JOSE GARZA [on] GILLIAN TOBIN

{One mourns less for what was than for what can no longer happen now.}

—Hans-Jost Frey, Interruptions

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{2014} Courtesy of Gillian Tobin.

Epilogue

Some of these things may or may not have happened…

{These walls used to be beige. Lime green. Piss yellow. Looks like there could be at least five different types of yellow. There’s a spot you’ve been picking at. Your fingernail is filed down from the scratching and peeling. The tip of your finger is raw. What happened here when the walls were brown? You keep peeling back. More layers appear. You pull back a nice big chunk. Whose room was this? Maybe it used to be a bedroom. You concentrate on a place where the paint is closely stacked together like sheets of paper. It looks like at least a hundred layers. Your nail digs in deeper. Small flakes and debris fall at your feet. You think you catch the scent of stale beer. It’s faint but turns your stomach. You continue scratching. Peeling. A telephone rings on the other side of the wall. You place your ear against it where you’ve been scratching. A muffled voice. Then crying. The receiver drops to the floor. Scratching again. Deeper. Almost to the first layer. Crying becomes sobbing. Were there any pictures on the walls? Posters of movie stars and pop bands? Did someone hide in here?  Did they hide from teasing or scolding? Rejection. Did a broken heart live here? Could it still be here? Footsteps. Trrrttdd. The receiver is placed back on the cradle. Why do you only remember the bad things? You know? Because they’re the ones that resonate in your bones. So deep yet so close to the surface. Why can’t you remember anything good? The bad shit is so much easier to remember. Why won’t you let yourself remember anything good? Almost to the bottom. You can see the bare wood. You need the scratching and peeling to help you remember anything at all. You are tethered to it. Like a line to your ankle that slacks before becoming taut and pulling you back home. Almost there. Almost home. What is that? A speck of red. It’s wet and instantly soaks into the dry rotted wood grain. Leaves a ring. It gets bigger. Puddles. You stop.}

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{2014} Courtesy of Gillian Tobin.

Standing in the middle of the room, I feel like the lone survivor of a natural disaster. It looks like a tornado just tore through here. The air feels heavy and static. It’s eerily quiet. Objects and debris are strewn everywhere. I’m afraid to step without looking, as there are very few places to find proper footing. The entire world is condensed into this 10ft x 10ft space. It’s piled on top of itself. But there are a few instances where things appear to have been spared, left unscathed. Brief moments of clarity. A stack of books about ten high, notes tacked to the walls or pinned to the surface of a worktable, a lone empty PBR tallboy erected like a pillar. And the artwork. The sole reason for all of this. It hangs bravely to the walls or stands defiantly on it’s own. It was born out of this chaos. They look back at me with suspicious eyes as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” or rather “What are you still doing here?” But I’m not the only one here. Gillian is here too. She stands by her long worktable just a few feet from me. It resembles a battle zone. I can almost see smoke rise from it. Her eyes survey the damage and the casualties. Her hand scans over the rubble.

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{2014} Courtesy of Gillian Tobin.

This is Gillian’s studio. It’s a messy, uneven, incoherent, fragmented, and broken space held together by all the confusion and at once ready to fall apart. It’s full of as much splendor as wretchedness. Clearly she has run out of space to work long ago. We are here to pack and clean. She is moving out. I can tell she is already feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Usually, I can read it in her eyes. They are her most expressive feature. While the rest of her body can sit perfectly still, her hands tightly clasped together, shoulders raised and held against her neck; her eyes change color as fast as brewing storm clouds. From crystal blue to bluish-green, green-blue to green and back again. Sometimes it depends on the light or what she is wearing. Other times it’s her mood. Right now they are green, deep dark green. I’ve never seen them this green. So dark green they absorb all the light around her. There is something uncannily familiar about all of this. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I try to remain calm. “Everything is gonna be alright”, I reassure her. She turns to me, slightly smiles and nods in agreement. Her shoulders relax.

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{2014} Courtesy of Gillian Tobin.

Gillian says she has picked one of her sculptures to give to me; knows exactly which one. She doesn’t realize my intention is to leave with more. At least two. I have been in her studio many times. We’ve made it past all the pleasantries and insecurities that occur the first couple of times you visit someone’s studio. The awkwardness. Gone beyond the polite questions and smiles. I’ve been nosey, poked around and asked questions. Found myself genuinely interested in her process- materially and intellectually. She has talked me through what she’s doing and thinking. Confided in me. I’ve tried my best to be helpful- objective, honest, direct and encouraging. It’s what happens when trust is established. We begin to notice the subtle moves, nuances and changes in the work. Also in the repertoire we develop with the artist. The moves and words become more intentional and confident. We appreciate the privilege of the relationship to the artist and their work. The intimacy that it brings. We are attuned to the visual language that begins to emerge. It sings to us when we walk into her studio.

{I’m sorry if it falls apart. I feel like they are. Like they’re not meant to last.}

I hold the piece she’s chosen for me in my hands. It’s one I’ve had my eyes on.

{What’s it called?}

{It’s “Untiled”, most of them are untitled.}

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{2014} Courtesy of Gillian Tobin.

Gillian’s sculptures are constructed from a recipe of acrylic paints, household glue, coffee grounds, concrete dust, gel medium and other ingredients. She pours out the mixture and leaves it out to dry to form skins. When dry, they are malleable. Their color range between black, beige, yellow and blue. Glossy and matte. Colors that allude to those found in domestic interiors. There are pieces of them all over her studio floor. Chips and scraps. Other elements such as parts of furniture, twine, wish mesh and gutted journals are also incorporated. Using the dried skins and other materials, she transforms them into exquisitely precise handcrafted sculptures. Sections are cut, glued, twisted, and folded to create concave and convex lines. They blossom and collapse onto themselves revealing a delicate and painstaking process. We are not only looking at their exterior but are seduced inwardly as the forms weave in and out. They are abstractions. Fragments brought together to make a whole. They’re enigmatic. Elegant. Yet by their abstraction, their fragmentedness and otherness is only further emphasized. They appear wounded and propped up by the sum of their parts. Intentionally left in an unresolved state.  And so we are also repulsed. Not because they are ugly or grotesque but because we are also confronted by inherent and insensate hopelessness. They are open and unselfconscious. Vulnerable. Frail and volatile. Beautiful and Sad. Brilliance is found in their poignancy and sadness.

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{2014} Courtesy of Gillian Tobin.

Still packing. Gillian separates her studio in different piles. Things to be packed, thrown away, given away and undecided. She methodically sifts through all the items. Bags of trash fill up. Art supplies and notebooks are sorted. We work together without speaking. Space opens up around the floor. I hear her take a deep gulp of air and then sigh. There’s more room to breathe now. Before we even begin, I try to memorize her studio exactly as it. I attempt to visually catalog every single thing in it. Imagine what it would look like if it were much bigger or even much smaller. I place it other cities. Places I’ve been to and others I haven’t. What if it’s much bigger with more natural light? White walls. Maybe a concrete floor…There’s a large sliding glass door that opens up into a garden. I’m sitting on an old leather chair smoking a cigarette. When I exhale the smoke dances around my hands as I cut pictures out a magazine. There are more gray hairs on my chin. A dog naps at my feet. Gillian is at the other end of the studio. Next to her a hot cup of coffee. There’s a small chip one side and if you’re not careful it will cut your lip. She twists a life-size armature into shape. A chewed-up pencil is held between her teeth. This isn’t real. I don’t know if it will ever be real. But right now it feels like it is and it only raises more questions. I’m not sure why I’m doing this. It’s sentimental. Overly romantic. It doesn’t’ make any sense. I catch myself deep in this daydream, fantasy. I have no name for it. I don’t know what this is. The more I yearn for it, the less clear it becomes. As vivid as I want the images to be, they are distant and out of focus. I bring myself back. Look at my smartphone to read the time (4:37 p.m.). Then, I use the studio and its content to orient myself. I need an anchor. But with every sweep of the broom and the neat stacks created, I am slipping away. The floor open up and slides from under me. I am empty, buoyant, floating no matter how close she is.

Gillian is placing some books in a translucent green plastic bin. She arranges and rearranges their order. Makes more room for other items. Pops the lid closed. She looks up at me. Her eyes are blue.

{Wow, it looks like everything’s gonna fit!}

I think we’re both surprised by how quickly the studio has almost been returned to its original state. With the exception of a little patching and painting it’s all set. All done for the day and a little tired, we sit on a plaid couch outside the studio. I sink in deeper into the cushion than anticipated. It’s old and the springs have no give left in them. Our elbows lightly touch. The thin hairs on our arms stand on end. I look over at Gillian; her eyes flutter and then gently close. There is a tiny bead of sweat above her eyebrow. Her lips are slightly parted. I trace her profile and tattoo it on my brain. Draw every freckle on her face. I want to remember everything just as it is. The feel of the rough and worn fabric of the couch. The socks I’m wearing. Her dark, curly hair pulled back into a loose bun. The way the air smells. The hot and muggy late afternoon waiting for us outside. The earrings she wears. The dirt under my fingernails. The one hair on my mustache that is just a little too long and pokes my lip. The smudge of dust on her jeans. Splattered dried paint and scratches on the hardwood floors. Every single one. The feeling of satisfaction of accomplishing a task. Together. I catch my breath. She rests her head on my shoulder.

I don’t want this moment to end. I don’t trust my memory.

Softly she says, the words barely leaving her lips, {Thank you so much for helping me. Thank you for everything…I’m hungry. I don’t feel like I should be but I am. Are you hungry? Let’s go get something to eat.}

I nod my head {yes.}

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{2014} Courtesy of Gillian Tobin.

Prologue

The words above were inspired by Gillian and her work. Unfortunately, I fear that I have not done her or her practice any justice with reference to and describing her work intellectually. Below this paragraph, I will place her words to describe it.

{Few feelings are more disjointed and elusive than our longings. Poignantly situated beyond verbal expression, our innermost yearnings act as the basis for our sense of selfhood in the world, and yet that restless pining often leaves us dissatisfied, empty; desire rarely finds an end result; longings are seldom fulfilled. These longings manifest themselves in the questions we struggle to give form to, the instances of melancholic reverie, the missing of a place that doesn’t exist. There is a sense of loss embedded within the subject. Not a specific loss, but the troubling sensation of one, which can’t be named.

Objects illuminate this absent condition: an emblem of insatiable longing – the personal, private sign.  Meaning is associative: romantic and illogical. Pivotal to our sense of self, our navigation of the world is reliant on our encounter with things.  We contend with the present through our relationship to objects. The house adorned with antiques, arranged to feel like a home; a coffee table scattered with empty bottles and cigarette butts: fragments from the night before. An interruption – the chipped cup one can’t bear to part with.  Imbued with history and associations whose materiality has dissipated, objects direct our sense of being in the world.       

As an artist, my practice continually seeks out the enigmatic – questions riddled with an excess or absence of answers – an inward inquiry that inspires an exterior search. This incessant striving, the uneasy quest towards understanding, is intrinsic to our presence in the world. I seek to concretize what essentially remains airy and immaterial – to give shape and disposition to longing – to compose my own fragments.

My work’s language is one of abstraction. Forms evoke feelings as feelings manifest form.  Themes are archetypal, bearing a myriad of associations. My construction of abstract objects reinforces otherness, the challenge of making the un–nameable solid. Art objects seek to give structure to the ephemeral nature of our being, to create a shared experience.  These displaced fragments embody loose connections to the notion of “home”: a utopic space, inherently absent. Longing fails to reach totality.  Incompleteness reigns. The fragment acts as a physical stand–in as well as an emblematic gesture of metaphysical desire – an unsatisfied longing for the ideal of home.}

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

JOSE GARZA: A Navy Veteran from Florida, who received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2013. He currently lives and works in St. Louis, where he is the new Co-Curator and Acting-Director of The Transversal Project.

GILLIAN TOBIN: A fellow WUSTL MFA alum (’14), Gillian now works out of Kansas City, MO, USA.

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