OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Yvette Kaiser-Smith

Wide Ruled: 72535. Two sheets of transparent light bronze and one sheet of matte citrus yellow laser-cut acrylic, nylon spacers, and capped hardware. 23" x 33.375" x 1.5." 2017.

The aesthetics in YVETTE KAISER-SMITH’s abstract work are driven by a deep love of mathematics. In crocheted fiberglass and layered, laser-cut acrylic, she often uses the famous irrational numbers Pi and e as guides to generate patterns, color and form, underlining the presence of math in our world. Yvette earned her BFA at Southern Methodist University (Dallas) and her MFA at the University of Chicago. She exhibits internationally, and her work is included in numerous public collections, including Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (Chicago), Lubeznik Center for the Arts (Michigan City, IN) and the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. Opening July 16, 2019, her work will be part of BRIDGES LINZ 2019 - Mathematics, Art, Music, Architecture, Education, Culture at the Johannes Kepler University Uni Center in Linz, Austria. Through Artist Residency Vishovgrad. International (ARV.I), Yvette will spend August 2019 in a small village in central Bulgaria, followed by solo exhibition of new work at Gallery Heerz Tooya (Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria). Yvette lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Talk to us about the famous irrational numbers Pi and e. Why do these numbers continue to show up in your work after all these years? 

Yvette Kaiser-Smith: My wall-based, crocheted fiberglass constructions were initially based on identity narratives. In 2001, while looking for a way to randomly punctuate a rhythm within a group of 80+ small units, my math-nerd husband pointed me towards pi. I realized then that numbers are in all aspects of identity and math structures became part of my conceptual toolbox. Since 2007, all my work has been number generated.

Both pi and e are numbers with infinite number of digits where the pattern never repeats.  So, as pi and e are my source material, these numbers that go on forever without repeating, present possibilities of creating an infinite number of new original patterns and spatial relationships. And, math is beautiful.

Identity Sequence e 4. Crocheted fiberglass with polyester resin. 121” x 117” x 8." 2007.

OPP: Is mathematics the content in your work or means to an end?

YKS: Both. I devise systems for visualizing digits of specified sequences. In the crocheted fiberglass works from 2007 and after, this is direct, thereby more obvious and readable. Always as means to an end. Numbers are the works’ referent, their source of abstraction. I use specified sequences as a boundary for experimentation with intent to create new and unpredictable forms and patterns within the scope of minimal, geometric language.

Identity Sequence e 4, which is a grid of 17 rows and 19 columns, is constructed from 323 small units to straightforwardly spell out the first 33 digits of the number e. Reading left to right and top to bottom, pale neutral tone units directly articulate each digit, and fully-saturated colors mark the space between them. 

In more active sculptural forms, a direct, topographic method maps numerical value relationships as spatial relationships. Etudes from Pi in 5 Squared is based on the first 25 digits of the number pi. Reading left to right and top to bottom, a grid organizes 25 units into 5 rows and 5 columns. Curved units alternate from convex to concave. Here, the value of the digit determines the depth of each individual unit’s curve.

Etudes from Pi in 5 Squared. Crocheted fiberglass with polyester resin. 72” x 191” x 33." 2011.

OPP: Can you give us an example of an even more complicated system.

YKS: Lifesaver Movement in e uses two systems that directly reveal numerical values and one to distribute color in a seemingly random pattern. In 30 squares, reading e from the beginning, each square spells out a digit in binary code via the crochet tradition of filet charts. Filet charting is based on patterns created on a grid, where squares are either filled or left open to create an image. The sequence continues to break the line of 30 into groups, floating or dropped. This short sequence is 266249, so you see 2 squares up; 6 squares down; 6 squares up; and so on. I continue to use the sequence to drop placement of color. White was color #1; sequence following 249 in eis 7757; count 7 spaces, white; count 7 spaces, red (color #2); keep running the sequence left to right until all blocks have color.

Lifesaver Movement in e. Crocheted fiberglass with polyester resin. 55 inches x 111 feet x 4 inches. 2014.

OPP: When I first encountered your crocheted fiberglass sculptures, a big part of my excitement was in the soft, flexible structure of the crochet made hard and unyielding. When did you first start using crochet in your work? Have you always preferred hard structures to soft ones?

YKS: During grad school, I constantly tried new materials—sheet metals, wood, wire, rawhide, beeswax—never committing to one. In 1994, I purchased a spool of continuous fiberglass roving, but my trials were unsuccessful, and the spool got shoved under a table. Late one night in 1996, about 1 am, as I hurried past the meat counter at Cub Foods, I saw tripe and stopped in my tracks. My mind flooded with ideas. I saw tripe, I saw fat and lace at the same time. I saw beauty and ugliness in the same form, and immediately I saw a use for that spool of fiberglass roving. I associated lace with crocheting and bought a basic instruction book on how to crochet baby booties and potholders and assorted crochet hooks. A crocheted fiberglass exploration began then and kept me fully engaged until end of 2015. So, how did crochet enter my work? Call it rigorous studio practice or better yet, serendipity.

Untitled. Screenprint. 2016.

OPP: Did you get tired of crochet?

YKS: The crocheted fiberglass material process is labor intensive and physically demanding. I was tired of working in chemicals, tired of sanding fiberglass, but I had no plans to abandon a process I developed over a span of 19 years. Again, serendipity directed the change. Or just call it life.

A wall in my studio was falling apart and had to be rebuilt. Multiple issues stretched what should have taken five-weeks into a two-year job, during which my workspace was a construction zone full of dust and a pile of bricks.  

In early 2016, I took advantage of this unexpected loss of studio by participating in Hyde Park Art Center’s Center Program. Center Program’s goal is to push artists outside of their comfort zones in creation of new works though mentorship, sharing, critiques, a free class and access to Polsky Center’s Fab Lab which is a small but awesome maker space that includes a laser cutter. I entered with intention to transition the math to drawings. Late in the program, while working on my first series of screen-prints, I also qualified on the laser-cutter. The math-mapping system I was using in the print lab was a natural to transition to laser-cut acrylic. And a new obsession began.

pi x 5s (50792). Matte Caribbean blue, transparent yellow, and matte white laser-cut acrylic, nylon spacers, capped hardware. 23" x 17" x 2.25." 2018

OPP: What does laser-cut acrylic allow you to do that crochet could not?

YKS: Every material has its own way of articulating specific things. Crocheted fiberglass and laser-cut acrylic lend themselves to different ways of visualizing digits in their own respective languages. The pi x 5s laser-cut acrylic series systematically maps 5 digits from pi. Here, the value of 4 digits determines diameter of half-circles cut from small panels and the 5th digit moves one by a specific increment. Because no sequence in pi repeats, as I expand this series by following the number in sequence, this system can create an infinite number of unique works.

So far, I’ve only tried three math-mapping systems. Each new one is a reaction to an aspect of its predecessor, and the work is now pushing me to make my hand more visible by adding a hand constructed, non-acrylic element to the acrylic geometric works. These future, still mysterious constructions will need to develop their own language of mapping math, leading to new challenges and new possibilities.

Lake Street 1467. Digital pigment print on transparency film, laser-cut acrylic, polycarbonate spacers, mixed hardware. 23.5" x 21.375" x 5." 2019.

OPP: Recently, you’ve shifted from geometric abstraction into photography. Geometry is still at play, but these are photographs of existing spaces—often under train tracks in Chicago. What led to this shift?

YKS: It’s not a switch but a sidebar. This project was meant to be a one-off adventure with maybe 12 works but finished with 32. Whether photographic or created with Adobe products, images printed on film or clear acrylic, will make their way into the math-based, laser-cut acrylic work, eventually.

The time-consuming nature of crocheted fiberglass work and the privilege of having studio 37 steps from my home, kept me property-bound for a large part of 20 years. In 2016, my city driving increased with weekly treks to Hyde Park for Center Program and later to Polsky Fab Lab. I also joined the 21st century with purchase of a smart phone.

Sitting in rush hour traffic, I began noticing Chicago’s geometry, and then framing geometric abstraction in square and rectangular formats from the driver’s seat of my truck. I developed an obsession with Lake Street and the extreme vanishing point anchored by the elevated Green Line tracks. I have hundreds of cellphone snapshots.  I started sharing a few on social media. A friend noticed and included the Lake Street images in a photography group show proposal conceptually based on borders. In addition to the physical and conceptual borders captured within the image itself, I approached the concept of borders from a place of memory. Probably because, as artist, I have collected hundreds if not thousands of 35mm slides, photographs as records of inventory, and that iPhone image files limit the print size, and that I am currently working with laser-cut acrylic, reference to film and slide mounts became the starting point of presentation for this project. 

From e . . .71456. Panel 3 detail. Crocheted fiberglass with polyester resin. 2011

OPP: And there is a material trajectory that connects this photographic work to all your work.

YKS: As a sculptor, I needed to push these photographs just over the line, into the realm of sculptural objects. I unwittingly gravitate towards transparency. I transitioned from translucent crocheted fiberglass to drawings on matte and clear Dura-Lar to laser-cut translucent or transparent acrylic sheet, so presenting photographic images printed on clear acrylic and transparency film was natural. As artists, no matter where we go (within our studio practice), there we are.

To see more of Yvette's work, please visit yvettekaisersmith.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based 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 Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006. Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at  BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan, 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), Indianapolis Art Center (Indianapolis, 2017), Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois 2018) and Kent State Stark (North Canton, 2019). Her work is included in the three-person show Manifestations, on view at One After 909 (Chicago) through July 13, 2019.