Finding meeting points: in preparation for a joint show, two artists talk about materials, process, and presenting their work.
At the onset of this conversation, the artists Laura Aldridge and Lee Maida had never met each other. We shared a couple of short, three-way email exchanges to get the ball rolling, but ultimately this session was a lot like a blind date, a real set up. We initiated the talk, which took place over Skype, because I had invited them to present new work in a two-person exhibition at Andrew Kreps gallery in New York over the summer. It would be easy enough to apply a synchronistic frame around their practices. Aldridge and Maida’s three-dimensional works show an interest in color, the legacy of images, and the malleable, textured life of material. If left to their own volition, though, I doubt that either artist would initiate a conversation about their work according to the vestiges of materiality. Especially for that reason, I leaned into this potentially troublesome zone. A discussion about material and desire might tease out various distinctions and nuanced similarities regarding the use of ceramics and fabric in each of their work, which include some of the most poignant, anachronistic examples of clay and fabric in a day-glo world.
Alhena Katsof While thinking about how to get us started today, I was clearing out images from my phone to make space to record our talk. I found a picture I had taken a few months ago of a book cover that I saw in a friend’s studio: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Touching Feeling—
Laura Aldridge That’s funny because I sent a picture of that to somebody the other day!
AK You also mentioned the book in your email, Laura. I had totally forgotten that I had a photo of it!
LA I’m dipping in and out of that book at the moment. It’s great and I recognize a lot of what Sedgwick talks about in my own approach—thinking about the emotional quality of texture and touch. Originally, I bought it because of the picture on the cover.
Lee Maida Really?
LA I know it sounds terrible! It’s a picture of Judith Scott, this really incredible picture of her hugging one of her sculptures. She’s kind of lost in that particular moment of feeling. It’s an amazing photograph.
AK I haven’t read it yet, but I remembered that you mentioned it. You said that there was a quote you liked.
LA In explaining the writings of Renu Bora, Sedgwick says, “There is no such thing as textural lack.” I like that as a statement for potentiality, within materials.
AK I thought this idea of texture might be a way to talk about material. In our correspondence, you both spoke about tactility and the desire to create something that in turn creates a desire in the viewer.
LA I really liked what you wrote Lee, about things begging to be touched ... how that’s more powerful than something you can actually touch. I’m thinking of things that I’ve made in the past that people did touch. They were disappointing. I watched people touch these things and then walk away and that was the end of it. I think more happens when something is evocative in your mind. The conversation about touching is all bound in with desire. I remember one of the first pieces that I had this experience with was a Rachel Whiteread cast in crazy orange resin and I just wanted to hold it. It’s about a kind of emotion, and what that provokes in you.
LM Hmmmm. It’s always interesting to hear your ideas reflected back to you. I let people touch things in the studio all the time. And I have a few friends who will sneakily touch an artwork in a gallery too! I appreciate that impulse. I guess this is to say, everything gets touched—by the artist, her friends, art handlers or other art workers, and whoever else dares. Using materials we are used to touching, like clay and fabric, closes the space between the viewer and the object a little bit and then the exhibition is what pulls them apart again. I think this mechanism more accurately represents desire and lack than touching or not touching. Basically, I feel like the whole project is to attempt to cheat language, to go beyond pleasure somehow.
LA I am trying differing ways of creating physical tension in the works I make. In Holders (2010) I used an image showing a group of tourists at the mouth of a cave, bound in a moment of tension in-between in and out, not quite one or the other. It’s that feeling of being on the verge of tactile engagement that I seem to look for. I want to make present a desire for tactile gratification without ever offering it properly.
LM I am less interested in the act of touching or tactility than the desire, in the idea of contact. Both clay and fabric are malleable and sensual. There is a visceral connection to the human body.
AK So, when you work, do you feel like you’re talking to the clay or are you in conversation with the clay?
LM I don’t really think about my relationship to materials in those terms. It’s just that they are dumb materials, they take shape so readily and…to be super basic, I just like them. The thing that’s funny about clay is that it’s practical, malleable, and submissive when it is wet, but then it’s really not that. It becomes intensely fragile, heavy, and involves a serious investment, planning, and time. There’s this Seinfeld joke about the check coming at the end of a meal. Before the meal, anything goes, but when you get the check you’re full and mystified by why you needed all that food. (laughter) Clay is sort of the same: I start all these projects and get this instant gratification, pushing this material around and making it into whatever, then I let it dry, load the kiln, fire it, unload the kiln, glaze it, load the kiln, fire it, unload the kiln, and so on.
LA I guess a lot of it is how I work, it might take me a long time, but I like to work quite quickly so things like clay and fabric are actually robust in a strange way. There’s a kind of directness with those materials, which is useful in a way, if you’re trying to get out what you’re thinking.
AK Well there is a speediness, in terms of process. Not rushing, but an immediacy.
LA You can get out a massive piece of fabric and you have more agency with materials like that. Scale is far easier, I don’t feel so limited with things like fabric since I can just roll it up and take it somewhere. I feel like its a bit more versatile or flexible, which is useful if you travel or you’re doing different things. There are not so many restrictions. To work with wood you have to have certain tools, which I’m not interested in. (laughter) We talked about using fabric and Alhena, probably the first time I started using fabric was in Amsterdam because fabric is just so cheap in The Netherlands, it was like one euro a meter! So it was this really good, cheap way of having an effect on your practice.
LM Specifically with fabric there is this embedded design and color palette. Many modern colorists used consumer materials, like Blinky Palermo’s “Stoffbild” paintings made from department store fabrics. Cadmium will always be cadmium but reds in the fabric store change with the season. I go to the Fashion District and choose fabrics that are all produced by textile mills and design houses for fashion. I'm interested in how the palettes of both glazes and fabrics are burdened by demand and trends. That these colors are not just chosen and combined by me but there is a demand for them as well.
AK Before we pursue that idea further, I’d like to hear more about how you’ve come to use these materials in your own practices and why have they become so prevalent.
LA I invigilated a Palermo show when I worked at the Serpentine Gallery, years ago. I was twenty-two! It made a big impression on me, especially his fabric works, the ones where he simply joined two sheets of cotton together on stretchers to make these color field paintings. It struck a chord in me, and I think from then on I very slowly came to use it within my own practice. I have one rule in my work these days—never paper! Paper sets boundaries that I don’t want, to do with scale and other things that are predetermined. And fabric has this super rich history—how it relates to the body, how we think of it in relation to clothing a body and housing a body. For me, the body is where it’s at because everything I do is about the suggestion of a body and how that body relates to what is in front of it. I think I began working with fabric because it gave me a lot of freedom and I like the fact that the word material is used to describe both a textile, a substance from which a thing is made, and also a group of ideas to be incorporated into something. Initially, using fabric meant I could work quickly and on a large scale, I liked that it could hold form and color, but I was also excited that it could be both a flat surface and an object, that it could be both two and three dimensional. Clay is new for me. I’m totally committed to material experimentation and this just works for me at the moment. I feel like with the ceramic forms I’ve been making, it’s about allowing the material to direct the outcome. The folds of clay force themselves through when I’m making. I’m into things that allow me to retain a certain amount of openness in a work, that allow it to continue to change and evolve. Nothing is fixed, everything is fluid.
LM Fabric and ceramics also became integral materials for their relationship to common objects. They are archaic enough to reach into some deep sense of what we live with, eat from, sweat in, what absorbs us and then spits us back out. They are also very erotic materials.
AK I was delighted to see a discussion about images come up in our emails. The idea of folding the image back into something physical is intriguing. Laura, I know that you are using images in the fabric works and Lee, you were talking about the way the image decomposes and why that is important to your thinking.
LA I’ve always used images but I’ve been thinking a lot with images recently because they’ve become more prevalent in the banner works that I am showing at Andrew Kreps. I’m using found images less and less and more so images that I’m making or taking, using my own stock of things. I guess it’s a means of slowing down the work. Like the way we were talking about fabric being quite instant, where the colors and textures are already there. Not that I’m saying putting an image on a piece of fabric makes it less flat, but bringing it off the wall or bringing it into a space sort of felt different. Maybe it slows down the progress of looking at images.
LM So much of what we see, we see as images. That compressed and framed kind of looking is what I use, how I make sculpture and painting. Even here we are working from images. Laura and I have not seen each other’s work in person. Also, I know you work internationally quite a bit Alhena—this is almost always image-based communication. I really like the idea of making these images back into something physical, where I act as a filter between the image and the object. Like a cassette tape or VHS—there is a master copy and then with each recording the quality deteriorates. So, for instance, I made this thing named after Matisse’s 1935 painting Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude). It’s a big, plinth-like object tiled with hand-cut and glazed tiles and a couple sculptural elements on top. I took the cropped shape of the bathroom tile in the painting and combined it with images of bathrooms and tubs from blogs, Architectural Digest, my own bathroom, and other apartments. So all these tiled surfaces and shapes become a compressed image and then I re-animate that into an object. The object both holds the image and creates it. Does this make sense at all?
AK Yes, it does. Do you think it’s connected to where things live, or don’t live, in the physical world? For example, to bring it back to a specific material question, what is it to print something on fabric as opposed to paper?
LA I guess my rule for never using paper comes from always managing to fuck up a paper piece. If I have an image on fabric I can cut it up and sew it back together, I just feel like it affords me more possibilities.
AK Lee, you’ve talked about how you are less interested in the body and more in the figure and Laura, your references to the body come through materiality. Does the body play a direct role in your thinking?
LM I'm interested in the figure. For me, the figure is the body plus the subject, flattened. It’s the body in modern painting. It’s also the body as object and the spaces we occupy.
LA Maybe I’m always thinking about bodies. I’m always thinking about where the work happens, somewhere between the work and the body. I guess I’m interested in bodies as a subject and an object at the same time, and how you can touch your own hand, you know? I think I make quite bodily work at the moment, I mean even the fabric suggests a body, on a very basic level. You think about wearing it or draping it, or how it can hold things. I like that fabric is both two-dimensional and three-dimensional. So I kind of like that it can be manipulated for a body or around a body.
LM Or perhaps the figure and the body are just operating on different registers in my work. The figure is the objectified subject—it is the character, the odalisque, the still and distilled subject flattened to fit into the frame, whereas the body is what the work effects, what can’t be in the work. The figure is some manipulation of the referent like the woman in Large Reclining Nude, the body is me and the viewer in an imagined interaction with the object. The body element is also very tied up in my idea of color.
LM Yeah, like chroma. It’s not just about optics but that you’re “moved” by a color being next to another color à la Josef Albers. I want to use color in a way that creates a physical relationship that makes the body of the viewer a vital part of the work, a bodily experience of color.
AK So it comes back to a relationship with the viewer’s body. This is something I think about in terms of scale in both of your work.
LM Sure, scale plays a part. There is a real formal shift from the earlier reliefs, which were more modestly sized than those that I started making last summer, which are in the seven-by-five-foot range. The first reliefs were perfect rectangles, very frontal and generally horizontal. When I first shifted to a bigger scale the fabric really took over and there were these mini-narratives in the picture plane, they read in a more hieroglyphic way. But now, I’m filling more of the fabric space with the ceramic elements, they are more aggressive and pictorial. I am trying to create a landscape for the body, a set of circumstances or an experience that morphs once you enter the picture. At the same time as the shift in scale, I started to generate content directly from modern paintings, which started as a sort of psychological exercise, kill-your-father type thing. It is still that but also that primary content has become a blank material just like the clay or fabric. I cut these things up and put them back together to create a kind of semiotic transitivity—the foot becomes a hand becomes a pillar or a gravestone. Faces are also phalluses and fruits and cigarettes.
LA Which kind of makes me think of what we were saying before, where I talked about things coalescing into one thing and it’s nice to think about that in terms of how things vibrate off each other or reverberate. It is essentially about making a framework for yourself for that to all happen in.
LM I’m working outside of a strictly rectangular format these days, but I am starting to see the need for boundaries. For instance, with the tiled work, the forms are rectilinear in nature and the tiling creates a grid but within and on top of that grid there is a lot of action.
LA I think in a way, whether it’s the rectangle in the work or it’s the wall or the gallery, everything has to be held in something and I guess it’s just about choosing at what point it gets held, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I think of a wall as a piece of paper, that is your rectangle. You have to have some limits I think, as much as I want things to be open and fluid, you need some sort of framework for yourself so that you can kick out from that. There has to be something, otherwise I don’t know how I’d make work. I don’t know how I’d do it. So in a way, you deciding on a rectangle for a work is no different than deciding on a gallery for an installation. It has to stop somewhere or be held by something.
LM What you’re saying, Laura, is cool because I think a lot about vessels. So talking about the container for the object is very compelling. I think of the vessel—the vase or the bowl or whatever it is—as this alchemical fantasy or myth.
LA That’s been a thread that I can really see throughout my work in the last five or six years—the idea of containers and of things being contained and held. I’ve made big sculptures that I’ve called “holders” and I’ve made giant pockets. Your body holds your insides and the room holds you, and the vase holds. When you’re giving yourself a framework for your work, it’s as though you’re deciding on your vessel or something and how you choose to fill it, or stick things in it, or pull things out of it.
LM Yeah, and the vessel is a stand-in for the imaginary. It gives this illusion of autonomy and wholeness which is something I both want and reject. So the clay vessel is sort of the perfect object because I can believe in its emptiness or its fullness, like language or life or anything else. I talk about gathering content from modern painting but one thing that is important about that for me is that, instead of politely or obliquely referencing other work, I like to just use it ... take shapes and marks directly from other people’s work. I like the paintings I’m referring to but it’s also an intensely Oedipal response to history.
LA I always liked the expression about being “an empty vessel.” There’s this great Allan McCollum interview with Thomas Lawson where he made a piece of work called either Perfect Vessels or Perfect Vehicles—those giant vases, do you know them? It’s a really enjoyable conversation between the two of them about the idea of empty vessels and being called an empty vessel. That’s what I used to get called at school by my teacher! (laughter) And I know it’s an insult but I quite like it.
The exhibition Earth Minutes, featuring Laura Aldridge and Lee Maida, is on view at Andrew Kreps Gallery until August 18 2014.
Alhena Katsof is a curator, writer, and Public Movement Agent.