BOMB visits the studio of visual artist Shoshanna Dentz, to talk about Beckett, content, and the human relationship to fences.
Mónica de la Torre How does the idea of content relate to the imagery in your paintings and drawings and to the concept behind your series? I’m thinking of your wooden and chain link fences, walls, cages . . .
Shoshana Dentz And now piles of sticks and coils, which also have the see-through latticework element and continue the idea of keeping in and keeping out. The question is how and if a provocative, possibly politically-charged content can exist in the same space with beautiful, formal abstraction. My work isn’t about answering that, it’s about creating a space for the question.
MT I’m thinking, in particular, about your comments on one of the meanings of the word “content.”
SD I am always trying to understand how it happens that I can feel this huge sense of meaningfulness from an abstract painting. When I started making the fence paintings I realized that the drawn lines of the fence structure were making the empty space between them into a present, visible, and palpable entity. The paintings were presenting a contained space, a volume. Content is, according to one dictionary definition, “that which is contained.” So if I was making contained spaces, then I was actually showing “content.” And those spaces could be seen as volumes that can be filled. At least one of the layers filling that volume in my work is this search for a nameable content in abstraction.
MT Would you be comfortable with the notion that by having all these markers of space in your work you’re depicting the way in which content can be created?
SD Yes, along with the way in which content can be pursued. So it’s less “there is content” but rather the question “Is there content? Is this just an accumulation of lines?” It’s the reaching to find and hold onto meaning, even as that meaning slips right through your fingers—both mine and the viewers’.
MT You’ve referred to fences as portals as well, portals to something else. That “something else’” is left open, and so the viewer can—
SD Respond. The portal series came after the fences, but the imagery was at first derived from the fences, from spirals of barbed wire that I chose to “unbarb” as an experiment to increase ambiguity. But, of course, any response is subjective: some people see it all as obstruction or containment, some see it as all as openings, some see the Holocaust or the wall being built along the Green Line, some see the parking lot fence down the street . . . I like the idea of all of those responses, and more, collectively hovering around in the viewer’s experience.
MT It’s generous of you to leave the references open. Your work has been more determined in the past, when you had overt political content in it.
SD Where the work is now is very open. I’m working with invented imagery that can still lend itself to a political conversation, but it’s the systems I set up and the process of repetition that I am relying on more. I’ll do variations of the same thing over and over again, and then I’ll shift things so that maybe something new starts to happen.
MT Which brings me to the issue of repetition. In your work I see evidence of your deliberate, focused effort, as well as of your openness to chance. It seems to me that repetition, or that systematizing impulse, always brings chance into focus. Even more so than work that looks random and is intentionally dealing with chaos.
SD Interesting. There’s a balance, a delicate calibration, between order and chance, between watching and not watching. That’s the space in which repetition is effective for me. I work in a way that is just going forward, having a system and a plan, so that what I do outside of that plan, that perfection, actually becomes the interesting opening. But regarding repetition, I keep this quote by E. M. Forster in the studio: “Art is valuable because it has to do with order and creates little worlds of its own, possessing internal harmony in the midst of this disordered planet.”
MT So what’s the threshold of imperfection that you’re willing to tolerate? Say you’re making a box and a line goes askew.
SD There’s total room for that. That’s kind of the point.
MT How do you incorporate those “mistakes” into the work? This might relate more to your brick wall drawing over there.
SD Well that piece is about not being able to go back, about only going forward and following through on “mistakes,” and the slow accumulation of touch and time.
MT So not going back and reworking something was a deliberate constraint when you started this piece. Do you apply this rule to everything you make?
SD No! It’s just how I had to think about this piece. I was just making it. At first, the restriction was that the lines of rectangles needed to stay straight—evenly horizontal. But then I started changing the rules to see what would start to happen, and in the third panel, I left an empty space and made a hole in the wall. Then I felt that as this thing accumulated, there would be different events along the way.
MT Is the drawing done?
SD I don’t see that it would ever be done, it’s more that it might just end or that its completion will be determined by the size of the room in which it will live.
MT You could be doing this for the rest of your life.
SD Like Mira Schendel. Did you see the show at MoMA?
MT Loved it. What do you like about her work?
SD The poetics, the alchemy, the invention of how to materialize personal meaning into a mark on paper, into something that is there. She worked on a series of drawings for years and years, day and night. There seems to be such need there to make something happen on the page, to have that thing look back at her as a kind of witness to her caring and efforts. In a way, right now, for me, that’s maybe all there is: making these witnesses to time spent caring.
MT How do you feel about the fact that a viewer can take in your extremely laborious paintings and drawings in such a brief period of time?
SD That’s okay, because if the work is good it will burn into your retina. A slow but determined impact.
MT What would be the ideal space for the brick wall piece to be seen in? Would it be private, public?
SD Public. I would like it to be witnessed.
MT I see this piece as an amazing backdrop for narratives to unfold, in a way. Inevitably viewers construct a narrative that explains this wall. It can be a shaped narrative or an amorphous one, but it’s there. I could see it as a set for a Beckett play, or any play, any kind of performance in response to it.
SD That’d be so interesting. When I had the piece photographed and was looking at details, it seemed like a story, like a children’s landscape. It felt Lilliputian, miniaturized. The scale of it is grand and intimate at once, so there is this drama, but it’s humble.
MT Yes! It’s also narrative in and of itself because of what it’s doing to perception. Perspective keeps changing. Here you’re standing in front of it, but then at other points you’re above it, you’re protected by it, you’re threatened or blocked by it, you’re crouched under it, or even invited elsewhere by it.
SD I do think about shifting perspectives, even within one work. I like the complexity of disorienting perspective so that you’re not exactly knowing what the space is and where you are in relationship to it—the cage drawings will evolve like that too.
I want to ask you: why did this piece make you think about Beckett? I’d like to hear more on that.
MT It was an intuitive reaction. It has to do with the minimal resources at his and your disposal. His writing is all about endgames, about pushing things to their ultimate consequences. Your wall is also an endgame.
SD You had said that you felt there was a hopefulness in his and my work. I guess it’s that evidence of the hopefulness behind someone’s caring, thinking, and trying. It is funny—transparent too, I guess—that I chose to see if that can happen while using an imagery and subject matter that conjures the utterly hopeless.
MT Well, some people see his work as very grim, and—
SD And realist, in a way.
MT Realist, yes; but there is a humanism behind all of his work that is predicated on hope.
SD Can you give an example?
MT His writing is the most exquisite manifestation of what is possible in language even though it’s in the face of exhaustion, the impotence of literature, the ridiculousness of the gesture of even thinking that you could write out of such misery.
SD That answers the question! It feels very real to me—the idea that you could make beauty out of the forsaken. And it’s not about how big that gesture is, or about whether it changes the world, but that it has an impact. Whether you’re sitting in a theater, or looking at a drawing—not that I’m saying that the experiences are similar, they aren’t.
MT But maybe they are. That’s another reason why I thought about Beckett. Even though your content is not overtly dramatic, there’s something very theatrical about the wall. Just the fact that you’re pushing yourself to do it, it’s like you’re engaged in a performance and creating the persona that would undertake such as Sisyphean endeavor. But I might be projecting; the piece does involve projection, though.
SD Performance perhaps, because I am thinking about paintings as evidence and as witnesses. Projection too, maybe. I do want us to feel implicated by the image. The scale and sharp perspective closes in around you so that it’s not just “someone else’s fence,” someone else’s problem. That’s where formal abstraction works, it makes things curious for the viewer. It dazzles and intrigues in order to pull you into the space of reflection, but then brings you right back up to the painted surface—to paint, paper, decisions, and time.