Today I dropped off my models to be sandblasted, primed, and powder coated (sprayed with a colored, dry polymer that is baked on at 390 degrees Fahrenheit). The powder coating is necessary to protect the steel from rusting.
Rust, amorphous in color, texture, and pattern, has been my nemesis lately. I’ve been noticing it on train tracks and pock-marked banisters, the former a burnt shell and the latter a blistery cherry dermis. Imagining what will become of my pristine steel surfaces is simply a guessing game. The futility of this game seems retribution for my earlier ignorance of the difficulties of this challenge.
Gourds of various breeds and sizes will be grown and trained by the models. The models, in preparation for being sent outdoors to withstand a growing season, call for weatherproofing, regarding which there are a few options: a) electroplating b) powder coating c) galvanizing d) the use of a sacrificial anode and e) forgoing protection entirely and simply letting the steel rust. My first choice was the sacrificial anode, likely explained by the three-quarter portrait of Jesus Christ that greets from the doorway of my childhood home. Next to Jesus, a crooked shoehorn and a jocular if palm-sized Korean mask twist frozenly in my mind, hung on nails unevenly in the drywall, as if communicating the undeniable nobility of an a priori rust messiah.
However, like most first choices, this theoretically charmed solution proved impossible in translation.
Electroplating proved too costly, and galvanizing, though very cheap, scumbled the tight steel lines with an uneven chalky texture. Moving forward by a process of elimination I made friends of two enemies, one new and the other old. I set aside an offering of cages to render unto rust and then prostrated myself anxiously toward the color wheel.
As a bricoleur, or rather a hoarder who has read some Levi-Strauss, I find questions with too many answers daunting and incomprehensible. When choices surround each other, differentiated not by type but by degree, like the thin lines of color on a spectrum, I get easily disoriented. I tend to unload time, shuttling back and forth in drug stores, agonizing over After Bite or After Bite Gel. Yes, calamine lotion would definitely work but in making such a purchase would I not be valuing nostalgia’s palliative effects over those of Benzocaine and Benzethonium chloride, or Diphenhydramine, or Dimethicone and its naturally occurring inorganic oils derived from sand.
No, I cannot find comfort in calamine lotion. I simply have not done the research to make that kind of statement.
Marketing, clearly, is orthogonal to the truth, or rather what I want to know, about a product. What I ask myself is, which of these ointments, gels, liquids, or cremes will make me not scratch myself to the point of dreadful scarring? What I find in response: an inordinate array of almost identical products, an understanding that the information printed is all but meaningless, and a hosiery of soundless, wordless itches.
This is all to say that as a sculptor, one who rarely sculpts and more often rearranges, I find the color inherent in objects, even mass-produced objects, compelling to work with. Inherent color denotes a certain level of abdication, which in turn can foreground not only the ever-presence of formal connections but also the working processes that frame them as manifest. The sculptural use of found, bought, or repurposed color can be, among other things, conspiratorial, alchemical, anarchic, indexical, painterly, unpainterly, irreverent, or in the case of Jessica Stockholder’s work, all of the above.
While an undergraduate (2000 – 2004) I spent much of my time in Yale’s old Hammond Hall Sculpture building, attending the weekly round of Wednesday night critiques that Jessica, the chair of the department at that time, organized and participated in. The critiques often lasted one or two hours per student, and were bounded by few rules except for Jessica’s strong expectation that the work speak for itself; The artist presenting work assumed no obligation to introduce it, defend it, or answer any questions.
At times Jessica played the role of instigator, interpreter, or critic, but overwhelmingly, she spoke from the authority of her consciousness. She was conscious of what was in the room: how it was constructed, where it began and ended, what materials were used, what gestures, forms, narratives, relationships were present or absent. Wednesday nights were never in short supply of graduate students or visiting artists with outsized personalities or palpitating agendas, but none made as strong an impact on me or, I believe, the conversation as Jessica and her outsized attention.
When I think back on the hundred or so critiques I attended, I find myself unable to remember some moment of insight or repartee that would typify Jessica’s contributions. What comes to mind is a certain exhortation, “Get messy,” which some students repeated to caricature her admittedly meager aptitude for advice. Getting your hands dirty, literally, was all she had to offer in response to the question–What should I be doing? In response to the question–What have I done? (or less cinematically, What are we looking at?)–her capacity to delve was indefatigable.
I remember her once saying that motivation is a strange force; You could do something for some reason today and then, years later, recognize that the actual force that motivated you was outside of your purview. Looking back you see how you some unfocused field oriented you, and how its values more accurately represented the shape of your perambulations. This difference does not demand a crisis. Motivation is a living thing:
I have faith that all actions have significance. It is impossible to act without reason. Consequently, it is always possible to discover something of interest through action, through making. It might take a while to find the thing with sparks. The mind is big and complicated. The things we make are just as complicated. It’s not possible for our conscious minds to be in control of all the meanings generated by what we make. Having faith that that is the case, art making is an opportunity to explore the nature of the mind. If you come at it from the other direction, insisting that it all makes sense, you miss an opportunity to really take advantage of the bigness of what we are. (Stockholder 20)
In the end I chose a beige, a redish pink, and a bright magenta as a way of moving forward with my constraints, my models, and not despite them. I chose these colors because at the time they seemed flexible, stretchy, and soft. They felt like indoor colors and pretty ones. I chose these colors because they were available at no extra cost and because I could comfortably see them framing a body. These colors I imagined could trammel a gourd but never overpower it. These cages, I have realized are as much for swaddling as binding. In their constriction they differentiate, albeit cartoonishly, anthropologically.
As an artist I have always been attracted to ‘truth’ as a material. Reading about Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages was one of my first personal experiences with conceptual art–a kind of cognitive surge. To make the sculpture Duchamp conducted an “experiment” using 3 pieces of ordinary thread, one meter long. From the height of one meter he let the threads fall at random and recorded the shapes they made. He used those shapes to determine 3 wooden slats, shaped like wooden stencils, which he would later use as tools to create other works like Network of Stoppages, 1914.
Like many of Duchamp’s works, Network of Stoppages derives from a self threading process that both is linear and whimsically (or infuriatingly) knotted. This painting has been traced backwards as a Frankensteinian amalgamation of previously separate bodies of work, most notably a version of the painting Young Man and Girl in Spring, 1911, which comprises the yellowish-green landscape in the background, turned from vertical to horizontal, the aforementioned stencils, and a sketch for the Large Glass.
The turned portrait becomes a landscape, and the landscape, blacked out above and below becomes a negative on a strip of film that extends horizontally past the frame. A string, dropped from the height of one meter, falls on the surface of the painting which has pivoted yet again to catch it, and is recorded from above like life in a microscope.
At the bottom left of the painting a female figure’s supine extension draws an outline from fingertip to hip joint to thigh. The thigh is shown as a segment, described simultaneously as flesh and as line. The figure’s branched arms mirror the superimposed cartographic form that maps no territory but instead a network of endpoints, a fluting shuffle of outcomes. There is a desire to map the flow of becoming or at least to enumerate its possible paths.
As I was first encountering these works by Duchamp, I was making sculptures that I hoped were ‘true,’ or at least, potently indexical. In 2001, I made an installation that used the form of a shopping cart to visualize the rate of savings (MPS) against the rate of spending (MPC) in the U.S. over a twenty-five year period (1976 – 2001). In retrospect, these carts may have proved more insightful had they instead been houses, for they were illustrative of the “irrational exuberance” first highlighted by Robert Shiller, the Yale economics professor who ironically may have taught many of the individuals who brought his dire predictions to bear.
The wooden pallet, standing vertically, conveyed penciled calculations of savings and spending year by year on each slat, and the bamboo curtain, on the floor, provided a counterpoint to the pallet’s shifted orientation. The shapes of the two “carts,” savings (in the foreground) and spending (behind it and to the left), were derived by taking the form of a shopping cart, breaking it down into twenty-five structural lengths, and then multiplying those lengths by the MPS and MPC for the corresponding year (1976 – 2001). The progression in time went from the bottom to the top so that the increasing discrepancy in spending versus savings bore out in a blossoming spending structure and a small bashful form given over to lengths of string that were used to denote negative savings, debt.
Why I was trying to make sculpture with this information and not policy, or at least news, was a question I did not know to ask myself. I was hungry for art’s undeniability and dismissive of the mysticism I perceived in aesthetic choices. I also had no clear definition of sculpture in my mind when I began making it in college. Nor did I have many encounters with it in my past. The first slide lecture I saw in Hammond Hall was on Duchamp and I remember how his name flooded my mind with invisibility. Whenever it was invoked something phantasmagoric happened to objects, though really to the people around them, and I would peer in from outside the trance like a child peeking down a pew during prayer.
The readymade as a gesture seemed nonsensical to me but its connection to the scientific method seemed abundantly clear. They were tied to each other by repetition and its fidelity. A string dropped again and again draws meaningless patterns, or rather meaningful patterns upon some obscure plate. This silly data, empirically drawn, shifts and budges in my consciousness as the result of that irrepressibly creative process by which a line is drawn with only the aid of points. By what alchemy but the characterless passage of time.
A measured string, a string of debt, a train of thought and fabric, a knot of steel, the line of my life ties these points in restless formations. Thinking back to motivation, I draw blind contours of my time, connecting point to adjacent point then jumping past others, snaking back. I draw knots in lines around moments of ramified time. If it seems that the shortest paths take me nowhere, then certainly the longest cross me with so much hidden distance that they seem hardly worth the guessing or the travel. And yet there is no living in the privileged moment only in this fluted one, this envelope of which we experience the folded contents and not the destinations, the to and from, unless some outside force holds the whole thing up to light or, as is more often the case, we simply learn to read backwards.
I chose three colors and the name of this blog, Tabletop, instinctually. And yet, pulling back along this length of string, now ten years postponed, I find these colors looped and tied to so many memories of New Haven, and Tabletop, the name of an idea I most likely encountered there and a show I never saw, though the dots connect. Before I began to shape it, Tabletop, was something else entirely, a platform to connect Joseph Cornell and Marie Curie. Tracking forward I find a conversation with my friend Sam, in Hannah Arendt on Kant,
…if you proceed conversely from the many tables which you have seen in your life, strip off them all secondary qualities and the remainder is a table in general, containing the minimum properties common to all tables. The abstract table..You may meet or think of some table which you judge to be the best possible table and take this table as the example of how tables actually should be-the exemplary table…This is and remains a particular which in its very particularity reveals the generality which otherwise could not be defined. (Arendt 272)
In deciding what color to paint these models I am looking for some exemplary of which the general does not yet exist. “Getting messy,” or having the faith to “discover something of interest through action, through making,” is about making decisions with time, not against it. In those cases when I do not have enough examples and work from instinct to advance a few, I do not create from whole cloth but instead unweave myself, for instinct is at its core a form of remembering.
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1978. Print.
Jessica Stockholder, Kissing the Wall: Works, 1988 – 2003, exhibition catalogue, September 18 – November 21 2004, Blaffer Gallery, Houston, TX. February 13 – May 8 2005, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, NC.