OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Sabina Ott

here and there pink melon joy (purgatory)
Installation view
Styrofoam, spray foam, astroturf, artificial and real plants, mirror, canvas, water, pump, plastic, clocks

Vulgarity, beauty and contemplation meet in the materially-driven practice of artist and educator SABINA OTT. Hanging, body-sized sculptures sport light fixtures, clocks and mirrors. Carved slabs of styrofoam, embellished with faux house plants, rest on flat, astroturf rugs/pedestals. The bizarre scene creates a compelling hybrid: part home decor, part monument. Sabina earned both her BFA and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Having exhibited extensively since 1985, her most recent solo shows include to perceive the invisible in you (2012) at St. Xavier University (Chicago), Ornament (2013) at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and here and there pink melon joy, which is currently on view at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 4, 2015. In 2011, Sabina founded Terrain Exhibitions, which converted her suburban front yard into a home a site-specific project space for emerging as well as established artists. In 2014, she was awarded a Propeller Fund grant to produce the 2nd Terrain Biennial and to create Virtual Terrain, an web project that facilitates public arts in residential neighborhoods internationally. Sabina lives and works in Oak Park, Illinois.

OtherPeoplesPixels: I relish the texture and materiality of your work. Even videos like hope is the thing with feathers (2011) and the animated text in installations like to perceive the invisible in you (2012) appear tactile rather than digital. Could you talk generally about texture and your chosen materials—styrofoam, glitter, spray paint and paper mache, expandable spray foam, to name a few?

Sabina Ott: I have always worked with heavily textured materials, be it oil paint (sometimes directly out of the can) or encaustic or plaster or polystyrene. Highly textured surfaces demand the eye to slow down and travel into nooks and crannies. Texture offers the possibility of touch as well as the experience of haptic space. In Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays (1990), Iris Marion Young states: “Touch immerses the subject in fluid continuity with the object, and for the touching subject the object reciprocates the touching, blurring the border between self and other.” But these are artworks and cannot be touched by the viewer, and so desire is stimulated and frustrated. But experiencing frustration brings desire (to touch) to the fore, and the experience of the border between self and other becomes a subject of the work.

believing that something is something
Styrofoam, clocks, spray foam and enamel, plaster, mirror
144" x 15" x 12"

OPP: Over the last few years, you've introduced more domestic objects as material in your sculptures and installations. Clocks, lamps and light bulbs, house plants and AstroTurf seem to be the contained or tamed, home-decor versions of Time and Light and Nature, complex entities which are simultaneously constructs, loaded symbols and actual, tangible experiences. How do you think about these materials?

SO: I use those materials—easily-purchased, ready made clocks, lamps and carpets—because they are all the things you describe in your question. Simultaneously, I choose to use the Home Depot variety of those objects because, in their vulgarity, they offer a critique of good taste and “pertain to the ordinary people in a society” as stated in the definition of the word. The alterations I make to the objects unleash them, un-tame them, make them an impossible fit into home décor. So they hover between being useful and useless—a lamp or a sculpture, homey or sublime—and therefore bring a lofty contemplation of “Time and Light and Nature” down to earth, making it more experiential.

Rainbow Eye
Mixed media collage
15" x 17"

OPP: What about the repeated visual motif of the eye? When and why did you first use this image? Has the way you think about its meaning shifted over time?

SO: I had a period in which I found it really difficult to make artwork. I had gone through two near-death experiences which resulted in two complicated surgeries. My desire to play with the image of eyes is simple. I wanted to go back to my very first influence—surrealism—while somehow referencing the physical extremes I had just experienced. The eye is a complex, loaded symbol. One thinks of surveillance, portraiture, the desiring gaze or the omnipotent eye. I began making collages and then animations that I then projected onto sculptures in site-specific installations.

here and there pink melon joy (paradise)
4 channel video, sound, subwoofer, drums, cymbal and bench
Variable installation

OPP: You currently have a fantastic show titled here and there pink melon joy on view at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 4, 2015. I rarely get to physically experience the work I'm looking at online for this blog, so it was a treat to experience the darkened room where the four-channel video animation to perceive the invisible in you (2012) was accompanied by a soundtrack by Joe Jeffers. As I sat on the bench encircling a tower of drums, I was immersed in an environment of text and sound. I started off trying to read the text, discern its meaning and identify its source. But I quickly surrendered to a less intellectual, more sensual experience of the rhythm and motion. My mind kept trying to latch onto the words, but whatever they said was never as interesting as that feeling of surrender. It sort of embodied the experience of meditation when it is most enjoyable. I assume, as the artist, you must have a very different relationship to the text itself. Could you talk about that?

SO: The text is comprised of snippets from various poets on ecstasy, love, God and death. I could not find the perfect poem to use. None of the poems I studied quite got at what I wanted, so I embraced that fact and just took sections from many different poems. Again, experiencing thwarted desire (to read the text), similar to the desire stimulated by wanting to touch all the sculptures and paintings, is essential to surrender, and surrender is necessary to the experience of paradise. The rhythmic sound element in the piece takes over, changes over time from agitated to soothing as one transitions from wanting to make sense of the text to experiencing the vibration, sound, moving light and reflections.

OPP: I see the intellect and the senses as complimentary, but distinct modes of gathering knowledge. What are your thoughts on how these modes interact when making art?

SO: The moment that intellect and the senses meet could be called intuition. Intuition comes into play when what you know matches what you are experiencing. Intuition comes with training, study and practice.

beautiful beautiful beautiful beautiful
Polystyrene, ink jet print on paper mounted on sintra, spray enamel, flashe, mirror and spider plant
49"H x 48" W x 14" D

OPP: Aside from your thriving art practice—not to mention running the exhibition space Terrain out of your Oak Park home—you've been an educator for more than 20 years, including stints as the Director of Graduate Studies at Washington University and San Francisco Art Institute and the Chair of the Department of Art and Design at Columbia College in Chicago. How have you balanced teaching and your studio practice throughout your career?

SO: I love teaching, and I have been teaching as long as I have been working professionally as an artist. But I never intended to become a professor of art. A friend asked me to teach a class of hers because she was too busy. I did and began my teaching career at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I have taught in many places, but at Art Center I had the best of both worlds. I only taught one day a week and spent all my other time in the studio while teaching alongside extraordinary artists. It was ideal.

My interaction with students stimulates my studio work, and I learn from them and from my colleagues. Teaching brings out the best in me and in my studio practice, and the two have always been interdependent.

In the beginning, like many young artists, I lived cheaply enough to be able to support myself on adjunct positions, something that is, admittedly, a lot more difficult now. Plus, I was selling a lot of artwork. I understood that if I wanted a full time position, I might have to move away from Los Angeles, my hometown, and I decided to pursue a role in academia. I had built my resume up so that I was competitive and took a tenured position in St. Louis. It was difficult, not because of the university. I had plenty of time to work, but I was away from a coast and felt like a cultural alien. But that was the price I had to pay to have that kind of position. I ended up working in administration for 10 years in the positions you describe. Schools are often looking for faculty who can also be administrators. I don’t recommend doing that if you don’t love spread sheets and long meetings. And I didn’t love spreadsheets and long meetings. I am very grateful to be back in the classroom.

OPP: What’s the most common mistake you see young artists making in how they approach art-making while in school? Can you offer any advice about how to get the most out of art school?

SO: Students often think that they have to make a "master work" in school, but it's most productive to develop one's capacity to embrace and learn from failure. Be a proactive student. Seek extra advice from your faculty, organize events with your fellow students, do extra research and reach out to faculty and students from other disciplines. I recently heard someone say this: it's easy to be a young artist, but the trick is becoming an old artist. I wish that for all my students. . . become an old artist!

To see more of Sabina's work, please visit sabinaott.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent 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. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

Artists & Social Media Series: Sabina Ott Discusses the Politics of Facebook Inclusivity and Why Tumblr is Perfect for Artist-Run Project Spaces

Artist Sabina Ott is no stranger to the social web. For more than 25 years, she has been investigating the process and act of painting. The Internet and Gertrude Stein’s prose are two of her major influences. “To me, Stein is the prescient literature to the Internet because her work follows the process of present, lifted, moved, re-experienced, present, lifted, moved, re-experienced,” says Ott. "The idea behind Stein's work mirrors the process of experiencing content on the web, from the layered world of a single Wikipedia page to the rabbit hole of prowling someone’s world as seen through their Facebook profile."

Currently Ott is working with grotesque, environmentally hazardous materials to create life-size sculptures chipped from giant blocks of Styrofoam—the modern day artist’s carving stone, if you will—along with plants one might find at chain convenience stores and swaths of neon spray paint. Her work is a meditation on the convergence of personal subjectivities, manmade synthetic objects, memories of the past and the effervescent landscape of the future. She also runs the artist project space Terrain out of her Oak Park home. Utilizing the front porch, she creates opportunities for artistic interventions in the suburban landscape. Terrain provides artists, ranging from emerging to established, the opportunity to gain additional exposure in a non-commercial setting. Tumblr is integral to Terrain—and sometimes, this artist project space only exists in that virtual form. 

This is the second post in a five-part series about how artists use social media. For the first post about OPP artist Ellen Greene, click hereHave ideas for a topic you'd really like covered on the OPP blog? Email us at blog [at] otherpeoplespixels.com.

Ben Fain at Terrain 

Alicia Eler: When did you first join Facebook? 

Sabina Ott: I first started being on Facebook so that I could reach out to artists I knew all around the world. But I had no filters. I said yes to anybody, because I thought, that's what this was—a global network! This is not about being picky and keeping an isolated community of friends. So I instantly got 1,500 friends. I was like, “Yahoo! Everybody! Yes!” But what happened was I started running the artist project space Terrain out of my Oak Park home. I was using social media to promote Terrain, and as a result I stopped using Facebook to promote my own work. It takes so much energy to do both. Plus when I logged into Facebook, my news feed was just a stream of political commentary and peoples' baby pictures. Right now my main activity on Facebook is hiding people from the news feed. I’m trying to curate it so that I see what I want to see. I can’t deal with another photo of someone's three-year-old doing something completely uninteresting. But on the other hand, I completely understand their impulse to post these photos. 

AE: Tell me about the experience of posting your own artwork to Facebook. 

SO: I posted a lot of my art in 2010 when I started this new body of work. I had stopped making work for awhile because I got really sick. When I began again, I was making these Surrealist eyeball paintings and sculptures—they were about seeing and being seen and about asserting my body or eye into a space. Facebook was a perfect platform for that, because it brings up questions of voyeurism, of who is seeing what, and of how people see in a non-physical space. I just posted tons of this work to Facebook. I would get into conversations about the work, and people would say it was wonderful and be all "Yay Sabina!" And I would say "Yay thank you!" I would just get this high, this incredible high. 

"that" (2011) from Sabina Ott's Facebook page
polystyrene, plexiglass, pigment print on paper, foam, canvas, acrylic and enamel paint
28" x 18" x 10"

People were like, “I cant wait to see this!” At one point I thought, who needs a gallery if the whole point is to have your work seen? Facebook is great for that. It really works. Recently I changed my Facebook cover photo, but on the whole I haven’t been posting my work that much. It takes a lot of attention. But then I posted one piece of artwork and received 30 likes on Facebook. That was really satisfying. Then I thought maybe I should withhold a bit and post less of my artwork; before I had been so out there with my art. I hadn't been doing the personal aspect of Facebook either, and then I started listing my family members on there. So I opened it up to family, not just art people. It was an idea about a personal politic, really. Why can’t I have my husband, dog, nieces, nephews and art students all in the same space?  

AE: Would you consider the Facebook profile a space for political intervention? I am thinking about ideas of the personal as political.

SO: Yeah, I do. It’s important to think about Facebook in this way. It's similar to the way I am doing Terrain, too. It’s like, yes, it’s my house—but yes, you can come over. I think that sort of inclusivity is important. At the same time, when I got like 1,800-1,900 Facebook friends, I kind of overdosed on it. That’s when I stopped doing my personal posting as much. 

AE: How did your Facebook posting change when you hit that number? 

SO: I was just getting a lot of crap on my wall. I lost focus on it as a sort of subversive act of blending my art, personal life and public persona. And I realized I was collecting friends, which I like doing as well…

AE: What do you think of the way New York Magazine Senior Art Critic Jerry Saltz uses Facebook? He’s like the Facebook Art Critic. 

SO: You know, I'm a contrarian—I can't stand the way Jerry uses Facebook. You realize that all these people he is friends with are posting comments for him, but only kind of. People are having conversations on Jerry’s wall on the slim chance that he will look in and say, “That one! That one is brilliant! I'll go to their studio!” Facebook has really worked for him as an artistic presence. It's interesting that writers and curators can have that sort of presence on Facebook, maybe even more than visual artists. 

A post from Jerry Saltz's Facebook page

AE: Let’s go back to how you say you rebuilt your community first through Facebook. Tell me about why this happened. 

SO: I think it happened this way because I moved so much—from Los Angeles to St. Louis to San Francisco to Chicago. Nobody knows where I'm living or where I'm from anymore. I was very much identified as an LA artist for about 15 years of my career. Recently someone asked me how I was enjoying St. Louis. That was 15 years ago, and I was running the grad program at Wash U. Through the Facebook virual presence, I am able to re-establish my physical location and presence.  

"First Eye" (2008)
ostrich egg, plastic rose, ink print, glitter and spray paint
14 x 12 x 6 inches approx.
Private collection, Pasadena, CA

AE: Has Facebook reconnected you with people from your past? Do you use Facebook Lists at all to filter your friends?

SO: No, but I should use lists. It was the strangest thing watching people from elementary school and people I used to sleep with who were like, “Hi!” I have so many old boyfriends that are now Facebook friends, which is hilarious to me. I have much better relationships with them on Facebook than I did in real life. This guy I was previously engaged to twice is a real pontificator on Facebook. He's a philosophy guy and a Jungian therapist. He's decided to take on my work through Facebook. He'll say things like, "Imminence! You've always been about imminence!" And he'll go on and on about my work in Facebook comments and messages. I'll say, "Will you write a catalogue essay for me?" And he'll say, "You're lazy! You've always been lazy!" So there is this kind of distilled relationship that happens on Facebook—it is simultaneously personal and artwork-related. 

AE: How do you use social media for Terrain, the project space that occupies the front porch of your Oak Park home? 

SO: The Terrain site is on Tumblr and Facebook. The Tumblr page is more formal and elegant. The Facebook Group is like, "Bah! Go here! Go there!" I went onto Facebook and put everyone I know into the Terrain Facebook Group whether they like it or not. It's a Group, not a Fan Page. The Facebook Group makes it so that every time I post something, everyone gets a message about it. But I mostly post stuff like, “This is happening here and there.” Terrain has been really successful in a year, and by successful, I mean people know about it, it has a presence and it has an identity. In fact, it has exactly the kind of identity I want it to have—it’s participatory, and people also feel that if they see it on Facebook and Tumblr, they don’t have to go and see the real, physical thing. And that’s perfectly okay with me. 

AE: Really? You don’t care if people actually come out to the space and openings? That’s something I think about a lot when it comes to artists and social media. Sometimes if I see a lot of artwork on Facebook, I’m less inclined to check out the show. Doesn't that bother you, too?

SO: It's different with Terrain—it's one piece, one thing that’s subject to the elements. And it’s in the suburbs of Chicago. A lot of people I know aren't going to get there. They may come to the opening if they are within a 10-mile radius. I truly want people from all over the world to look at Terrain and the work we show. It worked tremendously well for Claire Ashley, who showed at Terrain in April–May 2012.  

Claire Ashley at Terrain

I like that the Terrain Tumblr allows people to know about the space without having to physically be there. Terrain isn’t meant for the social web per say, but it does work well on there. On the other hand, if an exhibition feels like it’s meant just to be photographed and posted on the web, that’s annoying. But in this case, it gives a shelf life to something that’s really impermanent. There are scraps of Terrain—like the space I had at the MDW Art Fair—but they will never be installed that way again. It’s best to have Terrain be a piece within a piece within a piece. Terrain as a concept is a piece, the Terrain Tumblr site is a piece, and then there are pieces within that, which are the artists' works at Terrain. Facebook is the active voice of Terrain—the conversational part of the place, if you will. I don't know how I would do that kind of meta-interplay with my own artwork.  

AE: I was reading the artist statement about networking that you have on your website. You discuss similarities between the act of painting and the digital, virtual world. You write: “So- somewhere in the middle of the textures, gestures and the overall formlessness that makes up painting (that special space within which subjectivity thrives) I form connections to the digital virtual world. Perhaps it’s the permeability, the boundary-less-ness of the web—overflowing with information and simultaneous endless connections and associations—that seems so very painterly. Indeed, one of the qualities of painting is its all-over-ness, because to experience a painting is to escape from linearity and simultaneously experience the past (memory), the present, and the future (fantasy). Experience becomes flat –as in systems theory, where flatness is used to describe non-linearity.” Does this include the social web, or are you just speaking about the Internet as a digital, virtual world?

SO: I think these ideas connect to the social web, because I can’t separate roaming on the web from the social aspects. The Internet is a portal, and so it is a portal to information; but it's also a portal to someone else's mind, and it's very personal too. I surf a lot on Facebook. I'm like the perfect Facebook person—I disappear into the rabbit hole. There might be someone I never sit down and talk to in real life, yet I am following their interests on Facebook. To me, that’s a gift, and I am happy to receive it. I am sure there are people who explore my Facebook page in the same way, following the Facebook path down its trajectory. 

Sabina Ott in her studio with new work

AE: Is there an artist on Facebook who you follow closely? Or are there artists who, through their Facebook presence, influence your work?

SO: Artist Stephanie Barber did a piece at The Poor Farm around the same time I showed there. She cut out a poem that she wrote out of grass turf. Stephanie lives in Baltimore. She writes these weird haikus, and if she lived here, we would definitely hang out. Instead, we are Facebook friends, and every time she writes a poem it pops up on in my Facebook news feed. Being able to see her work and that of other artists I admire but who don’t live nearby, makes my world really big. 

People say the Internet is bad, and they think it cuts out social graces. But I don't think so. I think it makes people better. They learn more. They are exposed to more. They have to tolerate more. They have to be conscious of what they say. And they have to learn how to reach out. I think it's really good, and I like it a lot. I felt really liberated by the Internet. I first got into it when I moved to St. Louis. It was right before there was this open Internet. Like, you could live without an email address. Schools were trying to require email addresses. I had just made this website, and the background was one of my paintings. I was totally into it, but I think a lot of that happened because I moved away from LA and my home and things just dropped into the rabbit hole. Thanks to Facebook, the chances of people just dropping off when you move away are a bit less. 

I went to Australia in 1996, when the country was much more on the web trek than the U.S. You can see the cultural shift that happened there because of the Internet. With the advent of the Internet, they weren't on the edge of the world in the wrong time zone on an island. When they were, it was so much more alive. Australians had a whole alternate universe island before the Internet. So with the Internet, something is lost—but everything is affected and reflected and still has its own identity. That's what's interesting about how the Internet gives exposure. And you still misunderstand it, which is what you want. 

In Australia, there was this artist there named Mike Parr—he was kind of like what John Baldessari is to the U.S. Or maybe Mel Bochner. Parr’s work was almost identical to theirs, but he was not exposed to international artists via the Internet. He developed his work in an Australian way. This kind of thing happens less nowadays, but even so, you still don’t lose that local sense. 

Mike Parr
Hold your breath for as long as possible (still from video, 1972
Image via NotQuiteCritics.com

To learn more about Sabina Ott, visit her website: http://sabinaott.com