OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Amy Honchell

Cloth, thread, scale lumber, acrylic paint, ultrafine glitter
26 x 52 x 6"

AMY HONCHELL's soft sculptures, drawings and installations explore the relationship between the body, the landscape and architecture, with attention to the histories embedded in her donated and selected materials. Her work makes use of the tension between soft and hard structures, both literal and metaphoric, evoking the themes of flexibility and stability, support and collapse. Her work has recently been seen at SOFA Chicago, Glitz at the Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center and Objects at Jean Albano Gallery, where she is represented. Amy lives in Chicago, IL.

OtherPeoplesPixels: The aesthetic of the early work is more pop-y, possibly more graphic than your current work: bright colors, manufactured objects like marbles and balls and stockings. Did you make an intentional shift away from this aesthetic? 

Amy Honchell: This makes me think of a quote from David Brett’s book, Rethinking Decoration: Pleasure and Ideology in the Visual Arts. He writes, “I am just as likely to be interested in the cheap and cheerful as with the profound and sublime.” I think this is similar to the things I am attracted to—both as a maker and a consumer.

The shift in my practice that you are asking about really had its roots in 2004, and it was more like a series of growing pains than a planned out strategy. Up to that point in time, a lot of my material inspiration came from objects that I found at places like K-mart or dollar stores. I was attracted to things I considered to be part of our cultural vernacular: toys, women’s undergarments, even things from the hardware store. The items I was most drawn to suggested pleasure, play, or even something a bit more titillating. The color palette was definitely bright and pop culture inspired.

My work was investigating the relationship between bodies and architecture, the ways both things had internal systems that kept them functioning. I was very interested in skin—as a pliable surface that existed in liminal or interstitial space (both a part of the inside and outside of things)—and this was true whether you were talking about the skin of a living organism or the skinning of a building. I was stretching, piercing, inflating, and dissecting materials to make site-specific installations.

Then, in 2004, I had the opportunity to travel to Tokyo for a month-long residency and exhibition through Tokyo Gei Dai University. While in Japan, I found that I was struggling with my practice, and it took me by surprise. Here I was, in a city awash in pop-y cultural icons, colors and images, and I felt I needed to make something more restrained (both in its color palette and its materials). The piece, Many Different Sensations are Possible, marked the beginning of a shift for me. It was somehow less about surface, and more about place.

Fishnet stockings, rubber balls and toys, tinsel

OPP: How did you end up working more with masses of fabric than found/purchased objects?

AH: Fast forward to 2008, my practice took a more pronounced step in a new direction, one which provided the underpinnings of my current investigations. I received a large donation of fabric and clothing from an anonymous donor (all I knew was that he was the son of a woman who had been an avid sewer). I felt that I had inherited the history of another maker, and it gave new life to my work. At the time I thought of the donation as an organ donation for my practice. With the new surplus of material, I began to experiment with a new way of sewing and constructing the sculptural elements. The resulting piece, Purl, is comprised of modular components which, in turn, are made of layers of cloth built-up under a stitched/drawn surface. While the top fabric is new, the under layers revealed through the translucent surface reflect a longer historyone that was not of my choosing.

While I was developing this piece, I kept making drawings of the components that looked more and more like landscape. I felt that I was building a terrain of sorts out of layers (strata?) of cloth. I knew that the work needed to be pushed farther if a viewer was going to read it in the same way that I was imagining.

Drawing (with ink on paper and more dimensionally with thread and wire) became more and more a part of my practice, and it really allowed me to see things in a variety of ways, leading me to actually build/construct the structures that now inhabit the landscapes I sew.

Convenient Passage
Cloth, thread, wood, acrylic paint
72 x 72 x 24"

OPP: "Invisible patterns—topography, weather patterns, bodily systems—are the basis for my site-specific installations and drawings." Could you expand on the connection between the body and the landscape in your work?

AH: When I first wrote that artist statement, I was thinking somewhat visually/formally about how the body and the land can both be framed in ways that appear to be the same—the slope of a body in repose can be like the slope of a mountain (just look at a Edward Westin’s photographs of nudes and sand dunes, and you’ll know what I am talking about).

As I have gone further into making and thinking about the work, I think there are other kinds of connections. Both the body and the landscapeand architecture, for that matterare spaces that are inhabited. I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania in the heart of the Endless Mountains. I have lived in the Midwest for more than a decade now, but I still think of the landscape of my childhood as my point of reference. I think about traveling along the two lane highways that have been cut out of the side of the mountains to go see my grandmother. Some things are embedded in me: the regular curves in the road, the particular shade of reddish-purple earth that was visible on the wall of rock we drove along, the river far down below in the ravine, the lushness of the foliage at certain times of the year. I consider it a sort of muscle memory, the way we can navigate through a place just because we have done it so many times before. I think there is a deeper connection to place that many of us have that is not about nostalgia but rather something more basic. Heidegger says that dwelling precedes building, and this is sort of the angle I am taking.

I became interested in Guy Debord and the Situationists’ notion of dérive—walking without intention, unplanned journeys and discovery through getting lost, or maybe finding what you didn’t know you were looking for by responding to the landscape/cityscape around you. How we go about locating is of interest to me. Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost introduced me to Gary Paul Nabhan’s idea of traveling by abstraction: as adults we translate our experiences (locations, movements, etc.) through other media. Maps are translations of physical spaces. Children, on the other hand, experience things in a much more immediate way. They see where they are, unmediated. All of this comes back to the body, back to knowing, responding, feeling something about the places we are, were or want to be. I think there is a different kind of manifest destiny at play—not a politicized one, but the drive and desire to keep exploring, the promise of potential that can be embodied by both people and place.

7 Billion Short Tons: Greater Hardness, High Luster
Cloth, thread, wood, acrylic paint, ultrafine glitter
96 x 30 x 27"

OPP: I love the 2011 drawings from the exhibition Fictional Landscapes of precarious structures in undulating landscapes. It seems that the ladders and bridges will all collapse, and some of them don't even seem to go anywhere. In contrast, there is so much density in the fabric landscape sculptures. They feel so heavy and sturdy. I read this as about the fragility of our man-made structures, especially in relation to nature.

AH: Thanks! This entire body of work grew out of the idea that soft and hard could be inverted. I love the notion that a (soft) landscape could actually provide the structure to a (hard) architecture—that the malleability of the ground would be the only thing supporting the built environment. I was very excited when I discovered that hard and soft are two terms used to describe different types of infrastructure, too! I definitely wanted to play with that a bit.

I built and drew the ricketiest structures I could think of. The sculptures don’t stand on their own; they only work in the landscapes I create. This imagined world has its own logic in that way—the physics are just off enough. The structures I built and drew were informed by imagined and real structures, including those featured in Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ Typologies. I was drawn, in particular, to the wooden winding towers (old mining structures from Pennsylvania). Although I had not been to these sites before, they felt familiar, and it was as if I knew them. They were made utilizing the materials that were at hand. The construction seemed to have been developed as the structures were being built instead of based off of a real plan.

The structures I imagine (on paper and in wood) are cobbled together, fragmented. They are examples of modern ruins. The types of structures (to date) have ranged from hunting blinds to communication towers to bridges to mining apparatuses.

I wanted to think about creating structures that had a simultaneous sense of failure, desperation and improbability. They are tenuous remnants in this fictional landscape, representing a trace of previous inhabitants, but the context is ambiguous, suggesting a different kind of vanitas theme, perhaps. I think of them as somewhat akin to American painter Thomas Cole’s suite of paintings, The Course of Empire, where the rise and fall of a civilization is situated in a landscape that remains fairly constant. Although, I have to say that I think the work I am making is a bit more ambivalent than the didactic message of this historical example.

I have come to realize that this body of work is informed by the place where I grew up, in the heart of coal mining country in Pennsylvania. The relationship that people have to the land and its resources is complex there. I think it is hard for many people to know what holds value and what is lasting right now. This interests me on lots of levels. Something about being in the Midwest this long has made me really think about the mountains a lot more than I ever did when I lived on the east coast!

Yellow Ladder, Vertical Inclination
Ink on bristol
11 x 14"

OPP: Could you describe the process of making the fabric landscapes? How do you pick the textiles you use?

AH: These pieces have two components—the under layers and the top cloth. The bulk of the textiles I work with are acquired by chance and are, therefore, somewhat random. The materials that I use to build up the under layers of the sculptural landscapes often come from donations I receive from other people or organizations. I cut the donated cloth into strips and sort them on shelves in my studio by color and value (light to dark). The only limitation I put on this is that I prefer to use woven cloth rather than knits because the structure of woven fabrics gives me a sturdier foundation.

The top fabrics, however, are always new, and I select them based on a certain color story I am interested in for each piece. This material is always the same kind: a sheer, four-way stretchy knit synthetic fabric that I have been using for years. I know how to manipulate it to make the things I am interested in. The irony is that if you ever want to sew with it the right way, it can be very tricky stuff to work with. I just muscle it into compliance, but I would be hard-pressed to turn it into something functional like a garment.

I have been asked if it is conceptually important that the under cloth is found or not of my own selection. I think that it is because I end up with all kinds of things that I would never (in a million years!) select or purchase on my own. The fact that I use this for the strata of each piece means that the variety makes things more complex. It also feels akin to how history and geology work. Sediment and layers are built up over time and different types of rock end up next to one another, sometimes due to a cataclysmic event, a rupture of sorts. I still control the materials, but it is far more interesting to work within the breadth and limitations that come my way for this particular work. I am able to excavate as I construct. Cloth is able to reflect history differently than earth, but it still has that ability.

I develop little fractured narratives in my mind while I am working on each new piece, and these help guide my choices. I think that the intimacy we all have with textiles is an underlying part of the story. I am constantly discovering new things in the cloth that drives the work forward.

Untitled (Squall)
Installation view
Nylon fabric, various fabric strips, netting, tulle, sound element
Dimensions variable

OPP: Much of your work is site-specific installation. Do you tend to plan out ahead of time exactly what will happen in a given space? Or do surprises happen during installation? 

AH: For the large-scale pieces, I definitely prefer to plan as much as I can in advance. I make drawings to scale and sometimes build models so I can really think about how best to engage and occupy the site. My father is an architect, and I grew up drafting existing floor plans for him and thinking a lot about how space translates from 3D to 2D and back again. It is easier for me to work this way, so that I can concentrate when I arrive on site to install.

That said, this does not mean that I always know how everything will fit or go once I am face-to-face with the site. I often arrive with more of a game plan than an idea that is set in stone. Many sites require me to make adjustments that could not be anticipated ahead of time in order for the piece or show to really work. It is always a little exciting and a little nerve-wracking. I like to be as organized and prepared as I can be, so I always have plans B, C, etc. in my back pocket just in case. It usually means that I end up bringing more than I need with me. Sometimes I will end up taking a lot of it with me when I am done, and sometimes it all ends up getting used.

Ultrafine glitter, velvet glitter, acid free glues on watercolor paper
9 x 12"

OPP: What new work or idea are you most excited about?

AH: "The grey film of dust covering things has become their best part."(Walter Benjamin, "Dream Kitsch")

My recent body of work continues to invert notions of soft and hard, fixed and malleable, structure and collapse—and I am using glitter! The sculptural pieces and drawings explore value, memory and landscape. I believe that drawing is an extension of touch, of the hand. Whether I'm drawing with a pen, thread or glitter, I think about the haptic gestures made and recorded on, in and through a surface.

I am creating smaller fragments of imaginary landscapes made from recycled cloth and clothing. They support the ruins of a miniature civilization’s infrastructure. The architectural fragments on the surface of the soft terrain may hint at a lost population’s industry, power, wealth and failure. The failed structures I build often have the residue of glitter. The glitter is like dust, which serves as as a reminder of past wealth. Drawings made of glitter capture the geographic evolution of this fictional land.

As I said before, I grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania coal mining country, where everything of value is hidden beneath the earth, covered in black dust. Returning to Benjamin's quote, I wonder what it would mean if dust were glitter, if all the residue of history were reduced to sparkling, iridescent flakes. 

Glitter is little more than dust. It was created around the time of the Second World War from scraps in a machinist's shop. The machinist, Henry Ruschman, was determined to find/create something of value out of discarded material. This is an impulse that is echoed by my current studio practice.

Glitter, as a fine art material, is often seen as a kitschy elementa material better relegated to grade school art classrooms, gaudy gifts and holiday decorations. Sometimes the value of a material lies beneath the surface and must be unearthed, like mining for minerals or precious metals. I want to imbue glitter with value, to transform it into something spectacular that is not so easily dismissed. 

It is important to me that the materials for the sculptures I make are primarily found, donated and repurposed from other sources. To give the cloth and clothing I collect from other people—often complete strangers—a second life is part of my ongoing investigation of where value resides in the material world.

The landscape of my childhood has also experienced a repurposing in recent years and is a large influence in this current body of work. The Endless Mountains populated by turn of the 20th century coal mines and parcels of farm land where people struggled to get by year to year have recently undergone a dramatic shift in their value. With the hydraulic fracking techniques used to release natural gas from Marcellus shale, previously poor communities are experiencing a boom of wealth as the gas companies move in, buy mineral rights to land and fill the country roads with trucks and men from across the country. This economic boon is complicated by social and ecological factors that many people failed to anticipate or were simply willing to live with if it meant that money could be made in a difficult economy.

Memory—although not nostalgia—also plays a role in this body of work. I am interested in the way memory shifts and is malleable, yet stands as a landmark of sorts. Collective, as opposed to individual memories interest me: the way it was, the way we were.

To view more of Amy's work, please visit www.amyhonchell.com.