OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews John Espinosa

2006
Resin, foam, brass tubes, plaster, acrylic, birch, mdf32" x 48" x 48"

JOHN ESPINOSA's practice is a balance of object making and conceptual interventions. His sculptures make use of the poetry of physics to investigate the mechanics of how the world works and what it means. John received his MFA from Yale University’s School of Art in 2001 and has mounted solo exhibitions at Sandroni Rey Gallery (Los Angeles), Fredric Snitzer Gallery (Miami), The Museum of Contemporary Art (Miami) and, most recently, Charest-Weinberg Gallery (Miami). His work is in numerous public and private collections including the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art (New York), The Miami Art Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Art (Miami) and The New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York). In September of 2013, he will launch Agency, a hybrid artist-run project space/commercial gallery in West Hollywood. John lives and works in Los Angeles.

OtherPeoplesPixels:
Can you define some of the consistent conceptual threads that run through the span of your practice?

John Espinosa: The base element or condition in my work is a type of turbulence that occurs in the natural flow of human knowledge. That flow could be related to time or matter. It could be a chronological, vertical circulation through human generations or a horizontal seepage that filters and spreads through the beings and artifacts at a single point in time. The distortion of the flow is often related to human interpretation or misinterpretation, and the turbulence becomes heightened around the abstract or the incomplete.

My projects often harvest and diagram these naturally occurring abstractions. In other instances, they function like a vector or a by-product of cross-contaminated reference points that I find or create myself. Multiple narratives or concepts often overlap or bleed into each other and mutate into something else altogether.

The way the morning broke was quite unusual
2010
Kool Aid, memory foam dyed with UV sensitive acryllics, and black dye, water pump, pipe, fiberglass, wood, polyurethane, acrylic tanks

OPP: Several sculptures involve the seeping of liquid out of a vessel, leaving behind a colored stain or residue. One example is The ones you see and the ones you don’t (2006), in which blue and green paint corresponding to David Bowie’s famously mismatched iris coloration leak out the back of a sphere embedded with the inverted image of his face, leaving a permanent stain on the wood base. Another is The way the morning broke was quite unusual (2010), in which Kool-Aid is pumped up through the center of the sculpture, eventually soaking back down through layers of dyed memory foam, staining them like a sunrise. What else do these pieces have in common?

JE: The staining in both pieces is a kind of residue, and both contain embedded references related to the human impulse to worship.

I used Kool-Aid in The way the morning broke was quite unusual to refer to the Jonestown Massacre, when hundreds of followers of self-proclaimed messiah Jim Jones committed mass suicide by ingesting cyanide via the grape flavored drink. I wanted the fluid to seep through an object that had both chronological (time) and geological (earth) characteristics. The staining maps the circulation of this charged fluid through these terrestrial and chronological formations.

The ones you see and the ones you donʼt conflates David Bowie’s heterochromia with the claimed phenomenon of the miraculous weeping idol—most often it is a statue of the Virgin Mary that cries tears of blood. This piece is an inverted statue of a pop idol that sheds miraculous tears according to the color pigmentation of his eyes. While researching weeping idols, I came across the term “false idols,” which implied a sort of void physicality to me. The ones you see and the ones you don’t inverts the way idols are typically represented as three-dimensional statues. The material presence of the sculpture is embodied in the negative space, in what is normally not there. So the orb is a kind of solidified aura, and the tear stains and gold mark are a residue. It’s like when you peel a sticker off of something and parts of the paper and adhesive stay behind.

Reference images from John's research

OPP:
Are you thinking about the residue metaphorically or metaphysically?

JE: Residue implies the existence of a previous presence or activity. When it is contextualized in certain ways, its meaning can leap from the physical, matter-of-fact to the metaphysical. In The ones you see and the ones you donʼt and The way the morning broke was quite unusual, the residue is both a literal trace and a symbol for all the extracurricular connotations it drags into the object.

OPP: Your 2009 piece Remote Viewing addresses this idea, too. You describe it as "an object of undisclosed materials and dimensions set in the Florida wilderness," but really the piece is the conceptual framework you set up:

In late 2009, Fountainhead Residency program in South Florida, I acquired a plot of remote undeveloped land deep in the Florida wilderness. Over the following months, I installed a sculpture made specifically for that land. The only visual documentation of that object exists as a video that is similarly placed at an undisclosed location on the internet. Both the real object and its virtual counterpart visible only by chance encounter.
Has anyone ever found the real object or virtual documentation? Do you have a secret hope that someone will find it, or is it truly unimportant to the meaning of the piece?

JE: To my knowledge, no one has seen the object. Honestly, I secretly hope no one ever does because for me the most exciting element of the project is the idea of a visually anarchic condition in which an object can exist with infinite potential visualizations. But, I do love imagining its discovery as it allows me to partially experience what it might be like for others to hear about this project for the first time. That moment, when each person constructs their own unique image in their head, is to me the most interesting sculptural aspect of this project.

An Infinite Collapse
2005
Fifty gallons of saltwater harvested from the Bermuda Triangle, hermetically sealed inside a tank made of marine grade aluminum and interior lined with pvc. The exterior of the tank is airbrushed with Wildfire UV sensitive acrylics and Rosco super-saturated flat black scenic paint.
24" x 74" x 36"

OPP: Your 2011 exhibition The Forest (Glass Delusion) at Charest-Weinberg Gallery in Miami grew out of an unexpected discovery in your studio. What did you find and how did it lead to the plexiglass sculptures called Mirage Artifacts?

JE: In 2008, I moved into a new studio space in the Glendale area of Los Angeles. A few months in, I decided to remove a built-in shelf that was eating up useful space. As I removed the shelf, the drywall behind it, which was old and rotting, quickly started to crumble apart, revealing the wall behind it. To my surprise I unearthed this really beautiful, enigmatic drawing. At first, I just thought that it was a plumbing or electrical diagram. But as I pulled down more of the rotting drywall, more drawings appeared and these had figurative elements—an eye and a head—incorporated into the abstract, linear diagram. I knew immediately that this would be source material for a future project. So, I documented the diagrams, and then covered them back up with drywall. Then a few months later, I began a series of projects that were based directly on interpretations of the five diagrams that I discovered. 

The first of these projects was the group of plexiglass sculptures called Mirage Artifacts (2011). The linear pattern of one of the found wall drawings was used as a footprint to determine the translucent plastic’s three-dimensional shape in each sculpture. That found wall drawing had three distinct types of lines, each of which I extracted and isolated from the other two. By layering them in different orders and intuitively building out three dimensionally from those patterns, each of the six Mirage Artifacts has a unique form. But if you look through the form, the translucency of the object allows you to still see the original pattern of the found drawing; only exploded out in three dimensions.

OPP: Have you executed any other of your planned projects based on the other diagrams?

JE: In June 2013 at Carter & Citizen in LA, I presented a new sculpture based on one of the drawings. Recently, I discovered the history of two of the prior tenants of my address. A jewelry maker used the space for 15 years, and an artist used it prior to him. So it is very possible that either of these two people made the marks—or a random worker could just as easily have made the marks during the construction of the structure. This new sculpture takes this history into consideration.

The Forest (Glass Delusion)
Installation shot

OPP: You've recently opened a brand new gallery called Agency in West Hollywood. You are familiar with the site inside the Pacific Design Center, a luxury mall focused on high-end design objects because you co-ran a hybrid artist run project space/commercial gallery called Wharton + Espinosa from 2012-2013. How will Agency be different than Wharton + Espinosa? Tell us about your inaugural exhibition.

JE: The impulse remains the same. Agency is an artist-run contemporary art gallery. The goal is to develop a quality sustainable program and enduring relationships with represented artists, all without giving up my own artistic project and aspirations.

In September, Agency will launch with solo exhibitions by Brendan Threadgill and Nicolau Vergueiro.

Brendan will present a new series of drawings made with layers of powdered uranium ore and graphite. These Uranium Drawings reference atomic diagrams and nuclear blast patterns. They integrate a mixture of Medieval and contemporary concepts of astronomy and physics with allusions to esoteric and spiritualist iconography. These works are largely inspired by the cultural and economic history of Southern California, where abundant yoga studios and ashrams reside in concert with defense contractors, military think tanks and weapons testing ranges. This apparent contradiction has been a part of the fabric of Southern California for over a hundred years and forms what Brendan calls the "military-meditative complex."

Nicolauʼs new works situate charged imagery in an uncomfortable relationship with the decorative. Over the past year, he has been embedding found newspaper images into poured latex to create synthetic, tapestry-like objects that drape and hang off of cast aluminum armatures. The technical process renders the complicated content of the images undecipherable and embeds it deep into the material subconscious of the object. Other works integrate fabrics printed with equally charged images, such as that of a stealth bomber, reduced and repeated so that it disappears into the cloth as pattern. The effect is of an uneasy familiarity or subconscious level form of recognition.

OPP: How did co-running Wharton + Espinosa affect your studio practice over the last year?

JE: I had  to make decisions much more quickly, and I was forced to disengage from the studio for long periods of time. In the past, my decision-making process was methodical and filled with many trial and error stages. I never really disconnected from my work because, with the exception of grad school, I have had a live/work space since I first started to make art. Over the last year, I spent the least amount of time ever in the studio. But simultaneously—other than my two years at Yale—I experienced the largest number of daily interactions with others about ideas and art. At the gallery, I had to engage on a regular basis in those discussions with people who have varying levels of expertise. That was great. It led me naturally to rethink and reconsider things that I had previously been doing on automatic pilot. That change, along with the alteration of decision making speed, were two of the key factors that I wanted to affect my studio practice when I considered my decision to open a gallery. But the ultimate effect on my work? We'll have to wait and see.  

To view more of John's work, please visit john-espinosa.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Katie Vota

Douglas Fur
2011
Cut Paper
28" x 40"

KATIE VOTA’s delicate cut-paper works appear to float off the wall, casting shifting shadows that evoke the gentle motion of leaves rustling in the breeze. The combination of material and image—paper, sometimes cut to the brink of disintegration and enlarged micrographs of the cellular structures of natural dye plants—is a testament to the simultaneous fragility and robustness of nature. Katie was an artist-in-residence at ISLAND Hill House in Michigan in 2011. Later that same year, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to study natural dyes in Cuzco, Peru. Her work is currently on view in the group exhibition Under Construction at the Indianapolis Art Center through August 4, 2013. She will be a first year MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2013, and you have 9 more days to support her education by contributing to her Indiegogo campaign. Katie lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you explain the process behind your current cut-paper work? How is delicacy integral?

Katie Vota: I start with the most fragile thing I can think of—an idea of form and line derived from a delicate slice of plant, laid on a slide to be viewed at a microscopic level. It’s truly beautiful to think that everything in the universe is made up of such tiny pieces, of atoms, of cells. I build my images from cellular micrographs. I draw and re-draw in big, sweeping lines and gestures, preserving the essence of the plant I’m referencing. It’s the least precise, least delicate part of the process. Then, I draw again, but this time with an exacto knife.

Cutting is a painstaking, methodical process. It’s a more precise form of drawing that’s  akin to a scientific process. My space and hands must be clean—ah, the perils of working with white paper! I can’t lean on the paper at the edges of my mat or it will damage the paper’s structure. A delicacy of touch is required with cutting tools or I’ll cut too much away.

Cutting is a subtractive process. It’s like chipping away at a stone block, or relief carving—the piece emerges slowly over time. I cut a while. I hold it up and look at the reflection in the windows of my studio. I walk away, have a cup of tea or pet the cat. Then I come back and look at the reflection again. I sit down and keep working. Deciding it’s finished is about balancing the amount of detail present in the work with whether or not it will buckle in on itself because I’ve cut too much out. A cut paper piece can be too delicate.

When I exhibit these works, I hang them about an inch off the wall so that they cast shadows that change and move. Delicacy is the fragility of the paper floating away from the wall; it seems to weigh nothing, to occupy so little space. This lightness allows for intricacy in the form of a single line that moves through the entirety of a piece. The works move and sway slightly if there’s a light breeze or if you're walking past quickly. In those moments, I think of them as breathing, as if the plant within the piece has found a new life.

Hardwood
2011
Cut Paper
40" x 14"

OPP: This work is specifically based on the cellular imagery of natural dye plants, correct? How has your interest in natural dyes evolved since your 2011-2012 Fulbright trip to Peru?

KV: Correct. I first fell in love with the process and labor of natural dyeing during my senior year of my undergrad at MICA. I love the nuance of color found within the dyes, the presence of the hand in the work, the physical process of collecting the plants, and the staggering amount of chemical knowledge required to understand the differences between dyes. So I went to Peru on my Fulbright to expand my knowledge. I worked with 13 dye plants in the Cusco region of Peru. Although the plants were native to Peru, the colors they yielded were similar to what I could get from plants here in the States. I began to wonder: Are the cellular structures of good dye plants similar? And can I then infer whether a plant is a good dye plant by looking at its cellular structure? 

The color a dye plant yields depends on so many variables—rain fall, soil type and acidity, climate/temperature, amount of sun—that it’s hard to get repeatable results. There isn’t much research on the topic. Initially, I tried to find scientists to help me take cellular micrographs of my plants. When that proved difficult, I switched tactics and began scavenging for existing micrographs from databases that catalog plants seeing rapid effects from disease and climate change. It turns out I was right. You can see structural similarities between plants of the same family, all of which give the same color.

I’ve come to have a contextual understanding of the growing world around me, of how the actions of people affect the world. I can walk down a street and feel a sense of connectedness with my surroundings, rooted in my knowledge of local wild craft dye plants. I started examining and pH testing the soil as well as the dye baths, to better understand why I was getting color variations. I decided to start growing my own plants, including Yarrow, Coreopsis and Madder, so I could control the variables that affect color. I discovered how much I enjoyed growing things.

Being so involved with plants created a domino effect. I can’t help but care about the quality of my dirt and how the chemicals I use in dyeing effect the local water table. I think about the quality and locality of the food I eat, about giving back to the planet that sustains me and gives me the resources to use plants as dye. 

Plus, there’s something magical about the fact that many of the plants we take for granted—weeds and garden plants, for example—give us colors in infinite variation. I’m fascinated by what might have caused these plants to evolve in this way.

Broken Path Gradation
2009
Weaving with natural dyes
26"x72"

OPP: How did your older work in weaving lead to your current body of work?

KV: In the fall of 2009, about the time natural dyes began appearing in my work, I was working exclusively in weaving, manipulating structures on the loom to create large, fragile open weave textiles. There were too many structural limitations on the loom, so I started “translating” the weavings onto paper. I projected light through them and traced the shadows. Then I began cutting into the paper to create faux open weaves. Something clicked, and I began working between paper and weaving, allowing one to influence the other. The structure of the paper works would decay until it was almost unrecognizable and suddenly I’d have an "ah-ha!" moment and I would go back to the loom with something really fresh, something I never would have come to otherwise.

OPP: Could you expand on the theme of decay in your work?

KV: I approach decay as part of a cycle of transformation and recreation. Natural dyes are fragile. They fade over time with exposure to light. As I projected light through the weavings, I ran the risk of destroying the color. By using these dyes, I embed decay into the work because their colors are fugitive. Every time I show them, I have to consider how the exhibition space will affect their color. Are there windows? A skylight?

Decay and transformation show up in the site-responsive installations I’ve done. I love the freedom of someone saying “here’s this space, breathe life into it.” In 2011, I was given a chance to show in an old brewery that had since been turned into a music venue. It was dank and humid. The staircases were dark and dirty and littered with cigarette butts. The space was chilly and had high rounded ceilings; it used to hold beer casks. The paint was peeling away. I created a cut paper piece that mimicked the look and feel of the paint. I was so drawn to its faded colors and the slight greying that resulted from exposure to moisture. I suspended the piece from the ceiling and let the paper be exposed to the moisture and decay in the same way the paint had. The piece cast shadows on the walls and looked as if it belonged there, floating, sagging and swaying.When I took it down, it had to be recycled. There was nothing more that could be done for it—it had decayed past saving, but that was the point. 



Nine Types of Light
2011
Cut Paper Installation
6' x 24'

OPP: You'll be starting graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2013. How do you feel on the verge of being an MFA candidate?

KV: I can’t decide if I’m more excited or terrified. I’m leaning towards excited. Since I finished new work for Under Construction, a group show that opened in June at the Indianapolis Art Center, I've had the time to just goof off, generate ideas and make mock-ups. This summer feels like the calm before a storm. . . the more time I spend wandering aimlessly through my sketchbook, the more I want it to start already.

OPP: Tell us about your plan to make it happen without taking out any privatized loans.

KV: SAIC gave me a financial aid package, but after scholarships and federal loans, there’s about $3,000 left. It’s not a large amount of money, but it’s not something I just have lying around. I started an Indiegogo campaign so that I won't have to take out a private loan on top of my federal loans. I’m offering editions and prints, small cut works and even some of my previously-exhibited large works as incentives. People of all different demographics and income brackets can own a piece of my work. 

Goldenrod
2013
Cut Paper
22.5" x 60"

OPP: How is crowdfunding particularly relevant to visual artists?

KV: Sometimes I feel like people in the sciences might have an easier time getting donations than those in the arts. Potential funders look at their projects and say, "yeah, curing cancer is something I can put some money towards. But what does art give people?" I had this problem in choosing a country to apply to for my Fulbright grant. Many countries only wanted scholars, scientists, doctors—people who could do physical good on the ground. But what about cultural enrichment? Isn’t that important too? 

I’ve seen friends raise money via Kickstarter and Indiegogo to do research and large-scale art projects that otherwise would have been outside their budgets. It doesn’t take much. If 100 people donate $10 each, that’s a good chunk of change.

And, as I’ve seen time and again in community arts, people like to be involved in the making of art. The ability to fund a project lets people feel connected to the work. They helped it come into being and that gives them sense of accomplishment and ownership. 

Most artists don’t have a steady cash-flow in order to make larger works, so crowdfunding allows them to dream bigger and to make those larger works a reality. As grants and art endowments continue to shrink, it will be harder and harder for artists to land the funding to make work. That’s not a great place to be, but most of the artists I know are resilient and will find a way. I think crowdfunding is going to be one of those ways. 

To contribute to Katie's Indiegogo campaign, go here.
To see more of Katie's work, visit katievota.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in
Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Allen Brewer

Bette Davis
2010
Oil on panel
14" x 14"

Artist, illustrator and educator ALLEN BREWER is searching for the truth. He uses a variety of conceptual strategies to erase traditional means of personal perception and the conscious pursuit of artistic style in an attempt to get at the "thingness" of his subjects. For his Blind Drawings and Blind Paintings, he doesn't look at the substrate as he draws. For his most recent solo project VERBATIM at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, he recreated works in the museum's permanent collection based solely on the written descriptions given by museum goers. Allen has exhibited at Burnet Art Gallery at LeMeridien Chambers, The Soap Factory and Soo Visual Arts Center, all in Minneapolis. He also works collaboratively with last week’s Featured Artist Pamela Valfer. In 2012, Brewer and Valfer participated in the EVA International Visual Art Biennial (Limerick City, Ireland). For their next project, they will collaborate on a project for the Minnesota Biennial at The Soap Factory. Allen lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

OtherPeoplesPixels: For your series Carbon Drawings, you copy found vintage imagery using typewriter carbon. In reference to this series, you state on your website: "The result is a 'ghost,' devoid of any human embellishment or direct mark making. . . By eliminating my own perception of the thing, I am getting closer to its truth." Why is the truth of a thing important to you? Can you ever really find it?



Allen Brewer: Truth is something I’ve always questioned. Growing up, we are fed a steady diet of embellished truths. . . fables, half-truths and white lies. All of these are meant to soften the blow of disappointing factual realities such as our impending death, trust in others and “true love.” My attempt to find out what is real or true is hopeless. I realize that. Yet I think we can find some truths in the search, whether it’s an uncanny moment that speaks louder than the event or a unique pairing of line and form to construct a more accurate reality.

Pathetic
2010
Colored pencil
30" x 40"

OPP: The more I look at all your work which attempts to erase the hand and perception of you as the artist, the more I think about the difference between perception and interpretation. Perception is how we experience the external world through our senses and interpretation is the meaning and value we ascribe to that information. Your actions direct me toward an object or image and—to use your word— its "thingness," but, for me, the truth doesn't lie there. The truth is in the feedback between a thing and a human, in the interpretation. I always go back to thinking of you and why you, as an artist and as a human being, choose to copy or recreate one thing and not another. Do you think erasing perception highlights the role interpretation plays in meaning-making? Or are you not concerned with interpretation?



AB: I am concerned with interpretation, especially since it’s all we have to make sense of objects and events. We have a limited language that helps in this process. But, ultimately, the “thingness” attributed to such objects and events means nothing; a spiraling into Platonic theory essentially disproves the primacy of the form’s physicality over the idea of the form. By erasing—as best I can—my interpretation of the “thing,” I attempt to present a more objective idea of the “thing.” I’m interested mainly in the open-endedness of ideas, which for me, represents the truth. I seek to present an unvarnished transcription with which the viewer can find their own truth, not a myopic narrative or interpretation. Truth is a slippery subject; there are lies everywhere we look. My work deals directly with photography and text. We tend to complacently accept these two standards in media as truth, which is a phenomenon I recognize as imperfect.

VERBATIM
2013
Installation shot

OPP: Introduce us to your most recent project VERBATIM, which just closed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). It takes your exploration of transcription one step further by including a go-between, another level of mediation between you and the work of art you are transcribing.

AB: VERBATIM started out as a site-specific experiment with two goals: 1) to present work based solely on the museum guests’ written interpretations of artworks within the museum, free from my own agency, and 2) to use this process to further expand upon my compulsion towards mediated work. I placed description forms throughout the MIA, asking guests to isolate one artwork, write about it in detail and then turn it in for me to decipher.

Once in the studio, I read and re-read each description, forcing myself to forget my knowledge of said piece and to construct the work based solely on the literal (Platonic) meaning/idea of each written word. For instance, people tended to use overly romantic phrases and emotion when writing, which, according to my imposed rules, were unusable. Instead, I relied on descriptors and nouns that could exist as more universal systems and codes. Hierarchy also helped sort the large ideas in the descriptions from the smaller moments, which aided in the ever-growing rulebook of this project. Eventually, I realized that I was dealing with an ever changing expanding/contracting conceptual issue: language. The end result was an exhibition that mimicked the permanent collection of the MIA. VERBATIM was a reflection of famous works filtered through the barrier of language and nuance of interpretation. I’ve gained confidence and insight with this project, causing me to integrate mediation more seamlessly with intent in my work.

OPP: I'm interested in the fact that "people tended to use overly romantic phrases and emotion" when describing the works of art. It seems to imply that the museum goers who participated in VERBATIM experienced visual art more through their emotions than through their eyes. Was this a surprise to you? Does this say anything about the true nature of visual art?

AB: The responses I received—about 200 in total—were split between personal, emotional reflections and overly-analytical lists of sizes, materials, proximities and diagrams. I could tell who had art education by the writing style and word choice, but I didn't let that particular phenomenon guide my choice or which pieces to recreate. I looked for a unique voice in the description, one that exemplified the contracting and expanding nature of language itself. The way in which people write about art is revealing. Each person who took time to describe a work used their own codes and systems of description, which made my task that much more difficult. Not only did I have to decipher that code and its context, I also had to somehow address it as a universal. In hindsight, if I had another go at this project, I would ask 200 different people to describe only ONE piece, then make work based on the 200 differently nuanced descriptions, similar to Francis Alys’s St. Fabiola project. The true nature of visual art will always exist as a collection of subjective voices, giving it credence within a certain context.

Lips
2011
Oil on paper
12" x 9"

OPP: You will be collaborating with last week's OPP Blog Featured Artist Pamela Valfer for the upcoming Minnesota Biennial at The Soap Factory. How are the two of you approaching this exhibition? 


AB: ,,,—read as Comma Comma Comma— is the title of the biennial. The meaning in those marks gives freedom to presentation, installation and meaning. They literally mean (to me) “and then. . . and then. . . and then. . .” The co-curators are David Petersen and John Marks, former directors of Art of This, an artist-run venue in Minneapolis with month long exhibitions and one-night events. AOT was a space for emerging and underrepresented artists who were willing to take risks with space and presentation. There was a refreshing fluidity there, and the program included artist talks, lectures and workshops.

,,, will resemble that platform, and Pam and I have respected the approach by continuing our idea of post-studio collaboration. We are married and share a small studio, so there is no room for ego and secrets once we enter it. Our working concept is that of opposition, concerned with the slippery space between reality and meaning. That’s all I can say for now, as we are currently working and thinking. I can tell you that we are not making traditional collaborative pieces, by which I mean the passing back and forth or the simultaneous partnership of one substrate. We are each making new work that represents or embodies the concepts in our solo work,. Then we will experiment with those pieces as dialog and conflation on a shared wall in the studio—a practice space, if you will. The Soap Factory, a 12,000 square foot, uninsulated structure is 100+ years old. The wall surfaces include exposed brick, drywall, metal, wood and glass. All of these factors will guide Pam’s and my decision-making process, for it would be a shame to NOT recognize the specificity of the exhibition space.

Phenomenological evidence of natural occurrences
2012
Found objects
Installation shot of COMMON PLACE, a collaboration with Pamela Valfer

OPP: And I'll ask you the same question I asked Pamela: how has collaboration changed your solo practice?

AB: The collaborative process has reinforced the fact that perception is NOT universal. Working with Pam—or anyone for that matter—is akin to the first day of school. You show up to a group of strange faces, all with their own histories and sets of rules. In order to survive, you must make friends and be willing to be vulnerable and open to seeing the validity of their ways. You may disagree with your mates, yet you’ll see them again in the morning, so humility and flexibility keep you from killing each other. In the end, you’ll shed the idea of difference in favor of something shared. The opinions and perspectives Pamela offers make the self-questioning in my own work more meaningful. She reminds me (as I hope I remind her) that we are not islands operating in vacuums.  We’re more like an archipelago. . . a series of islands connected by a zip lines.

To view more of Allen's work, please visit allenbrewer.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Pamela Valfer

Set #1: Cabrini Green/Good Times (detail)
2013
Graphite on Paper
108" x 96"

Artist and educator PAMELA VALFER explores theories and experiences of contemporary hyperreality in her mash-up drawings of real and fictional landscapes and painstakingly pixelated renderings of mediated versions of actual architecture. She received her MFA from the University of Minnesota in 2002. Her work has been exhibited at Burnet Art Gallery at LeMeridien Chambers (Minneapolis), The Bindery Projects (St. Paul, Minnesota) and CUBE Centre for the Urban Built Environment (Manchester, England). Since 2007, her work has been included in The Drawing Center’s curated artist registry. Pamela also works collaboratively with Allen Brewerwhose work will be featured here on the OPP blog next week. In 2012, Brewer and Valfer participated in the EVA International Visual Art Biennial (Limerick City, Ireland). For their next project, they will collaborate on a project for the Minnesota Art Biennial at The Soap Factory (Minneapolis). Pamela lives and works in Minneapolis.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you talk about the exploration of hyperreality in your most recent piece Set #1: Cabrini Green/Good Times?


Pamela Valfer: The project is essentially a commentary on the cultural or subjective construction of "reality." "Reality" is not straightforward; it's complicated idea. I use Brutalist architecture from the 1950s to the mid-1970s as the tableau for this idea because it is a great metaphor for constructed idealism as it was set forth by one group of people to solve the problems of another group of people in relation to planned urban housing development. The ideas underlying these Modernist architectural designs were based in utopian thinking that impressed a kind of social engineering upon urban, low-income, city-dwelling populations. In the end, many of these buildings and communities—Cabrini Green being a perfect example—failed due to shoddy construction and high crime. Rather than focus on the building itself, I became interested in looking at the projection of this building through the television show Good Times. The source image I chose was not of the actual building, but rather of a television set based on Cabrini Green. The set itself is the subject. It is the copy of the real, constructed out of cardboard, paint and foam. This is the space where actors play out imagined scenarios from the daily struggles of the real families of Cabrini Green. These are all veneers. This is where hyperreality exists. It is the new reality; the copy becomes the original, simultaneously commenting on its own failure through the lackluster truthiness of the construction (set design, actors et al.). This is my experience of Cabrini Green, my knowledge developed topically through a pop culture edifice.

Landscape Simulation: The Shining/Gilligan's Island/Magnum PI
2012
Graphite on Paper
48" x 48"

OPP: There's a similar collision of fiction and reality in your series Landscape Simulations. These graphite landscapes pair landforms and architecture from movies with real world landmarks and/or they combine existing landforms and architecture in ways that we couldn't physically experience. One piece places Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye on the surface of Mars, as seen in a Star Trek episode. Another places the historic Checkpoint Charlie—which is actually in Berlin—in Gordale Scar, a limestone ravine in North Yorkshire, England. About the series, you say, "No hierarchical importance is placed on the notion of my 'real' experience versus a mediated one, a contemporary truism that is pervasive throughout our relationship with nature." I think the assumed hierarchy that privileges the "real" over the mediated emerges when simulation is confused with substitution. What do you think?

PV: For one, I think that "substitution" denotes a "one is better than the other" attitude and therefore becomes a  hierarchical approach. I am more interested in presenting these possibilities on equal footing because what we experience directly and what we are given to digest through the mass media culture are often inseparable. Culture shapes our reality and our reality contextualizes culture. This blending becomes interesting when it collides with our connection to nature. Many of us—myself included—are removed from a direct connection with it, so many of our ideas come from the above-mentioned grey zone. I think it is this distance that allows us to objectify and denigrate nature, dislocating our relationship further into a digestible reality.

OPP: A mediated experience of nature is not the same as a direct experience of nature, nor is it an unreal experience. Has this mediated experience of nature ever stopped you from having a direct experience of nature? How do simulations of nature enhance or detract our experiences of the natural world?


PV: Experience and reality are, in essence, tricky territories to explore. The project was born out of living in the west of Ireland for four months. Ballyvaughan, where I lived, is a small town nestled on the coast and is strikingly beautiful. It was a truly immersive experience with nature that I had never had before. During my time there I noticed that all my references for such familiarities were formed from my adolescent experiences of pop culture and not necessarily from direct experience. This got me thinking about how perception is often constructed out of constructions. If our minds are filled with constructions, then I feel it is important to know who is doing the constructing that we take as real. My pop culture recollections are as real to me as standing in a field: a point that is important to recognize. 

Landscape Simulation: Planet of the Apes/ Tatooine/ County Clare, Ireland
2011
Graphite on Paper
19" x 28"

OPP: I would agree that both experiences are wholly real, but aren’t they qualitatively different? I don’t mean that one is better than the other, just that each experience has a different quality to it. Do your pop culture recollections affect your physical experience of nature?

PV: Yes, they are qualitatively different but quantitatively the same. These pop culture memories serve as real memories amongst the many lived and fictional memories. As our new experiences are synthesized through our previous experiences, it stands to reason that, yes, past experiences—both real and fictional—contextualize the now. In terms of the physical, no; in terms of the metaphysical, yes.

OPP: Is drawing the ideal medium to explore simulation?


PV: I chose drawing specifically for its ability to mimic a simulation. I could have easily done the work with paint, for instance, but felt that drawing was the proper vehicle for my ideas. Drawing is a presentation of reality, but at the same time lacks a kind of truthiness in its atonal qualities. It presents without giving: a kind of hollow exchange. If I had executed these in paint, I feel my effort would have been too cheeky. Paint can mimic reality too closely with its seductive colors and illusionary possibilities. Drawing, on the other hand, has a built in failure to that end. It presents an idea but ends before delivering, at least in the way that I built the drawings. I endeavored to remove all personality of mark. It was important for the drawing marks to not convey a sense of self, rather to be a neutral space in which an emotional position is not asserted. I am not interested in presenting personage within the work.

Set #1: Cabrini Green/Good Times (detail)
2013
Graphite on Paper
108" x 96"

OPP: You've begun collaborating with next week's OtherPeoplesPixels' Featured Artist Allen Brewer. You've known each other for years but never collaborated until recently. How did this collaboration begin? 



PV: True. We first became open to the idea of collaborating when we had an exhibition at Occupy Space in Ireland for EVA International Visual Art Biennial in 2012. We realized that we couldn’t approach it as a standard two-person show because the exhibition site was spatially challenging. We didn’t exactly know how this would shape up. We just trusted in the process and decided to leave the possibilities open, abolishing any preconceived notions of how this would behave visually. The final decisions about the show were made in the space itself. We made our own work singularly, but, once in the space, we revisited the work with a new sense of possibility. It allowed us to see our previously constructed works with fresh eyes. We became open to new prospects and juxtapositions not previously offered with the singular work, which was quite freeing. Allen and I checked our egos at the door for sure. We ended up collaborating with each other as well as the space, often creating new works by combining already completed pieces. Rethinking and reconstructing allowed for unexpected results. This was a new experience for both of us and we were extremely happy with the outcome. It created the potential of a post-studio process.

Common Place
Two person exhibition with Allen Brewer
EVA International Visual Art Biennial, Istabraq Hall, hosted by Occupy Space, Limerick City, Ireland
2012

OPP: Has it changed your solo practice in any way?

PV: For sure. I am certainly open to more possibilities now in how I approach my ideas and work. Everything is on the table. I am no longer pigeonholed into one way of working, rather the idea leads the medium and vice versa. For instance, I am currently working on a performance project with Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for the Mike Kelley's Mobile Homestead project. I might not have considered performance as a methodology/medium previously, so instances like this support my new vision of working.

I am also currently working on a collaborative project with Allen for the upcoming Minnesota Art Biennial at The Soap Factory. We are taking the best of our past collaboration experience and trying to push it forward one step further. We are making work both together as well as independently for the show with the idea that much of the work might shift or change once in the space. In essence, making the work on-site and once again trusting in the process over outcome.

To see more of Pamela's work, please visit pamelavalfer.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in
Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplePixels Interviews Melissa Wyman

Spring Play @ VIAF Performance Festival.
2009
Performance/ Installation

MELISSA WYMAN’s training in close contact martial arts informs her grappling performances and workshops, drawings of wrestling bodies and private Fight Therapy Sessions. Her interdisciplinary art practice involves teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a method of exploring the psychological and physical relationships of the participants. Melissa received her MFA in Social Practice from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco (2008), where she was a recipient of the Barclay Simpson Award. She has created and presented work in the United States, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Chile, and her book, Fight Therapy: A Discussion about Agency, Art and the Reverse Triangle Choke, was published in 2010. Melissa lives in Stanford, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Can you give us a brief history of your background in martial arts? When did you start training? What style?

Melissa Wyman: My love of movement and awkwardness in dance class lead me to martial arts. I started with aikido in 1995 and trained for about four years, and then I trained in Japanese jiu-jitsu and tai chi for a couple of years. When I moved to Japan in 1999, I was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and was immediately hooked. BJJ is specifically designed for smaller and weaker people to be able to deal with larger opponents. In turn, larger people learn how to grapple with smaller opponents and have the opportunity to focus on their technique rather than strength. For the last twelve years, I have been training mainly in BJJ, complimented by a little kickboxing and mixed martial arts (MMA). I’ve trained in Japan, New Zealand, San Francisco and South Korea. I took a brief break when I got pregnant, but I’ll enter competitions again when my daughter will let me train more than three days a week, maybe when she is old enough to train with me. 

Now I am back in the United States. I help instruct the Stanford Grappling Club. I also attend Women’s Open Mat organized by Shawn Tamaribuchi and Lana Stefanac in the Bay Area, which is when an awesome group of women from different clubs all over the area get together to spar. I actively competed in BJJ from 2002 to 2007 in Japan, New Zealand and the United States.
2008
Video
3min and 20sec

OPP: Since 2006, your project Fight Therapy has included performances, installations, workshops and drawings that all make use of or reference various forms of organized sparring. What was the impetus for Fight Therapy?

MW: Many forms of physical activity are therapeutic, especially sports that provide a healthy release of built up tension and give you an adrenaline boost to work with. When I train regularly, I feel more productive, more ready to participate in the world. Whether it’s boxing, kickboxing, MMA or wrestling, there is a deep camaraderie and empathy that takes place between people who ritualistically grapple, punch or kick each other by mutual agreement in a safe environment. I want my training partners to come back and train with me the next day, so we can also take care of each other. The project began when I decided to take grappling out of the gym and put it  into an art context.

OPP: Can you talk about the tension between aggression and collaboration in your work?

MW: I am very interested in the tension between aggression and collaboration and the difference between aggression and violence. I come from hippie roots with a strong belief in empathy and non-violence. I would define a violent act as one in which an organism—plant, animal, human, organization, corporation or government—acts in a way that isn’t mutually understood or wanted by its counterpart(s). Aggression, on the other hand, is energy that can be channeled, matched and worked with in various productive ways.  Most of my work is based around interpersonal relationships and communication. As someone who has been in a relationship for thirteen years and has lived in various countries during this time, I’ve learned that miscommunications and disagreements are a natural part of the human experience. But if you statically butt heads with someone, no one goes anywhere. If you can move, turn, roll and transition from one position to another, it gets interesting. Relationship building depends on the flow of both verbal and non-verbal communication between “grappling partners.” Awkward moments and transitions offer opportunities for growth.
Art vs Craft
2008
Collaborative project with artist Andrew Tosiello (Art) and action weaver Travis Meinolf (Craft), who trained with me for an intense two months before having an unchoreographed match at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

OPP: You've conducted over 100 Fight Therapy Sessions between 2006 and 2011. How are those different from the interactive performances Costume Fight Therapy and Spring Play (both 2009)?

MW: The different aspects of the project fall under the same conceptual framework, but in practice, the Fight Therapy Sessions do something that the performance can’t and vice versa.

The private Fight Therapy Sessions take place in peoples' homes; they are always between two people and without an audience. As the fight therapist, I act as a coach. This creates a personal experience for the participants to work it out on the mat. Anyone can invite someone to do a Fight Therapy Session for any reason. I’ve had friends, lovers, ex-lovers, family members, teachers and students, and even diplomats from different countries work with one another. I provide the mats, teach grappling techniques, offer guidance and create a safe context in which people can grapple with one another. I make it possible for the smaller or physically weaker person of the pair to keep the grappling conversation going. The private Fight Therapy Sessions remain an undocumented experience and live on in conversation, thus giving depth to the project as a whole. The interactive performances are more of a spectacle with multiple participants and an audience. They are run similarly to the private sessions: I do a warm-up, teach some techniques, and then facilitate grappling between people. The grappling itself, like in the private sessions, is not choreographed. Some performances have a theme. In Costume Fight Therapy, participants dressed up in costumes that represented identities they were grappling with. This provided a group experience to “discuss”—through the physical grappling—shared issues. In Spring Play I fought my husband, Dion, in front of a huge audience in South Korea. This performance was loosely choreographed because we were telling the story of our relationship through our fighting. We actually met through Japanese jiu-jitsu in California when Dion came to visit and trained at the same place I was training. He was a New Zealander living in Japan where he was also training in BJJ. I moved to Japan and began to train at the same club. We were both teaching English at the time. After moving countries several times together, we found ourselves living in South Korea where he was working as a New Zealand diplomat. I was working on being a diplomat’s wife and an artist with odd jobs. For this performance, I wore a dress and Dion wore a suit. Feedback from the audience made me realize that the performance was also about grappling with societal expectations about gender roles.
I See 3 Asses
2012
Mixed media on paper
A collaboration with the Chicago art going public who were invited to draw on, write on, and deface my paintings.
2 X 3 feet

OPP: Collaborative Combative (2012) was part of an exhibition at Error Plain 206 in Chicago. You invited the gallery going public to collaborate with you by defacing the previously completed Fight Therapy paintings and drawings. Was this sanctioned defacement of your drawings and paintings always part of the plan? Was it difficult to watch as the collaboration/defacement began?

MW: That show was initially going to be a Fight Therapy event. Before the show, the gallery owner was advised that inviting the public to participate in a fight-related event in his space could have some legal implications. So the curator, Sarah Nelson, and I discussed other options. I decided to bring a selection of drawings and paintings and invite another kind of aggressive participation. I felt that my drawings were missing the energy that existed in the participatory work. One of the aspects of that work that I enjoy is that I create a context for things to happen. I don’t have total control over the outcome. I wanted to do this with my drawings. I was curious to see to what extent the drawings would actually be defaced. Oddly enough, it was satisfying and surprisingly rewarding to see people draw and write on the drawings. I was happy that the audience engaged with them even when what was written and drawn wasn’t complimentary. Each piece is now it’s own conversation, and I think they are all more interesting and energetic works. After agreeing that participants could sign a waiver and that I would be very clear with people that I was not a licensed therapist, I also facilitated a few Fight Therapy Sessions in the space.

2012
Participatory Combat Drawing: documentation

OPP: Animal: Collaborative Combative Drawing at Southern Exposure in San Francisco (2012) combines the participatory events with drawing in a completely new way? Can you describe what happened?

MW: This event was both a workshop and a performance. I invited a handful of Bay Area artists. Some brought their own partners. Others allowed me to pair them up. Fourteen artists were asked to come prepared with an animal that they wanted to draw; this could be a power animal or a creature with which they identified. We started the evening with a physical warm up. I taught self-defense and movement techniques relevant to the activity that they would be doing. I gave each pair a 5 x 8 feet piece of paper. The public was invited to participate with smaller paper or watch. Each piece of paper was marked lightly down the middle. The artists had 45 minutes to draw the body of the animal on their side of the paper starting at the ass (or tail) and working towards the middle of the paper. They would meet in the middle at the shoulders of the animal and stop. When the whistle blew—marking the end of the 45 minutes—the objective was for each artist to draw the head of his or her animal on the partner’s side of the paper without letting the partner do the same. So it was a visual, physical and metaphorical clashing of heads. They had three minutes to push, pull and fight with each other to get their marks down on the paper. It turned into a very high energy evening with lots of movement and some maniacal laughter. The works created stayed up for the weekend and may still be shown at a future date.

OPP: Are there any new developments in your practice? Any upcoming public events?

MW: I have a few more Collaborative Combative Drawing events coming up in August 2013. First, on August 2nd at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo, I will have a Collaborative Combative Drawing event with local artists that will be open to the public to witness. The works will remain up for the month at the gallery. Then, on August 10th, I will do a separate workshop at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art for people who where interested in trying Collaborative Combative Drawing. Anyone can sign up. The workshop will be from 1 to 3 pm. The work will remain on display for the rest of the month. Then in the summer of 2014, my work will be in Soft Muscle, curated by Adrienne Heloise, at Root Division in San Francisco.

Currently, I'm working on ways to push and explore the Collaborative Combative concept. I've been inviting Bay Area artists to do one-on-one Collaborative Combative Coffee (and drawing) Sessions with me. These sessions are similar to the other Collaborative Combative Drawing sessions, but each one is a more personal experience between me and another artist. We discuss our work and the challenges we face in our practices, ranging from time, space, material or financial limitations to mental blocks in our creative processes. We each come up with a visual representation for one of our artistic blocks and combat draw with each other.

I've also been presenting my work at various colleges and workshopping both Fight Therapy and Collaborative Combative Drawing with the students. This model is simultaneously a cross-disciplinary ice-breaker, a physical warm up and an intervention into everyday problem-solving in personal, professional and academic settings. I plan to find more and interesting contexts to explore this platform as an art practice. Stay tuned!

To see more of Melissa's work, please visit melissawyman.info.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Emily Barletta

Untitled 40 (detail)
2013
Thread and paper
12.25 x 13.75 inches

EMILY BARLETTA’s accumulations of embroidery and crochet stitches mark the passage of time. Her recent embroideries on paper are formal abstractions that reveal a connection between organic growth and human mark-making, inviting the viewer to contemplate the relationship of the individual parts to the whole. Emily received her BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art (2003). She is a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient (2011) and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Crafts (2009). Recent exhibitions include Art/Sewn at the Ashville Art Museum and The Sum of the Parts at Maryland Art Place. Emily’s work is currently on view in Repetition & Ritual: New Sculpture in Fiber until May 25, 2013 at The Hudgens Center for the Arts (Deluth, Georgia). Emily lives in Brooklyn, New York.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your recent embroideries on paper are compositionally simple and conceptually complex. They are formal abstractions made from one or two repeated gestures, but the accumulation of the stitched marks doesn’t only use repetition as a compositional element. It provides an opportunity to contemplate the nature of repetition. What does repetition mean to you?

Emily Barletta: In the recent works on paper, I have been thinking about building walls, piles and mountains. The repetitious stitch is a way for me to fill up a surface and create these imaginary structures, much in the same way they would be built in real space, by adding piece to piece. A stitch, whether it is embroidered or crocheted, equals a mark. If I accumulate enough marks of any kind I can grow a structure or build a pile. It takes time to physically pull a thread through paper or to do a crochet stitch, so this mark becomes the record of the space in time when this action occurred. With my early crochet work, the same piece by piece accumulation referenced cellular structures, molds and plants growing.

Untitled 31
2012
Thread and paper
18 x 24 inches

OPP: Why do you choose to embroider on paper instead of fabric?

EB: Over the last 10 years I’ve tried embroidering many times on fabric only to be frustrated with the result. I always wanted the fabric to be more solid and less flimsy. It was really difficult to have a thread tension I was happy with.

Sewing on paper changes the art from being an object to being a drawing or a painting. I went through a change in my thinking where I became concerned with how people display art in their homes. I looked at the art I own and display at home and thought about the sculptural and crocheted art I was making at the time. I had a hard time imagining it in someone’s home. I was also frustrated with how every single crocheted wall piece I made created it’s own dilemma of how to hang it. I wanted my work to be simpler and possibly more accessible. I wanted to be able to visualize my art on someone’s wall, but I also wanted to create something that a person would want to live with.

OPP: How does sewing on paper change the process? Is the composition preplanned or determined intuitively as you go?

EB:  I usually have a specific vision in mind when I start. Sometimes I lay a drawing on tracing paper over the real paper and poke holes through it, but the tracing paper is more of a guide than something I follow exactly. If there isn’t a drawing, then I usually fill out the paper with a base color as a guide and I pick out the colors before I start. I poke the holes as I go. I look and see where I want the stitch to be or the next several stitches and I poke the holes, sew through them and then repeat. When you sew on fabric you can just put the needle through, but if I did this with paper it would crinkle or bend, and the holes might tear. I have a strong need to keep the paper as pristine as possible.

Spill
2006
Crocheted yarn
33 x 50 x 2 inches

OPP: You mentioned your early crochet work, which is more sculptural and draws connections between our bodies and the environment. Pieces like Untitled (goiter) (2008) and Untitled (spleen) (2008) and Scabs (2008) reference the body, while other pieces reference organic forms like water, barnacles and moss. Why is crochet particularly suited to exploring organic forms? Any plans to go back to it?

EB: The form of crochet stitches is organic in nature. It makes soft curves and not hard lines. Again I had a problem with the softness of the material. Also, I was frustrated with the great amount of time it took to complete a crocheted work. For me, each piece of art leads to the next, but when I spent too much time on one, I would often lose the next idea before I would get to it. So there was a lack of flow and connectedness between my thinking and my studio practice. I have some ideas for large site-specific crocheted work I would like to make some day. If the opportunity presents itself, I may go back to it, but for now I am very satisfied with the speed and possibilities of sewing on paper.

OPP: How often is making your work grueling or monotonous? How often is it a delight?

EB: If the work feels grueling or monotonous, I give up and try something else. I am a firm believer that the act of making is supposed to be enjoyable. I think it is almost always a delight or, at the very least, relaxing.

OPP: I’ve heard a lot of viewers respond to embroidery work by commenting on the patience of the artist. Viewers who’ve never used these techniques can’t comprehend what the experience is like; they say they could never have done it. Do viewers comment on your patience? If so, is it a distraction from the content of your work or does it add to the content?

EB: I definitely get those comments about patience. I also get questions about how long it takes to make something. It can be distracting, but I think of the drawings as recordings of the passage of time, so it makes sense that other people would identify with that aspect of the work. However, the work doesn’t require patience because I love doing it.

Untitled 6
2011
Thread and paper
18 x 24 inches

OPP: There is an unfortunate but enduring cultural assumption that embroidery is women's work. This idea dates back to the Victorian era when a woman's value as a wife was symbolized by her embroidery skills, despite the fact that men and women actually embroidered alongside one another in guilds in earlier eras. Embroidery is increasingly more accepted as a significant form of art, but these gendered assumptions about materials and techniques still persist. I'm curious about your personal experience. Have you ever experienced this dismissive attitude about your chosen medium? Is it changing?

EB: The fact that I sew doesn’t come from any social, political or feminist agenda. It’s just what I enjoy doing. I have experienced this dismissive attitude. Usually it is not from inside the art world but rather from people who might not understand the art world. They relate what I’m doing to something they’ve seen in a craft context or they want to try to replicate my work as a craft project. I don’t know if there has been a shift, but I do hope to see more exhibits that hang paintings next to drawings next to something sewn. I already see that happening with several contemporary artists—Louise Bourgeois, Orly Genger, Ghada Amir, Ernesto Neto, and Sheila Hicks, to name a few—who have paved the way in the contemporary art world for fiber to be seen as an acceptable medium.

OPP: Last fall, you quit your day job to make art full-time, something most of us artists fantasize about. Congratulations! What’s hard about it that you didn’t expect? What's amazing about it? Any advice for artists who want to move in that direction?

EB: When I quit I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. I’m currently in the process of trying to find a job again. But it’s been the most positive art-making experience of my life. There honestly hasn’t been anything hard about it for me. I think it’s possible that some people could have trouble with the isolation of being alone all the time, but I really like being alone. It’s great to be able to finish work more quickly and really be present in the making process from one day to the next. My general advice is to be nice and take time to personally respond to any inquiry you get about your artwork. Networking, even if over the Internet, is really important. Also, apply for grants and shows. Do the research. You should spend as much time on the business end of running your studio as you do making art. 

To see more of Emily's work, please visit emilybarletta.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).