’m thinking of your text work based on pop songs and commercial slogans. Mediated, pop culture seems to have a magnetic pull for you.
MS: I use things that I find, materials, text, or random images, and I try to understand them, or to make some sense of them. Most likely I would compose a meaning from that collection, and will find a way to "make' them "make sense". Sometimes it comes in the form of using media, and maybe some pop star, and I think I use that because it’s so approachable, and again, it’s that weird relationship. How can I make “McDonald's” all mine, but yours too? I look at all those things through my own filter, but to show them to you, the viewer, again.
CE: The sculpture SOLUTIONS presents a conundrum. Solutions create more problems or different problems, more decisions, complications. The sculpture presents the word “solutions,” but only to point to the “problems.” Can you talk about this relationship between two halves?
MS: You’re right about solutions, it is a strange word, and I just couldn't let it go. It points out what is not there, hence the shape of something complete or incomplete. Lately, I find myself more and more attracted to be even more daring, and more political in my choices, and I think the work is going in that direction.
CE: Politics informs your work, but it appears in a very subtle way. I sense the political content because it is not overt. I think the way your work is political has to do with perception—something is always bubbling under the surface.
MS: Politics is a big part of my work. Not necessarily making a statement or being political, but the issue of politics, or maybe the definition of “being political.” By stating the obvious or not so obvious, I am taking a stand to begin with…you could say I am dealing with the phenomenology of politics, and the endless hope of making sense of it all…I think growing up in Israel makes one maybe more aware of the notion of normality. My view of what’s normal is almost the complete opposite of someone on the other side of the fence’s view of normality, and to me that is almost incomparable, or at least the notion of it.
CE: I think words and pictures are interchangeable for you, both hit hard in different ways. You treat text and image as though they were the same, having almost the same physical power. I think you're interested in how powerful words are as an icon like a single image...
MS: I think you are right about that. Words can function as an image, and sometimes the image is so different than the word that it makes the form irrelevant, and vice versa. I think image is always text, just in a different form. The form that my work takes is one of the most important elements. Introducing a familiar form, but with a different meaning or a different meaning in an unfamiliar form, is super important to me.
CE: I feel like you want to disrupt the norm of visual experience within art. I think Martin Creed works in a similar way. What are some artists that you look to?
MS: I do like to dispute the norm, but I also appreciate the norm, that is why I use norms all the time. I really appreciate Martin Creed, but honestly, my all-time favorite is Bruce Nauman. His interest in the "personal/political" is super interesting to me, and I just really appreciate the simplicity of his practice.
CE: The after-image from wishful thinking wishful was a really toxic, absinthe green due to the pink and white paint being so close in value. I walked out of the gallery with “Wishful Thinking” emblazoned on my mind due to the optic effect. Does this interest you at all for future works?
MS: Yes! Definitely. I thought that was super successful, creating the notion of an after-image, with just the color theory effect. The dichotomy of being aggressive in a hidden way is what works best in art these days (at least in my opinion) and that is something I am always after!
Maya Schindler Maya Schindler is a Los Angeles-based artist originally from Jerusalem, Israel. She received her MFA from Yale University and her BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, and attended the CORE program in Houston. Recent solo exhibitions include THE NEW DEAL at Anna Helwing Gallery, Los Angeles, and In Confidence at SouthFirst in Brooklyn.
“I see it as all being on a line and the further you go down the line, the more abstract something is. Not every sculpture begins at the beginning of the line; sometimes I come in at the middle, then I go up and down the line.”
CARA ERSKINE: Diamond Shadow and Puddle Shadow seem aggressively abstract; one half hangs, one half is on the floor, and the physical relationship of the two creates visual tension, while Plants and Window Shadow primarily point to instantly recognizable things in nature.
SARAH E. WOOD: I feel equally connected to both approaches, and sometimes don't see the difference. Because they are physical and they reference other physical forms, they aren't those things, but a photo of a chair is not a chair. I know there is a difference, and for me, I see it as all being on a line and the further you go down the line, the more abstract something is. Not every sculpture begins at the beginning of the line; sometimes I come in at the middle, then I go up and down the line. Diamond Shadow and Puddle Shadow represent a real phenomenon, just like Window Shadow does. So the relationships aren't abstract, they're actual.
CE: Window Shadow feels like the Modernist grid in atrophy. It reads like a well-structured joke, the build-up of tension only to release…
SEW: I think that’s an interesting read, it’s as if the window is slumping against the wall, but the joke, if there is one, would be that it’s not a Modernist grid, it’s not that abstracted.
CE: Yes, it’s deflated, and seems like something you’re pulling the rug out from under. In Beggin’, both the title and the sculpture suggest action, implied or foreshadowed.
SEW: With Beggin', I'm going out on a limb— taking a risk by identifying the mood in words, and not just letting the object do it on its own. It's an uncomfortable proposition because I generally don't lead the way so literally. Perhaps it's due to the form of the hand being so direct and so sticky with symbolism. This hand form seems more tied up with possibilities than other forms I use, so the title reigns it in.
CE: You've said color is not a decision you're interested in making. Your use of color seems to be materially driven, like Frank Stella using a house painter's brush to determine the width of a stripe...
SEW: What I should have said is this: Color is a decision that I've already made.Color is something that I struggled with in the past because it seemed arbitrary. Once I began using black, only black, I felt freed up to focus on other concerns: content, form, creating an atmosphere. This freedom also opened up a new phenomenon for me where each object connects with the next, they associate primarily with each other and secondarily with anything else.
CE: It makes sense to limit the variables to create freedom, but I think it's interesting that you saw color and form as mutually exclusive.
SEW: I just feel like reducing my options right now, I think all of these moves have to do with discovery, and it’s entirely possible that other colors— even though black really has so many varieties within it— could also be included.
CE: I’m curious about the new benches for the plants. The plants were once placed on hulking, grey platforms made of felt and concrete, right?
SEW: The original benches for the plants were brown felt and while they looked heavy, weren't actually, and had no concrete, regardless, that was the look. The feeling was that of 1970s public-use architecture, like libraries, classrooms or malls. I abandoned these benches because this wasn't the location that I wished to invoke for the plants, the form was good but misplaced. The place for the plants is my grandparents’ sunroom, or a porch or a radiator or a bookshelf. It's a specifically modest place, a familiar place. If all of the plants are directly on the floor they seem anxious, like something is going to happen…in a way, the trick in displaying them is that all of the rules are already in place and exist for all to see in any house or office. It’s part of their making, the form is predetermined.
CE: I look to certain writers to clarify my visual practice, and always find myself reading Mary Gaitskill. You introduced me to Flannery O’Connor, what in particular interests you about her writing?
SEW: Her writing is important to me because it's about a really specific mood. It touches on humor and disappointment, embarrassment, expectations thwarted, but it's not a downer, it seems a complete picture, layer upon layer of specificity, I can really soak that up.
CE: “Expectations thwarted” seems like a metaphor for making. I feel like making is a search for something complete, made through building or rebuilding, a series of decisions, then the work makes some decisions for itself at some point. What helps you to create a particular atmosphere in your work?
SEW: I’m trying to pinpoint that myself. I’m working towards a goal which can be obscured from me if I’m not careful, but I feel supported by the works of art that give me what I am trying to do myself. I can recognize in a story or movie what I’m doing.
CE: I'm thinking of a sculpture I saw of yours in 2002—in the hallway of a building in Bushwick where I was living—a disembodied hand on a table. I’m interested in this autonomous hand, do horror films influence your work?
SEW: I am a fan of films like Lars Von Trier's Epidemic, his television series The Kingdom or any of Michael Haneke's films, where an ordinary situation goes awry, like Funny Games, Code Unknown...these aren't “horror films” in the American sense. I have trouble with straight horror movies, like I couldn't watch Hostel, but I thought Cabin Fever was funny. I am a huge David Lynch fan and as a young person watched the television series Twin Peaks—that kind of horror I can really feel inspired by—Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire. Also, I think it’s a little obvious, but in Blue Velvet there’s an ear in the grass…this kind of disconnection is the kind of thing I find exciting, it calls everything into question, especially if it goes unexplained.
Sarah E. Wood lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
“Iceland has a long mythology around trolls and the animated landscape, it is the most dramatic landscape I have ever been in, volcanism is everywhere, hot springs, glaciers and geysers that are howling out in the valleys like a jet engine that never stops. Seriously.”
CARA ERSKINE: You made your first walk-in inflatable, Generalized Occupant (for Pittsburgh) with a seamstress. Do you always work collaboratively?
COLIN ZAUG: It seems to me most things are essentially collaborative, even showing art requires a vast network of people. The seemingly autonomous decisions we make while creating art maybe really aren’t so autonomous. I want demystification so people can get back into mystification on their own terms. Working with someone else externalizes the decision-making process and forces you to articulate things and work through them quickly. It’s less internal or studio-based, more pre-formative.
CE: The inflatable offers a very intimate, quiet space: a refuge from the outside world.
CZ: I want something that reverses itself, you are external to it, convex, and then you are surrounded by it, so all the sculpture’s aspects are easily graspable. There is a parallel to architecture, but then it is soft, somewhat vulnerable.
CE: That makes me think of Rotopiary, which needs a person to activate it. It's collaborative as it needs a person to "motor" it and the topiary—which is hand-drawn in green marker—rotates on the inside. It's very funny, tongue-in-cheek.
CZ: Rotopiary was based on the early film and camera work I did based on Richard Attenborough’s film Chaplin, where the landscape would spin so the camera could be static, moving over the landscape or the landscape moving around you. The rotating landscape drum is a cool way of trying to remake something very visceral, primal, that is racing through the underbrush, but it is also very Victorian, there is a politeness and control that seems very nineteenth century, I need to have more rotating landscape drums around me...
CE: Yeah, more unobtrusive, delightfully breezy mechanizations…the inflatable is powered by a small, freestanding fan, which gives it an almost respiratory nature, it undulates and wavers, it breathes...
CZ: I like the use of air in art, because it is nothing, it speaks to the blankness I like to get at sometimes, the "white noise"—a cancellation, but at the same time wind is very physical.
CE: You were raised in a fairly remote area in the desert of New Mexico, and live there now. How does this affect your reading of landscape or land, culturally, politically, visually?
CZ: It’s complicated, but I think the desert is visually very exposed. The forces that create the landscape are very apparent, the geology and hydrology are seen right there out in the open. Because of the lack of vegetation you can see great distances, so the sense of movement is heightened which effects your sense of time, the way light and shadow change throughout the day is dramatic, exposing or attenuating the topography. I was in Iceland, and in the high Northern Hemisphere in mid-summer the sun only goes down for a few hours and it never gets fully dark. Some people believe the landscape is inhabited by trolls and when the sun changes position that much in a given day, the landscape starts to crawl around because of the radical movement of the sun and the resulting shadows; things seem to move even when you are static.
CE: Trolls, as in Icelandic sagas?
CZ: Iceland has a long mythology around trolls and the animated landscape, it is the most dramatic landscape I have ever been in, volcanism is everywhere, hot springs, glaciers and geysers that are howling out in the valleys like a jet engine that never stops. Seriously.
CE: You’ve also said Pittsburgh is very Lord of The Rings.
CZ: Pittsburgh is very Lord of The Rings because of how the film played with distance and verticality: towers, bridges, chasms and peaks. The term is LOTR, pronounced “loater.” It has to do with drama and romance, which becomes dorky when combined with fantasy, but Pittsburgh has a grittiness that balances this well...
CE: When I saw Pittsburgh for the first time I was beautifully disoriented. Labyrinths of houses and bridges cling to hillsides in impossible, stacked formations. It reminded me of space from a Japanese scroll painting. I know you watch a lot of films, but have you made any films or videos?
CZ: I have made some little films, looped artworks from movies, one was called Titanique and was basically a re-edited version which only featured the ship, no lead actors. I stole that idea from a Czech artist named Jiri Suruvka, he’s great.
The other was that film loop from Chaplin, where a keystone cop chases a burglar in front of a rotating landscape drum, the camera is static and the actors run in place while the painted drum spins behind them.
CE: Location and the use of space are central to your practice. In Prague in 1999, you made work in a castle in the Czech countryside. How did that location inform your work?
CZ: My work is pretty transient and portable so travel and adaptability are part of it. I started using whatever was at hand—using a sink on the wall as a physical starting point and support for a blankness, then a chair, then some bottles, then a soccer ball, which was funny because it was already round and white, then the British artist made me release the ball so we could kick it around on the lawn, so then that little sculpture was full of air. I like using pedestrian objects as an armature for weird sculptures, it’s about making complex things simple, in the dumbest way possible, literally simpler, which in the end doesn’t really make them simpler, it’s naive or hopeful...
Colin Zaug was raised in, and continues to live in, Cerrillos, New Mexico. He makes mixed-media installation art.