OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Caroline Carlsmith

Pyritization II (In Praise of Limestone)
Poem, pyrite (FeS2)

CAROLINE CARLSMITH's interdisciplinary work is a rhizome of meaning, material and language. The impenetrable walls and poetic byproducts of translation are subjects in works that range from vinyl lettering on walls, poems written in minerals and prints of word clouds made from digitally generated lorem ipsum (a meaningless filler text used by typesetters since the 1500s). In 2009, Caroline completed a double degree in Studio Art (BFA) and Visual and Critical Studies (BA) from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and went on to earn an MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University in 2014. She has attended residencies at SÍM Residency (Reykjavic, Iceland), ACRE (Stuben, Wisconsin) and Vermont Studio Center (Johnson, Vermont). Recent exhibitions include to be looked at and read at BKBX Gallery in Brooklyn, Archipelago (2014) at the Block Museum in Evanston, Illinois and Reading Room at Julius Caesar in Chicago. Caroline lives and works in Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you talk about text as image and image as text in your work? I'm also curious if you experience textual thinking as different than or similar to visual thinking. 

Caroline Carlsmith: Though there may well be a difference for some people between textual and visual thinking, I am not sure whether I experience it. In some ways all of my works are written, but sometimes literal writing is visible in the finished product and sometimes it isn’t. My artworks are most often the result of a constellation of ideas that are associated as I might want to associate them in a poem. If I want the impact to be simultaneous or sensory, then I make them objects.

While there may not be, for me, a difference between visual and textual creating, there is certainly a difference between the experience of the reader of a text and the viewer of a non-text-based work of art. My desire to invoke one kind of experience or another dictates whether the final product is text or text+. I tend to use images and words similarly, trying to play with their multiple meanings, placing them in congress with each other to facilitate controlled collisions.

Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet
45 inkjet prints on paper
Prints are 8.5" x 11" each
Installed at Northwestern University, October, 2012

OPP: Whether you are rendering poetry as small nuggets of pyrite as in Pyritization II (In Praise of Limestone) (2014) or Walt Whitman's Calamus as word clouds in Nobody Loves Pain Itself For Itself (2012), translation is both a strategy and a subject in your work. How do you think about issues of legibility, believability and accuracy in relation to translation?

CC: I believe there is no such thing as accuracy in translation. Every translation—be it from language to language, image to text, material to material, body to fossil, artist to avatar—presents both loss and gain. It is this transformation, or transubstantiation, that allows an idea, a thought or a figure to be carried beyond the boundaries of the original in time and space. But inevitably what is translated is not the thing itself. The “true” original is never accessible. It is what we touch when we reach for what lies beyond it. It is the thin shell of space between skin and skin when we believe we are in contact with each other. This is the space I am seeking to make visible.

I Am Now With You
Die-cut vinyl lettering

OPP: You've done numerous projects that take Walt Whitman's work as a subject or a jumping-off point. Why Walt Whitman, as opposed to any other writer? What does he mean to you as a human, as an artist? What does he mean to your work?

CC: Walt Whitman is a key figure to me in many ways. Most important is a move he makes throughout his work, in which he asks to be understood as present with the reader after his death, without his body, through the text. Whitman was an artist who wrote “himself” into his poetry, creating a fictional persona that overlapped with but did not replicate the author. When the poem claims “I am now with you,” the reader is faced with an incantation, a performative utterance, which enacts its own truth through its declaration. This form of immortality, the conjuration of one’s figure through the medium of text, which is not dependent on the living body and moves through time differently, was the one Whitman proclaimed for himself when he made statements like,

                                                   Remember my words - I may again return, 
                                                   I love you - I depart from materials;
                                                   I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

For him, to escape the body and the material world was to live on, but, perversely, that living can only be enacted within a new body. And what is conjured is not a man, but something both larger and smaller: a figure.

Importantly, for Whitman this strategy is dependent on love and enacted by the reader’s succumbing to desire for his “presence.” It’s a form of seduction that results, for Whitman, in alternating forms of procreation and resurrection, or, better yet, new poems, or new works of art, that carry forward that figure and allow it to grow and change—in other words, to live.

Wax cylinder record, marble dust (CaCO3)
2 1/2" diameter x 4"

OPP: Could you talk about the significance of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) in its many forms?

CC: I initially became interested in calcium carbonate in its crystal form of optical calcite, which is a birefringent material that splits a ray of light into two beams. I was fascinated to encounter a naturally occurring material that had the capacity to split an image or a word viewed through it in two. It produces a doubling effect in which the “real” and “virtual” are separated but indistinguishable.

As I began to research further, however, I found multiple ways in which calcium carbonate shaped the history of the visual itself. For example, according to the fossil record, trilobites living in the prehistoric oceans saturated with calcium carbonate developed the first eyes, which were compound lenses of calcite. Later, when the oceans acidified, the bodies of the animals living in that environment and deposits from that water became chalk and limestone, or metamorphosed into marble. In forms like these, as well as gesso and lime plaster, calcium carbonate has been an integral part of human art-making as far back as we can trace it. The study of calcite also gave rise, in the 17th century, to the understanding of both the polarization of light and the polymorphism of crystals. Calcite remains the purest polarizing material in use in optical instruments today. Even now, it is still present at the expanding boundary of the visible. It is ultimately that polymorphism that attracts me to calcite. It is part of why I use chemical formulas to indicate motifs and produce associations between seemingly disparate materials in my work. I like that a material can be so many different things and somehow still be the same, remain connected or cohesive.

However, like most materials, CaCO3 is most dynamic when set against something with which it is in tension. When working on Phaedra/Phaedrus/Phèdre, for example, I was using calcium carbonate in the forms of marble powder, chalk, pearl and calcite crystal. That installation also made use of multiple meanings of the word basic, which is a characteristic of the alkaline calcium carbonate, but also a way to think about language, about the foundations of education and thought and about foundations themselves.

Installation view of Phaedra/Phaedrus/Phèdre
foreground: Phèdre, left: Basic Phaedrus, right: Citation Pearl: General Index, background: Solution

OPP: What about your use of blackboards as substrates in Phaedra/Phaedrus/Phèdre (2013)?

CC: Blackboards, in that context, were not only the typical substrate for chalk marks, but also a pedagogical tool, as well as associated with the work of Cy Twombly, whose triptych Phaedrus was recreated in chalk and marble dust on the reverse of the three blackboards in the installation. (The original paintings had been famously kissed by the performance artist Rindy Sam, who claimed she’d been so overwhelmed with love for the work that she had to physically consummate it.) Blackboards, along with champagne and the lipstick Sam had worn to kiss the Twombly, interacted with calcium carbonate as substrates, solvents, and additives. By paring down the materials involved in an installation to just a few elements, I hoped the complex relationships between them would have a greater impact.

II (Inside of a Needle Inside of an Egg Inside of a Duck Inside of a Rabbit Inside of a Chest Buried Under an Oak Tree on an Island)
Carbon ink drawing (C) on paper

OPP: What are you working on right now?

CC: I’m working on a new series of drawings right now based on a Rose of Jericho, which is a resurrection plant native to the desert of Mexico and the southwestern USA. When it’s dry it looks like a little tumbleweed and quite dead, but when you expose it to water it uncurls and grows green and is suddenly alive. The ancient city of Jericho is associated in illuminated manuscripts with a certain type of labyrinth which has seven cycles, related to its apocryphal seven walls. In these drawings, I use the Rose of Jericho, as it opens and closes, to trace paths that lead out of seven-cycled labyrinths. I'm also working on a written piece—or perhaps seven written pieces—that I hope will accompany the drawings when the series is finished.

To see more of Caroline's work, please visit carolinecarlsmith.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, opens today at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and runs through December 19, 2015.