My work gets called “Didactic” a lot, which I learned in grad school is often the white-elitist way of saying “I don’t want to learn history that is not compulsory Euro-centric history.”
Multi-disciplinary Xicana artist and activist Alicia Smith is the featured winner of our open call, and it is with great satisfaction that we are featuring her in a weeklong Instagram takeover she’s spearheading this week (if you haven’t seen her videos you’re missing out!) and in this special interview with the artist. The artist holds her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and was featured at the art fair UNTITLED in San Francisco in Fall 2019.
Smith’s work spans video, performance, printmaking and sculpture to bring awareness to the existing, inaccurately romanticized tropes that deny indigenous women their individual complexity, simultaneously demonstrating their beauty and strength. We learned more from Smith’s perspective on the implications her practice has on the greater art world, as well as the lessons that she has learned from her ancestors and from the wider diaspora of indigenous nations that have informed her practice as an artist and activist.
(Featured Image: “Erendira”, image courtesy the artist.)
ANTE mag. Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Alicia! We recently learned about an artwork that you donated to raise bail funds for Black Lives Matter, can you tell us more about how this came about?
Alicia Smith. Thank you! That piece is “Molotov Hare,” and it was created really with Black and Brown solidarity in mind. A marriage of indigenous archetypes and anarchist imagery.
There are many indigenous traditions that involve the rabbit as a symbol of rights of passage for young warriors. The Aztecs had their Eagle Warriors walk through underground caves and emerge, ready to defend their tribe. There are jade sculptures depicting rabbits protecting men wearing eagle headdresses to illustrate this ceremony. Black Elk once said: “For the rabbit represents humility, because he is quiet and soft and not self asserting – a quality which we must all possess when we go to the center of the world.” The rabbit is also a trickster. The Anishinaabe’s Nanabozho in the North and Cherokee and Black communities in the South. Many stories of Br’er rabbit are in fact adaptions of West African tales of Anansi the spider. The trickster felt important in the piece because of his ceremonial role. He forces us to re-evaluate where we delineate societal rules and agreements. He does this through perpetually undermining them.
The image is about duty to your people, and that to change the rules you first have to break them. It felt extremely urgent: I cut the block in a day and started taking orders and I did use the piece to raise bail funds for Black Lives Matter OKC and Millions for Prisoners New Mexico. I’m really proud of this work and [proud] that people have been using that image when they protest police brutality.
ANTE mag. As a Xicana artist and activist, your work embraces themes such as decolonization, the Americas’ native nations and knowledge of the natural world such as plant life and medicinal practices. Can you tell us more about the origin of this journey for you as an artist to research and integrate the crucial, yet still too often overlooked, history of indigenous peoples in your work?
Alicia Smith. I feel like I didn’t have a choice, haha… when the ancestors come knocking you better stand at attention and that is sort of what began this path for me. I had always been a pretty feral child, bringing wild animals inside of the house, and I always had a real lust for knowledge, especially in the way of ecology. I feel like re-examining those complex relationships through that cultural lens has taught me more than anything else. My work gets called “Didactic” a lot, which I learned in grad school is often the white-elitist way of saying “I don’t want to learn history that is not compulsory Euro-centric history.” I know doing that kind of work might dissuade people from wanting to look at my art but I hope given the political climate at large that those same folks are at least taking a moment of pause as to why they don’t want to learn indigenous history of the land they are on. But above all else, if it isn’t for them – it’s not for them, and that’s fine too. I love encountering first-generation kids, folks who went through a diaspora, who immediately connect and resonate with the work. At the end of the day if all I did was preserve one inch of sacred knowledge in a piece, then I’ve done my job of being a good ancestor for those who come after me with questions.
ANTE mag. To expand on the above question, can you delve into the range of your practice – spanning video, installation, mixed-media – as relates to the themes such as native culture and traditions and decolonization in your work?
Alicia Smith. By foundation I am a printmaker. So all my work often starts as a relief print before it goes into the world of durational art. I like the idea of being a Tlacuilo: a scribe or codex painter, someone who is recording history, ceremony, etc. So I think my 2-dimensional work acts as a kind of codex and my performances and video are the ceremonies themselves.
I call my work “Secondhand Ceremonies,” inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer, because these are partial reconstructions and partial innovations. When you are descended from people who survived genocide it means necessarily reconstructing the old with new innovations: Adaptations.
ANTE mag. You reflect on the words of Anishinaabe cultural ecologist Melissa K. Nelson in your description of your work, “Teomama.” Nelson remarked, “the Native Woman’s body [in so] many stories acts as a kind of meeting place.” Can you expand on how this reflection impacted the development of your work?
Alicia Smith. It’s cosmogeneology. In science it’s just evolutionary biology. The most seemingly innocuous Ant has been on this earth for 120 million years. And in indigenous ways of knowing we don’t look at the ecosystem from this sort of colonial scientific gaze. These beings are our siblings. Plants, animals, insects, fungi, they’re our older brothers. And to explain that ethic of kinship, rather than talking about primordial soup, we do it through these eco-erotic stories, where women are often at the intersection. In the Popol Vuh a woman becomes pregnant eating fruit from a tree. There are stories of women marrying stars, bears, becoming pregnant by the wind and on and on. It establishes an ethic of kinship. When I do these performances with Hawks, Wolves, Deer, Horses, Rivers, and so on, its so important to me to convey the medicines of these beings and their teachings as well as the metaphors I imbue them with in the work.
ANTE mag. How has the uncertainty of 2020 impacted your practice, and what current body of work are you focused on?
Alicia Smith. I am very fortunate because I have a government job where we were put on admin leave. I’m also very fortunate that I have been given some room to do what I love to do and share stories from my home, for the museum that I work for. This time at home has been really beneficial for my practice. Unfortunately people who are privileged who dont have to work a 9 to 5 job are usually the ones who can devote more time to their practices and end up rising in their art careers. But this time has allowed me to be so much more productive and to do what I really want to do which is engage with my community and in social justice causes.
On view at Paradice Palase(1260 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY) through Saturday, August 29th, Courtney Dudley’s transcendent “Sudden Relics”makes manifest a new body of work reflecting the natural materials and flashing screens that define our confined yet simplified lifestyle during quarantine. Composed of new works made made with clay and pit-fired in the artist’s own Kingston, NY backyard, these works – and the resulting video “Dig” on display – present this primitive process-as-creatively re-imagined practice.
Works titled “Burial” (and numbered 4-11) on display present a vision of the world through the lens of the artist’s own personal loss during the time of CoVid-19 in addition to the general anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic. The works elevate circumstances of chance and resurrection, borrowing from the sophisticated yet ancient Japanese concept of “Kintsugi”: an elegant means of re-evaluating how broken and re-assembled sculpture can be elevated through the process of applying decorative adhesive to resurrect the final artwork. This theme of resurrection buoys the exhibition, echoing the quarantine optimist’s belief in a better world post-CoVid19 pandemic subsiding.
“Nest,” a sculpture created from dried and twisted vines that are an invasive species in the artist’s local ecosystem, further complicate the concept of what is actually natural. The video documenting the artist’s practice that is mounted on display, titled “Dig,” flanks the “Curios” (1-5) series which consists of shadowboxes containing shards of the pit-fired ceramics that have been gathered and presented as artifacts: relics of a contemporary body of work borrowing an ancient process. This re-imagining of the primitive in the contemporary moment demonstrates the power of Dudley’s vision: by elevating the material and re-contextualizing this practice for a new audience, the artist makes more immediate connections to an abstract, historic process.
The presentation of this dynamic show firmly establishes the connections between the visceral quality of the material and the labor-intensive practice the artist employed to create works for “Sudden Relics.” The homage to those artists who have spent time creating those enigmatic, elegant ceramics and clay artworks of eras past whose names are lost to the sands of time. The artist’s dedication and enthusiasm toward this body of work infuses the exhibition with a timeless spirit that elevates and soars toward a hopeful future.
Multi-disciplinary artist Sun Young Kang’s multitudinous, scholarly practice mines art historical precedent and a range of scales and materials. This 2020 UAH Contemporary Art Fellow (which is NEA-funded) has exhibited in multiple solo and group shows both in the US and abroad, and she is currently based in New York State. Her work has received multiple accolades and recognitions, and her practice manifests the conceptual across various sites and installations.
We chatted with Kang to gain insight into her practice, including aspects of art historical precedent that have informed her practice, her philosophical outlook and the trajectory in which her work is headed.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us about your practice, specifically in relationship to repetition and the Korean concept of Yeo-baek and the influence of the Dansaekhwa school on your work as referenced in your statement?
Sun Young Kang. My interest is in exploring the duality fundamental to human existence: different realities or worlds both in space and time and the tension between them, the co-existence of antithetical ideas. I reside in between two different cultures. My feeling of marginality makes me wonder about the concept of boundaries, the space or time in between, as well as the interrelation of, different ideas or entities. My focus on this also comes from my background—Korean Painting and its key aesthetic and philosophy of “Yeo-Baek.”
Yeo-Baek is the physical empty space in a painting that the brush hasn’t touched and remains as openness. This untouched part of painting is considered as important as the part filled with images. Visually, Yeo-Baek creates the balance of positive and negative space in a painting. Conceptually, this negative space stimulates the viewer’s imagination about what is not there and invites them into the artwork. This quiet blankness makes the artwork interactive by requiring the presence of the audience.
This contemplative yet interactive aspect of Yeo-Baek is also an important aesthetic of most of Dansaekhwa art. When I was in school majoring Korean Painting in mid to late 1990s, I don’t recall hearing the name “Dansaekhwa.” But many of the students were inspired by the aesthetic of several Korean artists who are now spoken of as the pioneers of the “Dansaekhwa movement.” It is obvious to me that my practice also reflects the influence of the aesthetic of Yeo-Baek and Dansaekhwa.
The most obvious connections to Yeo-Baek in my work are the physical empty space as a key element both conceptually and aesthetically and the audience’s presence in activating and completing the piece, whether it be as a reader of my book or as a physical part of the installation space. The minimal or limited amount of techniques and materials in each project and the repetition in the process of making and in the resulting texture and visuality evoke characteristics of Dansaekhwa art. Rather than specific images or colors, my practice focuses on the material itself: the lightness and delicacy of paper and other soft materials, such as thread, hair, and powder, and light and shadow effects. Each material has metaphoric meaning intrinsic to the theme or concept of my work. I routinely use simple but obsessively repetitive processes in the making, such as cutting out or burning paper or printing repetitively, casting objects, stitching or hanging hundreds or thousands of threads in a space. The meditative aspect of a repetitive working process is also present in the Dansaekhwa artists’ practice. The repetition in my work visualizes time-passing and symbolizes time made spatial, reflecting the passage in between or across boundaries, and the repetitive use of a technique and minimal materials creates a tactility, a visual obsessiveness, that brings the audience close to my work.
ANTE mag.Your practice moves between book art and installation to 2-D work and works on paper, can you walk us through the evolution of your practice as a multi-disciplinary artist working across multiple mediums?
SYK. In Korea, before I joined the Book Arts/ Printmaking program, I worked strictly on 2-dimensional paper canvas, but the transition from painting to book was not as radical is it sounds. The most common material for a book is paper, as it is for Korean painting. The intimacy and the quiet interaction that a book can offer its readers was for me very much like the interactivity of Yeo-baek. Also, in a book form, 2-dimensional paper turns to 3-dimensional space as the pages are stacked, folded or bound together, and that structure offers a sense of narrative and time passing. An intimate and portable book can contain the idea of space and time that through the viewer’s imagination is unlimited.
Some of my early artist books focused on visualizing the invisible space in the structure of the book. I used the repetitive processes of cutting, burning or printing to create tactility as well as to evoke meaning. This has been key to most of my installation projects as well. My interest in the physical, conceptual space of a “book” and its interaction with the viewer led me to create large spaces in which audiences could physically immerse themselves, contemplating time passing and dwelling in uncertainty, as they took part in creating a space that envisioned the boundary between antithetical ideas, ideas often visualized as light and shadows. Below is a description of an installation that I recreated several times, an example of how a sheet of paper became a large space and how an installation evolved from the philosophy of Korean Painting and the concept of the space of a book.
Sometimes I consider my 2-D works as books or my books as works on paper. That depends on each project, on my thoughts as to how an audience would interact with my work, how best to communicate my idea. Without thinking, I move between different mediums.
ANTE mag. Can you reflect on an exhibition, residency or fellowship you’ve had and how that has impacted your practice or provided a turning point?
SYK. Every experience of an exhibition, residency, and fellowship that I have had has been a turning point in some way. I cannot begin to list all the opportunities and support from institutions, organizations, and individuals that have impacted my practice. One particularly important experience was my first oversea residency in 2017.
I was invited to be a resident artist of the Soulangh Artist Village in Tainan, Taiwan, through COPE NYC International Artists in Residence Exchange Program. It required courage from the beginning, as I had to be away from my family and travel to a country I didn’t know. Also, at that time my mother in Korea started to develop Alzheimer’s, which had a powerful effect on me, making me reflect on my past, my home, and human connections encased in memories. The spirituality of the local culture in Tainan and its relation to contemporary life inspired me. There I created my first work without paper at all, using cotton thread and sugar powder.
This was a temporary site-specific installation for which I used locally found materials and which I shared with the local community, all strangers to me, not by any kind of direct communication, but simply through the emotional exchange made possible by the installation itself. I came back home without any physical work, but with incredible memories and friendships and inspiration. This residency led me to think about the temporality of the physical art work into which I put so much energy and time. I came to value more the process of interacting with my surrounding and creating works for a specific place and time than creating physical artifacts that lasted beyond that. I began to feel that the experience of the work, once it came to life, and the memory of that, were enough.
“The Endless Lines” consisted of 3-dimensional structures built by using strings of 1-dimensional thread, my attempt to visualize the invisibility of time passing (the continuous lines being my illusion of flow of time) and the spirituality and beliefs of a culture that could not be grasped by our concept of any dimension. This installation made me think of how we define the passage of time and how time creates memories that connect individuals and the past and future. I started to use in my work the 1-dimensional physicality of thread as a metaphor for connectivity or continuity and my shed hair (also a kind of thread) as a metaphor for the detached self, memory-loss, and disconnection.
Last year I again created a site-specific work, this time in Seoul, Korea, and again came home with empty hands. Traveling to a place far from where I reside limited my materials and techniques. I carried in my suitcase rolls of thread, needles, magnets, and some small pieces of paper and with those created 6973 miles of force in 1cm in Korea, my home country.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward? SYK. My present practice is a continuation of my recent work, but instead of temporary site-specific installations, I have gravitated toward work that I can do alone in my home studio, whether it be a small-scale work or an installation. My practice now involves more planning and designing than being inspired by something unexpected or a new setting.
Currently, I am preparing an upcoming exhibition. I have been invited by the University of Alabama at Huntsville to be the 2020 UAH Contemporary Art Fellow (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts) with a solo exhibition and public events. The visit has been postponed from this fall to early next spring due to the pandemic. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to look forward to during this isolation. For this exhibition, I am going to expand and develop my previous paper installation project In Between Presence and Absence. So, I am now back to the cast paper process which I did for many years. I want to accentuate the interactivity of the space given to me for the installation, a space that to me seems quieter than those of my previous installations.
ANTE mag. What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work? SYK. Since I cannot travel for a residency or exhibition, I am looking more into myself. These days I think a lot about my home, which seems farther away than ever, and my mother—now in a nursing home and not allowed contact with anyone outside that home—slowly getting close to the end without understanding what is going on in the world around her. These painful thoughts have led me to revisit and rethink my previous work “Line-Drawing II: The New Existence”, which I began at the Vermont Studio Center during a residency a year ago and developed in my home studio at the end of last year.
The two primary materials with which I am working for “Line-Drawing II: The New Existence” are bricks and my shed hair. A brick, broken in half, represents a split self, two identities, the space between the past and the future. Shed hair symbolizes for me the detached self and memory loss, suggesting the weakened connection between my current self and my past self and between me and my home country.
I repeatedly hammer on the brick to create a crack and eventually split it into two pieces. After breaking the brick, I photograph it and, again, in a repetitive movement, embroider on the photograph, with my hair, lines between the two parts of the brick. Those repetitive actions visualize the concept of ourselves as the embodiments of time passing between the past and the future. One cannot connect two heavy objects such as bricks with delicate hair; that is only possible on a two-dimension rendering, a photograph, of the brick pieces. I see my line embroidering as reconnecting, symbolically and impossibly, the gap between past and future, between two identities, reconnecting the two parts of a split self. In reality, the present is continually shifting. The future becomes the past. Establishing an identity and settling into the space between past and future are profoundly difficult. Thus, I explore the concept of time and space through the 4-dimensional process of breaking the bricks and line-stitching the photographs, the 3-dimensional bricks and embroidered hair, and the 2-dimensional photographs.
For the past couple of months, besides working on my upcoming solo exhibition, I have been working on this project, which I have renamed “Impossibly Connected.” Although the theme and concept were established, I didn’t consider the piece complete. My idea was to recreate it by re-photographing the bricks to get more spatial depth in the photos to emphasize the exploration of different dimensions of time and space.
My feeling of being marginal, living between two cultural realities, trying to bridge two identities and wanting to explore themes of time and space and the conflict between past and future seem more pressing to me now than ever. And I sense that other people are feeling the same. My repetitive motion of impossibly connecting the broken bricks in the photo with my shed hair evokes and embodies my constant questioning: What is the reality that we believe is real now? How can we reconnect each other after this? Where can we find the lost time? Completing this project may not be important, but the symbolic movement of connecting the pieces allows me to question and think. I will work on this piece for as long as I feel I need to. I feel this process will take me to a new place, a new direction. What or where I don’t know.
Artist Gabriel J. Shuldiner demands much of his medium. An artist who creates works by building layers of paint and industrial materials in a meticulous manner, his paintings are comprised of sculptural layers constructed in careful relationship with the preceding layer, existing in a unique and original tension indigenous to the particular work itself. His attention to construction –and just as fittingly, deconstruction– becomes apparent in the singular surface of each of his finished artworks.
We touched base with Shuldiner to gain insights into his studio, and as an Open Call winner, to learn how he has perfected his practice.
ANTE Mag. Can you tell us about your practice, specifically within the context of layers upon layers as referenced in your conceptual artist statement?
Gabriel J. Shuldiner.While painting, I gradually build up a work… layers upon layers. It’s primarily all paint, along with some industrial construction materials. Each layer informs the next: how the materials work with and against each other. There is always a sense of surprise, of tension working with the matter, but intent remains, and as layers compound, remnants of previous layers are left over, hidden, revealed, and exposed, becoming layers upon layers of physical matter which mirror the conceptual layers I also attach to the work.
ANTE Mag. You specifically mention three terms, Brute Minimalism, Hybridsculptural painting and Post apocalyptic black – can you explain how each of these terms define your work?
G.J.S. I was looking for a quick way to explain my work in the most concise manner as possible. I like words and word play. I don’t like definitions; having to define things and describe things that should be seen and experienced is something I don’t like, but I understand the necessity. My work is influenced by so many visual genres, and musical genres. Traditionally my work is steeped in the history minimalism and abstraction and conceptualism. But my work is also brutal…brutal in a good sense. It’s delicate and playful, brutal and raw. The term I use is “bruteminimalism”: it just came to me and it sounded right. I’m a painter who creates Hybridsculptural paintings rather than a sculptor who creates painting-like sculptures. Given that my work fluctuates between painting and sculpture, the works I create are literally “hybrid sculptural paintings” As for “postapocalypticblack”, I felt the word appropriately described my own unique variant of black. It also aptly riffs on the age old falsity that “painting is dead”. I heard that term a lot in graduate [art] school and thought it the most ridiculous statement ever. It seems to come along every few years. Apparently painting has been dying ever since the first cave paintings appeared… this term perfectly played on that absurdity. You just can’t kill it. The physicality of the material, the blackness of the material… it is postapocalypticblack. You know it when you see it.
ANTE Mag. Recently you have shown at Monica King Contemporary, how has it been exhibiting your work during the pandemic and how has it been different for you showing work now than pre-COVID?
G.J.S. I had a piece in a benefit auction Monica King Contemporary set up to help raise money for the CoVid cause. I love her gallery and was grateful to be asked to be in it: I had been looking for ways to help during the pandemic. At the time I was offering limited-edition mini-paintings direct via my Instagram and donating 50% to the CoVid-related organization of the buyer’s choice. And then the gallery asked if I would take part in their benefit. A completely virtual online benefit. Of course I said yes.
Showing my work now, during CoVid, I feel I’ve adapted to the current virtual world quite well. I’ve done several Zoom artist talks, a few interviews and have had several group shows. I’ve also sold work! All virtually. Given the physicality of my work and the crucial importance of light as an actual material, a 2D screen doesn’t do my work justice. I think that’s true for all visual arts. But it’s extra true with my work. There is something magical, experiential and spiritual about standing before a painting and looking at it. It’s a personal experience between you and the work. This pause in showing work in the real world is definitely strange. But at the same time, there are so many new outlets to get the work seen, and seen by so many more. The reality is that most people will initially discover my work virtually. That was probably true pre-pandemic, but now and post-pandemic, it will be the primary way people will experience my work, so I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting the way I photograph [the work] and I’m pretty happy with the results.
I see the image as I see my aforementioned descriptive terms: as a quick way to show, explain and attract… with the goal of having that introduction lead to an in person studio visit – which is convenient because my studio is in Chelsea (Manhattan.)
I have several (studio visits) lined up, but I’m not yet ready for in person studio visits, no matter how well-enforced the social distancing and masking.
ANTE mag. Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward?
G.J.S. Throughout CoVid, I’ve been lucky enough to really focus on creating a new body of work. I’m really tightening the work up, and I feel I’m actually making my best work now during the pandemic. Every painting I have ever created has gotten me to this point.
Working without having any deadlines or distractions has been very freeing, and creatively inspiring. But for the most part, my routine hasn’t really changed all that much during Covid. I still paint every single day. Right now I’m working on some larger pieces. That’s where my head is right now. I’m used to having complete control over my work. I like making work that I can handle physically, as I want to be able to move the piece around as it is created. The back becomes the front, and the top becomes the bottom. I want to be able to twist, cut, rip, tear, punch. The deconstruction is just as important as the construction.
The way I work is sorta manic. I work on multiple pieces at once, bouncing ideas off each work. Eventually certain works tighten up and reveal themselves and then I move in to complete them. The way I show my work is the opposite, super minimal: one piece surrounded by nothing. The majority of my current work has been relatively consistent in size and thus easily maneuverable. The direction I’m headed is larger, so I’m figuring out how to navigate the larger works in a similar manner. I want that intimacy to remain. I’ll figure it out.
ANTE mag. What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work?
G.J.S. I have a complex equation in my mind that has to balance itself out in order for me to consider a work complete, and successful. It’s just a feeling I get. With “zTCTdyH<B\,H3h]_system” for example, I feel I have accomplished that. The way the different materials play off each other makes someone wonder: what is the surface? What is the support? Is it a painting or a sculpture? What is it made of, and how is it made? The interplay of light upon the varying shades of black, creating various areas of white and grey. I can stare off into work I consider successful for hours and it transports me.
Ultimately I am painting primarily just for myself… which is a crucial point. And that’s the test, really, to reach that space: that place [which means for] me, someplace calm amidst such concentrated chaos.
Each work looks so simple. It’s a black painting. But the longer you gaze into it, the more the complexities gradually reveal themselves.
We sat down to learn more about her time specifically at Franklin Street Works, and how the organization is dedicating its next chapter to archiving its powerful body of programs, events and exhibitions, contextualizing them for a new audience.
(Below image, Cut Up: Contemporary Collage and Cut-Up Histories through a Feminist Lens curated by Katie Vida, installation view. Foreground: Faith Ringgold. Background (L-R): Meredyth Sparks, Martine Syms, and Lourdes Correa-Carlo. Photo by Object Studies
Lead image, Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman, installation view. Foreground: commissioned site-specific installation by Nontsikelelo Mutiti. Background (L-R): works by Jay Simple and Bryan Keith Thomas. Photo by Object Studies.)
ANTE. Thanks, Terri, for sitting down with us! So Franklin Street Works was known as a contemporary art space but during your time working there, it achieved recognition for engaging with social justice as well. Can you elaborate on the founding of the space, its evolution and how social justice aligned with FWS’ mission?
Terri C. Smith.Being the founding creative director of an arts organization is a unique perspective because you are steeped in its institutional history and have a deep on-the-ground understanding of its growth and impact. When I was invited to co-found Franklin Street Works by Stamford lawyer and philanthropist Kathryn Emmett she had the idea of an art space with a cafe. It was up to me to craft the specifics in terms of mission, vision, and programming. I had been in Connecticut working in the arts for a few years and had a sense of that scene. When I began conceptualizing what FSW might look like, I was thinking a lot about NYC alternative art spaces from the 60s and 70s like Artists Space, The Kitchen, and Food and their commitment to emerging artists and grassroots principles. I also had 15 years of experience working in two accredited museums and valued good scholarship and museum best practices. So my thinking was to create a program that included rigorous exhibitions and also integrated values of community inclusion – a discursive, social, and activist community hub with contemporary art at its center.
When we first opened in Stamford, Connecticut, showing conceptual art necessitated a lot of interpretation and direct conversations with visitors. In the beginning, merely showing conceptual art felt like a form of activism! All of our exhibitions were original, thematic group shows curated in house by guest curators or myself. This thematic approach aimed to build an audience beyond arts-interested individuals by drawing connections between contemporary art practices and events in our day-to-day lives. In other words, if an exhibition included work about the environment, the idea is that it would attract folks who might not be familiar with contemporary art, but, because of their interest in nature, science or conservation they would have a point of entry. It was an individualized approach that aimed at connecting, often challenging, contemporary art to a broader public.
As far as how the social justice trajectory connected to our mission, these key factors spring to mind: our coincidental opening of the space when Occupy Wall Street was encamped in Zuccotti Park; an archive of artist activist collectives we developed for a 2013 exhibition; our exploration of Franklin Street Works’ values with a 2014 strategic plan; and a show on immigration Yaelle Amir curated for us in 2015 (see above, “Acting on Dreams.”) I’ve only recently realized it, but Occupy Wall Street was a profound influence on the formation and direction of FSW. I knew some artists who were involved in the Park – many of them affiliated with Bard MFA. It was intriguing to me how artists brought an unmonumental sculpture/MFA materiality to activism and how an alternative, pop-up social system that shared qualities with social practice projects was being constructed from scratch there. I now understand FSW was influenced by OWS’s materiality and its creation of an inclusive, activist space that interrogated the status quo and posited corrective, world-building scenarios.
Social justice as an exhibition theme was directly addressed for the first time with our 2013 exhibition Working Alternatives: Breaking Bread, Art Broadcasting and Collective Action, co-curated by Mackenzie Schneider, Jess Wilcox and myself. We were thinking about how artists used food, broadcasting, and collective action during the early history of alternative spaces in NYC, and how artists were still using these tactics. Jess explored artists who use food, Mackenzie looked at artists using media like television and newspapers, and our gallery manager, Sandrine Milet, and I explored collective action, sending out an open call for materials from self-described artist/activist collectives. The starting date for our artist/activist collectives was the end date of an existing archive organized by NYC artist/activist collective Political Art Documentation & Distribution (PAD/D), which included socially conscious arts organizations working from 1979–1990. We put a call out to more than 90 collectives and received materials from approximately 30. While the show was on view, Brooke Singer, a Professor of New Media at SUNY Purchase (who was in one of the collectives we exhibited) invited us to take the archive out of its boxes and present it as an exhibition at the College’s Passage gallery later that year. Sandrine and I curated Collective Action Archive with Purchase students Stephen Barakat and Gina Mischianti, writing additional interpretive texts about the collectives and exhibition essays from various points of view. Eventually the materials were accessioned into the SUNY Purchase Library zine archive, making them available to students and scholars.
Nadia Wolff-commissioned performance, A Litany, at the opening reception of Roots & Roads, curated by Anita N. Bateman. Photo by Terri C Smith.
This year-long immersion into collective action art practices was followed by Franklin Street Works’ 2014 strategic plan, which re-emphasized our commitment to socially conscious art and community engagement. In the strategic plan, we described our core values, “Art is part of a larger social enterprise and thereby serves as a catalyst for social action. Both the individual artist and our communities are vital partners with us. The artist creates new models and impacts our communities. Our communities generate creative conversations within our space and elsewhere about our production.”
The next year, when Yaelle Amir curated Acting on Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions, and Advocacy in the United States, FSW’s work in social justice really began to crystallize.I personally had an “ah ha” moment about how actionable elements could become part of an art exhibition when Yaelle asked us to create a resource list of regional immigrant organizations for the catalog. I was energized by how Acting On Dreams was firing on all cylinders. The artworks and commissioned installations were well executed and materially interesting, but it was also exhibition as logistical support, community gathering place, investigative journalism platform, educational venue, and more. From then on, we were off to the races in actively planning exhibitions that addressed social justice issues head on.
ANTE. The pandemic has affected everyone in the arts, and has required flexibility and resourcefulness. Your team has recognized that the time has come to put future exhibitions in the physical space on hold. What are your goals moving forward in building an archive? In addition, how do you hope this archival project will evolve? What resources in particular are you seeking to help achieve this goal?
TCS. It is important to me that the legacy of Franklin Street Works lives on through a digital archive that is organized and accessible to anyone interested in contemporary art history or any of our 415 past exhibiting artists and collectives. I’m working with a handful of past board members to map a path forward in creating that. Right now we are exploring the best approaches in applying for archiving grants. I’ve also been talking to other small art spaces that no longer have physical spaces but still have an online presence, and chatting with archivist friends about the best order of operations in getting started. Since the entirety of FSW’s institutional memory is in my brain and my computer (and back up disk, of course!) it is my responsibility to organize the materials in preparation for a professional archivist. In a perfect world, I’d like to have the spirit of FSW live on in a less localized way. It would be exciting to see the archive combine with a national program of grants for emerging artists and to create and/or support commissioned projects.
Love Action Art Lounge curated by Terri C Smith, installation view of Carmelle Safdie’s commissioned, site-specific installation. Photo by Object Studies.
ANTE. What particular aspect of your tenure do you reflect on with satisfaction?
TCS. There are so many, but two aspects that come to mind immediately.
First, the transformative nature of Franklin Street Works’ educational programming. The physical space of FSW is an intimate repurposed Victorian row house. So when we had tours, talks, and performances, there wasn’t much physical distance between the community and the presenters. I also intentionally set a very welcoming tone that signified there wasn’t much, if any, hierarchical distance between artist and audience either. I think this intimacy and casual, social vibe created a comfortable space for learning, questioning, and authentic connection that was memorable and resonant. There were dozens of times when a past event attendant would volunteer specifics about how it changed their perspective or affected the course of their work or life.
The second aspect is a personal one. I developed so many wonderful relationships with FSW’s artists, curators, staff/board, interns, and contract workers these last nine years. So many of the people we partnered with on projects were collaborative, talented, and conscientious. My life is vastly enriched for having known them. I was 43 when I co-founded FSW. Frequently in middle age we can become set in our ways, but my life was infused with an endless stream of compassionate critique, encouragement, and aspirational thinking. Many of the folks I worked with became my teachers, modeling generosity and inquisitiveness, pointing out when I was being old fashioned or on auto pilot, and perennially challenging me to work toward optimal equity and inclusiveness. As stressful as the labor of running an art space can be, the love, laughs, and learning outshone the fatigue that sometimes accompanies this type of work.
Sherry Millner artist talk on the occasion of In this place where the guest rests, curated by Jacqueline Mabey. Photo by Michael Mandiberg.
ANTE. How have you focused your energy on moving forward during the pandemic as a cultural producer?
TCS. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this is such a universal question right now in the arts and beyond. Right now my energy is focused on staying connected with close friends, taking care of my body with exercise, and connecting to nature (and my dog) with walks and gardening. I’m also doing some freelance grant and copywriting for an Alzheimer’s organization which has me thinking about how the labor of families, especially women’s labor, is literally keeping eldercare afloat in the U.S. I am thinking there is a feminist exhibition on labor, healthcare, and ageism in there somewhere. Things are still fresh with FSW closing, and I lost my mother recently too so there are a lot of new normals to digest, consequently, I am doing a lot of reflection right now, in a good way, I think, I hope..! Haha.
As we touched on earlier, I am starting to organize materials for an FSW archive. I am also awkwardly working to shift the Feminisms and the Arts class I teach at UConn-Stamford to distance learning and continuing ask colleagues and friends – especially those whose practices are about creating more equity and inclusiveness in the art world – how I can support them and their work during these difficult times.
In contemplating the last nine years, I’ve realize that curating for me is most rewarding when it’s in collaboration with a community where I feel a significant connection. Ideally, if I were to commit to another full-time position in the visual arts, the community I choose to work with would be as important as the organization. The places that feel like home to me are Bridgeport (where I live) and New Haven (where I have friends and there is a vibrant art scene) as well as my hometown of Nashville, TN. So I hope to stay put in Connecticut or move back to Tennessee. That said, we never know what the future brings, so I’m keeping an open mind at the same time
MaryKate Maher is one of those conceptual juggernauts whose work you discover and instantly wonder how you haven’t run across it sooner. Her awareness of the nuances of structure and the volume of forms create lyrical and compelling sculptures and installation work. A thoughtful artist with a strong record of exhibitions who also just so happens to be an alumna of both Skowhegan and MacDowell, Maher proves through her practice to create gradual crescendos, impressing her admirers with a criticality and subtlety that holds precious secrets for all who encounter her work.
We touched base with Maher to gain a more in-depth appreciation of her practice in light of her selection as an Open Call winner, learning about her background in painting, her ruminations on balance and the careful, tenuous relationships binding individual components to the whole.
ANTE.Thanks for chatting with us MaryKate. Can you tell us about your practice and specifically the tension between the organic and industrial latent in your work?
MaryKate Maher.I have a background in painting and drawing that has transitioned over time to include sculpture and elements of photography. They influence each other in ongoing conversation. This dynamic between structure and tonality, color and line serves as a useful aesthetic corollary to the organic/industrial duality. I find industrial landscapes beautiful and sad. In their pristine states, the industrial dominates the organic, cutting through it, confident and domineering. In its dilapidated state, one sees the organic reasserting itself, softening the borders. That juxtaposition interests me. I don’t go out looking specifically for it but it seems to find me, catching my attention when something seems “right”.
For example, one moment I keep trying to recreate occurred about two years ago when I was driving home from my studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was sunset and I was driving near Kingsland Avenue, which is a very industrial route. There is this large white holding tank (oil or fuel). On this particular evening the sunset was reflecting perfectly onto the tank so that both the tank and the sky had the same pink and purple gradients. The industrial was acting as a mirror for the organic. I didn’t have my camera with me and I kept trying to pull over in traffic to either take a picture with my phone or figure out what I wanted from that moment. It was rush hour-hectic and I missed my chance. I drive by there all the time trying to re-catch that experience, but I haven’t seen it again. I’m not sure what I expect from seeing it again but the gradients I saw from the light that day have found their way into my work.
ANTE.You specifically mention cairns as an influence in your practice. Can you speak to the impact that and other natural phenomena have on your work?
MaryKate Maher. Rocks and cairns have been a fixture in my work. With cairns, you have something very organic with a touch of the human added. The most basic human gesture. I think about how that gesture would feel to someone wandering alone through the wilderness. Is it reassuring? Is it spooky? There’s also a sort of game to making rocks, which do not on their own lend themselves to stacking, balance one on top of the other. In my work, it turns into manipulating weight and balance in ways that emphasize awkward and precarious arrangements. I’m not interested in picture-perfect compilations. I tend to stack and pile using chunks of concrete and other fabricated forms, wedging something into another form. There is a deliberateness to this action which is weird, imperfect, and provisional.
Nature isn’t pristine. It creates all sorts of bizarre conglomerations like “plastiglomerates’ which are a literal fusing of plastic pollution with organic debris to create a new form of rock – a direct result from human pollution. In my personal collection I have an oyster shell which has fused itself to styrofoam like a barnacle. Its a perfect riddle: what is overtaking what?
I also love the tradition of the Scholars’ Rock and Odin stones where natural formations are so thoroughly aesthetified that they come to read as sculpture. Other phenomena like Fata Morgana and mirages, light refracting on the horizon creating interesting effects: all of these influence my work in some way. When I can travel and explore I collect all these feelings and moments from different places and bring that back into the studio. I love geology and seeing famous collections, like that of Roger Caillois, and Standing Stones in Britain. There is a power to all of these objects and for centuries people have tapped into that.
ANTE.Recently you have shown at venues such as Triangle Arts Association and the Brooklyn Army Terminal. You’ve also shown at outdoor sculpture venues. Can you walk us through the positive aspects of both gallery and public/outdoor sculpture exhibitions?
MaryKate Maher. My studio is pretty messy most of the time and venues that are more of a traditional gallery space are ideal for seeing the work in that clean, open space. You can control the presentation, the lighting, all of those things. You can play with scale and formality. There aren’t many “unknowns” thrown into the mix. Outdoor sculpture is usually just one work and it has to stand up to other criteria like weather, scale, and durability in addition to it being a finished work. It’s a fun (and stressful) challenge. It’s like being a director: making sure everything is happening on schedule and organizing all of the components, renting equipment, hiring help, etc. Working outdoors can have perks that can’t really be created indoors, and it’s always a big learning experience. Last year, I was curated into a sculpture exhibition in the Poconos along a local hiking trail. All of the works that were included had to address the natural world and couldn’t interfere with the natural environment there. It took me a long time to figure out what to create. It had to stand out against the camouflage of the woods, but also meet my standards of refinement. I had been working on and off with large blocks of livestock salt but had only ever shown the salt works in an indoor setting. I ended up creating a totemic form that stood out against the earth-toned surroundings. Salt is elementally of the earth, so it’s soft and organic in its own way, but compressed in this form it becomes rigid and structured. I knew the rain would erode it and that animals might eat it, that it might kill the grass underneath. I envisioned it melting away in this beautiful spire-like form to create an entirely new sculpture (which didn’t happen). As the exhibition progressed over the twelve months of the show an evolution occured: morning dew ensured a permanent wet, sweaty gloss to the salt, rain eroded the edges making it eerie and otherworldly, and deer and racoons came in the night to lick the blocks thereby leaving divets and marks, but the sculpture never changed the way I thought it would. All of the moisture kept eroding my anchors and epoxies and those blocks are so damn dense they take forever to melt. The animals did create an impromptu performative aspect of the work. Eventually it just became a ruin. It was still a cool piece, but there are a lot more “what ifs” with outdoor work. I find that when I’m invited to make outdoor work, I try to go as large as the budget can go and when I’m invited to show in a gallery setting I can scale up or down as needed.
The show at Triangle Arts was a really beautifully curated exhibition by Annesofie Sandal who I had recently met while exhibiting work at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. It was a nice connection and both of those shows were great to be involved in.
ANTE.Can you tell us more about what you’re working on recently and what direction your practice is moving toward?
MaryKate Maher. The pandemic has really thrown a wrench in things for me. In February/March 2020, I was in residency at the Wassaic Project. I was exploring all sorts of new ideas and thoughts, testing out new materials and processes. Within 5 days of returning to NYC, the city completely shut down. Many of those ideas that would have had the chance to possibly cultivate into something interesting suddenly seemed moot. So they’re all on the back burner for now. My brain – and body – just don’t have the energy at the moment to tackle them. Instead, I’ve been focusing on works on paper and collages. There were too many unknowns and a lingering lack of structure present in my day to day, so I created a project with set parameters. I printed a bunch of images and photographs that I had been working with and cut them all up. My task is to create new collages from the same cut papers by rearranging and reusing the pieces. Then I take a photograph of the ones I like and turn them into a print. There is a nice immediacy about working this way as well as permission to put it all away on the days when it feels frustrating. The completed works are turning out pretty well. The original images included lots of gradients and abstractions of light, and they create these interesting depths and spaces. They are very abstract and surreal, but I’m digging it for now and just rolling with it. There is a lot of repetition because the same forms show up throughout the work, but it’s helping to create this concise series. They’re also helping me think about ways to translate that into sculptural forms.
ANTE.What’s one specific work you’ve made in the past three months, and what about it is inspiring you consider new concepts and formal evolutions in your work?
MaryKate Maher. The collages I’ve made during the quarantine. These branched out from work I was doing right before the pandemic but the previous work wasn’t really there yet and needed to be pushed further. Being stuck in my small apartment, with my family, all of us on top of each other, I would sneak away and sit in my window sill and stare out at the world below. Listening to the intense quiet, watching the sunsets, seeing the birds going about business as usual, spying on neighbors using their roofs for exercise. I thought a lot about light, space and bodies. The colors I was working with were magentas, pinks and reds and they felt bodily and intensely oversaturated. Color has been moving into my work in a way it wasn’t before. My neutral palette is evolving for sure from this recent work. As I start to get back to the studio, I see the work continuing in this direction as I figure out what it means: cut forms, saturated colors and finding new ways to create space through flat planes.
(Lead Image: Prussian Blue (head), 2019, resin, concrete, brass, gold leaf, prussian blue flashe, 16 x 12 x 8.5in)