“We’re Calling It a Freeway!”
JaNae Contag: As we begin, I’d like to set up a few parameters to help us more narrowly frame our conversation. First, let’s acknowledge materiality as content. I am not fond of the circulating and somehow popular discussion of re-use, trash, and found materials as a basis for the bricolage genre in art. To me, that discussion hinges on high culture / low culture binaries that I would like to avoid, especially because your work sits so squarely, if not ambiguously, amongst those classifications. I also would like to avoid conversations based purely on “process” evident in the work – let’s take this for granted.
In other words, let’s make content and context our main focus.
First, I’d like to talk about the way in which you flatten and frame your sculptural work by photographing it. Your past work has been interpreted as having a sense of optical illusion, in that the photographs (like all photographs) are bound by their frames, subject to manipulation, and are static. What do you accomplish by fixing the vantage point of a 3D object? I am looking specifically at the chartreuse block on a white pedestal that seems to be engaging a demi-point pose in ballet (10,11,12) and the piece of plywood suspended in air (06). Furthermore, in what ways do the contexts of photographic representation and their actual presentation in the world lend meaning to your sculptures?
Sterling Allen: Good first question! I suppose that line of questioning really gets to the heart of what I’m really after as well. I realized some time ago that my ideas about sculpture were really polluted by the camera/screen as opposed to a corporeal understanding. I had been making sculpture from photographs and began to see how tricky this relationship can be for the reasons you mention (frame, flattening of space, singular viewpoint) all of which are the opposites of what most sculpture tries to be. I guess I got interested in the limitations of the photographic representation of objects and where that can be exploited or toyed with. It’s no accident that most of the sculpture I have seen has been in magazines, books or on a computer screen. I have lived in Texas nearly my whole life and the vast majority of what I’m looking at is not taking place in my backyard. For this reason among others, I also know that most of my sculpture will be seen in a similar way. This isn’t a new development, but something that I feel is becoming more and more pressing for artists right now. It’s actually part of the reason I feel like sculpture is so exciting. It’s really hard to get a sense of it from a picture and that’s a fascinating problem to think about.
JC: The use of flat paint in your work also seems to add another layer of flattening to your sculptures, especially in photographs. In what ways do you think flattening both limits and extends our perception of depth in space?
SA: I’ve always had an attraction to flat paint. I think it goes back to a few things but off the top of my head two of them would be cartoons and screenprinting, neither of which have always been a part of the fine art world. In terms of sculpture, I love the kind of clarity that can be gained from coating an object in one tone and letting light fall over the form, producing shadows/highlights and separating planes. I think about artists like Anne Truitt, George Sugarman, Vincent Fectau and Anthony Caro in this regard. Lately I’ve also been thinking about the illusion of flat paint over forms. In other words, using different tones of a single color on an object to mimic the effect of light – creating edges or cast light where there might not really be any through the use of color shifts. It’s like volume suggested through color rather than form.
JC: Most of your color choices are garish – like a child’s bedroom (I’ve always wondered why on earth parents paint their kids’ rooms orange, pink, and lime green), or a cartoon. There definitely seems to be a sinister, caricature of play in some of the work. I’m looking at the blue painted plywood train tunnel. I’m thinking about the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the tunnel entry into Toon Town. Toons are out of place in the real world, and humans are aloof in Toon Town. How does this resonate with the experience of viewing your work?
SA: In terms of color, I think bold, bright but also specific. I think that it’s the specificity of some of the color relationships that actually make them sing rather than how bright or punchy they are. Sometimes the intrinsic color of an object or space is already set up and it’s just a matter of isolating it or keeping record. I rarely choose color randomly and most of the time it is based on something I’ve photographed which tends to come from advertising, construction, debris, or some other pre-existing source. It’s more of an editing process than an intuitive one. I think the garish choices add levity to the work; they’re approachable and recognizable but not necessarily as art first, which I like.
JC: The blue painted zigzag sculpture in the first and ninth image has a similar affect, but is even more deadpan in presentation. Would you discuss the relationship between color, paint and play in your sculptures?
SA: The first image shows the entire lifecycle of that work (which has turned out to be a very important work for me.) The small bit of blue tape on the window was the first part. It was put there simply to hold that sheet of plywood up against the window to block the sun from my studio at the time. Once light shone through the tape, it created two tones because in some places the tape was doubled up. I took a picture of this and then made a sculpture based roughly on the photograph. Once the sculpture was made, I documented it on the floor in a different space. The image you see shows the original, the photo of the original, the sculpture itself and the documentation of the sculpture. This whole process is play for me. I like what happens when I force myself to translate an image across different media, seeing what is gained and lost in the translation. When working from photographs I have one vantage point from which to base something. And of course there is also my memory of the event that is documented in the photograph, should I choose to access that. So when moving into three dimensions, decisions must be made that go beyond the two dimensional source material. Conversely, when photographing an object that you can walk around or pick up and rotate, you are making very violent decisions about how it will be fronted or flattened into two dimensions. The camera can be generative though and not always limiting during this process. I’m also interested in relinquishing control when I can. I try to photograph things while I’m making them as a way to slow down and re-evaluate my original intentions. I often make u-turns or left turns on my way somewhere based on these moments. This sort of meandering is really important to me.
JC: I want to discuss the theme of plasticity in your work as well–plasticity being defined as flexible, cheap, tangible, reproducible, and economical. To you, is plasticity a desirable thing in the world? There is an old saying among engineers that given the choice between creating an object (or purchasing one) that is cheap, fast, and good, you can only ever fulfill two out of the three characteristics. For instance, if I want to purchase a pair shoes to wear to an event, I could go online and rush-order Jeremy Campbell boots and they will be good and fast, but certainly not cheap. There is a tension in your work that suggests this sort of desirable plasticity, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Anything you can explain here, especially in terms of your choices of materials and colors?
SA: I’ve heard the same thing when talking about a contractor. You can be cheap and fast but do a shitty job, or you can do a good job, be fast but expensive etc. I suppose this has to do with limitations, which I think are the most important things for artists. I have noticed that most of the time when artists begin to expand their studios too quickly to include dozens of assistants and huge production budgets and an array of processes, the work decidedly lacks something in the end. Those artworks are certainly huge, well made, plentiful and shiny, but they can feel cold or dishonest at times. I thrive on rules though I have learned it’s ok to break them as well. I use a lot of wood in my work. I prefer big box hardware store grade over high grade hardwoods. I like working by myself and spending time with a project. I think I’m just trying to problem solve all the time and wood has proven to be a good material for trying things out. This type of material surrounds us and one can mold it without too many fancy tools. I really hate waste so it’s hard for me to throw anything out. I will often repurpose materials even if they bear the history of previous efforts. I’m also happy using found materials for this reason. For these reasons, I would say that I am definitely into plasticity as you’ve defined it, much more so than it’s opposite (rigid, expensive, inaccessible, one-of-a-kind etc). I am more engaged with what the work is doing rather than the sum of the materials themselves. Some artists rely heavily on materials with certain connotations or meanings and that’s cool, but not me so much.
JC: Your sculptures don’t have eyes or faces, but in many ways they have anthropomorphic qualities. They seem to indicate, through the context lent by the photographs, a sense of singularity, loneliness, deflated-ness, and some are even derelict lying on the pavement outside of the studio, apt to get run over by a car (04). Some objects, like the concrete staircase with the red x’s have been marked for demolition. What are the codes to look for, if you can say, and how do you mean these sculptures to feel?
SA: I suppose most of the photographic documentation of my work singles out individual pieces so maybe the loneliness can be attributed to that? In the objects that I photograph with my phone (an obsessive index that is ongoing) I think there are certain strategies and themes that I keep coming back to. With the street photography, as you might call it, I have the power to isolate the subject of the photograph and frame it in any way. I almost always take one picture and move on. I guess I am drawn to instances and objects that appear out of place somewhat. This might explain their singularity and sense of deflated-ness. Rarely will I make a picture of something brand new, looking super good. Most of the time the flaws, folds, stains and holes are the things that give us our character and these objects are no different.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
JaNae Contag: A St. Louis-based artist, writer, and educator. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and her BA from Trinity University in San Antonio. Her films, photographs, and drawings deal with uncanny aspects of desire in suburban retail and residential developments. She has exhibited in the Midwest and Texas, most notably at The Luminary Center for the Arts and the Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis, and Co-Lab Project Space in Austin, Texas. Contag currently teaches in the Photography Program at The Art Institute of St. Louis.
Sterling Allen: Allen received his BFA in Studio Art from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003. In 2006, together with eight other Austin artists he founded and currently co-directs Okay Mountain. As a solo artist and in collaboration with Okay Mountain, he has exhibited and created numerous projects at venues throughout the United States and received several residencies including the Artpace International Artist-In-Residence Program in San Antonio, Texas. He recently completed an MFA in Sculpture at the Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts at Bard College.