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Interview with Fabienne Lasserre by Daniel Gerwin

Daniel: Before getting into your current work, I'd like to ask you to trace the development of your thinking a bit. You started with painting, but you were clearly looking to depart from two dimensions. Can you talk about how you moved from flat paintings to your installation, The Cave, and then beyond that to your current practice? With The Cave in particular, what aspects of that work felt like they achieved your aims, and what aspects felt like limitations that led you to adjust your practice toward its current modalities?

Fabienne: When I made The Cave I was interested in contradictions, how opposing elements create meaning within an image. I made this after living in Mexico City for a year -a city of contrasts and clashes if there is one- and I was drawn to the syncretic qualities of its culture. In La Sonora, a market in the North East of the city, there was a whole section dedicated

to witchcraft, and the supernatural. One would go there for spiritual advice, or on a very practical level, for a spell, oration or charm meant to have a precise outcome. What fascinated me there, beyond the sheer abundance and variety of altars, plants, lotions, amulets, etc, was how these artifacts formed a coherent symbolic system that blended and used elements from Catholicism

, Aztec and pre-Hispanic beliefs, Indian mythology, US pop culture, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Macumba, voodoo, to name only a few.

I remember an altar with Darth Vader, Kali, Xango, and many other figures. There were also these very kitschy transparent resin pyramids, with buddhas, voodoo symbols, images of saints, and designs made with sequins and rice grains, cast in the resin. You were instructed to place the pyramid on the TV for its powers to be effective.

The arrangement of symbols and metaphors at La Sonora didn't pertain to a binary or Manichean system of thought. Rather, they implied the existence of numerous opposing forces in the world. This was a complex, messy, hybrid belief system, embracing paradox and conflict, but also very direct and literal. So the etched drawings on my TV screens combined elements inspired from popular culture and traditional systems: alchemy manuscripts, medieval bestiaries, religions from South and Central America and the Caribbean (which themselves have African and European roots), tattoos, manga, comix, wrestlers, and more. And, since the TVs were turned on, you could hear and see the shows behind the images, yet another layer of cultural activity. My goal was to create a site (a cave) where violence, beauty, abjection, sexuality, the decorative, humor, etc., existed together outside of standard hierarchies. I was also looking at medieval art, and interested in how painting worked with architecture - in churches, for instance- and how images could work in an environment instead of as discrete pieces. Evidently, painting and installation are not mutually exclusive categories.

But, to answer your question (...finally!), I didn't really move from 2d to 3d, or from painting to sculpture. The Cave was one of my very early shows, and the 3-dimensional aspect was there already. I think that from the start I was trying to find ways to adapt painting to a practice that would be more flexible, more expansive, and with less of the pressures, baggage and tradition one wrestles with in painting.

Yet, I see my current practice as very indebted to painting. First of all, color is paramount. And surface, also, is crucial. Too, my sculptures rely on the haptic, the sense of touch, rather than on constructed spatial/physical relationships. In fact, gravity is the most annoying thing I have to deal with. If I could "compose" my sculptures like one makes a painting - i.e. without paying attention to weight, balance or any other physical law, I'd probably be much happier! I'm being facetious here of course; to me the most compelling things about objects or sculptures is that they are really "things". Things that exist in the world. They don't represent or refer to, they are. A few months ago, I went to a show of Spanish religious polychrome sculpture at the National Gallery, and it occurred to me that "painted sculpture" has been relegated to the lowest rung on the art hierarchy. It runs counter to notions of truth to materials in sculpture, and it uses color in a literal manner (pink for the skin, blue for the dress, etc) that is seen as cosmetic and superficial. Color is never (seen as) literal in painting because it operates in a two-dimensional mental space. I've been looking at - and loving- Christian polychrome religious statuary for years. There is something really significant in the ways these pieces combine decoration (and the ideals associated with the decorated) and directness (or literalness). This is true not only for their use of color, but also symbolism and body language. Furthermore, polychrome statuary goes against any notion of medium specificity. So, my sculptures/things (and wall pieces/things) definitely come from the lineage of the idiot cousin of the art family!

Daniel: There is much to talk about in what you've just said, and I will try to circle back to it, but for now I want to round things out a bit more. You say your work is descended from "the lineage of the idiot cousin of the art family," referring to polychrome sculpture, and I know you're partially joking, but I want to ask you about some of your other forebears, dead and living, who are solidly within the canon. I am speaking of Eva Hesse and Franz West, whose DNA is evident in aspects of your work. If these artists are indeed important to you, can you share your thoughts about their art, what you have taken from them and what you have chosen to leave behind?

Fabienne: Yes, Eva Hesse is a crucial influence. She forced a shape-shifting Body into the modalities of Minimalism. Of course, the Body was not anathema to Minimalist art, which placed such importance on the position/body of the viewer, and how it conditioned the experience of the piece, and experience in general. But, for me, Hesse expanded these concerns with perception and experience from the visual to the haptic. I think a lot about the sense of touch and its role and implications. In 2008 I made a series of prints (and some sculptures) entitled "Gropings", in which I imagined a world in which touch, not sight, was the dominant sense. I was wondering how this would affect our perception and understanding of the world. I thought that the sense of touch, dispersed as it is throughout the body’s surface, would entail thoughts that were more layered and multiple, less systematic and centrally ordered.

"I was also not wanting to have such a definite plan ... (I was) just not

interested in working out a whole model in small and following it." (Eva

Hesse, October Files, 21). I think her process parallels the importance of

the haptic in her work: she feels things out. She chooses an indirect course out of a refusal to prescribe wh

at the outcome should be. This is super important to me. Chance and uncertainty are structural elements of my practice. I think doubt - which has nothing to do with mistrust and

everything to do with an acknowledgment of fallibility - is necessary for speculation, for figuring out. Many times, Hesse's work seems stubbornly forced together. Stubbornness is a quality I value in art - I'd love to curate a show of stubborn art! It is present in Franz West's work, and the title of the catalogue of his show at the Baltimore Museum of Art "To Build a House You Start by the Roof" embodies it perfectly. A not-so-glorious Body is implied in all of his work, along with not-so-glorious feelings: the awkward, irritated, embarrassed (as opposed to grand, noble emotions such as anger, melancholia, or pride, for instance. I think that the combination of clumsy and stubborn is really fertile for West. That combination, which doesn't need to be forceful or aggressive (it can be playful and lyrical), is important for many other artists I admire: Ree Morton, Dieter Roth, Amy Sillman, Lynda Benglis, to name a few. In West, I like how the abject is couched in a pop sensibility.

Daniel: I am struck by your conception of the haptic as a means of transcending binaries that are taken as fundamental to human experience, such as subject/object (or self/other), and active/passive. As you may be aware, Buddhist thought is much concerned with the error of the binary model, in so far as it prevents us from recognizing that all experience is actually a unity.

You describe sight as producing thought that is systematic and centrally ordered, which reminds me of Foucault's writing about the Panopticon, which, after all, is designed for the exercise of power and control. In contrast, your conception of the haptic introduces a degree of utopian thought into your work, and it is interesting to consider your objects as utopian propositions. Your comments on Franz West seem to point in the same direction, if one considers adjectives like clumsy, distorted, and truncated, and of course caricature itself, to be in many ways an antithesis to the qualities inherent in the Panopticon (note how quickly binary thinking reasserts itself!).

In writing about Possibly Being, a 2006 show you were in, Roger White talked about artists entertaining "ideas at the level of the potential rather than the actual." Do you agree with White's thought, and do you feel that this notion is associated with your own attraction to the haptic as a way to dissolve boundaries and the categories they create? Do your consider your work to be optimistic, or even utopian, and if so, how?

Fabienne: We see tactility as playing a subordinate role in our understanding of the world. Knowledge and power are often couched in metaphors derived from vision and optics: one has a point of view, perspective, things can be seen under a different light, overlooked, focused on, ideas can be clear, etc, etc. The haptic sense is associated with intuition or the unconscious, and relegated to the periphery of comprehension. At best, it is a complement to what we infer through sight. At worst, it is associated with regressive or infantile tendencies, the irrational, and the feminine. I pay a lot of attention to this undervalued sense in my work because it is unexplored, and relevant from a feminist standpoint.

So yes, as you sum up very well (and I love that you bring up Buddhism and Foucault - I had never thought of the Panopticon in relation to the haptic), there is a political, or philosophical, dimension to this. The way I understand Roger White's comment is that the pieces emerge from an arrangement of ideas, a complex of possibilities that don't quite exist outside of the work, a system that is plausible, that is within the world yet somehow independent of it. They say: "this could be, if..."; and that is what Will Villalongo's title for the show, "Possibly Being", also implies.

I often think of pieces or bodies of work as models, entities developed to try things out and learn about the outcomes and consequences of a way of making, doing, and thinking. They're models from which to compare and question prevailing norms or assumptions. That is what I like in Science-Fiction. The departure from realism permits the creation of a fictional world with its own laws and rules. This is not a place to escape to, or a shelter from reality. On the contrary: creating a different world makes everything in ours relative and debatable. In a way, the further it is from reality, the better it enables us to question reality..

However, I don't see my pieces as utopian. I don't think utopianism is able to embrace and include enough imperfection. There is something too sweeping, too finite, too solution-oriented in much utopian thought. My process has more to do with perception and understanding than any social arrangement erected with the general good as a goal. And the flawed, the marred have too much place in my work for it to be utopian. Failure in my work is not redeemed, it's just there. Utopia, I think, tries to accommodate or rehabilitate imperfection. And that strips it of its role of throwing a wrench in the works...

One example of the importance of imperfection is "Stupid Timid and Free". The piece has five forms emerging from the canvas - five fingers, or heads, or blobs. Who knows what they are: they're amorphous, mute, unidentified, dull. They're neither clearly ugly nor perky, and it's hard to know when they begin or end: there is no separation from the background. In fact, there is no figure-background relationship in the piece, only pressure (they're stretching, deforming the stripes). They are timid: unable to be aggressive because aggressivity presupposes some distinction between self and non-self, some sense of outward direction. They exist and they're so dumb, so inarticulate(d), so undefined. And this total vagueness, this total stupor, also makes them free.

You also ask if the pieces are optimistic. On one hand, I think that the pieces are too in the present to be optimistic or pessimistic: they're not concerned with the future. Yet a lot of the work is concerned with the positive potential implied in precarious, or unsettled states.

I would also add that my work, if not exactly optimistic, is very accepting of happiness. Pleasure and joy play a crucial part. I think I've gradually stopped equating happiness and naivety; anger and irony don't imply a more incisive intelligence. Recently I made a piece called "Arbitrary, Decorative and Untrustworthy", and it’s one of my favorite pieces. It has stripes, and garlands, and a bright, hot pink underbelly. My friend Christy Gast said it looked like someone's playground, and Brian says it is a birthday cake. My 8-year old niece calls it the Mushroom-Table. But my point is that it would never have happened if I hadn't come up with this title mid-course. The tongue in cheek title enabled me to totally indulge, to be completely loopy and decorative. It was a license to ignore, and question, the suspicion with which we regard decoration and pleasure.

Daniel: I have never shared in the critical hostility to beauty or pleasure in art, so I look forward to seeing "Arbitrary, Decorative and Untrustworthy" and your other new work.

Images Courtesy of the Artists

Interview by Daniel Gerwin

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Leslie Smith

Certain images are burned into our brains: a pyramid of naked men on their hands and knees, hoods over their heads, overseen by grinning U.S. soldiers; the infamous hooded man in a tattered sheet, standing balanced on a cardboard box with wires dangling from his fingers. These are among the visions left us by the United States’ activities in Abu Ghraib prison, during the early years of the Iraq War. Leslie Smith has absorbed the Abu Ghraib photographs into his imagination and created a body of work that both responds to those events and turns inward from their realities to a more inchoate place.

Some of Smith’s paintings directly reference the cruel inventions of American prison guards, such as “Standard Operating Procedure,” where the human pyramid makes an appearance. Others, like “Dead Weight,” feature what seem to be disembodied feet, reminiscent of the photos of one Iraqi prisoner’s corpse. Still other paintings seem to have originated with these images, but have become more unrecognizable, as in “Peter”, where Smith takes us closer to the realm of the ineffable, charting a course through an array of reactions to our obscene capacity for inflicting pain: stark recognition, efforts at comprehension, and finally, deep internalization.

Profile by Daniel Gerwin
Image: Standard Operating Procedure, Courtesy of the Artist

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Fabienne Lasserre

Remember high school physics class? At some point, you put a ball on top of a ramp, a few feet above the floor. Before releasing it, you’re supposed to calculate how far it will fly before it hits the ground. Now imagine that on top of the ramp you have an unfamiliar object: maybe it’s alive, maybe not. It’s not quite round, nor is it square, the shape and weight are hard to define. You can’t be sure if it will roll, bounce, crawl, or perhaps just flap some part of itself and fly to the ceiling. Welcome to the world of Fabienne Lasserre.

Lasserre makes indeterminate objects. She uses materials like felt, ceramic chain, paint, hair, linen and wool. Her art evokes certain kinds of adjectives: lumpy, bulbous, twisted, warped, folded, irregular, slack, droopy, precarious. For the most part, her sculpture is not mimetic; it doesn’t look like a house or a flower – it just looks like itself. Yet her sculptures frequently evoke aspects of the natural world: things that grow, things that drip, things with tendrils. Many of the things Lasserre dreams up seem like they could move, like a seashell you discover is a hermit crab when it suddenly scuttles away. Even works that are clearly inanimate appear ready to spontaneously twist or roll.

Taking yielding materials and making objects that are a little disheveled, lumpen, and a bit off-balance, Lasserre establishes a firm position in contradistinction to artists of shiny commodities, like Jeff Koons, or artists of enormous gestures, like Richard Serra. Lasserre’s work does not seduce, command, awe, or intimidate. These are abstract objects that manage to achieve a figural presence; they occupy the world like we do, and we are free to engage each piece and see what we can learn. Like individual people, Lasserre’s works resist definitions and categories. Go meet them.

Image:Gallery Diet Installation, Fabienne LasserreProfile by Daniel Gerwin

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Joel Dean

The figures populating Joel Dean’s paintings move aimlessly, their facial features generically rendered or replaced by masks. They engage in careless acts of violence and carnality, and they are portrayed both still and in motion. Sex, when it occurs, is accompanied by voyeurism. These are youthful creatures of undefined ages, generally no older than their twenties. In Dean’s three most recent major paintings, the world is a purple, humid darkness. Candles are occasionally present in the work from 2008 and 2009, but they emit no light, only tendrils of smoke that travel the vertical length of the canvas and create a vaguely ritualized atmosphere. In “Blunderers,” and “Interracial Couple with Abstract Element,” the smoke lines have evolved into tentacles that crisscross the canvas horizontally, interrupting the image.

Though they do not have specific faces, these young people are nonetheless familiar. They evoke that difficult phase of growing up when earlier, simpler beliefs fall away, but there is nothing convincing to fill the void. It is therefore quite fitting that the qualities that best define Dean’s figures are what they lack. Their bodies are constructed without sharp lines or angles, their eyes are rarely defined, and those that do have eyes stare with more or less unfocused gaze. Listlessness is the operative term, and there is no individual identity, only vague association. Above all, these young men and women seem to lack volition, the ability to choose a direction and act energetically. They are foot soldiers in the zombie army of the uncommitted. At one time or another, we have all been among their ranks.

Images: Inter-Racial Couple with Abstract Element, courtesy of Joel Dean

Profile by Daniel Gerwin

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