How Intentions Differ (2020) Pine, OSB, Latex Paint, Carving Foam. 63” x 16” x 19”
ALEX SCHECHTER traffics heavily in material symbolism. His sculptures combine traditional woodworking methods, digital fabrication and found objects with video and animation to explore the myths of the Manifest Destiny and the Wild West. Alex holds a BA in Studio Art/Religious Studies from Grinnell College and an MFA in Sculpture from Rinehart School of Sculpture, MICA. Recent exhibitions include: Cowboys and Carpentry: Alex Schechter and Sutton Demlong at Sykes Gallery (Millersville, PA) and Its Construction Conceals: Iren Tete and Alex Schechter at Ghost (Omaha, NE). He just completed a residency at The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts in Georgia. Alex lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Before going to MICA for your MFA, you got a BA in Religious Studies from Grinnell College. How does that early focus on religion inform your art practice?
Alex Schechter: In so many ways! Religious studies has been the major heuristic for study for me for most of my career. One of the basic definitions of religion begins with identifying the “three c’s;" cultus, cosmology, and community. I find myself drawn to those frameworks as a space for most of my projects. What are the actions or rituals of this system? What does it explain? Who is involved?
Myth Of The West (Genesis 32:22-31) (2018) Plywood, LED lighting, House Paint, Ebonized Ash Wood, Rubber, Pine, Cactus, Artificial Flower. 20”x 33”x 45”
OPP: Which system do you mean? The universe? Or something smaller?
AS: My work is primarily focused on American Mythology. As a country, I think we lack a defining national identity, with no ethnic or religious antecedents that define many (particularly european) cultures. We instead have a somewhat ad-hoc collection of symbols and rituals that form this constellation of “americanness.” I think a lot of my training, particularly when it comes to religious ethnography, helps to shape that understanding and translation of a deep ambivalence I have around my familial history as well as my personal embrace and revulsion of what it means to be American.
I grew up on a horse ranch in rural Wyoming. In this environment, quotidian realities of daily life come into sharp contrast with the romantic idealization of the Wild West. For much of U.S. history, the West was an ordinal concept, an endless resource to compete with European culture, a blank canvas to be tamed with violence, or an escape route for self reinvention. Despite the clear and harsh consequences of climate change, the realities of colonization and genocide, not to mention the inconveniently finite nature of natural resources, the idea of the Frontier retains a perennial popularity as a Promised Land. The sculptural objects I make attempt to collapse the utopian ideals of Frontierism and the consequences of its reality.
New Frontier (Allegory of the Cave) (2020) Film stills, Wood, Enamel Paint, Rearview Mirrors, Plastic Rabbits Feet, Hardware. 45" x 42" x 20"
OPP: How does the combination of traditional craft, digital fabrication and found objects serve your conceptual interests?
AS: As previously mentioned, I did not go to art school for undergrad. While that education was great for conceptual development and critical thinking, it meant that I have come into making in a pretty circuitous fashion. I’m trying to make things in a way that works for the idea. I’m a decent carpenter, so wood tends to be a foundational structural material for many of my objects. I’m trying to become less precious about my hand being evident in the objects I make though.
I love craft, especially woodworking, but sometimes it feels like a crutch, or a conceptual governor. My woodworking skills tend to build towards a human sized scale. I’ve been increasingly interested in branching into other methods of fabrication (including other people doing the fabrication) because they simply allow me to do things I cannot with my skill set. My interest in digital fabrication has really accelerated this drive to expand methods of making. If I can have something milled out in an afternoon rather than carving it for weeks, i’ll take it.
For all that, I’m pretty enamored with found objects for basically the opposite reason. I love the embodied meaning in objects that are collected or sourced.
Heavy Lift (for Sergei) (2020) Monitor, Wooden Shelf, Potatoes, Zinc, Copper, Wires, Raspberry Pi, Digital animation. 24 "x 20" x 8”
OPP: That is evident in your comprehensive material lists, which give the sense that every object or material is included for symbolic purposes. I’ve been thinking about visual synecdoche and metonymy while looking at your work. Do you think those are appropriate words to describe how you approach materials?
AS: As a kid, I was really obsessed with the nutritional labels on foods. The atomization of say, salad dressing, into its nutritional attributes and a hierarchical list of ingredients, starting with the familiar (olive oil) and descending into the esoteric and sometimes frightening (sodium benzoate) felt like a mystery. A miniature scavenger hunt at the dinner table.
I’ve seen stage magicians do the same thing, they will explain how they are going to do a trick. That there is a trap door, that there a two assistants, that it isn’t their real thumb, and yet you are still astonished by the illusion you are seeing in front of you. The whole is not just greater than the sum of its parts, it is more exciting because you know what those parts entail.
My hope is that by listing the totality of the parts used in any given piece, there is a bit of alchemy that happens. The meaning of material is not just the shape of the whole object, but the embodied meanings of each individual object play with each other in a space. I think there is a difference between house paint and automotive paint, and house paint and a houseplant. Maybe its a bit onanistic but I think the indexing allows space for the creation of meaning beyond the title and form of the artwork. It gives a peak into process without the explicit one-to-one mapping that happens with a full statement or artist talk. I think about some of the stories of Donald Barthelme, which work to morph impressionistic accumulations of single events or actions into a holistic understanding of an event or a place in time.
Further West (2019) Laser Etched Drywall, Pine, Maple, Hardware, Plastic Boot Tray, Perlite, Cacti, Artificial Flowers. 55”x 40”x 40”
OPP: Will you pick a favorite piece and talk us through all the materials and their meanings?
AS: Sure, let's look at Further West, 2019, which was part of a body of work examining the concept of the cold war era Space Race as an extension of Manifest Destiny. I would argue that much of the American project has been oppositional and reactionary to exterior political pressure. Much of the space race, and NASA in general—which I think of as the greatest public art project of all time—was in direct opposition to the Soviet national project. This piece uses the iconography of westward expansion to look a the moon race as an extension of that process, a need to push “American Greatness” to increasingly far reaching lands.
I wrote a computer program that converted data from select sections of amateur astronomer Walter Goodacre’s 1910 map of the moon into vectors that were laser-etched onto drywall. Using materials that are traditionally used for household construction in sculptural objects creates an uncanny feeling, making a material that is so ubiquitous but we never pay much attention to precious or elevated. Thinking about the walls of the home as something that moves, or is in transition is an important thought process for me. Being untethered is both exciting and disorienting.
I always have pine 2x4s around my studio, and they’re my go-to for anything structural. This main body of the sculpture mimics the radial arms of a wagon wheel, buried in the sand, an iconic image from western films. The crutch-like leg that props up the framed wall is American curly maple. Sometimes, you need nicer wood. I’ve become increasingly conscious of being able to assemble and disassemble work easily for installation, so the hardware was a necessity for transportation. Rather than hiding these connection points, I wanted to highlight them with brass hardware. I was looking at a lot of late 19th century surveying equipment. They are beautiful machines and the contrast of brass on wood is a gorgeous look.
My weird color palette is generated through the remnants of other people’s discarded materials. I buy most of my paint from the “oops” section at the hardware store paint counter. They sell it for around $.50 (a pint?). It’s fun to see trends over the years of what colors people are almost-painting things.
I bought the plastic boot tray that holds the perlite—if there was a sandy desert on the moon, this is what I imagine it looking like—at a tractor supply store because I loved that shape. It is meant as a place to rest your boots when you have come in from a day of hard labor. I like the idea of this object designed for holding dirt to contain a different sort of dirt. . . in this case, a miniature desert.
I’ve been using cacti in a lot of my sculptures recently. I like the look of them and they are pretty resilient to changes in environment/don’t need to be watered very often. They also serve as a metonym for The West. I’ve been buying plants from Home Depot a lot over the last five years or so as sort of a treat for myself when I go to the hardware store. They clearly do not care about longevity for plants, and often it takes a lot of work repotting and nursing plants back to health after they are purchased. The cacti, which are non-flowering, are sold with these tiny plastic flowers hot-glued to the tops of them. I find this very funny and like to leave them on when I include a cactus in my work.
Pervasive Practitioners (2020) Ash Wood, Birch Ply, Latex Paint, Beeswax. 82” x 24” x 15”
OPP: Tell us about your newest body of work, M.E.K.A. I’m not familiar with that acronym. What does it stand for?
AS: M.E.K.A. doesn’t really stand for anything, though sometimes I retcon titles Most Even Keep Alive? My Ego Korrupts All? But the title is more a nod to a 90s cartoon trend of creating tortured acronyms for a catchy nickname, like S.H.I.E.L.D. or M.A.S.K. And mecha is a term for a sci-fi subgenera where teenagers pilot giant robots.
This has been an unusual body of work for me. I had a number of shows and longer-term projects put on hold or cancelled due to COVID-19. My studio practice had gone into a rut. I was fairly depressed and was having difficulty putting much conceptual rigor into anything. To justify being in the studio, I started playing around with arranging shapes and objects in an unlocked and unoccupied studio next to mine. I had made a scale model of a robot from the Gundam cartoon that I used to watch in my middle school days. I really liked the shape and the translation from the flatness of anime to a physical object. I started looking up more giant robot films and cartoons and isolating the heads from them. There was a certain challenge in replicating these cartoon shapes into something with heft and dimension. This has been an exercise in formalism, color, and installation, rather than the more conceptually driven objects I tend to make.
The Shortest Distance Between Two Points (2020) Pine, Ply Wood, Felt, Automotive Paint, Latex Paint. 11”x 84” x 28”
OPP: I don't know. I think you are selling yourself short. You might be tapping into the collective unconscious. Either that, or I just can’t escape viewing everything made in 2020 through the politics of the pandemic (i.e. economy vs public health.) I see the robot heads as representing the dangers of relentlessly-onward-marching Progress. It seems very significant that the robots have been beheaded and are propping up the systems of objects. Your thoughts?
AS: I don't know that I'm selling myself short, as much as allowing myself to work intuitively, something I mostly only do with my drawing and illustration practice. I'm very enamored with the design of these giant robots even though have very little context for their stories or personalities—despite my visual fascination, I've watched very little anime. I'm both interested in and skeptical of this sort of science fiction, where incredible levels of technology, global and interstellar economic and political systems are all easily reduced to combat between between giant robots. How simple compared to the intertwined and endlessly complex realities of climate change and global economic collapse that we face in our daily lives.
I'm both interested in technology and skeptical of Positivism, this idea that progress is somehow linear and inherently good. A book that really caused me to rethink the understanding of technical progress was Keven Kelly's What Technology Wants (2010). Conceiving of a Technium, a "greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us." is both thrilling and, existentially, a bit nerve wracking. Perhaps the decapitation of these robots is a way of symbolically reestablishing a dominance over these systems, but I don't think that completely covers it. As with many of the topics I tend to fixate on, there is both a love and a revulsion that co-mingle. Even with my discomfort, I tend to want to ritualize and care for objects. In this case, I literally put them on pedestals.