"Statuary. Please explain."
I met Carl D'Alvia in the spring of 2005 at the American Academy in Rome, where he was sharing a vast rooftop studio with his wife, the painter Jackie Saccocio. I visited their studio often and became aware of Carl's patient and painstakingly slow process of making sculpture. He seemed right at home in the land of Bernini, Michelangelo, and Borromini. I've been a follower and a fan ever since and caught up with him on a chilly day last March in his Connecticut studio.
Laurie Simmons I love your work, but sometimes I find myself staring at it and thinking you've been making the same sculpture over and over again, for how many years?
Carl D'Alvia Well, I sort of started around 1999 in terms of this body of work—my mature body of work, let's say—so yes, it's been 16–17 years.
LS If I were summarizing your work for a Martian, somebody who knew nothing—
CD A dumb Martian.
LS (laughter) A Martian who's not interested in art, I would say that this guy Carl takes different shapes—some like animals, some of them vegetable or minerals—and renders mostly hair and fur, moving to feathers, on the surfaces of all these shapes. You work in plasticine?
CD Yes, almost all the originals are done in oil clay, plasticine, and I make different molds and cast them in different materials.
LS They're cast, but basically you are here with your tools, rendering these insanely precious, accurate surfaces, like I said: hair, feathers, fur—and what's this?
CD Mmm, patches?
LS All done in plasticine. So, in my mind, you're also stuck in my freshman clay sculpture class, and have been for 19 years. But if I said to you, "Carl, you're making these small sculptures over and over again," through my Martian eyes, what would you say?
CD Well, let's just say the project is fairly tight, in terms of its parameters. And sometimes, for the artist, it's bigger than you are; you go to the studio and have an idea, and then something happens. I guess I'm still very compelled by this idea of veiling, and this sort of paradox of giving so much rich visual information on the exterior, but then in the end obscuring the interior of the piece. When it first happened, I got very excited about this idea of giving information but veiling it as well. And it led to a major theme in my work, that of contradiction or opposition, and so once I found that, I felt I was always searching for these opposites, to kind of encapsulate them or put them under the covers, or to hit two buttons simultaneously. It's a tragic-comic thing, where there is this super hand-done aspect but with very new, contemporary themes that run from biotech to sci-fi to, obviously, post-Pop, in terms of their language. I guess I'm one of those artists that's on a glacial type of slow burn, like things creeping around a corner.
LS I love thinking about an artist in the 21st century who takes the long-view, it makes you kind of a relic, and I think you approach your work that way—the sheer man hours, the amount of time—and let me just say as an aside that I'm married to a painter [Carroll Dunham] whose work is very labor intensive, who does hours and hours of filling in outlines, where I would just kill myself—and I feel like you and Carroll sort of share this relationship to the labor aspect of what you do. You start with this idea, and then rendering it takes months and months. I've never seen a lot of assistants running around sculpting feathers and fur for you either, so what happens between the idea and the realization and completion of one of these objects?
CD Well, a lot happens during that manual process. Things change. I've always admired that about Carroll—you know, his studio practice. In that way I put myself in that school, of going to the studio, showing up, making things all day long. Sometimes when you go it's hard to make progress, but you see things because you are there. There's a difference when you're in the studio, committed to things happening. Something falls, or you overspray with paint, sunlight glances in a certain way. You have to be there for those moments and commit to it.
LS I don't mean to harp on this but when you take a parabola or a parallelogram and decide it's gonna be covered with perfectly rendered hair or what looks like a hundred pounds of spaghetti, you're not going to change your mind halfway through and switch to tortellini. You're in it for the long haul, but I'm trying to ask where your thoughts go in these hours. You might as well be spinning silk.
CD It's a funny thing. People ask how long it takes me to do these things, and the weird part is that I have no idea. I work on a few at a time. I just don't know. It's important to be a finisher, to do it properly and not let your little idea get ahead of the realization.
LS Or get away from you.
CD Yeah, I need to communicate, and for me I need to knuckle down and often make this icy surface. I love a lot of art that doesn't do that. I just can't do it that way. As an artist, you're out there casting about, looking for things to use, and you come upon something, like crosshatching, and once you feel that energy you try to hold on to it, following where it might take you. There's something with this craft, and veiling, and baroque surface that still has more to give, so I'm still enthralled.
LS So, if this was another time, it would be like you were chipping away at marble or writing a symphony, or even making a movie, something where once you are deep into the production, if you really turned around and abandoned it, you'd really be leaving a lot behind.
CD It's true. Last night I was having this conversation at an opening, and someone was asking me, "Well, how do you do such a big, complicated bronze piece?" But it's not the first one I've done. It's like the ski jump: you don't go off a 90-meter first. You do a 10-meter, then a 30-meter. You're on a long-term burn with it. You can't just start doing a feature film tomorrow, though occasionally there are some people that can pull that off, but they're the exception, not the rule.
LS Me, I can. (laughter)
CD You're different, Laurie, you've been working up to it for a long time.
LS I'll come into your studio and say, "Oh my god, I really like that." Then you'll say, "That little guy? Him?" I remember people teasing and calling them "Schmoo," but I don't even know what that is. You have a way of personalizing or personifying your sculptures, and you talk about them in a very minimizing, diminishing, very off hand way, about these things that are huge commitments of emotion and time. So do you think of them that way? Are they characters for you?
CD There are two things that are crucial for me. One is that it has to be a character of some sort. And on another level it has to be a statue, not just a sculpture. If it's not a statue, I'm not interested. There's something about this idea of the statue or mini-monument, and trying to drag this kind of archaic thing and push it through a modern lens. And through that, I think I've been able to find some interesting territory, and often a lot of humor and playfulness.
LS That was for sure on my list of questions: "Carl / Statuary. Please explain." Because I know this has been a passion of yours, and when you travel you seek it out, you look for it, you see it, you feel it. But again, statuary is not a 21st-century idea.
CD Well, no, but that's the thing, based on this whole idea of the Met Breuer happening, and with looking at the 20th century more as part of a bigger history—it's an aspect I like.
LS What aspect of the Met Breuer?
CD There's a lot encoded just in the fact that they're even doing it. It means that the 20th century is not a segregated thing, that people only want to look at a certain moment, like post-War until the end of the 20th century. History didn't start there and it seems like it's a good forum to bring a larger sense of history into the contemporary art conversation. And statues will hopefully come along with that. Again, I love statues, but it's also something I've been able to use, to take and transform. This is a trope to simultaneously revere and play with, and poke fun at, and enjoy…
LS So, if you walk into the Met, where do you go? What do you make a b-line for?
CD I would probably go for the Greco-Roman stuff. But as lovely as it is—and I don't want to sound like a terrible snob—I've spent a lot of time in Rome, where the collections are just so much more vast and with so many more interesting examples. So, I often instead go to the South American area, or the South Pacific. I love to look at some of these totemic things. That element of the Met is interesting to me.
LS Well, I've been lucky enough to take some of these little guys out of your studio and live with them, and I would say that "totemic" really is the word; they are imbued with something that those objects in the museum are, and from all these different cultures too. You know they were created to have a magical power or aura, and I feel that with some of what you make.
CD The handmade thing never really goes away. But again, I think I'm trying to create this moment of tension, because—in this funny way—while my works are handmade it appears impossible to make them by hand.
LS Or, if I can interrupt! Why would anyone choose to make them by hand, when you could—and I'm not attacking you, I feel this way about some of my own work—but you could digitally render them, or scan them three-dimensionally.
CD Yeah, I've done some of that, and I'm doing a piece in marble with some of that technology right now, but it's still apples and oranges. And there is often a cadaverous quality to that work, and not in a good way.
LS I don't know if "cadaverous" is ever used in a good way. But I know what you mean. It lacks a soul since we can't see the hand in it, no aura. But that kind of investment in aura, which you're talking about, is really so 19th century, maybe early 20th.
CD Things made by hand often have this special appeal, and you have a special relationship to it as well, because you have a body made by a body. It's easy to be connected, to stay connected to that long lineage when that is the way you make things.
LS It's interesting because I know the things you think about: history, but also cartooning, science fiction, storytelling. What are some other things?
LS I need to say that we're sitting here eating crackers and Italian salami, and drinking espresso. But yet, you're consummately a 21st-century guy. You're completely comfortable with social media, working digitally, thinking digitally. You never seem to have had any resistance to that.
CD No, it's back again to this kind of hybridization of experience, or this hitting two buttons at once: being very much in the world and contemporary while still being committed to some very old-fashioned ways of making things, of dragging that stuff forward. But I don't think any of it is mutually exclusive.
LS I want to ask about your relation to humor, because I know I'm really uncomfortable when people bring up the idea of humor in my work.
LS As though, somehow it…belittles it. But you seem comfortable with it.
CD It took me a long time to bring humor into my work. I'm a humorous person, and when I was younger I would wonder why that wasn't in the work. After I hit upon this, I began to look for it. It's something that's still very underused, underrated, undervalued. It's a way to get at some deadly serious stuff; in this dialectical way it's pointing at its opposite: heaviness.
LS It's a great hook because you get people in the most obvious and flatfooted way, and then you slam them with something else right on top. But let me ask you this: Name me five artists who make humorous work that you appreciate.
CD Maybe I could get three. Peter Saul is very funny. I've always found Carroll Dunham to be funny, though others may not. And Paul McCarthy.
LS These are all very dark funny, not funny haha. Sitting here, the elephant in the room is Richard Artschwager. Is there such a connection, and is he funny?
CD I think that is apt. I'm a huge fan. What I really identify with is his hot/cold thing. There's something very cool and very Pop about it, but at the same time super hot and emotional. I love that collision in his work.
LS That hot/cool thing—urging you to describe his work is a great way to describe your work. I think that hot/cold thing is happening here. It's a studio full of contradictions and jokes and questions and schmoos. What is a schmoo again?
CD (laughter) That's what I started calling these goofy, lumpy, semi-melting "figures" that are on the line between abstraction and figuration.
LS But is a schmoo something from The Addams Family?
CD It's actually, as pointed out to me by an older ceramicist friend, a character from Li'l Abner.
LS Covered with hair right?
CD No, it was smooth, but very surreal. A creature like a duck without a beak and perfectly white, very silly, and they love to be eaten. They beg you to eat them.
LS Whoa, that could take us into a whole other conversation. Schmoo candy. What's the meanest way anyone could ever describe your work? Every artist has this fantasy.
CD The thing that would really slip under my scales and wound me? I'm supposed to tell you that in this interview? That is really hard. I dunno, that my work is not funny, that it's—
LS A chia pet?
CD I don't mind that so much. Perhaps not well-made.
LS It needs to be one slicing sentence, and you're not getting there.
CD I'll come to it.
Laurie Simmons is an artist based in New York and Connecticut.