The stark, monochrome lines of MARCELYN BENNETT CARPENTER’s interactive, elastic installations are visually reminiscent of Minimalist sculpture. But these formal qualities belie the material qualities of flexibility and resilience. Her work entices viewers to become embodied participants, placing the sense of touch on par with the culturally-privileged sense of sight. Even her recent hand-woven drawings destabilize our habitual reliance on the visual by interrupting the image—a conceptual representation—with the tangible line of the warp. After earning a BA in Philosophy (Wheaton College, 1994) and a BFA in Drawing and Painting (University of Colorado at Denver, 1999), Marcelyn went on to earn her MFA in Fiber from Cranbrook Academy of Art (Michigan, 2003). Recent exhibitions include Extreme Fibers (2016) at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan and Touch, Touch, Touch (2015) at Arrowmont Gallery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Her work has recently been featured in Essay’d, an online series of short essays that documents Detroit artists actively working around the city during this perplexing time of simultaneous ruin and generation. Her work is currently on view in Please Touch at the Target Gallery at the Torpedo Factory (Alexandria, Virgina) until July 7, 2016. Marcelyn lives and works in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Elastic plays a large role in your practice and shows up in so many different projects, including Snap, Tensions and various interactive installations. What was the first piece that used elastic?
Marcelyn Bennett Carpenter: During grad school at Cranbrook, I used elastic in an installation called Pinch Pots, in which I suspended little porcelain pots from elastic lines. I weighted the pots with sand and scented oil. People were encouraged to enter into the installation and play with the pots dangling on elastic. There were so many lines and pots that the pots jumped all over and would crash into the floor or into other pots. The sand sprayed out and the pots slowly were destroyed, but the elastic recovered. The sand and the broken pots were stepped on, creating sound and sensation on the feet. It was a really satisfying experience of destruction and discovery all at once. This interaction allowed for more of the senses to come into play, engaging the body more fully with the work.
OPP: What have you learned about this material over the years?
Elastic is the perfect material for creating physical art work that you
can feel. . . art that you touch and play with. Its main function is to
move with the body. It responds to your movements, your action, and
then it recovers. It holds a variety of tensions until it is released
and returns back to its original form.
I love elastic. I love how, like many textiles, we are using it almost 24/7. Our underwear, our bra straps, our pajamas, our swimming suits, our exercise clothing, our pants, skirts, hair ties all stay with us because of elastic’s ability to respond and hold tight while our bodies are constantly moving through space throughout the day. It is really hard to break elastic.
OPP: Can you talk about interactivity versus performance with your elastic installations? You’ve allowed for both.
I am still learning and experimenting with interactivity, performance
and even non-interaction. There are many possibilities for how the work
can behave in the world. I knew the work could lend itself to rigorous
interactions with dancers, so when opportunities arose to collaborate, I
took them. The only way to find out was to research it and try it.
see interaction more as the audience playing with the work. This exists
when viewers physically handle the work or when they simply move around
it. When someone looks up, bends down, or cranes the neck for a
different view, they are moving with the work. They are physically
engaged. When they dare to touch the work and manipulate it with their
hands or body, I have gotten to a whole other area of the brain for
them. The more sensations the work gives them, the richer the aesthetic
experience, and the more they will remember, think and feel about the
OPP: I assume Pick-ups
are meant to picked up by the viewer. How difficult or easy is it to
get viewers to overcome the convention of not touching art?
have always thought of getting people to touch the work as a design
problem. How can I get the object to inherently communicate to the
viewer to touch it. Fiber and ceramics lend themselves to touch
naturally, and those are the main materials I work in. Half the battle
is won. But the socialization to not touch in a gallery or museum is
pretty strong, so often I resort to giving permission to touch on the
Luckily, I have been involved in two shows lately where all the work in the show was intended to be touchable. The title of the exhibitions were Touch, Touch, Touch and Please Touch. I also curated a show called Handle with Care. This was a great way to go about it, and the spirit in the gallery is just terrific when people are playing and exploring art in this way.
There are other design problems: How do I allow for touch to happen and protect the work from damage? Do I control the way a viewer touches the work? Or do I allow for the destruction of the work through the interaction like in the wear and tear in my Pinch Pot installation. I have had an installation totally destroyed by dancers who didn’t understand the work’s limitations. In retrospect, I would have insisted on more practice time with the work before the performance. But work does get damaged, and I often struggle with whether I should fix it or should I let its disintegration be a part of it.
OPP: Is it harder with small objects than installations?
MBC: For me, the large scale installations are more satisfying because they are more open-ended and engage the whole body, but the smaller works like the Pick Ups and Snaps! are fun for the fingers and create a lot of visual pleasure too! I also don’t underestimate what the imagination can fill in. One reaction I often get from the Pick Ups is that people want to taste them! It is much better for them to imagine the taste than to actually taste stretch netting and porcelain!
OPP: I see a formal connection between the warp of your hand-woven drawings and the taut vertical lines in Tensions and various interactive elastic installations. But the weavings are so static and discreet compared to the other projects, at least for the viewer. Is there an underlying conceptual thread between these two seemingly disparate bodies of work?
MBC: I think you hit
the nail on the head. It’s all about the warp! I came to weaving after I
had been creating my interactive installations for many years. I teach
weaving and fiber arts full time at the Kingswood Weaving Studio at
Cranbrook Schools. The verticality of the warp and the tension held by
the loom were visually the same as my elastic installations! I quickly
became immersed in figuring out how weaving could be integrated into my
own work. My BFA is in drawing and painting, so I have been playing with
how can I bring a more spontaneous, quick way of drawing and almost
graffiti effect into weaving. Nothing in weaving is quick, but I found
the handwoven drawings to be quicker and super satisfying for me. I am
coordinating all these elements: the drawing, the string, the colors,
the density of the strings. Once it is off the loom, I work back into
the surface of the handwoven drawing with paint, stickers, and even
These works are pretty new for me; it’s been
just a year. I am really intrigued by how I can draw on the wood slats,
then veil the drawing in the warp. It reminds me of how my installations
optically transform and even veil space. The warp does the same to the
drawings. The warp appears and disappears, adding incredible depth and
texture. If you look at the handwoven drawings from the side, you only
see the warp threads and not the drawing. I also suspend the weavings
out from the wall and paint the backs in bright colors, so there is a
glow that surrounds the piece from behind. Shadows of light through the
handwoven drawings are pretty incredible too. Even though space is
treated two-dimensionally in the handwoven drawings, it is still about
space and maybe that space is more inward than outward.
OPP: Please talk about the imagery in your most recent Abandon drawings. Will these become weavings?
MBC: The imagery in Abandon
is very similar formally to the psychological Rorschach ink blot tests.
I built upon these tests, though, by mirroring abandoned homes and
locating the psychology in the home. One of the main indicators of
abandonment is the foliage around the house, which takes over almost
like a creature or unstoppable “destructive” force reclaiming the space
back for nature. I also thought a lot about what it means to walk away
from a home, to abandon it. So many memories, relationships, so much
dysfunction, as well as familial, social and financial security are held
in a house. So many of our psychological experiences occur in the space
of a home. I flattened and ghosted out the houses and the surrounding
foliage to abstract them and allow for a more imaginative
For the large weavings, I have used only the tree and foliage imagery so far. I really enjoy trying to give a tree personality and employing some of the textile design structures like repeating motifs and borders as in rugs, but these structures are not woven. They are drawn and then woven. Like I said, they are pretty new works, so I won’t eliminate the possibility of the houses working their way into them in the future.
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, closed in December 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL). Most recently, Stacia created a brand new site-responsive installation for SENTIENCE, a group show at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in March 2016.