OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Libby Barbee

Incidental Interference
2012
Collage on paper

LIBBY BARBEE's colorful collages and interactive sculptures address the construction of landscape and the frontier myth of the American West with a nuanced attention to the psychological and cultural implications of place. She received her MFA from the Maryland Institute Collage of Art in 2011, and was recently an artist-in-residence at Platte Forum (Denver, Colorado). In September 2013, Barbee will present a site-specific installation at Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, Maryland. Libby lives and works in La Veta, Colorado. 

OtherPeoplesPixels: What do you find compelling about Colorado? How has this place affected your work?



Libby Barbee: You know, it is really kind of strange. I grew up in a very small rural town on the southeastern plains of Colorado, but it was not one of the beautiful, mountainous areas that people often think of when they imagine this state. I always spent a lot of time outdoors. From the time I was a kid, I loved science and everything creepy or crawly. But as an adult, I never really thought of myself as an “outdoors” person and never felt particularly tied to the landscape of the American West. Before relocating to Baltimore for graduate school, I had been working for a couple of years on a series of paintings about gender and domestic spaces. My work at that time was still concerned with place, but it was more figurative and all about culture. Having grown up in the land of horrible landscape art, landscapes were pretty much the last thing in the world that I was interested in painting.

When I started graduate school, I fell into a serious creative slump. I no longer felt connected to what I was exploring in my studio practice. Even worse, I felt completely disoriented and claustrophobic on the East Coast. I had spent all of my life in a place where you could just look out and see for hundreds of miles in any direction. Suddenly I was in a landscape where I was totally dwarfed amongst all of the people, buildings and trees. It was just suffocating; I was dying to escape the place. On top of it all, I was experiencing some serious culture shock. I still maintain that people are people no matter where you are, but there are some very real differences between the attitudes and perspectives of East Coasters and West Coasters. It took some adjusting to.

Untitled
2009
Collage and charcoal on paper

OPP: How did your work change then?

LB: I somehow started making these charcoal drawings of this nude figure wearing a coyote hood. There wasn’t really any indication of the landscape in the drawings, but they had everything to do with this figure interacting with an imagined space. The figure’s placement and posture was very performative, almost as if it were performing a ritual or dance. Eventually these small drawings led to a large artwork that developed along one wall of my studio. It started as another of these charcoal drawings—the coyote-hooded figure carrying a grain mill on its back. I was at a point where this whole endeavor needed a push, and I began to add a rocky mountain ridge to the composition. I just kept adding page after page of paper until the drawing filled the whole wall. It was from this drawing that the idea of collage emerged. I had printed off some images of rock faces as a reference, but I got impatient. To speed up the process, I started cutting them up and taping them to the paper surface.

By the time I was finished with this giant drawing/collage, everything that I had been thinking about, experimenting with and biting my nails over just began to gel. I started to become consciously aware of the importance of the Western landscape and all of its cultural baggage in the fabric of my reality. I was able to contextualize my connection to the West and began to understand the activity of drawing these charcoal figures—which before had seemed unconnected and inconsequential—as a performative act of re-establishing my place in and perspective on the world. The figures quickly fell away in my work, and the landscape became the central actor. I also became more and more cognizant of and interested in the role of the mythic West in the larger American cultural consciousness. Before going to the East Coast, I don’t think that I had really ever completely understood the enormity of the importance of that particular landscape and the symbolism that it holds as the essence of American-ness. It has been interesting for me to see how my explorations have grown organically from something very personal to encompass these larger spheres that are progressively more universal.

I have been back in Colorado for about a year and half. Now I do live in one of those beautiful mountainous spots—a cute little town nestled below the Spanish Peaks of southern Colorado. We have small herds of deer that live in town and sleep in our front yard, and on cold mornings after a light snow, the sun sets the mountain aglow in a manner so brilliant you really begin to wonder if it isn’t nature’s attempt to imitate Thomas Kinkade. It has all of the makings for horrible landscape paintings.

The ranchers and old hippies here are left over from the communes that brought in artists from New York in the 1970s with the possibility of “dropping out.”  It's the same desire, of course, that attracted the ranchers and the cowboys before them, and the miners and the trappers, and—going all the way back to the beginning of the American Frontier—the pilgrims. All of them had the hope of trying it all anew, wiping the slate clean in a place unencumbered by culture, undirtied by human rules, hierarchies and restraints. It’s all a farce, of course. There is not much free or natural or unconstrained left about this place. It is all broken up, parceled out and divided by property lines, fences and water rights. The forests are managed by logging and fire, and the parks get new trails every year. But it really is a beautiful illusion.

Reimagining Bierstadt: Rocky Mountains (detail)
2012
Collage on paper
40" x 58 1/2"

OPP: How is the Colorado art scene different from the Baltimore art scene?



LB: Baltimore is so full of energy. There is a really strong DIY attitude in Baltimore, and people just make things happen. You might go to see an ad hoc exhibition in someone’s living room one night, and the next night, you can see the same artists’ work in an exhibition at the Maryland Art Place or another well-established art venue. There are so many unoccupied buildings in the city that it is really easy for artists to find communal living spaces, studio spaces and spaces for all sorts of exciting exhibitions, performances and other forms of exchange. The whole scene is more about experimentation and the exchange of ideas than about sales or status. There is a lot of support for emerging artists.

The Colorado art scene is, of course, much smaller and more diffuse. I live in a very rural spot about three hours from Denver, so I am pretty isolated from any contemporary art scene. Usually when I tell people that I am an artist, I get some answer like: “Oh, you are?!!! Well, you should meet my neighbor Larry. He makes just the neatest sculptures of sunflowers and animals out of old tractor parts. You would just love them!” And, in all honesty, I really kind of do love them.

I spent two months in Denver last spring doing a residency at a wonderful arts organization called Platte Forum. I had lived in northern Colorado for about eight years during and immediately following my undergraduate studies at Colorado State University, and this was the first time that I had spent much time in the Denver area since leaving Fort Collins in 2008. I had the opportunity to get a better feel for everything that is going on there, and I honestly was quite shocked. I met so many artists who are doing really interesting things, and there are a growing number of organizations, residencies and venues that support contemporary art and emerging artists. I have always believed that you can tell the health of an art ecosystem by the amount of support that is shown for emerging artists. If all of the artwork is being shipped in from other places or you just see the same artists over and over again, you know that the system is unhealthy. I think that Denver is on the move and heading in a great direction. As soon as I am finished being a hermit in the mountains, I think that I will head there. 

The Harvest of Particles
2011
Collage and guache on paper
15" x 21"

OPP: I'd love to hear more about the creation of colorful landscape collages like Reimagining Bierstadt: Rocky Mountains (2012) and The Harvest of Particles (2011), which involve both collage and painting. Could you explain your collage process? Do you plan your compositions in advance?



LB: A lot of my work begins with reading. I love to read about science and natural history; certain ideas just catch my attention. I’ll start out with a general concept or even a catch phrase and get to Googling. My husband swears that I am a research addict. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without books and the Internet. I allow myself to be pulled along by the research, often discovering connections between ideas I never would have imagined fitting together. The collages are about synthesizing all this disparate information. 

Sometimes I do plan my compositions in advance (it is the smart thing to do, after all), but I am impatient. More often, I find a few images that fit the idea that I am after and that somehow have a life of their own. They become sort of like actors on a stage, and they often dictate the direction of the composition. It is weird, because sometimes I will completely eliminate them in the end, but the resulting composition could never have been created without them.

As I start constructing the collage, I go through this whole back and forth process of finding images and creating paint swatches. The painting is great, because it is mindless and cathartic, and I can really concentrate on the audiobook that I am listening to. I drip and swirl and puddle it until I have a nice big stack of painted paper that I can cut from. Then, I try to match the printed images with the painted swatches, and when I can’t do that, I fiddle with Photoshop (which I hate) until something works. Once I am fed up with Photoshop, I go back to puddling and swirling. Amidst all this back-and-forth, are long hours of cutting stuff out with Exacto knives and gluing. Eventually it all just works itself out. It is a stupid process really, and sometimes I hope that I figure out something better.

Collapse
2010
Collage, Paint
Detail

OPP: What are your sources for your collages? What is your collection process like?



LB: My collection process is really a hodgepodge of approaches, and I am sure it would seem like complete lunacy to anyone who walked into my studio and tried to make sense of it. Nevertheless, there is some twisted and confusing logic behind it all.

The process is constantly changing, and the rules of the game are different from piece to piece. Sometimes the process emerges out of necessity. I know that I need a certain color, texture, value, and I go out looking for that. More often, however, I set up parameters for myself: I only use images found by Googling a certain word, by searching a particular data base or by using images of only one particular place. I am obsessed with the US Geological Survey, and I can spend hours looking through images on the organization’s website. I am constantly looking for new ways of picturing the world, and I keep hundreds of photos saved on my computer in folders with names like piebald deer and icebergs.

OPP: How is the process of collage itself connected to your ideas about the American wilderness?

LB: We imagine nature to be pure, unchanging, timeless. Most importantly, we often define nature as an absence of human intervention. We see the human and natural worlds as distinctly separate. This has been historically important in a nation whose identity depends on the idea of the untouched/uncivilized landscape as the mechanism for political and spiritual purification and the creation of a stronger, better, freer nation.

But, in reality, “nature” and “wilderness” are cultural fabrications. Yellowstone National Park, for instance, is a beacon of American wilderness. And yet, its plants, animals and geology have been utilized and manipulated by humans for thousands of years. We identify national parks as “natural” spaces, but a lot of effort goes into maintaining them. They are an attempt to reconstruct a pure and unchanging state that never really existed.  

Collage is essentially the construction of cohesive images out of very incoherent parts. I set out to deconstruct images of landscape in order to reconstruct them in a new light. In one of the first works, I used photos of landfills, feed lots and parking lots to create rock faces. In another painting, I used one aerial photograph repeated over and over again to create a panoramic view of rolling hills and plains. I hope that viewers will move from the cohesive image to the incoherent parts and begin to think about the facts that are overlooked in their perceptions of the idealized American landscape.

 To see more of Libby's work, please visit libbybarbee.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).

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Eric Ashcraft

The Sun Don't Shine in your TV
2011
archival inkjet print
4.24" x 6"

ERIC ASHCRAFT juxtaposes nature and technology, painting and sculpture and the found and the original in his mixed media work emphasizing the blurry, rich spaces between the binaries we often use to define things. His work has been shown most recently at The Missoula Art Museum (Missoula), Mt. Comfort (Indianapolis) and as a part of a two-person exhibition Poseur at Grizzly Grizzly (Philadelphia). Upcoming exhibitions include Taste at Small Black Door (New York). Eric lives in Yakima, WA.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Many of your pieces are paintings on modified found objects, so they are part painting-part sculpture. But juxtaposition seems to be an even stronger defining strategy driving all the work.

Eric Ashcraft: Lao Tzu once proposed that truth is apprehended through the understanding of fundamental binaries. Often, when one considers how best to describe the interactions of things around us, “discontinuity” proves to be a valuable signifier. A thing or event becomes best described by what it is not. The mind works to separate things, to classify, in order that it may abstract experiences into symbols, and orchestrate symbols into concepts. This is what we see in language, i.e. not dark but …, not soft but …, etc. It is no coincidence that a recurring theme in mythological constructions is that the fabric of nature itself is comprised of the interaction between opposites. It is also fascinating to me that natureas described by quantum field theoryworks in much the same vein as many of our mythologies would suggest. The laws of nature are very nearly symmetrical with respect to particles and antiparticles, which providefor lack of better termsa balance between the fundamental components (interactions) of reality.

When it comes to drawing lines between sculpture and painting, I often think, loosely and imperfectly, in terms of the classical binary opposition between mind and matter. In a limiting way, I relate properties of painting (surface-illusion) with mind, and properties of sculpture (form-space) with matter. In this context, I then enjoy attempting to erase the lines of separation, suspending knowledge of their respective attributes, which brings me closer in affinity with the traditions of mysticism. In moments of illumination, these systems of opposites are transcended and dissolved into a homogeneous continuity. And there, interconnectedness is laid bare and inarticulate. 

On a basic level, I don’t see much of a difference between the two; one easily becomes a surface for the other. Both are composites of thought and action. Both manifest as objects, limited by the material of which they are comprised. Both inevitably decay in time and are defined in accordance with the limiting symbols of language and difference. And importantly, both are constantly being redefined as the parameters in which they exist, evolve, expand and reconstitute under new paradigms. And so these half-painting, half-sculpture “hybrids” are a kind of articulation of this malleability of form and classification. In general, this perpetual fluctuation of category is a continuing drive for me.

Midsummer Liaison
2011
acrylic on beer case
8" x 10.5" x 5"

OPP: So, do you identify as a painter, sculptor or as a conceptual artist?

 EA: If I had to choose between being identified as a painter, a sculptor or a conceptual artist, I would choose to be a banana. When it comes down to it, I’ll use whatever method necessary to allow an idea or experience to come to fruition, and usually concept takes priority. It is also probably obvious that I have a debilitating fear of being categorized, but it is important for me to allow myself to creatively wander and be a bit delusional. Truly, I think it would be best to not consider myself an artist at all and circumnavigate the issue.

OPP: Touché. A specific juxtaposition I see over and over again is the combination of the untouched, romantic landscape with various forms of technology: in My Kind of Romance (2008) you added a neon dress shirt, and, in Entertainment Tonight (2008), you put the painting on a TV set, and in Tell Me if I am not Happy (2011), the landscape covered the jacket of an undisclosed VHS tape. Could you talk about the recurring combination of the romantic landscape with technology?

EA: It really comes from numerous places. Some of the most visible to me are a consideration of the history of beauty and the seduction of the observer, the manifestation of both as signs, and conflict between immersive space and the obstructive tactility of our urban detritus. I remember, in the case of My Kind of Romance, being really interested in different materials and images employed in order to seduce. The image of the untouched landscape, which in this case, was a kind of compendium of historical influences varying from Corot, to the tyrant of our grandparents’ walls, Mr. Thomas Kinkade, and the physical presence of neon. Both have qualities that entice. One, an image that satisfies a kind of escapist yearning, relates to desires for purity, and the other, neon, is a more urban material. It's eye-candy, employed to catch one’s attention, reeling one in to consume. The shirt also stands in as an abstracted modern presence within a nostalgic and fictitious ideal. 

Perhaps a general interest in the sublime is a more apparent source of the combination. Technology, in a way, embodies a new experience of the sublime, one that provides awe through a shear overabundance of information. Where we once could stand on a precipice and feel the awesomeness of a great expanse, belittled and terrified by the vastness of space and unharnessed nature (in some places this still happens, especially in relation to outer space), we can now feel a similar phenomenon via the great expanse of information that confronts us through our exponentially generative technologies.

Ground Control
2010
oil and china marker on board
22" x 22"

OPP: Talk about the theme of erasure in works like BEST IF USED BY JAN 01 12 (2011), The Hard Bones Under the Flesh (2011) and Were It to Begin and Were It to Cease (2011).

EA: I was interested in revealing the form or material under the advertising or image. I was sort of trying to reveal the essence of the object by taking away its skin. In doing so, the material and form became both reduced and more coherent in the modern sense. By cutting away at a structure, you can begin to understand how it works. You can break it down and simplify it. These works were kind of dissections in a very superficial sense.

OPP: So, is the tendency towards deconstruction as a way to comprehend related to the experience of vastness and awesomeness of the sublime in whatever form?

EA: You know, I have never seen a connection between them; perhaps you are picking up on something. I sort of think of the sublime as this moment where things can’t be reduced or taken apart, as being in affinity with rapture. It can only be talked about and deemed a sublime experience after the fact. So there is a rift between experience and understanding. First, one experiences, then knowledge is extracted from that experience once it is decoded into a language of logical understanding. Deconstruction is a utility for obtaining knowledge. The experience of the sublime is a state of dissolution into the unknown. So, perhaps they are connected in the sense of being complements.

Day and Night
2011
two men's size 11 shoes made from cutting and reassembling two pairs of personally used Adidas shoes

OPP: There are some fascinating anomalies in your oeuvre: The Cracked Picket (2009) and Summertime (2010), for example, represent extremely different styles of painting. They are so distinct that it seems to be a conscious choice. I'd love to hear more about these pieces, and why you chose to paint the way you did? 

EA: Painting has an immense history that is nearly impossible to ignore, to the point that virtually any mark you make on a surface can carry a cultural and political significance. I like to visualize aesthetic approaches as varying tools in the toolbox; you can build content through renegotiating the terms of a thing’s representation and by questioning the validity of a thing’s historical definition or stature.

I think of style as really organic in this way. Different styles can be used to express different ideas. Some things are simply more effective rendered in a particular way. In The Cracked Picket, I remember trying to navigate between styles in such a way that the overall aesthetic wouldn’t fall into one category or the other, sort of walking the fence between cartoon and realism, humor and seriousness, abstraction and representation. Even the paint application was stuck somewhere between thick and thin. The combination of the perspective and the abundant thickness of the painting’s layers made the house feel like a real object in person, as if it were poised to fall off the surface. The fabricated quality of the house was magnified by rendering it in a synthetic medium: acrylic. Also relevant was its scale; it was much too big to be an illustration and too small to be a completely immersive illusion. It almost felt as if it should have been inhabited by hobbit-sized dolls.

I painted Summertime through a childhood memory of a confrontation with the decaying corpse of an entangled and unfortunate cow. There are a lot of contradictions at play, conceptually, physically and in regard to taste. I was trying to achieve a balance between an evasive apparition-like quality and a solid mass. The paint needed to be more of a mutating agent, accented by moments of heaviness shifting into transparency. The method of paint application was influenced greatly by the subject. I was revolving around death as a subject and a metaphor for painting as a whole. I was considering ambiguities in form through the use of an extremely plastic and fleshy material, mainly oil. I wanted to represent Death, unveiled as an elapse of time rather than as something instantaneous and foreign. I saw this concept as being in conjunction with the character of painting itself. A painting is built in time and ultimately decays in time, much the same way we do. A painting represents an expanded period of time. The time of its making is inherent in the “finished” work, in the layers of its construction. But it is never truly finished until it ceases to exist.

Good Company
2011
airbrush on prepared print and frame
28" x 24"

OPP: What you are saying leads me to think of your work through the lens of contemporary remix culture, which is something close to my own heart. Throughout art history, new work has always drawn on old work, but your work makes this creation of meaning through juxtaposition more apparent because it is less concerned with having a definitive, "original" style. I'm enjoying thinking of your work as painting remix, similar to sampling in Hip Hop or the creation of new narratives in fanvids, mash-ups and supercuts. Is there any connection between your work and these non-art-world forms?

EA: Definitely. I enjoy that connection. All of these methods mix and clash material from a nearly inexhaustible and ever-growing media archive. Everything is up for grabs. The exchange of information has become so fast that classified channels of expression don’t have much of a shelf-life. There is always something new being born from the old, and I see no sign of it slowing down. So many turning points in history really come from separate languages combining into new forms. In a way, these “non-art-world” (non-art-world-yet?) methods pay homage to older methodologies of creativity, particularly appropriation in Cubist and Dadaist collage.

I think material that has a real physical history can be “remixed” as well. As our experience of media and technology becomes more integrated with the physical, the barriers between real and virtual begin to seem less distinct; it is truly hard to distinguish what is original from what is synthetic. I’ve begun to think of the two as unified harbingers of information.

As the exchange of information becomes increasingly more rapid, I see a possibility for material and image manipulation to expand to encompass increasingly more collisions of aesthetics. I envision the future of communication as a vast array of interweaving symbols that no longer function on a two-dimensional levelas current language doesbut instead a multi-dimensional ocean of layered meaning and non-meaning, abstraction and image, symbol and space.

On another note, if you choose to sample something, you can sample and still put your twist on it -- in fact it’s hard not to, the way you can still hear a characterizing finesse behind a great DJ’s flavor of blending chosen source material. Originality can be found in the idiosyncrasies. When you are taking influence, or even straight up stealing, the result doesn’t have to be derivative, and even that isn’t always a bad thing. I still entertain the idea of uniqueness, but one doesn’t need to be original in one way. You can be creative through multiple mediums and even multiple identities. You don’t need to wave a banner around with a singular product to be successful.

Untitled
Drawing
2011

OPP: What new development in your art practice are you most excited about right now?

EA: There are a lot of avenues I’ve been exploring that are particularly rewarding. I feel as if right now I’m in a state of transition between multiple platforms, and new methods of expression have begun to unveil themselves. I’m beginning to try to fuse disparate platforms of expression that I’ve used in the past with new visual languages I’m trying to develop. In this respect, digital methods of production and explorations into new fields are especially enticing. In this approach, I have been making these twisted erotic drawings and digital works I haven’t shown anyone yet. I really don’t know how to describe them, which is exciting. 

To view more of Eric's work, please visit ericashcraft.com.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Amy Honchell

2011
Detail
Cloth, thread, scale lumber, acrylic paint, ultrafine glitter
26 x 52 x 6"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail
2004
Fishnet stockings, rubber balls and toys, tinsel

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

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

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

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

Convenient Passage
2011
Cloth, thread, wood, acrylic paint
72 x 72 x 24"

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

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

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

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

7 Billion Short Tons: Greater Hardness, High Luster
2011
Detail
Cloth, thread, wood, acrylic paint, ultrafine glitter
96 x 30 x 27"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow Ladder, Vertical Inclination
2011
Ink on bristol
11 x 14"

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled (Squall)
2006
Installation view
Nylon fabric, various fabric strips, netting, tulle, sound element
Dimensions variable

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

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

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

Outposts
2011
Ultrafine glitter, velvet glitter, acid free glues on watercolor paper
9 x 12"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Rick Leong

Floating Forest
2010
Oil on canvas
6' x 10'

RICK LEONG paints dense, psychologically-charged landscapes influenced by both the traditions of Chinese, Japanese and Canadian landscape painting. He explores our human experience of the landscape, often using the metaphor of twilight to reveal the intangible border between the internal and external, the subjective and the objective. He is currently an artist-in-residence at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he will have an exhibition opening at the Anna Leonowens Gallery on November 13, 2012. Rick lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What is the origin of your interest in landscape?

 Rick Leong: When I was an undergraduate, I was working with themes of political identity and what it means to be a Chinese-Canadian. I worked with imagery derived from Chinatown kitsch, manga and anime, basically developing a warped sense of Asian history and culture through visual language. There are a lot of senior artists working within those themes of identity and displacement, particularly in Vancouver, where I am from. I felt that I was essentially walking in their footsteps and really wanted to forge my own path. By the time I was headed to graduate school, I felt that the work that resonated with me the most were classical Chinese and Japanese paintings and prints. I didn't simply want to emulate those artists and their works so much as I wanted to join in this beautiful conversation they were having about the landscape and our relationship to it. I wanted to try to recreate the feelings they inspired in me rather than recreate their techniques or methodologies. I think this became a fundamental influence on how my practice would develop over the next several years.  

OPP: Is there a specific artist or piece from either of those landscape traditions, or from Vancouver that is particularly influential for you?

RL: The paintings of Kano Motonobu have had a tremendous influence on me, particularly his painting Birds and Flowers in Four Seasons. He is known for creating wa-kan, a technique that combines classical Chinese and Japanese styles.

Night Fall
2012
oil on canvas
6' x 6'

OPP: In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm going to reveal a personal bias: I've never been partial to landscapes in general. I love being in nature, but what I love about it is my emotional experience of feeling connected to the world. Often straight landscapes don't do much for me, even when I can recognize their beauty, because they don't elicit my emotions. But I feel very different about your work. In paintings like Hush (2010), A Still Melody (2009) and Dancing Serpent in Dawn's Quiet (2006), the vines, branches and trees look like creatures. Plants are, of course, alive, but in your work, they appear to have personalities, to be animated emotionally. It's this quality that gets me really interested in investigating the paintings further. Are you intentionally imbuing nature with personality? If so, are your intentions in doing so different from my experience viewing the work?

RL: When I create a body of work for an exhibition, I typically try to recreate the experience of venturing into a particular kind of landscape. I start with the dawn. As the viewer moves through the exhibition, encountering the different elements of the landscape from different perspectives, it transforms into night. I often build my landscapes around animal forms or text, mainly as a compositional device but also as a way to imbue the work with a hidden layer that gives me the opportunity to develop a more profound viewing experience. The inspiration for Hush came from the experience of walking alone in the woods in the Rocky Mountains, and the silence was like a blanket. The only noises were my footsteps and my breathing, and I became lost in thought. The text written in the branches of the tree in Hush is "the sound of silence is the sound of self."

I work predominantly from memory in these works, and what I don't recall exactly I invent or imagine. In this way, I am not creating a document of a particular place but rather the experience of places that seem familiar in a tacit way. This process allows for the unexpected that arises in the creation of a work to exist and develop into something tangible. When laying down textures for grounds to build upon, I'll often pick up on forms that I see developing and flesh them out. This has led to an interest in the gestalt, or the process that helps us define or order the chaos around us. It is how we make sense of letters from typographic shapes, for example. In this way, I have started to think of the landscape as a visual language that I can use to talk about other things that may interest me. So the work is in part about the landscape and how we experience it and what we take away from it and carry around within us, but it is also a form of language and communication. The phenomena of the gestalt extends to the way that we anthropomorphize the landscape as well. When we walk by a tree and we see a face in it, it is part of this process. There is something fundamentally compelling about this process that persists throughout our history, such as in Taoism and Shintoism all the way to Disney. Part of my process in creating a work is to allow those elements that arise to take on a personality of their own. I like to think of this as allowing the painting to have some say in its own creation, to dialogue with the work as I am making it.

Oneiric Perception
2012
mixed media on panel
48' x 48'
 
OPP: One metaphoric theme I see in a lot of your work was highlighted in your exhibition at Art Gallery of Greater Victoria called The Phenomenology of Dusk (2012): thresholds, in-between-ness, hybridity. Could you talk a bit about this body of work and how metaphor plays out in your landscapes?

RL: As I was building these landscapes that always began with the dawn and ended in darkness, I became more aware that the paintings were focused on the day. I realized that this is only a part of the way that we experience the landscape. I began to break down the landscape into three distinct ways of experienceday, night and twilight. The Roaming Gloam was my first deliberate project that dealt with the in-between aspect of twilight. I approached the work as an experience of a place situated within time. Time as place. As I began to venture into the realm of phenomenology and ontology, I began to think of the in-between time of twilight as a metaphor for the threshold between the subjective interior realm and the objective external realm. I am interested in how each informs our experience of the other. It goes back to the gestalt in the way that we project aspects of ourselves onto the landscape when we see a face or form within the landscape and, alternatively, how we situate ourselves within constructs of space and place within our own thoughts and dreams. 

Supernova
2010
watercolour, ink, oil on canvas
46" x 48"

OPP: The Wilderness (2010) is a series of  "spacescapes depicting cosmic phenomena, constellations, and the mystery and romance of the unpredictable forces of nature and their impact on the human experience."  This body of work is formally so different from the rest of your work, which is usually so dense with vines and trees and details that pull the viewer in closer. This work is conceptually connected; it's the macro to the micro of The Phenomenology of Dusk (2012). In terms of your experience of the process of painting the work, not the content or final product, did you enjoy working on one of these bodies of work more that the other?

RL:The impetus for The Wilderness was the desire to create the experience of the landscape at night. When the woods, rivers and lakes become obscured by darkness, the eyes drift to that which is illuminated. I wanted to approach it in my typical way, to create this experience of a place as one moves through it, experiencing it from different perspectives. Again, there are the familiar aspects which manifest as shooting stars and constellations, yet we have to project more of our imaginations into the work as it is the great unknown wilderness of our time. The work was a challenge for me to create, as there is less critical mass to manipulate. I began working from the material itself, staining the linen with inks, pouring and pooling the watercolours, and finally fleshing out the forms with oils. In relation to The Phenomenology of Dusk the processes were at radically different ends of the spectrum between control and chaos. Both have their pros and cons, so I don't necessarily prefer one over the other so much as I strive for the ability to shift my methodology as the work demands.

Lichen Animal
2010
Oil on canvas
5' x 4'

OPP: What new piece, idea or upcoming opportunity are you most excited about?

RL: I am currently the artist in residence at NSCAD, and I am working with lithographs and screenprinting for the first time, as well as making paintings. It is an exciting cross discipline experience for me, and I am learning a lot. The work I am doing here culminates in an exhibition at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, and will be part of a larger body of work that will be shown at Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George in January, 2013.  

To see more of Rick's work, please visit rickleong.com.