beauty and contemplation meet in the materially-driven practice of
artist and educator SABINA OTT. Hanging, body-sized sculptures sport
light fixtures, clocks and mirrors. Carved slabs of styrofoam,
embellished with faux house plants, rest on flat, astroturf
rugs/pedestals. The bizarre scene creates a compelling hybrid: part home
decor, part monument. Sabina earned both her BFA and MFA from the San
Francisco Art Institute. Having exhibited extensively since 1985, her
most recent solo shows include to perceive the invisible in you (2012) at St. Xavier University (Chicago), Ornament (2013) at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and here and there pink melon joy, which is currently on view at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 4, 2015. In 2011, Sabina founded Terrain Exhibitions,
which converted her suburban front yard into a home a site-specific
project space for emerging as well as established artists. In 2014, she
was awarded a Propeller Fund
grant to produce the 2nd Terrain Biennial and to create Virtual
Terrain, an web project that facilitates public arts in residential
neighborhoods internationally. Sabina lives and works in Oak Park,
OtherPeoplesPixels: I relish the texture and materiality of your work. Even videos like hope is the thing with feathers (2011) and the animated text in installations like to perceive the invisible in you (2012) appear tactile rather than digital. Could you talk generally about texture and your chosen materials—styrofoam, glitter, spray paint and paper mache, expandable spray foam, to name a few?
Sabina Ott: I have always worked with heavily textured materials, be it oil paint (sometimes directly out of the can) or encaustic or plaster or polystyrene. Highly textured surfaces demand the eye to slow down and travel into nooks and crannies. Texture offers the possibility of touch as well as the experience of haptic space. In Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays (1990), Iris Marion Young states: “Touch immerses the subject in fluid continuity with the object, and for the touching subject the object reciprocates the touching, blurring the border between self and other.” But these are artworks and cannot be touched by the viewer, and so desire is stimulated and frustrated. But experiencing frustration brings desire (to touch) to the fore, and the experience of the border between self and other becomes a subject of the work.
OPP: Over the last few years, you've introduced more domestic objects as material in your sculptures and installations. Clocks, lamps and light bulbs, house plants and AstroTurf seem to be the contained or tamed, home-decor versions of Time and Light and Nature, complex entities which are simultaneously constructs, loaded symbols and actual, tangible experiences. How do you think about these materials?
SO: I use those materials—easily-purchased, ready made clocks, lamps and carpets—because they are all the things you describe in your question. Simultaneously, I choose to use the Home Depot variety of those objects because, in their vulgarity, they offer a critique of good taste and “pertain to the ordinary people in a society” as stated in the definition of the word. The alterations I make to the objects unleash them, un-tame them, make them an impossible fit into home décor. So they hover between being useful and useless—a lamp or a sculpture, homey or sublime—and therefore bring a lofty contemplation of “Time and Light and Nature” down to earth, making it more experiential.
OPP: What about the repeated visual motif of the eye? When and why did you first use this image? Has the way you think about its meaning shifted over time?
SO: I had a period in which I found it really difficult to
make artwork. I had gone through two near-death experiences which
resulted in two complicated surgeries. My desire to play with the image
of eyes is simple. I wanted to go back to my very first
influence—surrealism—while somehow referencing the physical extremes I
had just experienced. The eye is a complex, loaded symbol. One thinks of
surveillance, portraiture, the desiring gaze or the omnipotent eye. I
began making collages and then animations that I then projected onto
sculptures in site-specific installations.
OPP: You currently have a fantastic show titled here and there pink melon joy on view at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 4, 2015. I rarely get to physically experience the work I'm looking at online for this blog, so it was a treat to experience the darkened room where the four-channel video animation to perceive the invisible in you (2012) was accompanied by a soundtrack by Joe Jeffers. As I sat on the bench encircling a tower of drums, I was immersed in an environment of text and sound. I started off trying to read the text, discern its meaning and identify its source. But I quickly surrendered to a less intellectual, more sensual experience of the rhythm and motion. My mind kept trying to latch onto the words, but whatever they said was never as interesting as that feeling of surrender. It sort of embodied the experience of meditation when it is most enjoyable. I assume, as the artist, you must have a very different relationship to the text itself. Could you talk about that?
SO: The text is comprised of snippets from various poets on ecstasy, love, God and death. I could not find the perfect poem to use. None of the poems I studied quite got at what I wanted, so I embraced that fact and just took sections from many different poems. Again, experiencing thwarted desire (to read the text), similar to the desire stimulated by wanting to touch all the sculptures and paintings, is essential to surrender, and surrender is necessary to the experience of paradise. The rhythmic sound element in the piece takes over, changes over time from agitated to soothing as one transitions from wanting to make sense of the text to experiencing the vibration, sound, moving light and reflections.
OPP: I see the intellect and the senses as complimentary, but distinct modes of gathering knowledge. What are your thoughts on how these modes interact when making art?
SO: The moment that intellect and the senses meet could be called intuition. Intuition comes into play when what you know matches what you are experiencing. Intuition comes with training, study and practice.
OPP: Aside from your thriving art practice—not to mention running the exhibition space Terrain out of your Oak Park home—you've been an educator for more than 20 years, including stints as the Director of Graduate Studies at Washington University and San Francisco Art Institute and the Chair of the Department of Art and Design at Columbia College in Chicago. How have you balanced teaching and your studio practice throughout your career?
SO: I love teaching, and I have been teaching as long as I
have been working professionally as an artist. But I never intended to
become a professor of art. A friend asked me to teach a class of hers
because she was too busy. I did and began my teaching career at Art
Center College of Design in Pasadena. I have taught in many places, but
at Art Center I had the best of both worlds. I only taught one day a
week and spent all my other time in the studio while teaching alongside
extraordinary artists. It was ideal.
My interaction with students stimulates my studio work, and I learn
from them and from my colleagues. Teaching brings out the best in me and
in my studio practice, and the two have always been interdependent.
In the beginning, like many young artists, I lived cheaply enough to be able to support myself on adjunct positions, something that is, admittedly, a lot more difficult now. Plus, I was selling a lot of artwork. I understood that if I wanted a full time position, I might have to move away from Los Angeles, my hometown, and I decided to pursue a role in academia. I had built my resume up so that I was competitive and took a tenured position in St. Louis. It was difficult, not because of the university. I had plenty of time to work, but I was away from a coast and felt like a cultural alien. But that was the price I had to pay to have that kind of position. I ended up working in administration for 10 years in the positions you describe. Schools are often looking for faculty who can also be administrators. I don’t recommend doing that if you don’t love spread sheets and long meetings. And I didn’t love spreadsheets and long meetings. I am very grateful to be back in the classroom.
OPP: What’s the most common mistake you see young artists making in how they approach art-making while in school? Can you offer any advice about how to get the most out of art school?
SO: Students often think that they have to make a "master work" in school, but it's most productive to develop one's capacity to embrace and learn from failure. Be a proactive student. Seek extra advice from your faculty, organize events with your fellow students, do extra research and reach out to faculty and students from other disciplines. I recently heard someone say this: it's easy to be a young artist, but the trick is becoming an old artist. I wish that for all my students. . . become an old artist!