OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews P. Roch Smith

curley Q, 2016. 4 ½” (l) x 38” (w) x 5” (h). bronze

Toys are the foundation of P. ROCH SMITH's bronze sculptures and installations. Mass-produced, plastic toy soldiers have lost their useful appendages; their weapons, arms and legs have been replaced with dramatically larger branches, compromising their balance and their purpose. Skateboarders perch precariously on the edges of Legos, on the backs of galloping horses, and on more Legos balanced on unstable constructions of tinker toys. Still more figurines push bronze balls uphill, lift houses at their foundations and carry Legos like lumber. Roch unifies the disparate toys in bronze, mini monuments that celebrate their hard work, conflate work and play and question cultural expectations of masculinity. Roch earned his BFA from Emily Carr University of Art and Design (Vancouver, British Columbia) and his MFA from York University (Toronto, Ontario). His numerous solo exhibitions include three recent shows in Toronoto: play–replay (2013) at Earl Selkirk Gallery, equilibration (2015) and fields of play (2016), both at loop Gallery. Roch lives and works in Toronto, and you can follow his work-in-progress on Instagram @rochsmith.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us about your favorite toy as a kid?

P. Roch Smith: My favorite toy was my GI Joe Air Adventurer. My two older brothers and I each got a different model one summer in the 1970s when we were in Charlottetown on holidays. It was the version with the “lifelike hair” and “Kung-Fu grip” and came with an orange flight suit. We created so many scenarios with those figures. We were always saving up money to buy new uniform kits and accessories like a Jeep and hang glider. When I was at art school in Vancouver, I started to use my GI Joe in photographs and sculptures and he became a way to speak about play, masculinity and memory. As a kid, I can remember asking my mum how to sew because I needed to fix a tear in his flight suit. The hackneyed black stitching is still there after all these years.

I think it was probably the start of my interest in the tactile—the real. Instead of representations of reality, I had the capacity to manipulate artifacts and create scaled down landscapes or playscapes. I wasn’t very graphically-minded as a kid. I didn’t (and still don’t) do a lot of drawing. But the idea of manipulating objects in real time and space was pretty liberating. 

phantoms (detail), 2007. Plaster GI Joe figures. Dimensions variable to fit gallery.

OPP: Is it your favorite toy as an adult?

PRS: There are some items which hold memory so strongly that it is tough to find a replacement. While I have collected and inherited many figures over time, my original GI Joe is still my touchstone. I have accumulated a lot of GI Joe gear over the past 20 years that I keep in crates in my studio. As a maker of objects, I think a lot about the artifacts and memories we acquire and carry. As we move through our lives we are in a continuing cycle of acquiring,  discarding, modifying and mythologizing. Respect for the real, for the integrity of the object, and the act of making are all integral to me.

This summer, I wanted to cast some bronze versions of a selection of GI Joe rifles so I took out the crates. My 11-year-old daughter, who had never seen all these figures and equipment, was kind of stunned. Her response was, “Dad, you sure have a lot of dolls” which I thought was pretty great and knocked all my theorizing down a peg.

hide & seek (no. 1), 2016. 8" (l) x 26” (w) x 48” (h). Bronze.

OPP: How do you both employ and subvert the monumentality of bronze in your recent show fields of play?

PRS: The choice to work in a reduced scale really dictates how the work might be read in terms of its monumentality or conversely its anti-heroic stature. Taking a plastic original and transforming it into bronze upsets the usual notions of value and materiality. I use an organic burnout foundry process where each original figure or branch is lost during the casting process. Each sculpture is a one-off; the mass-produced is returned to the singular. Some people categorize bronze as historically-weighted, but I view it merely as a means to an end. 

At first glance, the pieces don’t appear that impressive or imposing. With further viewing, however, viewers begin to register the level of detail and the fact that the figures are doing things that are structural (e.g. holding up a larger house form or a tree branch), and that plays with one’s expectations of what is possible. The figures need to be transformed from plastic to metal in order to do the “heroic” actions that their small scale simultaneously minimizes.

house stack - prototype, 2014. bronze and assorted hardwoods

OPP: Are you more interested in balance or precariousness?

PRS: With sculpture, balance is critical. I dislike using hidden fasteners and pins to defy gravity. However, I am continually drawn to representing moments that are precarious: an object that is just about to topple over; a figure that is straining to keep a much larger object aloft; or an object balanced in a way that strains credulity. Tentative moments capture my imagination: things at the margins; moments just before something uncertain happens; or a memory that is just outside the reaches of easy recall. I ponder how these moments might be represented in concrete form.

OPP: Do these formal and structural challenges become content, metaphor and allegory in your work?

PRS: Viewers often see the Myth of Sisyphus as an allegorical arc in my work. I am partial to Camus’ interpretation of Sisyphus as one who undertakes an honorable pursuit by completing an insurmountable task and then having the integrity to repeat the feat over and over again. It is what most people do everyday, going about their work. I often joke that everyone has to work in my studio—meaning that all the toys have to be engaged in an action that requires a great effort. My underlying ethos is that working is a supremely human condition of being and is what links us in a fundamental way.

sisyphus, 2013

OPP: You did a lot of early work using the form of the white dress shirt. Now tiny toy army men are a recurring visual motif. I see these as representing the limiting, culturally-masculine roles of businessman and soldier. Are you commenting on masculinity?

RPS: Definitely. I think a lot about how masculinity is constructed, presented and examined. Arguably clothing is one of the most immediate ways we convey identity and where we position ourselves or are positioned by others in society. We wear “uniforms” every day.

The white shirt as a marker of power is so prevalent as to be generally invisible or is seen as normative. By taking the shirt and elevating it as an artifact—whether behind a glass frame or left to decay in a forest—I was hoping to make the power of the shirt evident and visible and hopefully lead to a questioning of its effects. The white shirt is such a longstanding uniform and represents a circumscribed notion of what it is to be male. The endurance of this trope fascinates me: male political leaders, businessmen, experts and talking heads wear them as a symbol of implied credibility. But I’m not sure that this blanket respect is at all deserved.

Toy soldiers are scaled-down, idealized versions of the romanticized reality of war. There is certainly nostalgia involved as it has been a few generations since these toys have been in use as children’s play things. The contemporary equivalent of the toy soldier would be video games where gamers fight bloody online battles. While toys require imagination to function, video games are a more scripted form of play. Toy soldiers speak to the desire to “play war” but without the graphic reality of war ever intruding. It might be a universal impulse.  A few years ago I came across a photo in the paper of Syrian children “playing war” with cardboard AK-47s and RPGs, which is something I don’t think we would readily see in North America. 

The miniature invites us to be omnipotent and to imagine and control what occurs. It is within this ecosystem that I can physically alter the toys and re-imagine new narratives.  I must be honest, however, and acknowledge that playing around with the toys is a ton of fun. A lot of my work begins with, “what if I took this and joined it with that.” It is within the final resolution, however, that some themes that question masculinity emerge.

as i came upon a clearing (installation view), 2005. Bronze GI Joe figure torsos, tree branches. variable dimensions

OPP: What do these uniforms say about the societies they exist within?

PRS: I think that military dress is perhaps a more honest expression of the hierarchies and unmarked castes that exist in our lives. In the military, a uniform can be read like a book to garner a lot of information about a person’s rank, unit, valor (decorations) and service time. Of course, these judgments occur outside the military, but I would argue it is of a more insidious nature. Similar readings are made but are done so under the myth/belief that we have some modicum of equality. However there are still clear class structures which exist between blue and white collar workers. It is interesting to think that the military, which has no qualms of putting one in a hierarchical system, results in a lack of artifice, which at once flattens and spotlights the structural nature of identity.

duet (detail of right side figure), 2016. 4 ½” (l) x 56” (w) x 6 ½” (h). bronze

OPP: Bronze sticks, branches and string have been present in your work for years. Could you talk about the relationship between these organic references and the toys, especially in your most recent exhibition, fields of play?

PRS: The original idea for fields of play came from a friend at university whose hippy/anti-war parents finally relented and gave her some plastic army men to play with when she was a kid, but not before cutting off all the rifles and weapons that they originally held. Turning this story over in my head in the studio, I decided to replace the guns with branches and unify the results in bronze. Organic forms such as branches possess a beauty and formal clarity. Coming from the earth, they are an odd pairing with the mass-produced, plastic soldiers. Fusing the natural to the plastic/industrial creates at once a disconnect and a unity. My hope is that the resulting objects are hybrids that are opened for reconsideration. It begs the question whether replacing guns with branches alters the reading of the figures and their purpose.

I always have a lot of materials lying around to try out ideas. In the exhibition, I also cast yarn from inside old baseballs into bronze. String is a connector; it binds elements together. At the scale of my figures, a string becomes a rope. It becomes a means of grounding and holding the figures. The drooping ropes are a conceit in that an actual string would not fall exactly in that way but it is a close enough approximation so that the viewer believes the illusion.

slackline, 2016. 36” (l) x 60” (w) x 24” (h). Bronze and LEGO blocks.

OPP: Do you see art-making as a type of play?

PRS: As kids growing up in Canada, we used cutoff hockey sticks for all sorts of play artifacts: swords, guns, clubs, bats. Our parents often used them to prop open a window or act as a door stop for a sliding door. These examples remind me of the fluidity of objects and that the creativity of (mis)use is often more interesting than the intended purpose of the original object. I think that this type of re-purposing is what allows me to fuse the organic with the manufactured. I am pulled into the playfulness of using materials in the studio much like when I was a kid, always searching for one object that could be turned into or used as another. The genesis of so many solutions is centered in of creative play.

To see more of P. Roch Smith's work, please visit rochsmith.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, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-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, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.