by Arthur Peña
June 15, 2013
Arthur Peña: Can you talk about how you approach a space? Are there specific things you look for that find their way into your work?
Gabriela Salazar: Many of the spaces I have used in my work are familiar to me, such as studios or homes or parts of my daily commute. In these cases I am always aware and searching for signs of current and prior use. I try to think through the decisions that the architects, builders, inhabitants, planners, squatters, myself—whomever—have made to get the site or space to where it currently is. Then I look for what I can make visible in that narrative, for a way to turn the hem over and show the seams.
I recently put together a presentation for a Percent for Art commission for an as-yet unbuilt addition to a public school, and I found it surprisingly challenging to think critically about a space that I could neither see nor enter.
Recent work, like “Site Set” and “Party Wall,” go further in making this approach itself visible. In these pieces, instead of trying to be an interpreter from the outset, I begin by looking just for “facts” of the space—measurements, dimensions, shapes, and such. These are then translated into a new vocabulary of materials and objects with which I feel the freedom to play and recompose. By translating the found conditions into a kind of common denominator, the whole equation becomes more mutable, and the site begins to show its own idiosyncrasies.
Ultimately, I decided to take this route for the school proposal. I considered design elements in both the plan for the new addition and the original building, and—highlighting some of these—created a set or “key” to the visual vernacular of the school’s physical structure. This key would be translated into color-matched shapes that, multiplied, can be installed throughout both the new and old building in myriad ways. Through the keying of the space, I want to make the viewer—here, I’m thinking mostly of the students—experience the malleability and design-ability of their built environment.
AP: What grade are the students in?
GS: It’s an elementary school.
AP: For Joseph Cornell’s last show, the work was hung lower than normal so that children could see the work at eye level. Did you try and occupy these children’s minds for the project?
GS: I love that. Was the work also “made” for the children? I went back to my elementary school to teach for a while after college and marveled at the sinks that only came to my knee. I had forgotten them, but not the feeling I had as a child of being competent. Maybe it was the me-sized sinks.
I now teach high school art, so it’s not that far off for me to try to occupy the minds of elementary students. I did try to think about what the kids would do with or think of my project—or at least what a young version of me would do with it. I was thinking too of Fredrich Fröbel, and the “teaching gifts” he developed in the early 19th century, which were a series of games, toys, and objects that were presented in a set progression to children. They came directly out of a Bauhaus sensibility—lots of geometric blocks, shapes and patterns, and design problems. A big part of my work involves just being actively observant, and I wanted this project to activate that by making the shapes part of a scavenger hunt or game in the site. Then again, another major concern for the review panel was safety, so while I tried to occupy the children’s minds, it’s all hung out of hand’s reach.
AP: I’m not sure if Cornell specifically made the work for kids* but he obviously thought about their interaction, as you have, with the work. How interactive do you like your work to be? For example, site set appears to be set up as a game, but what if no one wants to play?
GS: Well, I don’t (yet) intend for viewers to physically interact with the work. But I like that it feels like you could, or would, in another context. Since December, I’ve been making sculptures that take on the basic form of a wedge. They are mostly made of materials that are leftovers from other projects—felt, cotton, rubber, embroidery, thread, foam—stuff that I feel the need to finally process out of my studio. In form, they want to be that kind of simple machine that interacts, but they’re obviously pretty useless except to look at. The usefulness latent in the material was all used up in their making. I hope that you might wonder what you’re supposed to “do” with some of my work when you look at it.
AP: It’s interesting you say that a material’s usefulness leads to its demise as a useful object. I read your writing on your website about ruins and how they function for us. Outside of the very vast conversation one could have regarding ruins, can you talk about what this idea in relation to the materials you use?
GS: That paper I wrote about “contemporary ruins” explored the aesthetic effect of demolition and decay on the built environment, and specifically how context and framing mechanisms change the response we have to this dissolution. It’s fascinating to me how an ordinary building can become more powerful to our sensibilities by falling into disrepair or being razed. So I might have oversimplified in suggesting I could “use up” the usefulness of materials. Maybe another way to think about this kind of ruin—and the concept of utility in this work—is in the terms of conservation and transformation of energy. In the loss of their original form or purpose, structures can gain a new visibility to us, and through this visibility they catalyze considerations of the underlying, over-arching, and proximal structures. For me in the studio, through the making, a work’s usefulness can get transferred from a material potential to a conceptual kinetics. That’s a fancy way to say that I’ve never been good at, or satisfied by, just making good-looking objects. I’ve got some quixotic aspiration for the art to be “functional.” Maybe because my parents are architects and I have always admired the supposed usefulness of crafts and design. I want each piece to be the pivot to a specific thought or concern.
I’ve been thinking about Artschwagger recently. His show last fall at the Whitney confirmed for me what I respond to in his work, which is that calling out of category. He makes plain the invisibility of our assumptions. A table, a chair: In their familiar forms, we see them full of usefulness, history, people. Translated into a sculpture—or a “sculpture picture”—the definitional that the “table” form itself—horizontal plane, vertical support—does on a daily basis becomes really clear. I’ve also always loved Fred Sandback’s work, and the way it describes the sensory definition of “space” and thingness with an almost painfully acute economy. It does work like an ant does; completely defying its shape and size.
I don’t know if that response clarifies or complicates the whole “materials” question….
AP: It definitely clarifies your intentions. You mentioned that you are using the wedge form for your new work. Can you talk about why you have chosen this form? The work looks to be small in scale; how do you approach the psychological state of scale in these works as opposed to your installations?
GS: The wedge. I’ve been attracted to tools for leveling or “measuring right” for a while. Levels and shims have played a large role in recent work prior to and overlapping the wedges. In some way, the conceptual impetus for the wedges probably goes back to a piece I first made in 2008 (remade in 2012) called For Closure, which was a response to the destabilization of the trust and dependence people had in the housing market at the time. The crash turned my assumptions about the relationship we have to our dwellings completely upside down; what I had taken for granted as a closed and private space, a site specific to geography and time, was suddenly tied to all these abstract financial products and global dealings very much beyond the domestic sphere, outside of the control of an individual or family.
I look at sites and constructed systems for the visible effects of its relationship to real people and use. I am particularly drawn to identifiable repairs and adjustments. There are lots of moments in the city where a “fix” is really visible against the original intent of the design. Photographic documentation of these fixes has made its way into collages in which the fix kind of takes over the original intent—undermining, infiltrating, or dominating the previous aesthetic. The installations also make use of these observations, though as I work in more traditional “white boxes”, the installations—like Site Set and Party Wall—have developed into an abstraction of that practice of noticing.
The wedges feel very personal, anthropomorphic, and I don’t think it’s only tied to their size. As opposed to the making of an installation on site, I spend a lot of time with these pieces in my studio. They progress as they need to. The wedges are also all made of materials that are remnants of prior or unrealized projects, so from the start they have this relationship to my past, to ideas I had, to the studio, to bodies of work that I’ve left behind or that maybe failed. It’s been surprisingly satisfying—even cathartic—to make them. I’ve been titling them (“for [something or someone]”), which makes them into an act of homage, but also, again, begs the question of purposefulness; if “for”, then “how and why?”
Gabriela Salazar is an artist, teacher, writer and curator who lives and works in New York City. She received her MFA in Painting from RISD in 2009, and BA from Yale University in 2003. Recent solo projects include For Closure (Outdoors, the Bronx), a monumental public art piece with the Bronx River Art Center/DOT; and Site Set, at the Luchsinger Gallery, CT. Her work has been included in group shows across the country and she has also curated shows at 92YTribeca (Optotype with Lucas Blalock), the RISD Museum (A Varied Terrain with Martin Smick and Mayen Alcantara), and currently co-curates Carousel, an one-night-only exhibition series on a mechanical slide projector (with Mary Choueiter). A recipient of two RISD Awards of Excellence and a current Smack Mellon “Hot Pick”, Salazar has also been in residence at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Studio LLC at the Jamaica Center for the Arts and Learning, and the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. Her work is currently included in La Bienal 2013: This is Where We Jump at El Museo del Barrio, New York.
Arthur Peña (born 1982, Dallas, TX) is a painter and contributing writer to New American Paintings and ART HAPS. Peña received his MFA in Painting from RISD in 2012, his Post-Baccalaureate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his BFA from the University of North Texas. His work will be exhibited in “Boom Town” at the Dallas Museum of Art this summer and he will also participate in the 2013 Texas Biennial at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in San Antonio this fall. Peña currently teaches at UNT and Mountain View College, and he currently lives and works in Dallas.