OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jayanti Seiler

Untitled, from Of One and The Other (2013-2018)

JAYANTI SEILER captures the emotional complexity of relationships between humans and animals in photographic essays that explore a range of spaces where they interact. She has spent time with owners of exotic big cats, taxidermists, falconers and young people in the 4-H Club, who raise animals to be brought to Livestock auctions at the Volusia County Fair. She photographs at sanctuaries that care for abused wild and domestic animals, traveling safaris, zoos, and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centers. Her poignant images reveal contradictory truths that can't be easily reconciled; caretaking and love often cross paths with exploitation and death. Jayanti earned her MFA at the University of Florida and her BFA in Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her photographs have been published in numerous magazines, including The New York Times LENS, LIFE FORCE (UK), LENSCRATCH, Véganes contreculturel (Canada), Vision (Beijing), Edge of Humanity, Muybridge’s Horse, Bird In Flight (Russia). Her work has been exhibited at the Southeast Museum of Photography (Florida), Chiang Mai University Art Museum (Thailand), Harvard University, Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia, and Washington State University. In 2018, she released a first edition fine art book of her series titled Of One and The Other, capturing the complexity of human-animal relationships. Jayanti lives in Deland, Florida, where she is an Associate Professor at the Daytona State College Southeast Center for Photographic Studies.

OtherPeoplePixels: Vulnerability seems to be the thread tying all your work together, but your photographs don’t feel exploitative. How do you cultivate the empathetic gaze?

Jayanti Seiler: I aim to build a relationship of trust between my subjects and myself. I am transparent with my subjects about why I am photographing them. With the human-animal work, I made the conscious decision to set some of my beliefs aside and acknowledge that each person I met does love animals in some way and that this love manifests differently along the spectrum. I remained open to the opinions about animals and the justifications that support them. My commitment to approach my subjects without judgment and listen to their perspectives sets them at ease. I explain that I am making photographs of a diverse range of human-animal encounters and through this experience I want to learn about their particular relationships with animals. By adopting an attitude that is as neutral as possible and a format that is not documentary, I cultivate perhaps a shared concern on some level between subject, photographer and viewer.

Untitled, 2016, from Love and Loss (2013-2019)

OPP: Can you say more about not taking a documentary approach?

JS: Photography is an inherently problematic medium when it comes to finding an even give and take, when the photographer is who determines how a subject is represented or perceived. Troubled by this dilemma, I sought ways to address problematic forms of representation used in documentary practices by implementing strategies that dilute the authority of the medium of photography. For the film and installation, Docket, which came out of my experience as a Guardian ad Litem volunteer, I asked individuals that had “aged out” of the foster care system to speak alone with the camera. By removing myself as a factor, emphasis was placed on the voice of the individual and their unfiltered story. The comfortability of the subjects surprised me when I discovered the depth of emotion that poured out of each of them. I feel that intervening in my own process as image-maker, depoliticizing the photographic agenda and acknowledging the inadequacies of representation in past work has contributed to how I chose to confront the messy indefinable nature of our relationships with animals from a place of honesty and compassion.

Untitled, from Of One and The Other (2013-2018)

OPP: How much do you guide your subjects in the photographic work? How much do you wait for the decisive moment?

JS: I believe in taking an informed and impassioned approach to communicating with my subjects. Well before I started making the pictures, I was volunteering in shelters and sanctuaries, which gave me an enlightened perspective. I experienced firsthand the unique dynamic between injured animals and individuals that dedicate their lives to their care. It is important to me to immerse myself in the subject matter and be a participant as well as a storyteller. Working in wildlife rehabilitation became a means of entry into these worlds and I was compelled to photograph the fragile harmony at stake particularly for birds of prey in captivity. When the series expanded to include other complicated relationships with animals that were more controversial I wanted to make it evident in the work that you have to look at this topic from many different angles because it is far from black and white. I seek a poetic way to represent what I am feeling about my subjects and lead the viewer into the content. Even though I feel strongly about the topic, I take a gentle approach as opposed to a radical one. My pictures are an invitation not a confrontation and more theater then documentation. 

In knowing clearly what I want to communicate, it is necessary for me to both guide my subjects as well as wait for the decisive moment. I look for, as well as evoke, unexpected encounters and rare moments when the veil separating humans and animals lifts and a connection is established. This idea came out of my own desire to interact with wild animals, which is why I made the pictures of people interacting with big cats. The images of people hugging big cats are enactments of the fine line between adoration and exploitation captured the moment it surfaced between the cub and the person. I am sensitive to subtle gestures a subject might exude, both human and animal; I work with those cues and weave in my narrative. Some of the interactions are candid and others are a blend of directed and found moments. I use this approach to nudge the image in the direction I envision without compromising the integrity of the moment.

Untitled, 2016, from Love and Loss (2013-2019)

OPP: The images from Love and Loss especially made me cry. What a sad and complicated set of emotions! What was your experience with 4H before beginning this series?

JS: I’m happy the images touched you. My colleague in the photography department at Daytona State College introduced me to the people that run the Livestock auctions at the Volusia County Fair in Deland, Florida. He had been shooting behind the scenes there for several years. I was granted a press pass to photograph as well. I learned about the program through my colleague and became more familiar with 4H over the years as I met the children and their families. It was interesting to see the same children returning each year and witness how much they evolved from being so new to the process, unsure and timid alongside eager parents coaching them, to confident seasoned participants that now coach the newcomers.

Untitled, 2016, from Love and Loss (2013-2019)

OPP: Do the kids talk to you about the complicated emotions that you capture? How aware are they of what they are feeling?

JS: The children are complicated; there are many layers to them. I hear a multitude of comments and some really stick with me. During the course of the week, the kids tell me it is hard but they are ok with it. They are steadfast in their dedication to the program and feel that what they are doing is very good for them, as well as for the animals. Parents have told me that the process is difficult and is definitely not for everyone because of how emotionally trying it can be. They’ve said that if some of these kids were not in the program that they would be on the streets. Despite their hard exteriors, the children are very affectionate with their animals. At the conclusion of auction night they have limited time to say good-bye. The tone completely changes. Waves of emotion pour out of them during these last moments with their animals. They sit quietly with them; their faces tear streaked as they grieve openly. Before this time they are so busy with the prep and the performance that there is a bit of a disconnect. They are all business on the show floor, very poised and intent on capturing the attention of the judge. When they win there is that incredible sense of accomplishment and pride. It is a celebration of their devotion to the health and growth of that animal. 

There are a lot of justifications that help them compartmentalize their sadness. They say the week is so hard on the animals that by auction night the animals are essentially “ready to go." They have said the pigs don’t stop growing and by two years of age they are so large and uncomfortable that they have to be slaughtered. They tell me that we are going to eat meat anyways therefore why not have us take care of the animals in a humane healthy way instead of in a slaughterhouse. Then there are some that begin the process of grieving and saying good-bye well before the auction. One child told me that she walked her pig up to the top of a hill and sat in a patch of flowers with her the day before the fair. They seem to move on pretty quickly after their animals are gone; they are capable of coming back each year to repeat the process again. Although their grief is unmistakable, they feel it is just part of it. They are forever impacted by their experiences whether the reality of raising animals for slaughter has a positive or negative effect; it is different for every individual.

Untitled, 2012, from Clemency Raptor (2012-2013)

OPP: Of One and The Other (2013-2018) goes beyond the 4H images to capture other relationships between humans and animals, some caring and some exploitative. Some images look violent but actually capture life-saving actions, like the bird being x-rayed. Can you talk about this slippage between optics and reality?

JS: I have noticed several paradoxes in these environments, especially in rehabilitation centers for birds of prey. The reality and the optics contradict one another in the bird pictures because rehabbers are altruistic in their attempts to shield animals from harm, yet they have to maintain an emotional distance because this is essential to the bird’s survival in the wild when released. I depict a level of clinical detachment due to the volume of death that comes along with working to save animals that are injured. The harsh reality that rehabbers face is that there is simply not enough space for all of the birds to live out their lives in captivity and the ones that are deemed unreleasable have to be euthanized. Despite their efforts only some of the birds are released. The images symbolize this grim reality and are therefore visibly unsettling. In some of the most altruistic environments that I photograph in there is often the most detachment, which is considered humane in rescue and rehabilitation. A hood over the bird’s eyes is meant to keep him calm while he is being examined; yet the slumped posture and docile appearance of the bird addresses the conflict intrinsic to these types of encounters.

Untitled, from Of One and The Other (2013-2018)

OPP: It also strikes me that some of the most tender pictures involve the most exploitative actions. I’m thinking of the young men caressing taxidermy deer heads.

JS: There is a duality of violence and manufactured tenderness found in the image of the young man holding a deer head to his forehead in front of a red fence. The image is also intended to symbolize the complexity and irony found in our relationships with animals. The man’s gesture represents a taxidermist or hunter’s admiration for his craft or can be read as an expression of remorse. The portrait symbolizes the boundaries and belief systems that clash and overlap in society, one of these being that hunters have a closer relationship with nature then someone who turns a blind eye and buys their meat in a sanitized package in the supermarket because it is easier then killing and butchering it themselves. The care the taxidermist takes when meticulously crafting keepsakes from hunted animals is a form of preserving the living. The picture depicts brutality but also the love that a hunter or taxidermist has for nature. 

Untitled, from Of One and The Other (2013-2018)

OPP: What other complicated stories have you encountered?

JS: Extremely common are the stories of animals in captivity that were bred for use as pets, although they wind up being kept in less then desirable conditions because their owners find they cannot properly care for them. Because of this inability to respect and honor our boundaries, animals end up being neglected and then rescued by sanctuaries, which are overflowing due to the volume of animals caught in this mess. Animals are entangled in a vicious cycle as well as the people involved with their care. The animals are hybrids, inexorably caught between two worlds: unable to survive in nature, they are condemned to captivity. Many people make enormous sacrifices for the good of their rescued animals that are not always ideal. Caretakers of rescued tigers have had to make the difficult choice to put their animals on display in glass transport cases at wealthy people’s parties in order for guests to take pictures of themselves next to the tiger. Ironically, this helped the caretakers finance large enclosures for their tigers. The image of the white tiger in the glass transport case among enclosures was made to symbolize this dilemma, and the tiger was in no way harmed. Her caretakers are altruistic and bound by their commitment to provide a good life for their big cats, which they consider members of their family.

Untitled, from Of One and The Other (2013-2018)

OPP: It seems that you offer the same empathy to all your subjects. Do you ever experience a sense of conflict when photographing a situation that you don’t feel is ideal for the animals? How do you deal with that?

JS: Yes, I did feel a sense of conflict because I was stuck in the middle between rescue groups that advocate for preservation and protection and (therefore oppose cub encounters as inhumane) and the people selling these encounters, who say that they are educating the public about the plight of animals in the wild. I was caught up in the ethics of what people were doing and the price animals were paying one way or the other. It helps me to take into account that most of the people I meet have good intentions and there were circumstances that led them to compromise. When I say that my subjects all love animals, I admit this is a way to find the positive in the negative. I put my camera between my subjects and myself at times as a distancing device to take a step back and be more of an observer. The notion of distance is cultivated in my images as well. A lot of my own conflict with what I witness surfaces in the images. Despite the sad situations that I see with the 4H children, I find comfort in their maturity and devotion. 

Through the many discussions that have been sparked by the images and the dialogue that has been created, I feel reassurance that the message I aim to impart is reaching people. Witnessing the growing movement where animals are seen more and more as sentient beings and the spotlight that National Geographic, among others, has repeatedly cast on numerous undesirable conditions for animals brings me so much hope that attitudes are changing.

To see more of Jayanti's work, please visit www.jayantiseilerphotography.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 she 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 was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago). Stacia's solo exhibition The Thin Line Between One Thing and Another was on view in January 2020 at Finlandia University.

Benjamin Cook's Social Distance Gallery

Call for submissions on Instagram

OtherPeoplesPixels interviewed Featured Artist Benjamin Cook three years ago about his practice, which is driven by a fascination with the structures, rules and algorithms that guide both our online and offline lives. Now he is the creator of Social Distance Gallery, which will be posting BFA and MFA thesis exhibitions that are cancelled or limited in access due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital exhibitions will be hosted on Instagram at @socialdistancegallery. See the details for submission here.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What gave you the idea for @socialdistancegallery?

Benjamin Cook: My studio practice involves digitally-based projects that explore image dissemination and ways in which digital images are consumed. I teach at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and we had to cancel BFA shows because of the pandemic. Our students were understandably upset, and I thought my practice could be used to help in this situation.

OPP: Do you have volunteers to help you or is this a solo effort?

BC: It’s just me right now. There have been a number of people who have reached out and offered assistance, so I have a group of people that I can turn to if things get overwhelming.

Screencap of @socialdistancegallery

OPP: At last view, you have 16.7 K followers. How did you go about getting your message out? It seems to have moved really quickly. How many submissions have you received?

BC: I made the page on March 13th and have around 75 submissions so far. I posted on the feed and story of my personal account first. I reached out to my network and asked people to share the story. It really took off from there. I can’t thank my friends enough for helping get this thing rolling.

OPP: Is this project helping you cope with staying home? 

BC: It’s something to work on, but I stay busy either way. I am definitely not immune to the feelings of fear, confusion, uncertainty, and grief that everyone is going through. We all feel it no matter how busy we stay.

OPP: Are you finding any time right now to work on your own work?

BC: This project is a part of my practice, so I guess you can say I haven’t had time to do things that weren’t my own work. I could probably use some extra time to sleep.

Screencap of @socialdistancegallery

Going Strong: Kathryn Refi

Did you know the OPP blog has been featuring exceptional, living artists since 2011? We are committed to looking at the full trajectory of each Featured Artist's work, as represented on their websites. As an artist myself, I don't think of individual artworks or projects in a vacuum. I'm more interested in how one work leads to another and what drives artists to keep making. So it's exciting to revisit artists interviewed in the first few years of the blog and find out what's changed and what's stayed the same in their practices. Today's artist is Kathryn Refi (@kathrynrefi).

Finger Flowers, 2019. Hand-cut archival inkjet prints. Overall dimensions variable. Each flower is 17 3/4 x 17 3/4 inches.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What's new in your studio, practice or work since you were interviewed back in 2013?

Kathryn Refi: Probably the single greatest change since 2013 is that I moved from Athens, Georgia to New York City. I've been living in Brooklyn since the summer of 2014. It's hard to know all of the specific ways this shift has affected the changes in the content of my work, but it seems inevitable that it has.

All My Edges (in 2cm Squares, in the Shape of a Circle), 2018. Archival inkjet collage on polyester film. 59 1/2 x 49 3/4 inches.

My work had been centered on images and patterns I experienced in my environment and now it is derived from photographic images of my actual body. Before I was trying to negotiate the way my body was interacting with the outside world, while now the entire visual content of the work is my own physical body. I am very surprised that photographic imagery has become the starting point in my process. I think that some of this has to be the subconscious influence of the work of a couple of important friends I have made here in NYC: Jennifer Grimyser and Kate Stone. I think their beautiful work has crept into my brain, where I am processing it and using it as an ingredient in the cooking up of my own images. 

Untitled, 2019. Cut and woven photographs. 64 1/2 x 19 inches.

All of my work starts with life-size inkjet prints of digital images of parts of or all of my body. I am cutting up and rearranging the prints to create new images of myself, patterns, and wall-sized weavings. It is empowering to be in control of the image of my body and manipulate it however I am compelled to. I am enjoying seeing the way my body mutates into new shapes and images as I reorganize its components. A lot of play and visual discovery is happening in my studio. There is still a systematic approach to all of the work, which is a definite through line to what I was making previously. Repetition of form, with an underlying grid structure, continues to be a motif. 

Untitled, 2019. hand-cut inkjet prints. 57 x 38 inches.

I am excited to continue exploring in my studio. I never would have guessed that I would be making the images that I am now and so can't wait to see what I'll be creating in another seven years.

Some recent pattern studies. 2020. Woven inkjet prints. 12 x 12 inches each.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Natalie Hunter

Installation view of Billows and Breathing Spaces2019. At Centre 3 for Artistic and Social Practice. Photo Credit: Andrew Butkevicius

In an era when most people only encounter photography on their digital devices, NATALIE HUNTER reminds us of the physicality of photography. But she doesn't rely on the conventions of prints framing and hanging on the wall to do it. Instead, she combines the intangible staples of film exposure—light and time—with the material aspects of sculpture. She prints on transparent film and silk, folding and bending images, pinning them to the wall in undulating waves and draping them over wood and metal and plexiglass structures. Natalie holds a BA in Visual Art with a Concentration in Curatorial Studies from Brock University and an MFA from the University of Waterloo. She was awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Research and Creation Grant in 2018 and Ontario Arts Council Creation Project Grants in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, she mounted two solo exhibitions: Staring into the sun, curated by Marcie Bronson, at Rodman Hall Art Centre (St. Catharines, Ontario) and Sensations of breathing at the sound of light at Factory Media Centre 9 (Hamilton, Ontario). Her work was also included in the group show Shaping Time (2019) at Latcham Art Centre (Stouffville, Ontario). Natalie’s solo exhibition Billows and Breathing Spaces (2020) Just opened at Centre 3 For Artistic and Social Practice in Hamilton, Ontario and will be on view through March 5. Natalie lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

OtherPeoplesPixels: It’s rare that your images are framed and hung on the wall in a conventional way. Why do you work with photography as sculpture?

Natalie Hunter: I very much look at photographs as material fluid things that are tangible objects vulnerable to the elements. There is an element of stillness in sculpture and photography that speaks to the present moment, but also the past. The negative and positive aspects of photography mirror that of sculpture and casting. Both are traces,  just in different ways.

I’m interested in the spaces we create for ourselves, both physical and psychological in nature and how they shape memory and lived experience. I entered grad school as a sculptor and started taking digital imaging and film studies courses. Working on images through the screen became incredibly frustrating for me. I would often go to the library and print transparencies of images I wanted to work with because it was cheaper than printing snapshots. But I soon found they were really lovely to work with and handle in my hands. To fold, curl, layer, arrange them on a light box or the surface of a projector. They spoke more to material process and making with my hands. I knew I wanted to eventually make my images more sculptural and scale them up. Ever since, I’ve been trying to work my way out from the wall into three-dimensional space and make images a physical, experiential encounter.

Helios (2019) Hand applied window film, light. Interior day view. Photo credit: Jimmy Limit

OPP: Can you tell us a bit about your process? How does the moment of exposure relate to the installation? Are these disconnected parts of the process?

NH: The starting point for most of my work boils down to light and time and their psychological, emotive, and material influences on space. For the past 6 or 7 years, I’ve been layering images through multiple exposures and by layering transparent photographs to make new images. This act of layering both inside and outside of the camera transcends logical ideas of time. I use colour filters, sometimes hand-made ones, to bring attention to the layers and reveal process. They separate different moments of time and leave clues as to how the images were made. And they introduce an element of chance. They affect the way light enters the camera. I never really know what the image will look like until the film gets developed.

Once the image exists outside of the camera and becomes a physical thing, I consider the exhibition space as an element of the work. Often, the pieces change when they are installed a second or third time or from my studio to the gallery space. I need to do site visits, and I usually respond in an emotive way that speaks to a unique characteristic of a space in order to converse with it. Memory plays a big part in this. I hope to produce a kind of encounter between viewer and work that elicits memory or a sensorial response.

The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus (2017) Giclee print on transparent film, poplar, sunlight. various dimensions. print: 12" x 50"

OPP: How do materiality and immateriality intersect in your work?

NH: My work hovers between materiality and immaterially like most of our experiences. I use translucent and semi-translucent materials—transparent film, backlight film and silk—to manifest ephemeral, immaterial concepts like time, memory, space, light, air, breath in material ways. The physical aspects produce immaterial encounters. I use light in the exposure of my images, but also in the installation within the exhibition space. For me, light is quite kinetic. . . or it makes the work kinetic through the passage of time. 

Light is fundamental to photographic processes, and its manipulation is a material process in my work. Light is intangible, like time and memory, and it affects physical spaces. Natural light is always changing, while artificial light is static. These differences produce both stillness and subtle motion in my work. For example, my transparent film works produce latent imagery within a space when they are lit. They behave in a kinetic way when exposed to natural light, and a rather still way when illuminated with traditional gallery track lightning.

Songs of May (foreground), The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of palest sunlight, 2019.

OPP: In your recent work Breathing Spaces (2019), you printed on silk charmeuse for the first time. What led you to print on fabric instead of transparent film for the various Billows sculptures?

NH: During the opening of my solo show Staring into the sun (2019) at Rodman Hall last year, a visitor commented that, despite my works being on transparent film, they seemed to contain a kind of weight, almost like fabric. I was able to unintentionally fool a viewer into touching the work, thinking they were experiencing textile pieces, when in actuality it was a combination of the transparent photograph and it’s latent copy. This interested me a lot in terms of my investigations into perception, memory, and experience. The physicality of the work led a viewer to think they were looking at a different material. I decided to test the material properties of fabric in relation to light and to space. 

Billows, two breaths at dusk (2019) Archival pigment prints on 12.5mm silk charmeuse draped over hand shaped copper, hardware, maple, light. 34" x 52" each print, installation dimensions variable. Studio view.

OPP: Is this a new direction?

NH: I wouldn’t say that it’s a new direction in the sense that I’m abandoning my process working with light and transparent film. I see these explorations with silk as another dimension of what I’m already doing, folding space and time outside of the camera. The silk has different physical properties and absorbs light in a different way. When illuminated, the back becomes a diffused mirror image. Transparent film produces latent imagery. The silk drapes instead of folds, and you can see your body through it when draping it over your hand, for example. All of these materials and explorations are related. I was lucky to receive Ontario Arts Council Grants and A Canada Council for the Arts Research and Creation Grant, which allowed me to test new materials and experiment. I’ve made some of the largest transparent film pieces I’ve ever made, tested how images behave on silk, and worked with colour films and resins as both sculptural and image materials. Some of the large transparent pieces and works on silk are on view at Centre 3 for Artistic and Social Practice in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada from February 6 - March 5.

To Breathe Light 2/4 (2019) Archival pigment prints on backlight film mounted in double sided custom floor light box (plexiglass, poplar, LED lighting, hardware). 36" x 24" x 5"

OPP: Can you talk about abstraction versus legibility of the image?

NH: Over time my work has become more abstract. Photography has a history of being mistaken for truth. The processes and materials I am working with are true, and yet they produce something more abstract than what we would consider truth in experience. I’m really interested in the exploratory, transformative power of materials to translate everyday experiences. Memory is just as important as breathing in our human experience, and I’m interested in exploring how that manifests and transforms through time. We are all unconsciously shaped by the spaces we inhabit on a daily basis, and I know that my work is often influenced by the spaces where I spend the most time. Space is something psychological just as much as it is physical, and I want to explore both of these aspects of space in my work. 

Dappled (2019) Archival inkjet prints on backlight film draped over custom poplar and aluminum sculptures. Approximately 24" x 60" x 36" each.

OPP: I appreciate the materiality of your sculptures, especially since its rare that I see a physical photograph anymore. Has your work changed in relation to not just the emergence of digital cameras, but specifically in relation to the pervasiveness of smart phone cameras, selfies and Instagram?

NH: As an artist and educator I’m constantly grappling with the immaterial digital world we find ourselves in. I question why I make photo-based work in an age when we are so saturated and bombarded with images on a daily basis. Do I really want to add to that massive pool of images? What makes mine different? I rarely take selfies and use social media largely for circulating my art practice. For the past six or seven years, I’ve been teaching a university online digital imaging course to upwards of 250 students per term. It’s a real challenge teaching through a screen and constantly being available to students. I’m acutely aware of screens and my time with them. Truthfully I’m frustrated with them. It’s important for me to use my hands and make material work, and I’m interested in pushing my work further into the sculptural realm. 

It’s rare that we encounter a physical image anymore. I wonder how much of our memories are made up of actual experiences, or streams of images we consume in our daily lives. I want my work to be experiential and challenge the boundaries between the pictorial and physical worlds we live in. I find my more recent work makes use of both film and digital cameras. For a while I couldn’t afford a a good quality digital camera to make the images that I wanted. So I used medium format film. I still use film, but lately I’ve been using both media while layering within the camera, and I’m interested in combining them in a body of work. Both have their positives and limitations.

To see more of Natalie's work, please visit natalie-hunter.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 was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago). Stacia's solo exhibition The Thin Line Between One Thing and Another just opened on January 16, 2020 at Finlandia University.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Thomas Albrecht

Sand (2016) Performance still.

THOMAS ALBRECHT's performances employ physical endurance and metaphor to address existential inquiry and ritual.  His body, of course, is the primary material, but recurring props—rocks, rope, spotlights, a briefcase—shift their meaning from one performance to another. A rope might be a noose or a tool of measurementSimple actions of holding or dragging rocks, as well as breaking one rock with another, are metaphors for how humans respond to our own challenges. Thomas earned a BFA at Rhode Island School of Design, a Master of Arts in Religion at Yale and an MFA at University of Washington. He has performed and exhibited throughout the United States and internationally, most recently at Performance Is Alive at Satellite Art Show (NYC 2019), Garner Arts Center (Garnerville, NY 2019), ITINERANT Performance Art Festival (NYC 2018), and Woodstock Art Museum (Woodstock, NY 2018). His 2018 solo show unmoored at Joseloff Gallery at Hartford Art School (Hartford, CT) was a cycle of five performances. Thomas lives in Kingston, NY.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Between earning your BFA and MFA, you earned a Master of Arts in Religion at Yale. How does this degree influence your art practice?

Thomas Albrecht: I am interested in what individuals believe. Belief grounds what we give meaning to: what we value and what we don’t; what makes us get out of bed in the morning versus pulling the covers over our heads. Late writer David Foster Wallace asserted that, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” I agree with him. Much of our living is founded on what we give ourselves over to: how we, with whatever freedom we have in our lives, choose this over that. Where we draw lines and take stands. My time at Yale allowed me to pursue a line of inquiry that developed when I was very young and continues to the present day. I grew up a minister’s son in a large Midwestern church. I remain humbled by how human beings navigate life—individually and collectively—and how we sustain or shift belief when life does not go as planned. The amount of suffering and loss that accumulates during a lifetime must be countered by belief, which allows for remaking the world over and over again. And this often has nothing to do with organized religion. This process of world re/creation is absolutely necessary for anyone seriously involved with making. Giving meaning to images, objects, and ideas grounds the choices we make in forming a world we can believe in, work for, renew.

Like the Delayed Rays of a Star (2019) Performance still.

OPP: You’ve repeatedly worn the costume/uniform of a businessman. Is this a recurring persona?

TA: I like repetition in my work, whether it involves what is worn, used or actioned. The grey suit is a costume/uniform that is ubiquitous across cultures, symbolizing male power and success. It’s a nod to the “everyman.” This signifier is then routinely subverted by the actions I take in a given performance—like sullying the suit with material such as dirt or ash—or the situations I place myself in; e.g., walking into the sea or laying prostrate on a city sidewalk. 

Dogs Barking in Winter (2018). Performance still.

OPP: What about the costume, that I interpret as a monk’s robe, in Dogs Barking in Winter (2018) or Shivaree (2018)? 

TA: The clothing used for Dogs Barking in Winter and Shivaree is actually a simple, navy dress made of muslin by my textile-designer daughter, though I appreciate the read of it as a monk’s habit! Both performances were in response to reported events in my maternal grandmother’s young life, at the time of her marriage to my grandfather. “They made me wear a navy dress,” she shared in a low, hushed voice, at age 89. She had five daughters and told none of them of her experience of public shaming at the hands of her midwestern farming community. She told me, her grandson when I was 19. Being made to wear a navy dress at her wedding was her small town’s method of casting stones, extending an old narrative of shame: naked in the green garden; a scarlet letter; forbidden to wear white. In all of these stories, a young woman bears disgrace for the social “good”: naked, marked, humiliated. The desire to know, the desire to love, the desire to desire, all penned-in by guilt; recrimination for stepping beyond the line. Take this stone. Putting on the navy dress was, for me, taking up the stone of my grandmother’s lifelong shame—that she carried in secret—so that I could finally set it down. Though she passed in 2005, just shy of her 102nd birthday, I believe she was present for each performance. 

sea/shore (2019) Performance still.

OPP: How do you think about the boulders that are recurring props and tools in your work?

TA: Actual stones have weight; stones connote heaviness, heft, permanence, time. Real stone wears away, eventually becoming sand and dust. In many of my performances since 2013, I have used actual rocks, as well as “fake” stones made of unfired clay that have the same weight, look, and feel. I like this slippage between “real” and fictive in my work. 

My first performances with stones were collaborations with artist Rae Goodwin, and they drew inspiration from Mark Strand’s poem To Begin, where the struggle to initiate creative work is likened to “lifting the stones from one’s teeth.” Both Rae and I were navigating the end of significant personal relationships, and we recognized the very real challenge of being able to speak emotions that seemed impossible to voice. So we put stones in our mouths, which was discomfiting, difficult and strange. We held heavy stones over our heads to the point of physical exhaustion. Participating in these collaborations, I saw that stone, as metaphor—used in cultural narratives since time immemorial—could be used again and again to pose questions about the weight of loss and shame, and about perseverance, and it served to ground my work for years to come. 

One of the most iconic still images of my work captures me standing, waist-high in the ocean in my everyman suit, my head level to the horizon, and holding a large unfired clay stone on my shoulder. This singular picture holds great meaning for me, and about my work as a whole.  

Return (2015) Performance still.

OPP: On your website, you represent your performances in still images. I have no sense of the duration of these performances or the sounds. My impression is these performances generally last quite a while. Can you talk about the duration of your work?

TA: My performances are quite minimal, and often durational. Duration, for me, involves a test of body and mind, both as artist and for witnesses of my work. I do not practice my performances, so each one is a unique experience for me as maker, and for those observing. I like the improvisational demands this way of working sets up for me, challenging me to think through my choices while making, in real time; and to remain vigilantly attuned to what is taking place as my body and mind tire. This way of making is not so dissimilar to the way I move through the rest of my living. Life for me is an endurance test of mind, body and soul, none of which is separate from the other. Observation, patience and awareness are key.  

Catch-As-Catch-Can (2014) Performance still.

OPP: Do your performances include sound?

TA: While spoken language does not regularly enter into my performances, silence, or quiet, is used as a strategy to focus viewers’ attention on the action, gesture or movement taking place. I employ sound repetitively to disrupt expectations of a given space and as a reminder that time cycles: a shovel dragging through dirt along an old factory floor, hour upon hour; a clay stone is pounded repeatedly until it returns to dust, the echo reverberating in a freight elevator; a body jumping up and down while trying to catch a balloon tied to one’s wrist, the resulting sound of breathing, bodily fatigue and disappointment.

A Certain Distance (2018) Performance still.

OPP: Tell us about the series of performances you did for unmoored (2018) at the Joseloff Gallery at the Harford Art School.

TA: It was an incredible opportunity to produce the cycle of five performances that constituted unmoored. I remain extremely grateful to the director for granting me such incredible trust and support in the development of this personally significant body of work. I am not certain I will have another opportunity quite like the one I was afforded for unmoored. I originally was going to install still images of prior work, but after visiting the gallery and feeling very unexcited about representing live art via a collection of quiet pictures, I jettisoned the idea and proposed to do a series of performances connected by a conceptual thread. The director was incredibly supportive of the idea, agreeing to open the exhibition with an empty gallery and trusting me to develop the performance series with very little lead time.

unmoored (2018) Installation shot.

OPP: How did each performance build upon the last?

TA: The series began in a completely empty exhibition space, and each performance left a trace or remnant for gallery viewers to experience. In the first performance, I traced and retraced a projected horizon, so that when overhead projectors were turned off, a drawn line—marked and erased for hours, like a tide marking a shore—hovered on an otherwise blank wall. The next performance left a halo of ash where an image had been hung, contemplated, and removed; a dusting that covered a large section of the gallery floor. In both circumstances, on wall and floor, the remaindered trace could be viewed as a temporal drawing. The third performance  involved stillness, with me standing with a heavy clay stone, wedged into a corner of the gallery, trained under a bright spotlight of the kind used in theatre productions. The performance ended with my setting the stone down and turning the light back on viewers, before placing it back on the floor and unplugging it. The dress I wore for the performance was left to rest on the floor, in the same corner where I had stood, and the clay stone and spotlight remained as additional remnants. The fourth iteration involved dragging a wood palette covered with 40 clay stones through the whole of the open exhibition space. Unintended was the scratched passage of the palette across the gallery floor, a marked reminder of the absurd action of the performance. The final action involved removing each stone from the wood palette, and creating a bed of stones in front of the wall where the horizon line still hovered. I lay on the stone bed—beneath a frame of flickering light from an old projector—until I finally arose, shut off the lights of the gallery, turned off the projector, and exited the darkened space. 

In the Wilderness (2018) Performance still.

OPP: Was there an overall narrative that a viewer could only understand if they saw the entire series?

TA: unmoored was significant for me as the performances could be experienced as distinct actions, yet each related to others through a conceptual thread based on repeated attempts—often absurd and futile—to mark experience and locate time. The gallery opening empty, and then activated each week through distinct performances that left physical traces, was a rare opportunity to experience space being created while memory could be witnessed and tracked. One could visit the gallery at any moment of the exhibition and find something to experience that was distinct and yet connected. Even empty, the gallery felt charged with anticipation of what was to come. What emerged was one of the most meaningful projects of my life, particularly the ongoing questions that continue to resonate beyond the clearing of the gallery space.


To see more of Thomas' work, please visit www.thomasalbrecht.com and follow him @thomasalbrecht69.

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 was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago). Stacia's solo exhibition The Thin Line Between One Thing and Another just opened on January 16, 2020 at Finlandia University.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Seth Goodman

The Watersports Tape (2018) Gouache on Paper. 11" x 14"

SETH GOODMAN's figurative drawings and paintings are fictional vignettes created in response to reported news. His subjects range from America's ruling class—politicians, business men, federal judges, heads of state—to unknown individuals from the lower class, highlighting income and power disparities. His masterful rendering adds gravity to his satirical humor. Seth earned his BFA at University of North Carolina at Asheville and his MFA from Towson University in Maryland. He has exhibited across the U.S. and in Berlin, Germany, where he was an Artist-in-Residence at Takt Artist Residency (2012). In 2019, he opened two solo exhibitions: Behind the Capital Curtain at Lock Haven University (PA) and Certitudes and Tittle-Tattle at Howard County Community College (Baltimore). Seth is an Associate Professor of Art at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he lives. 

OtherPeoplesPixels: What’s the best language to describe your work: satire, parody, allegory? 

Seth Goodman: Depending on the specific piece, I think I’m comfortable with allegory or satire. But on a more personal level, my work is a result of me feeling an intense responsibility to be informed and involved with some of the most significant current happenings in our world. I want to insert my voice in the larger conversation. I’ve trained as a painter my entire adult life. Given my control and understanding of the medium, I choose to make paintings and drawings about these important topical events and influential people. I listen to the news and podcasts as much as I possibly can, sometimes for twelve or more hours on studio days. I am absolutely obsessed with everything happening in our world, especially events that intersect with politics and economic injustice.  

Barbara Bush at the Border (2019) Gouache on Paper. 11" x 14"

OPP: It doesn’t seem though that your work advocates for any partisan point of view, so they aren't politically dogmatic, which is a good thing.

SG: I have no real interest in making work that is simply a reflection of my political beliefs or leanings. I’d classify the narrative elements in my work as closer to a visual form of prose poetry that’s heavily embedded in the power of both scenario and the use of known celebrity figures as conceptual symbols. Mix in a creative penchant to use episodic structure that is both physically apparent with compartmentalized spaces and with episodic narrative structure, and that’s essentially my work. The omnipresent third person voice represented in the text exudes a distinctly banal tone. I hope this brevity adds to the satisfaction the viewer can gain when absorbing or deconstructing the work more as poetry with hidden meaning. 

The Florence Fiasco (2016) Graphite and Gouache on Paper. 11" x 14"

OPP: Walk us through the choices you make in a single piece.

SG: In the painting Florence Fiasco, Mitch McConnell and Jared Fogle meet by chance while vacationing in Italy. Right away, I’m asking the viewer to connect these two public figures as spokesmen who represent entities beyond themselves. Both have a dark cloud hiding behind them. Jared's darkness is no longer hidden given that he’s currently living in prison. But with Mitch, just throw a dart at his voting record and you’ll probably find something that has either hurt the interests of the American people, caused pain to some group of human beings abroad in the form of military action or sanctions, or enriched the wealthiest among us under the guise of supply-side economics. They’re dressed as the quintessential dorky tourists, complete with comfy sneaks, light backpacks, ball caps for sun protection and cargo pockets to fit the extra gear. They are unable to connect to this other land and culture. Using the Rick Steves’ guidebook, they decide to hitch up to engage in the most cliché of tourist activities in Florence. No offense to Rick Steves, but he also represents the “square” who attempts to, but largely fails at, engaging the outside world on an equal level. They’re the cursed Americans giving all of us a bad name. United States domestic and foreign policy represents every single American regardless of who we voted for. Rightfully so, the world sees us and judges us based on our policies and actions.

Young Scalia (2016) Gouache on Paper. 11" x 14"

OPP: I feel an uncomfortable sensation of pity for the people you represent. The speculation about their private moments humanizes them, evoking empathy, while simultaneously revealing their hypocrisy, evoking disdain. What are your thoughts on this response?

SG: I’m absolutely thrilled and fascinated to hear you say “an uncomfortable sensation of pity.” When representing public figures, I often think about how our thirst to worship celebrities contributes to the superhuman status of star power. There’s a whole lot about the ruling class that disgusts me, but I think there’s a lot of grey area in there. Even the Dick Cheneys or Vladimir Putins of the world are not pure evil. What events in their personal history led them to act the way they do now? Thinking about our elected representatives, is it really so obvious that lawmakers are beholden only to corporate interests? A left of center example could be Cory Booker, who voted in 2017 against allowing Americans to purchase cheaper pharmaceuticals from Canada, stepping predictably in line with his heavy Big Pharma ties in New Jersey and with his past campaign contributions. Does Booker really think that his constituents believe that Canadian drugs are less safe? How is that possible? One right of center example is Jeff Sessions. He was denied a federal judgeship in the 80s for being overtly racist only to be confirmed just a few short years ago as America’s top law enforcement officer. In May of 2017, Sessions announced families crossing our border illegally would be separated, partly in the hope of establishing a deterrent from crossing. He even attempted to use Christian doctrine as a defense of his actions. I think it’s pretty safe to say Jeff Sessions is worthy of our condemnation, but there has to be more to it than that. I’m sure he doesn’t go home from work every night only to burn ants with a magnifying glass or torture little puppies. I love imagining what makes these people tick and attempting to poetically toy with the hypocrisy that might escape a mainstream view. 

I also love that you mention the “speculation about their private moments." I think this sentiment plays nicely with the tension imbued in the work involving a truth/rumor dynamic. Some scenarios are very obviously invented, occasionally introduced like gossip but very clearly as fiction. With some of the other situations that I portray, I’m hoping the viewer might really believe that they are true events. Maybe it’s something obscure that actually occurred involving a particular public figure. This tension is exciting for me to contemplate, especially when a work is finished and installed. It becomes an interesting intersection with the fake/partisan news movement that’s so prevalent today.

Diane's Nightly Ritual (2019) Gouache on Paper. 14" x 11"

OPP: I’ve noticed the glaring absence of President Donald Trump. Why? Too easy?

SG: I have really tried to steer away from Trump-centered narratives for a few reasons. First, so many satirical works about Trump are already being broadcast on a variety of different platforms that it’s like trying to bake a gourmet cake and sell it at Sam’s Club. It’s too easy for my message to get drowned out or get dumbed-down. Next, it’s too easy in the sense that his despicable and foolish behavior is very public. If he were a nicer person, I would feel deeply embarrassed for him. Lastly, I have dozens or even hundreds of ideas for new works that I’m very excited to make that do not involve portraying Trump directly. I can largely avoid him without sacrificing anything. 

That said—because I absolutely could not resist—I have recently made two works that include Trump. The Episode of Rosanne that Never Aired portrays the Connor gang traveling by royal carriage in a foreign land. Along the way, they picked up a stray dog and a few disheveled orphan children. They eventually get to a great fortification, and the gate is manned by Trump. Will he let them pass? I thought this plot would have been a plausible future episode of Rosanne that also would’ve actually guest-starred Trump, if the show wasn’t cancelled. The other work depicting Trump needs to be properly photographed before posting to my website, but it’s about Trump’s Access Hollywood comments coming alive in a fictional version of his man cave. It also involves Ivanka and Trump’s need to “make great deals.”

Proletariat Parade Goer (2018) Oil and Gouache on Board. 20" x 18"

OPP: Tell me about the Proletariat works from 2018. In these paintings, unknown consumers, voters, protestors evoke zombies for me. Whose perspective is being represented here?

SG: This short series is mostly about the socioeconomic class convulsions in America. The protagonist certainly has zombie-like qualities, but he’s not a zombie. He originates from a 1980s American cult classic movie Robocop. There’s an infamous scene that shows the bad guy getting doused with toxic waste, then waddling around with his flesh melting off yelling “Help me! Help me!” Even if viewers don’t recognize the specific movie reference, I thought he would be a good form to represent the underclass as repulsive and damaged. 

The specific scenarios and accompanying text allow for a more nuanced exploration of class strata concerns. One work shows a shopper at Hobby Lobby uncontrollably salivating from sale prices, only to be considered freakish by the cashier. With this, I’m asking the viewer to recall the controversies about the hard-right, Christian-owned Hobby Lobby empire. One involved denying contraceptive options to employees and the other was about the illegal smuggling of countless, historically important, artifacts out of the Middle East into a personal collection. Within the painting, the packed store shelves may prompt connections to the object hoarding and the class separation of wealth while the salivation reference may speak more to the contraception angle with salivation being an uncontrollable biological action akin to sex drive. The reaction of disgust by the cashier is meant to speak to ideas of judgement. 

Another work in the series speaks more to the celebrity worship of the ruling or political class and how insignificant the commoners or proletariat-class can be considered. A crowd of sign-bearing supporters assembles, en masse, to see a glimpse of the passing presidential motorcade. My proletariat character pushes his way directly into the path of the motorcade procession. This is, in one respect, a nod to the demise of the Robocop character being smashed and subsequently liquefied by a fast moving car. It’s also meant to show the obscene lengths we will go to in order to view of the rich and famous. The motorcade protects the ruling class from outside threats, and in this instance, it also insulates them from our filthy and damaged bodies and our unbearable presence.  

Unsettled Proletariat (2018) Oil on Paper. 22" x 28"

OPP: Earlier works revolve around unrecognizable “common people” of America. I’m thinking of works like Coping with End Times (2014), Supporting the Troops Without a First Thought (American Edition) (2015) and Inside the Single Wide (2011). Are these based on actual individuals, or are these allegorical Americans? What is being critiqued in these earlier works?  

SG: I grew up in a low-income small town in Upstate New York that was located next to a very high-income town, Saratoga Springs. This shaped my perspective early on in life to be concerned with income and class disparities in America. Seeing the world through a lens based on class and wealth remains a noticeable component of my current work as well.

Economic inequality is arguably the most pressing issue of our day. My earlier work attempts to connect with these issues but from the bottom up. Much like Harmony Korine did with the movie, Gummo, I want to give a voice to America’s underclass but do it largely informed by my personal history. So, to answer your question more directly, some of the painted characters may reference myself, others might connect loosely to people that I’ve known in the past but have a likeness that is appropriated, while others are folks that I’ve actually come across or know intimately.

The Bet (2018) Gouache on Paper. 11" x 14"

OPP: Tell us about your most recent solo exhibition Behind the Capital Curtain, which opened in November 2019. What was the overall goal of this show?

SG: I’ve had an extremely productive period in the last three years or so. Behind the Capital Curtain was my second solo exhibition in 2019, and it contained a large group of the work that I made over that three-year period.  

More than anything, I’m hoping the viewer will become more interested in the movements of our political system and world events and the innate responsibility that we have to become an active part of it. I feel this is the most realistic “best case” to expect from the viewer. It’s highly doubtful that I will have the power to change a person’s political stance, especially considering the divisiveness of the times we live in.  There’s a ton of outstanding, relevant and original creative content out there that we can engage with and I need to feel that what I’m saying is worth the viewer’s time and effort. If I can spark an interest in people to think about some of these topics more deeply, then I’ve more than done my job.

To see more of Seth's work, please visit sethgoodman.net.

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 was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago). Stacia's solo exhibition The Thin Line Between One Thing and Another opened on January 16, 2020 at Finlandia University.


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Judith Brotman

Because the Object Was of an Amicable Nature (Unless and Until Backed Into a Corner) (left) and Because the Object Spoke Both Harshly and Adoringly of You (But Never in Your Presence or Above a Whisper) (right) (2019). Mixed media.

JUDITH BROTMAN's interdisciplinary practice revolves around text, material and process. All of these are employed in the act of inquiry into the complex nature of a human life. In awkwardly elegant installations and precarious sculptures, she cultivates an aura of uncertainty and a poignant combination of anxiety and confusion with touches of resilient optimism. Her text pieces, most recently created for the context of Instagram, and audio works that address the viewer in the second-person balance the fantastical with the mundane, encouraging the viewer to think more deeply about their own, often conflicting, motivationsJudith earned both her BFA and MFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work is included in the public collections of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), Illinois State Museum (Chicago) and the Joan Flasch Artists' Book Collection (Chicago). In 2019, Judith's work was included in A Creep that Snakes: A Tic of Words and Symbolsa two-person show with Dutes Miller and curated by Scott Hunter (Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Chicago) and Breach of Contractcurated by Paul Hopkins (Heaven Gallery, Chicago). In May 2020, her work will be included in a group show at Heaven Gallery, curated by Lauren Ike. Judith lives and works in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You gravitate towards recognizable objects one might buy at a hardware or drug store—bungee cords, wire, napkins, plastic tubing—as well as objects that look like they were once part of some functioning system. What draws you to these materials?

Judith Brotman: The work I have on my OPP website goes back about 15 years. Throughout this time, I have gravitated toward humble and/or useful materials. A very incomplete list includes such things as dead leavesbook pages, thread, wire, paper, napkins, tissues, and—as you mentioned—hardware store objects.    

As I am inordinately unhandy, I rarely know the actual functions of the hardware store objects when I purchase them. I simply gravitate to shapes, textures, colors that interest me and whose uses might be loosely implied. I believe there is a unique, visceral response to seeing something even vaguely familiar: objects that refer in some way to a lived life. Everyone recognizes a napkin and its function; I’m interested both in working with AND subverting the original function. 

I frequently combine like and unlike materials. In some of my sculpture pieces, I hope to convince the audience, even for a moment, that the transition from one material to the next is a natural one—especially when it is not! The possibility of a transformative experience is part of the content of my work, and I use material shifts/transformations as a metaphor for that.

Because Just East of Heaven is Somewhere Else (2019). Mixed media. Dimensions variable.

OPP: Have your material choices changed over the years?

JB: In more recent work (the past 3 to 5 years), my material choices have become increasingly specific. I’ve been working a lot with tissues—unused! The first two pieces that incorporated them were titled Kleenex (highly embellished) From My Mother's Funeral and Strange Object Purchased on My Last Day in Vienna and Kleenex (embellished) From My Therapist's Office. The tissues were embellished with sequins and beads and combined with other objects. Since then, I’ve been asking certain people, usually close friends, if they will give me tissues to be used in my work. I think of these tissues as carriers of the giver’s emotions; that aspect is very important to me. 

Embellishment is meant to decorate and add weight/meaning to what is considered to be a highly disposable object. On the other hand, I also consider it to be a rather absurd and compulsive gesture to heavily embellish something as fragile and disposable as a tissue; they are among my most labored pieces, although I am aware they won’t last very long. Often the tissues begin to shred even as I am working on them. Much of my work doesn’t survive more than one or two showings. I am very interested in the ephemeral and this, too, impacts my material choices.

Highly embellished Kleenex with just enough space left to absorb nine tears (2019).

OPP: I also notice a lot of wrapping, winding and twisting in wound strips of paperFrench knotstwisted wire and knotted thread. Why these actions over and over again? Do you see these actions as metaphors?

JB: I do see these actions as metaphors—even multiple metaphors. It’s important in my work to include these stitches, twists, etc., as evidence of the maker’s hand and the process of making. In past work—larger installations—the winding and twisting were often structural, used as a joining mechanism. Lately the repetitive marks have become increasingly decorative in the form of sequins, beads and stitches. I also use these repetitive gestures as a nod toward the passage of time.

Untitled (The Odyssey) (2016). All the pages of Homer's "The Odyssey"-stitched & altered. Dimensions variable.

OPP: In your statement, you speak of the “space of not knowing.” Your visual language “suggests the unfinished or incomplete, and might evoke the question, ‘What happens next?’”  How do viewers respond to “the resulting cliffhanger of uncertainty?”

JB: That’s a great question. I’m not sure that anyone, including me, loves uncertainty. Many of us try very hard to think and even construct ways to believe certainty exists. But as far as I know, it does not. I think one can develop a tolerance for not knowing or uncertainty, and I believe it makes for a richer, more complex life. 

My work has increasingly taken on a political stance. I’ve always considered my work a kind of meditation on who and what can be known, understood, undertaken and even accomplished in the context of a lifetime. In recent years, the distinction between the personal and political has blurred for me, and I see all of it as uncertain AND interrelated. 

Slow Time (2016). Mixed Media. Dimensions variable

OPP: I’m surprised to hear you use the word “political” in relation to your work, but I think I know what you mean. The inherent uncertainly of life has become more glaringly obvious in today’s political landscape. And, of course, the personal is political. Is self-reflection a political act?

JB: I'm not interested in telling people what to think as I don't believe that it serves much purpose in any real way. But I do feel that paying close attention to what/how one thinks has the capacity to impact all aspects of a lived life. . . personal & social/political. The fundamental question driving all my work is: How do you commit to the things that matter most (relationships, profession, social/political/ethical beliefs) in an uncertain world? I have more questions than answers, but a partial response is that ongoing self-reflection can be a way of better knowing ourselves and our very complicated and precarious motivations.  

The possibility, as opposed to the certainty, of transformation is also, as I mentioned, an important aspect of my work. Self-reflection, very careful listening to others, and an openness to uncertainty are pathways to transformation. 

I have been asked on occasion if I’m interested in resolving and/or concluding. I am not. My perspective is that as long as we’re breathing, we’re in flux. That is both the good and the bad news. It’s pretty great that we have the opportunity to revise and rethink over the course of an entire lifetime. But expecting our most tenaciously held beliefs will serve us well forever can be a dangerous game. 

Instagram post, 2019

OPP: You’ve worked with text for a long time in a variety of ways. For at least a year, if not more, I’ve been seeing your multiple-choice napkins in my Instagram feed, which is a refreshing pause in the stream of images. Can you talk about your choice to write in the second person?

JB: I write in the second person in most of my text-based work, including older audio pieces in which I narrate a series of mini-fictions about what will happen to “you.” I write this way as means of seeming to speak directly to each individual person in the audience.  

The multiple-choice format on the napkins implies that a response is called for with each post. I do think about the multiplicity of 'you's (friends, colleagues, students, strangers) as I write for Instagram, even though I have no idea who will be reading any particular post. I am aware of the fact that some of my close friends will read this work very differently than a total stranger might because the line is blurred between my life and a fictional persona I’ve created. 

Life In Progress (2019). Napkin, sequins

OPP: Has Instagram changed the way you think about text?

JB: Instagram has changed a lot of my thinking— period!  No one would ever recognize this from my many (many many) posts, but I have been ambivalent about it from the start. I am more interested in work that is processed slowly over time. And I have similar feelings about life; understanding is something that takes time and evolves slowly over the course of a lifetime, and only with a commitment to self-reflection. Instagram is, of course, largely the opposite: instantaneous, quickly digested and then forgotten. New and different tends to rule on social media.  

Initially, like many artists, I was posting images of my work and life. But about two years ago, I began posting the napkins. Many of the questions and answers are darkly funny and quite a few are also on the personal side. I truly had no expectations about whether or not people would respond. In fact, I most likely would have predicted they would not, perhaps because in similar circumstance, I probably would not respond. (The secret is out!) I have been amazed and actually quite moved at the number of people who have responded and consistently respond. Posting on Instagram continues to feel very experimental to me because I’m typically unable to predict what people will respond to most. I feel as if Instagram has made me braver and has encouraged me to dig deeper within THIS body of work, as the posts that are the most raw seem to get the best response. 

Instagram post, 2019

OPP: Do you create work just for Instagram?

JB: My current Instagram work (short texts written on my hands) is only meant for Instagram; I have no interest in showing it elsewhere. This is actually the first time I’ve felt that a body of work is ONLY meant for that format. Sometimes I try to push my own boundaries and post something I anticipate will not get a positive response.  My success rate of predicting is very low. 

When I talk about looking for responses to my text posts on Instagram, I’m not referring to a wish to be “liked.”  (Which, of course, we all do to some extent!)  But these posts, as opposed to most other work I do, have a performative or call/response aspect to them, and I’m very interested in seeing how far and where this interaction can go!   

My Instagram posts are, in many ways, a critique of social media even while being a part of it. I believe social media does indeed serve a useful function. But I am critical of how it overshadows real life interactions. I enjoy much that I see on Instagram and Facebook. I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate my friends’ good news and successes and to respond when something sad is posted. But I also grow weary of the posts that serve no function other than over-the-top narcissism, proclaiming a charmed existence that none of us actually inhabit. I question the “social” function of these posts. Admittedly, social media is addictive, and I spend much more time on it than I ever dreamed I would.  

Instagram feed, 2019.

OPP: I keep trying to come up with a phrase to describe the nature of the text: playful musing, philosophical inquiry, mindful observation, stream of consciousness, mindless chatter brought about by boredom.

JB: Terrific list! The only one that doesn’t personally resonate is mindless chatter brought about by boredom; I’m almost never bored. I do mean for my writing to have a humorous component, but I’m also extremely serious about the work. In that sense, philosophical inquiry is the closest to what I consider the heart of the work.  

The humor and play are ways to catch your interest. I often give away the napkins as gifts at exhibitions. I feel that if I’m really asking someone to consider and reconsider their thinking, then perhaps there should be something gifted to them in exchange. I’m not sure that any one or two napkins or texts give a strong sense of what the inquiry is or where it’s headed. That’s why the Instagram format is particularly useful for this body of work. Over time the dark humor becomes more pointed and so does the thrust toward self-scrutiny. It also becomes clearer over time and many napkins that no singular answer is ever sufficient. We are much too complex for that. 

Instagram post, 2019

OPP: In each of these, I imagine you simply jotting down your thoughts. Do you carefully craft the texts in your work or do you think them and record?  

JB: The extent of crafting depends upon which of my text-based works we’re discussing. I spend the longest time crafting and revising my audio pieces. In works like As the Story Opens and The 93 Days of Summer, I narrate how life will unfold for “you.” These are focused on uncertainty with mundane, spectacular and unsettling events transpiring over time. All the while, you are encouraged to pay careful attention despite the chaos and randomness. I have spent up to a year or more on these pieces, longer than almost any sculpture installation I’ve created. Certainly, the napkins and other Instagram pieces do not involve anywhere near this kind of revision. But I do spend more time with them than one might assume. They are meant to appear spontaneous and automatic, as if I couldn’t get my thoughts out quickly enough.  

I do, in fact, write a lot. Often my morning coffee is accompanied by jotting down whatever I’m thinking about. . . unedited. Some of this writing is kept and revised but much of it is thrown away at the end of the day. The reality is that there’s an enormous difference between my stream-of-consciousness writing and anything that’s shown or posted. Much more so than in my 3D work, I think about the reader quite a bit as I write.  

I see text having various and slightly different roles in each of my current bodies of work. Titles have become increasingly important to me, so much so that I consider them as important as the images/objects. Recent installation titles such as The Ghosts From Your Past Will Be Late For Dinner (but may be on time for other meals and activities) and Because Certainty (having no tongue) Couldn't (exactly) Say clearly give an enormous amount of direction for understanding the work. 

My Instagram post today was three words written on a napkin in cursive with a Sharpie: "Can you talk.” Yes, people seemed to like it. The question is: am I making inroads into real communication or going straight down the slippery slope I’m so adamantly against?  To be continued. . .

To see more of Judith's work, please visit www.judithbrotman.com and her Instagram @judithbrotman.

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 was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago). Stacia's solo exhibition The Thin Line Between One Thing and Another opens on January 16, 2020.

Another one bites the dust—

In other words, Happy New Year!!! January 1st is an opportunity to reflect on the past year and make plans for the near future. (Resolution #1: to update my OPP website regularly!) Before delving into 2020, I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect on my favorite OPP interviews of the past year. These five artists stood out to me, both for their excellent work and their clear articulation of their content. Please take some time to read their interviews. 

SARAH K. WILLIAMS' background is in painting and sculpture, but "perfectly still objects make [her] restless." She creates scores for sculptural performances, both performing herself and directing others. These hard-to-classify works linger in between theater, performance art and sculpture. (Read the interview)

Mid-Sized Creatures: a 3-act sculptural performance for 3 performers and cello. 2017. 
Performers: Annelyse Gelman, Thalia Beaty, Ashley Williams, and Sarah Williams. Cello: Clare Monfredo. Text: Ashley Williams 

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CHRISTOPHER LIN combines organic materials—plants, soil, teeth, hair—with synthetic and technological materials like polystyrene, electrical cords and LED lights. His sculptures and installations are thoughtful arrangements of found objects that make the familiar just unfamiliar enough to elicit contemplation. . . of climate change, of the impermanence of the body and self, and of the contemporary human condition. (Read the interview)

Excoriate, 2015. Glue, skin, hair, and gut sutures. 1 x 48 x 36 inches.

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Influenced by science fiction, history and hip-hop, DONTÉ K. HAYES works in the spirit of Afrofuturism. His hand-built ceramics allude to the black body through texture and color, while his titles refer to both the imagined possibilities and the historical truth of the African Diaspora. (Read the interview)

Dalek, 2018. Ceramic. 16" x 13" x 13"

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Performance, persona and endurance are driving forces in the videos and photography of ANNETTE ISHAM. With a penchant for the absurd, she explores a range of subjects, from "middle school sociology" to competitiveness to a near mystical relationship between various female protagonists and their surrounding landscapes. (Read the interview)

Woman and Landscape Still 2, 2014. Video still.

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JOSÉ SANTIAGO PÉREZ combines coiling, one of the oldest human technologies, with the brand-spanking-newness of plastics, a material that will likely outlast human life on the planet. He thinks metaphorically about the relationship between the passive core and active element, while his color palate of pastels and neons evokes the "remembered colorscape of L.A. in the 80s and 90s." (Read the interview)

Aytú, 2019. wall hanging

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Zachary

Cover Version, Frederick Church's "Above The Clouds", 2019. CMYK ink markers on paper. 15 x 22 inches.

For MICHAEL ZACHARY, drawing is analogous to the JPEG, a now-dominant mode of image compression and consumption. His meticulously rendered landscapes are composed of interconnecting CMYK lines that refer to etching, engraving and commercial printing. By visually revealing the mechanics of his drawing process, he points to the "false dichotomy between the way we romanticize nature and intellectualize technology." After all, vision itself is a lossy process. Michael received his MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and is a recipient of support from The Berkshire-Taconic Foundation’s Artist Resource Trust, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, Boston University’s Blanche Coleman Trust and the Surdna Foundation. His most recent solo exhibition was Mistranslations of Nature and Mistranslations of Mistranslations of Nature (2019) at The Magenta Suite (Exeter, NH). His work is available for purchase through Room 68  (Provincetown, MA), and his self-published catalog will be available on his website in December 2019. He has been an ongoing contributor to Big Red & Shiny: Boston’s Online Art Journal since 2011. Michael lives and works in Boston.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us about your artistic background. Has drawing always been your chosen medium?

Michael Zachary: Like a lot of artists, I started out painting. But I just didn’t like the way most people look at paintings. I like to go to museums and watch other people watching works of art. You can actually learn quite a lot from watching how they see. I started to get the feeling that lots of people don’t even really look at paintings at all. It’s like they just think “OK, this is a painting and I know how I am supposed to react to it so I’ll go through the approved motions” and the experience of actively looking and discovering things in the work just kind of stops before it even gets going. There is an authority to painting they just can’t get past. So, part of my motivation wasn’t to start making drawings per se but to make some hybrid things that existed between the established categories and short-circuited people’s attempts to define them. I was hoping that when people saw my pictures, they would have to ask themselves “What is it? Is it tactile or digital? A drawing or painting? Handmade or mechanical?” and that the work would elude all of these easy definitions and force them to do a bit of thinking and a bit of looking and come to their own conclusions. That was my initial impulse. It was only later that I started to realize how well those instincts mapped onto some of the other seemingly unrelated questions I had been thinking about.

Waves Study, 2019. CMYK ink markers on paper. 15 x 22 inches.

OPP: What kind of questions? I’ve heard you refer to drawing as “an emerging and experimental technology”…

MZ: I think a lot about how drawing relates to our dominant mode of image creation and consumption, which is the JPEG. And I think most of us definitely haven’t thought deeply enough about how digital tools change the way we see. We should be thinking about levels of compression and resolution because levels of compression and resolution create a subtle but pervasive hierarchy of information. They separate what we see into the qualities the jpeg algorithms can record and those they can’t. But the problem is that all that happens effortlessly and invisibly at the level of the code, so we just sort of accept the fact that the jpegs on our screens are reasonable facsimiles of reality. But they aren’t! And that is where the parallels between drawing and coding become really interesting to me.

The problem with code is how static it is. The algorithms are always the same; all jpegs contain the same kind of information. The surface is always the same and the structure is always hidden so they just feel interchangeable and disposable to me. And drawing feels like it does exactly the opposite thing. The great thing about drawing is that it can be algorithmic like code, but you can also change the rules whenever we want, so you can pick and choose what information is most important at any given point in the drawing. And that makes drawing a more flexible and adaptive technology than the jpeg. It’s slower, but it is always adapting itself to the moment and increases our agency rather than limiting it.

Detail

OPP: Limit is a good word. Can you talk about the self-imposed limitations of your practice and how they serve your conceptual interests?

MZ: Honesty and transparency are really important to me. I’ve never liked work that is too arcane or hermeneutic because they seem like huckster’s tricks that build up myths around artists, making us seem more mysterious and powerful than we really are. If you view drawing as rule-based and algorithmic—which I do—then why keep the rules a secret? That is an unfair way to play a game and disrespectful to your play partners in the audience. No fun for them at all. So, I set as one of my basic rules that I would limit my mark making to only the most basic and affectless marks. Nothing up my sleeve. I want any poetry and excitement I manage to put in my drawings to come from someone being able to follow my decisions and my thought process as directly and effortlessly as possible. Anyone should be able to do what I do. No special tricks required. 

And of course, I also limit my level of resolution in these drawings as well. I could draw with a much smaller aperture between the lines and make drawings that would be much higher in “resolution.” But I don’t want to give you everything. Not because I enjoy playing coy, but because seeing by eye is a “lossy” process just like the jpeg algorithm is. And I’d rather be honest about that. I want to record the signal where I can record it in a phenomenologically accurate way, but I also want you to know where the gaps are. I don’t want to fill them up with noise to cover my tracks.

Tangle 1, 2018. CMYK ink markers on paper. 20 x 17 inches.

OPP: What are the sources for your landscape drawings?

MZ: They all start with direct observation of real places. From there, it’s a bit of a process of deconstruction and distillation. I take a lot of source photos and then I use every trick in the book to play around with one simple idea: How much can I take away without changing the fundamental experience of this place? What information should be conserved through the act of drawing and what should be eliminated? The really interesting thing is that these questions don’t really change if we shift our frame of reference from our optic nerve and visual cortex to digital algorithms or to a drawing. Biological and technological systems seem to follow the same basic rules to answer the same basic question: What part of this is the signal and what part is noise? 

Cover Version, Martin Johnson Heade's "Orchids and Hummingbird", 2019. CMYK ink markers on paper. 14.5 x 23 inches.

OPP: That logic could be applied to any place, or even an object. But you very intentionally choose landscapes as your imagery. Why?

MZ: Landscape is the perfect vehicle because we have this false dichotomy between the way we romanticize nature and intellectualize technology. We think of nature and of seeing by eye as objectively “real” rather than socially and biologically constructed, and we think of technology as somehow fake. It just doesn’t hold up to real scrutiny. As soon as you start superimposing digital ideas over drawing ideas over the way biology works and all those distinctions between artificial and natural, mechanical and organic start to collapse. When that happens,  then we can start to ask the right questions and see where they lead. In my mind, those are the questions about resolution and projection, about what we aren’t seeing and what we are actually constructing in our heads and then projecting onto the landscape.

Horizon Line, Glasgow, 2017. CMYK ink markers, conte crayons, and graphite on paper. 18.5 x 16.5 inches.

OPP: While looking at your work, I’m thinking about the relationship between pointillism—and the Impressionists as precursor to your work—and pixelation. The CMYK pens and pencils clearly reference to both digital color printing and screenprinting. Why lines instead of dots?

MZ: As I said, I don’t see much distinction between digital algorithms and pointillism or the history of etching and engraving that these drawings also echo. To me they are all different technological answers to the basic questions about how we see. There is a great story John Cage tells where he talks about a teacher who kept demanding he find additional new solutions to a particularly challenging problem he had already solved. Finally, he arrived at a point when he had to admit there were no more solutions, to which his teacher replied, “What is the principle behind all of the solutions?” which is of course the most important question to ask. I hope by combining all these solutions at once in my drawings that I can ask a similar question.

As to the lines vs. dots issue, lines do something very important to me that dots don’t do: they thwart edge detection almost like camouflage. Using lines at the scale that I do, every mark is interwoven and completely contingent on every other mark. You can’t really isolate a single line or group of lines in the same way you can a dot or a group of dots, and that has important implications for how you navigate one of these drawings. I like the idea that at a basic level these drawings are all one interconnected field of information and that any borders or divisions you see are a result of what you bring to the drawing and not something I’m imposing on it. There is something about keeping things open and understanding that everything is part of everything else that cuts right to the heart of what I think seeing is. The parts are only ever understood in relation to the whole, never in isolation! I think that the imposition of borders and categories onto the landscape is a pretty powerful authority to have, and I don’t want it. I want you to have it and I want it to happen in your head, for you to have to construct those aspects of the experience for yourself. I really don’t believe in the idea of the artist as an authority, our exchange feels way better to me when the viewer is a co-equal partner and we both bring something to the image.

 Installing Sky Field, 2018. CMYK colored pencils and graphite on wall. 4 x 5 feet.

OPP: How is creating the wall drawings a different experience than making the drawings?

MZ: First of all, they are site contingent. They make me think very strategically about focal depths and levels of resolution, and how those things can change the way people move through a given space. And second, they are usually a collaboration with whatever community stakeholders invite me into their space. The haptic experience of drawing the lines over and over evokes thought processes that make them consider a lot of the questions we’ve been talking about in a very personal and felt way. After they draw with me, many people really understand these questions more viscerally than when they just look at the drawings.

I really love sharing that experience with people and seeing how it changes their perceptions. So, in many ways the wall drawings are the full realization of some of the ideas I’ve been working through in the drawings for years because of how they become heightened when they are shared. I hope to be doing many more of these collaborations in the future!

To see more of Michael's work, please visit drawsoftly.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 was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago).

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Sonya Blesofsky

Acanthus Lintel: Ridgewood, 2019. Scraped paint.

SONYA BLESOFSKY's ephemeral installations and sculptures deal with decay, development and gentrification. She uses these issues as metaphors for loss, transition and memory. Her works depend—physically and historically—on their sites. Some consist of recreated elements of the built environment—both ornamental and functional—out of butcher paper, velum, cardboard and aluminum foil, while others are cuts directly into the gallery walls that reveal the hidden history of the building. Sonya earned her BFA in Community Studies/Studio Art at University of California Santa Cruz and her MFA in Painting at San Francisco Art Institute. Her solo projects are numerous, including shows in San Francisco, New York, Miami, and Knoxville. Most recently she created Window Study: St. Göran’s Gymnasium, Arkitekturens Grannar in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2019, she is a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship Recipient in Architecture/Environmental Structures/Design. Sonya lives and works in Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You got your MFA in Painting in 2005, but you now work exclusively in sculpture and site-specific installation. What were your paintings like?

Sonya Blesofsky: My paintings dealt with some of the same anxieties and fears that my current installations address, and they represented the same issues of fragility and loss, only the power dynamic in the work was the opposite of the kinds of pieces I make now. The paintings were always received as having been made by a man. They were very large images of almost monstrous semi trucks painted on shiny metal.  I think they had qualities viewers equated with masculinity: strength, power, overt forcefulness, monstrousness that both attracted and repelled. (As an aside, I don’t like to characterize “masculinity,” but am conjecturing about what led people to assume the work was made by a man.)

Study for Gair Boiler, 2009. Butcher paper.

OPP: What led you to shift into 3D work?

SB: A pivotal piece that catalyzed the transition from 2D to 3D work was a small sculpture of a semi truck made of aluminum foil. Instead of asserting fear and power, this small piece turned the power dynamic on its head. It showed the viewer that they would need to exercise restraint to refrain from crushing the piece—which would have been very easy to do. Next up, I made a freeway overpass in cardboard, and that began my move into working with fragile materials. I created sculptural work in paper for the next ten years. Working in a 3D mode was a way to confront issues of power, fragility and my anxiety about everything in life being temporary in a more real and tangible way.

Gate and Razorwire, 2009. Vellum.

OPP:  You’ve mentioned fragility and impermanence. Can you talk specifically about how the materials you choose convey these concerns in works like Detour Ahead (2012), Study for TriBeCa Fire Escape (2007) and your 2011 show Tenement at Mixed Greens?

SB: I have always been concerned with loss—personal losses, community loss, and even the change and disappearance of inanimate things. I moved to NYC in 2005, which was the year the entire Brooklyn waterfront was rezoned, paving the way for over a decade of intensive change in the city. Working with paper, which is ubiquitous, temporary, and fragile, was a way to create a metaphor with my materials and speak to the fact that everything around us in the city is changing, will continue to change, and loss is an inherent part of living life.

I have a particular love for paper, and moreover, I’m happiest when making materials do what they’re not supposed to. Working with paper, foil and tape in a sculptural way was satisfying not only to my material sensibilities, but to my desire for a challenge, as it was always a great feat to get tape or paper to “stand” and form in three dimensions. There was always a lot of trial and error and learning as I went. On top of serving to push the metaphor, I am haunted by images of destruction—images of September 11th, for example—where metal structural columns are twisted and bent and look like they were made of aluminum foil.  

Façade, 2011. Installation view.

OPP: Can you talk about the visibility of support structures for freestanding objects in installations like Study in Proportions (2016), Afterimage (2017) and Sneaking into the Monument Lot from the Building on the Right (2019)?

SB: I am interested in underbuilt structures and makeshift architecture. I am not an engineer, nor architect, and the work is often about my vision for a structure to hold itself up with very little knowledge or planning on how to do so.  I tend to have a basic idea of how a structure will hold, but building structures on site is filled with unknown issues, and I end up creating a set of problems for myself that I have to be incredibly creative to get myself out of. So: ultimately I do know a bit about makeshift building.

I want to bring transparency to the fact that my structures are built on-site and with little planning, so I usually leave the process of making the work visible. As for holding up sculptural pieces with structures: in my latest work, I take a found architectural element and imagine where or how it might have been located in a domestic or utilitarian space. I look at clues in the found/scavenged elements and use those clues to tell me how the item might have been placed or used. For example, I look at notches and joinery in a structural beam to imagine how it might attach to a column, or how it might get angled in relation to other elements in a structure. 

Sneaking into the Monument Lot from the Building on the Right, 2019. Installation view.

OPP: In many recent installations, you cut into the walls of gallery spaces to reveal the bones of the buildings. Can you talk about the logistics of this kind of work?

SB: Cutting into walls is one of my most favorite parts of making the work. There is always something unknown, (will these studs be wood or metal?  Is there insulation back there?  Is there stucco over the brick? Where is the former window aperture behind here?) and often a small element of surprise. (I once based a good portion of an installation on a drawing—probably made by the contractor—I found behind a wall, along with a snap chalk line leveling the space.) I have learned that the craft of cutting is something important to me, and I take pains to make sure each cut doesn’t look like a crude cut made by an electrician to get to the conduit.  I carefully make cuts with a utility knife so that the cut is made with precision and care.  A hand saw will do almost the same precise cut, but the cleanest is with a utility knife, which takes time, strength and stamina.

Study for Bushwick Renewal: Voids, 2016. Existing studs and sheetrock, material removed.

OPP: Is it difficult to get exhibition spaces to allow you to make these modifications to their spaces?

SB: Every art space and gallery is different. I have been invited specifically to cut into a gallery’s walls, however, typically, it makes most art spaces, institutions and dealers a little uncomfortable when I start talking about cutting into their walls. Typically, I get asked to participate in an exhibition, and the organization/gallery asks for a proposal. I send them a proposal, and then I meet with them. Most galleries end up getting right on-board with my idea. With the others, I look them right in the eye and say, “I know this idea makes you uncomfortable, but I am going to ask that you consider my proposal very seriously.” I have become a fairly good plasterer, so I am capable of putting the walls back to their prior state.

Window Study: East 3rd Street Reveal I and II, 2017.

OPP: Why do you think it makes them so uncomfortable?

SB: My work has always involved acts of destruction in the process of creation, but walls are much more touchy for people. Walls are thought of as permanent—they’re actually not—and people are precious about their spaces.  Which I totally understand. My work is about asking the viewer/participant to confront their sense of preciousness, their attachment to things, whether those things be the walls of the space, or my artwork, which will eventually be destroyed when the exhibition comes down.  

Arson Study: Johnson Landmark Building, 2014 . Ebonized and burnt wood, powdered charcoal.

OPP: Architectural decay and failure serves both representational and metaphorical functions in your work. How so?

SB: I am interested in decay and failure related to architecture in seen and unseen ways. The sudden collapse of a building or a decaying historic structure are as important in my work as neighborhood rezoning and gentrification. These processes are brought on by myriad seemingly invisible forces that enable an historic building or ailing bridge to reach that state of disrepair in the first place. The causes are associated with our country’s hyper capitalist priorities. So, I am interested in historic preservation, but also in connecting the forces that drive urban development with the current social and economic issues that are their outcome.

I use issues of preservation, urban change, and destruction of historic structures as metaphors to discuss change and loss that are more personal to me. I have forever been fighting against a certain predisposition for sentimentality, and my experiences of transition and loss are some of the most profound I have gone through.  I use things like the loss of a structure as a metaphor to speak to the ways we regard the old and sick, as well as a way to speak to my own resistance to change.

To see more of Sonya's work, please visit sonyablesofsky.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 was recently included in the three-person show Manifestations at One After 909 (Chicago).