Ethan Greenbaum by Andrianna Campbell

“It’s nice when you can make connections in hindsight. Your life feels like chaos and then you realize that there are patterns.”

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Greenbaum Tyvek 1

Installation view of Flats, 2015, 3D powder print, UV varnish. All images courtesy of the artist and KANSAS, New York.

It was after 6 p.m. on a warm night in my Brooklyn apartment, and Ethan Greenbaum and I had a few hours before he had to meet his wife, the artist Sun You, for dinner. He chastised me for not being as serious as when I interviewed other artists. In the early days of my writing, he had been an especially harsh critic for a friend. So, my writing developed very much in conversation with him as an artist. Once, I read him a short story in his kitchen that was a fictional retelling of a story that he had told me. It was sort of a portrait of the artist as a young man. I thought it hilarious; he said it was boring.

Ethan is always moving, making, thinking, listening to philosophy podcasts, reading New Yorker short fiction, and he’s always able to—on the spot—pronounce a witty interpretation of something as if he’d been thinking about it for years. That his art has been the opposite for so long—so layered, nuanced and slow to reveal itself—has always been a bit of a mystery to me. This new Pop-inflected work co-mingles with that earlier, almost obsessive need of his to create aura with materials that seem not to deserve it: plastic, Formica, and now plaster and plastic wrapping. As we sat down at my desk, we drank beers but wanted whiskey. The moment seemed like it had been a long time coming, so I turned on the mic and got serious (ish).

Andrianna Campbell I’d been in and out of your studio for years, even before Daniel S. Palmer and I curated you into Decenter [An Exhibition on the Centenary of the 1913 Armory Show]. Then in a quick sprint to see your show in New York, I was taken aback by the new work. Tyvek? No longer as non-objective, more Pop than I had ever seen. I go to California for a few months and what happens?

Ethan Greenbaum I started making 3D prints like the Tyvek ones you mentioned that layer slogans and logos from building supply companies onto 3D scans of things like ceiling tiles, foam bricks, or 2 x 4’s. These logos enthralled me; looking at buildings in different states of construction and seeing how Tyvek’s weather wrap, USG drywall, or other types of construction brands could be visible at certain stages—covering buildings and then later covered up—became a point of fixation. There’s this moment of Pop sensibility in the construction process itself—the brand is a combination of text and imagery—that gets tangled up in the structure and surface of the building. It’s a space where language literally intersects with architectonic material. This brand identity was like a mark that preceded and penetrated material. You read it before you even know what it’s made of—a quite literal and optical hyperbole where the marks interpenetrate the surfaces of materials.

AC This is a language that I know you’ve been thinking about for some time, but I thought in a more distinctly rudimentary way. Like you chose to make it more obvious: here is a sidewalk, it is both image of this space and vacuum-formed to emulate the texture of said space.

EG Yeah, I’ve been using 3D programs to play with the logic of how imagery and materials come together. My sculptural objects come out of all sorts of algorithmic tweaking. I’m fond of creating absurdities and breaks in a more linear means of combination. I find it liberating.

Greenbaum Tyvek 3

Installation views of Flats, 2015, 3D powder print, UV varnish, direct-to-substrate print, acrylic, solid surface.

Greenbaum Red Turquoise X

Installation views of Flats, 2015, 3D powder print, UV varnish, direct-to-substrate print, acrylic, solid surface.

AC I remember when we met up at the Majestic Farm [in Mountain Dale, New York]. Andrea Hill had curated you into a show and we were all sitting around the campfire.

EG No, that’s not how we met. I was in the house and I had just woken up from a nap.

AC Oh, yes, we discovered you pouting.

EG Yes, I was pouting and you and Rob Hult came in all alight with the glow of a new weekend spread out before you, and I was already in the throes of a failed installation. Seeing you guys made me feel me even worse. I didn’t know you and I knew Rob had a gallery in New York. At the time, I had no representation so I felt especially vulnerable to feedback.

AC Why did the installation fail?

EG At the time, I was installing a wall of cinder blocks that were held together using colored plasticine as grout. The plasticine kept melting in the sun.

Greenbaum Cinder Blocks

Wall 2, 2010, plasticine, concrete blocks.

AC Why were you so unhappy besides the installation issues?

EG Good question. I was dealing with too many issues like gravity and support that felt secondary to my main interest, which was the juxtaposition of these seemingly contradictory materials. I was making a wall that was held together by colored plasticine, which is a traditional model-making material for sculpture. I was trying to make it hold up these weighty cement blocks. The mortar function of the wall was supposed to be recast, but instead it just became a source of frustration and ultimately failure. It’s a temporary material used on the way to casting a bronze; it’s also a material that kids use, and even the palette is evocative of that. The reality of installing the wall on the uneven ground was the goats, the heat, and all these other things that had nothing to do with the work became central to the experience. It is telling in hindsight.

Greenbaum Wall

Untitled, 2010, plasticine on photograph, mounted on aluminum.

AC You say that with a certain amount of chagrin, but I see so many of the tropes that would turn up in the vacuum forms and 3D prints in these early wall and photographic installations. For instance, there is a use of the fragmentary as an architectonic shorthand, the photograph as a means to achieve bas-relief, and a heightened dispensation of color. For instance, an in-between installation is the show that you did with Michelle Grabner at her space, The Suburban. Was the wall still present?

EG The Suburban in Chicago was my first solo [show] after grad school. In hindsight a lot of ideas I’ve been circling around since were there, though in much more reductive terms. Michelle runs the space in her garage. Spaces like hers have their own implicit narrative that you can choose to either meddle with or run parallel to. The space is a 16 x 8 rectangle, which motivated me to play with doubling, repetition, and legibility in the architectural.

First, I split the rectangle into two by building a low cinderblock wall that was waist height. I covered the cinderblocks in a façade of plasticine so they looked as if they were made of plasticine. Akin to faux marble finishes or wood paneling. It was a sculpture made through the act of painting that also allowed a retracing of these forms that throws your relationship to the material into doubt. Echoing the entrance door on the other side of the garage, I cut a hole in the wall. The section of the wall was placed back in the incision so you could just see the cut and get the sense of an unseen space behind the cut. Finally, the entire room was wrapped in a 3000-page word document of lorem ipsum text, a sort of dummy filler text. Each page of the text was unique, but all equally illegible.

Greenbaum Another Wall

Wall, 2010, plasticine, concrete blocks.

AC You speak so much about the built environment and you really love the hackneyed and the quotidian. As someone who knows you fairly well, I wonder if this is a space of novelty for you because you are someone who grew up in the country. You’re a country boy from down South, and you have stories of hunting alligators with your dad and learning to use a handgun. So for me, having grown up in the Connecticut suburbs with sidewalks, when you discuss the built environment I am always like, Yeah you mean, the regular world. These things that I take for granted—vinyl siding, Formica, clapboard—are all part of the vernacular of the suburbs and the city, but not of rural life?

EG Well, we have those things! Though before that I was living even more rural—mountain style. There are more interruptions in a rural space. Cow fields between gas stations, a mix of planning and accommodation with what’s there. When I moved to “the city” for grad school, it was the first time I was living in an environment that had been overwhelmingly built. I found it truly strange, but it was a productive estrangement.

AC I’m sorry to exoticize you in this way, but I do think that was an initial impetus for you working in this manner, no?

EG Biography makes me nervous, but it’s definitely a part of my work. It’s very much about having moved around, living in different types of places, and feeling the fragility of what reads as seamless experience. The constant transition gave me a sensation of what I want an art experience to be like—an unmooring of the familiar, a restating or reframing through hyperbole through intensification, through scale shifts, through misunderstanding of surface. Those are the kind of experiences that I continually seek out and value the most. When something like vernacular architecture—which is so ubiquitous and pervasive that it becomes invisible—slips back into focus, I value that moment.

AC It reminds me of the sublime, but that’s not quite right. That sort of intertwining of world into the body reminds me of Merleau-Ponty’s late work about how the invisible could really be merely a layer over the visible and not its opposite. I wonder when things shift—bodies or worlds—if that allows us some visibility. Is this what you’re talking about?

EG Yes, I like that idea a lot—the invisible as a layer over what’s seen. That sounds a lot like how I think making work, especially in some of the Vacuum forms—somehow transforming the act of looking and touching into something tangible. They’re a series of retracings from the original source, but that’s under the surface of the work. All those invisible steps in the process leave a mark.

AC Scale is another area of fluidity for you. Before, you were really working on a large scale. It was about installation. The scale of pattern in your printing had to consider the scale of the installation. For instance, sometimes you scanned a material at such a high resolution that the inkjet pattern became visible like a pixel grid. It makes me think of your Formica paneling installation at the Aldrich because I think that that happens quite well there.

EG Formica is a funny material because it is already a printed material imitating rock or wood. I played with the scale of the material in terms of digital resolution versus actual size. The sheets are basically tiled images, so in a single sheet the pattern repeats multiple times depending on the design. I found the moment where that repeat started and scanned it very high-res to the scale of a real Formica sheet, like a 4 x 10 foot sheet. Because it was such a high-res scan, you could see an almost microscopic view of the inkjet Formica pattern. This series of vacuum-forms doubled the simulated surface and from a distance looked cohesive; however, up close they began to disintegrate.

AC I saw them installed on a billboard at Socrates Sculpture Park, but never made the Aldrich. I like the installation photos at the Aldrich because they seemed so discontinuous within Connecticut and its colonial-type buildings.

EG In Queens, the neighborhood had a lot of marble sales centers, where the stores display the marble facades as their signage. When I installed these prints on the billboard at the entrance of the Sculpture Park, I was embedding it in the linguistics of the neighborhood.

In Connecticut, the community is fancy to the point of oppressive. All the houses are zoned to have clapboard siding. At the Aldrich, the modern wing faces away from the street and the traditional colonial entrance opens unto the street. I initially looked at the modern section, but conceptually it made sense to put them between the windows of the colonial structure like an architectural frieze of marble carvings on the side of the building, like metopes, or even substitute stained glass windows. So they are mutable, like architectonic language itself; in one setting, they were metonyms of commercial retail places, and in another, they aped an earlier form of architectural communication.

AC Because of the Picasso show at MoMA, I can’t help making a connection to your work in terms of collage. In more recent work with the 3D prints, you collage elements such as rocks, outlets, and advertorials. Is collage important to the work? Both as internal disintegration of the pictorial plane and as a means to reach out to issues in world?

EG Collage is an important touchstone, but I’ve consciously tried to get away from any lingering Cubist composition in my work. I think that Cubism is a cul-de-sac; however, I dothink that the idea of collage that comes out of Cubism is still relevant. I identify with collage as a non-holistic type of mindset. And like you said, it lets you reach out and grab things from the world and it suspends language with material. I can see artists as diverse as Larry Johnson or Rachel Harrison as collage-based.

AC This discussion of collage makes me think of how you are constantly moving between sculpture and photography as seen in the vacuum forms or 3D prints, all of which employ multilayered imagery. Is there a moment that you see a shift from object to representation, or should I say representation (photograph) to low relief object (vacuum form as opposed to wall)?

EG I’ve always been more captivated by representation or imagery than traditional sculpture. At Yale, I trained as a painter. Images hover in the same space as text and vision. But I’ve often been frustrated by image-making. I have a hard time with the unity of surface or process in traditional painting and photo. In sculpture, I find diversity, interruptions of material or process, which impact the physical. It’s a promiscuous physical space, and I’ve always been looking for reconciliation there.

Also, I was increasingly drawn to how imagery was embedded into so many platforms. Whether it’s architectural friezes, building wraps, or jpegs on a laptop, the interplay of text, illusion and support is everywhere. The processes I use are often fueled by the industries that create non-art forms of communication.

AC We actually went to Germany to Documenta together with our significant others. I don’t know if you remember that trip at all.

EG Do I remember? The beer was so good there.

AC One of the things I thought was striking about being there is that we don’t have that kind of experience in the United States viewing art. Did encountering that sort of installation within the fabric of a city make you rethink your practice in any way? Your discussion of non-art communicative formats triggered some moments from the trip.

EG In general in Europe, there’s much more openness and opportunity for artists to think about their work in that way. Galleries are so often in townhouses. I thought that Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise, (The Invisible Pull) (2012), at Documenta, was so interesting. It was a wind installation in an open gallery. It spoke to an interest I have to create objects or set-ups that implicate the architecture around the works without resorting to a totalizing environment. This total environment approach, which was once considered so radical, has ironically become a cross-platform advertising approach. What began as a site-specific art installation has become what design firms use for a mediocre branding campaign. Think of a wrapped train. I’m interested in smaller incisions or three-dimensional gestures.

AC Does this speak to what you think of in your work as site-sensitive versus site-specific?

EG In my mind, site-specific feels totalizing and fixed, but site-sensitive is nimble—it can be altered depending on context and can accumulate meaning because of those changes. What I found to be so elegant about Gander’s The Invisible Pull is the implications created by altering one ingredient. He shifted the entire space without visibly occupying it. That was a grand gesture, but I’m usually less interested in more visible or tangible sculptural statements where the whole room is a gesamtwerk, taken over by an artist.

AC I want to get back to the show at The Suburban, because I think there you did have a more totalizing approach. Your work has moved from being discretely sculptural to something between photography and low relief. Do you return to any of the ideas brought up in that show?

EG One of the big things that I’ve looped back to has been the reintroduction of language and its interplay with both lingual and material legibility. Also, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about staging discrete objects within a larger environment. My new works are more porous, implicated in the architecture where they hang.

Greenbaum S Big X

Society Hill, 2015, direct to substrate print, acrylic, solid surface.

AC The new 3D prints and CNC carvings seem more fluid and more transitory. Not site-specific at all— you’re bringing outside environments into a new space. The electrical outlet from a store now sits in a gallery, the sidewalk from one of your walks in Sunset Park is now inside rather than outside, that’s how the new Tyvek plaster prints are site-sensitive.

EG It’s nice when you can make connections in hindsight. Your life feels like chaos and then you realize that there are patterns.

AC It’s like I’m just slowly pulling together a giant tapestry of information. You hold the red yarn and I will hold the blue. Let’s make a flag to the last throes of proletarian humanism?

EG Your sarcasm is endearing, but is there a question there?

AC I think of sculptors as real workers. It’s fucked up I know, but it’s good to know your own flaws as an art historian. Would you talk about process in the new CNC carvings? I’m really into the idea of carving.

EG You mean the CNC routed corian panels that I’ve been making? They’re really direct, even dumb in a good way. They’re sourced from images of construction fences and fake walls. First, I make a low relief surface carved out of the corian, and then I print a digital print onto this irregular surface. When they overlap, you get all these weird misunderstandings from the two machine-based interpretations of digital info. So, it comes back to scale and resolution, but also these machine-based ways of seeing confront our bodies. They result in something really phenomenological and optically strange. They also model new, non-biologically evolved perceptions.

AC How is that played out in terms of language? Although I liked the lorem ipsum wallpaper, I think your reference to illegible language has been much more nuanced lately.

EG Language or structure in words and materials is everywhere in our daily lives. Communication is like a low hum. I want to reorder or slow down the legible. Even installing these in different ways—sometimes hung in grids like building samples or signage, and other times recently on vinyl-wrapped walls, where the same imagery from the prints is repeated in a sort of camouflage. For me, listening to this hum is psychological. It’s about wish fulfillment; a desire to extricate, to upend, to reorder; a desire to make the world flexible and malleable in a way that it is not. It’s about desire.

Andrianna Campbell is a PhD candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she specializes in art of the modern and contemporary period. Campbell is currently the coeditor of Shift: A Graduate Journal of Visual Material Culture and the International Review of African American Art dedicated to Norman Lewis. She is a contributor to ArtforumFrieze and Art in America. From 2014-2015, she was the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Dia Art Foundation and is currently a Schomburg Dissertation Fellow at the New York Public Library.

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