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Interview with Fabienne Lasserre and Molly Smith

By Daniel Gerwin

Installation View: Becoming Something Found

DG: I understand you developed this show over the course of a year. Can you talk about how the concept evolved, some of the twists and turns?

FL: "Becoming Something Found" evolved from “Come Through”, a show that Molly and I curated at Sikkema & Jenkins last fall. This is a different show, with four additional artists and almost all new pieces, but it flowed directly from “Come Through”, following the same lines and intentions. “Becoming Something Found” is curated strictly from the artists’ point of view. It stems from a very intimate knowledge of each other's studio practices and influences. Most of the artists in this show visit each other's studios often. We see each other’s work at different stages: tentative, failed, flawed, and also confident, assertive, celebratory.

MS: I visited Fabienne during her residency in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2009. We made some pieces together, combining materials we found in the markets with materials we were using in our own work: plaster in my case, and felted wool in Fabienne’s. Collaborating sparked a conversation about organizing a show of artists who make art while traveling. I immediately thought of a wonderful picture in one of my most treasured artists' monographs, Sheila Hicks' Weaving as Metaphor. The photo shows her weaving on a backstrap loom in Oaxaca in the 1950’s. Wherever she was staying, she would turn over a piece of furniture to create a loom between the four legs. Sheila's ability to adapt her artistic practice and absorb the influence of the surrounding culture made her a significant figure in forming our idea for the show.

DG: What surrounding influences find their way into your own practice, are they more local to your daily life in the U.S.?

MS: Absorbing my surroundings is huge for me. The imagery and many objects in my sculptures come from walks in my neighborhood. Most people carry a camera with them when they travel, but I have my camera with me always, and capture moments that inform my work. This local and daily observational practice translates when I'm traveling as well.

DG: What are some of the specific things you're looking at these days, and how are they being transformed in your work?

MS: I don't work directly from any of my photographs, but I try to absorb the gestures, arrangements, and movements of objects. In my sculptures some actual things I pick up are included, as with Around, which is in this show. It’s centered on a crushed hula-hoop that I passed one day when it was whole, in the road. A few days later I passed it again, and it had been run over and crushed. It was funny and pathetic. Its original use, as a round and rounded thing, was now impossible and that made me like it more.

DG: Can you say more about the impact of travel, the idea that instigated this show?

MS: Fabienne and I considered the concept of travel more broadly, and arrived at the condition that travel provides an artist: uncertainty. That seemed to be the essence of the processes and work of all the artists we were beginning to intuitively group together.

FL: We’ve talked many times about how a meandering and indirect course is integral to our work, about how we value irresolution and loose ends. Uncertainty is part of figuring out; doubt (which doesn't mean mistrust or insecurity!) is necessary to speculation. Pleasure, too, plays a crucial part.

Molly and I thought of artists whose approach allows them to get lost: processes that accommodate paradox, indeterminacy, and open-endedness. We came up with artists from different generations, for whom materials are crucial, and who make abstract works that still retain elements from everyday life, the decorative, and even the sentimental. Their works also share, if not exactly a sense of optimism, an acceptance of happiness. The show points to the seriousness and rigor of this way of working, which is to be distinguished from a kind of fabled, loopy spontaneity ("so creative, so free!") typically described in much talk and writing about art and artists.

DG: How do you hold onto indeterminacy when you’re pursuing your daily studio practice? Every artist arrives at his or her own material language, which necessarily limits uncertainty.

MS: I would say that while we all work with some direction, we also invite uncertainty to the game. We know our materials in intimate ways, but those materials impose their own tendencies that we cannot control, and may not always be able to, or want to, manipulate. Even if I know I am casting a certain shape in plaster, there are still many factors I don't know. How to make that shape from paper, how the plaster will distribute once it's poured in that paper shape, then how the many tints I used in the plaster might set up and emerge. I want to be surprised.

I was just in Jess [Dickinson’s] studio and she showed me drawings that make themselves by recording her movement as they cover the floor in front of a painting, or trace their own movement across the studio floor over months. I imagine the dye Rachel [Foullon] applies to her fabric is in some ways controlled by the water in which it is immersed as much as by her hand, and then she works with the natural drapery and twist of the material. Fabienne felts wool that shrinks and shapes itself in forms dictated by the properties of the fiber. Shiv [Liddell] makes a bridge for her son out of paper, which makes its way into the studio and is transformed into a relief. Sheila [Hicks] weaves on a diagonal then releases the weaving to allow its tension to transform the square into a diamond shape.

DG: In today's cultural context, how do you see this incorporation of chance and uncertainty into artistic process? Does this approach tend to move the resulting art into the kind of territory that was highlighted by the Unmonumental show at the New Museum in New York (2007)? In other words, it's hard to make something polemical (or monumental) if the work’s outcome is uncertain. Or is an uncertain process itself a type of polemic, a kind of politics?

MS: I think a lot about how ego is involved in art making. And the idea of making something monumental to me seems so futile. Speaking for myself, I think of working with chance and uncertainty as collaboration with forces greater than me, and in some ways, acknowledging and admiring these forces is the reason to make art. For me that’s so relevant to today’s context, this moment of massive change. As an artist, I think we are innately adaptable and flexible. We don't expect things to be fixed.

Installation View: Becoming Something Found

FL: In a way, the unknown - the idea or the form that has not yet arrived and must be found - is what all artists attend to. I think that with "Becoming Something Found", we are approaching something more specific, and more playful. The work of many of the artists in the show operates on and between the edges of various disciplines. It stretches these categories without being antagonistic, in a playful and lyrical manner connected to daily life, to the trivial. Alison Knowles' privileging of ordinary activities expressed in simple, concrete terms, offers an example. So does her use of neglected sensibilities such as smell, touch, and taste.

There is also a willful avoidance of declamatory and resolved statements or gestures. When Jo Smail says: "I want to be on the side of the not-clever, the vulnerable, inconsistencies, and mistakes. This is what beginnings are like," she is insisting on the potential of things kept open, on the importance of what is left undefined. This kind of approach, even if it not new, has resonance for many people now.

Unmonumental was okay, but a much more interesting, exciting and ground-breaking show was High Times, Hard Times, curated by Katie Siegel and David Reed (National Academy Museum, New York, 2007). That show, with all its idiosyncrasies and flaws, really blew me away. Come Through and Becoming Something Found are both indebted to the way in which High Times, Hard Times presented a sense of possibility -even political possibility - within abstract and formal modalities.

DG: Speaking of political possibility, your show traces a sort of matrilineal descent over three generations (Morton/Hicks to you and your peers, to your student Emily). What are your ideas about artistic inheritance and transmission, and also about these issues for women artists of the past 50-60 years?

FL: Molly and I never set out to put together an all-women show. Late in the process, we realized that the artists we selected were all women. Of course, it wasn't exactly a surprise. We had gradually acknowledged that some of the concerns of the show led, almost too easily, to questions of gender. But we were really thinking of a specific way of working.

Installation View: Becoming Something Found

I guess the kind of flexibility Molly and I had in mind had been embraced by women artists who were dealing with specific (political) restrictions and limitations. This fluid voice and meandering trajectory came out of necessity, practicality, and resistance. For example, Morton made a whole body of work derived from the summer she spent in Newfoundland with her children. She made amazing installations using things she found while taking walks with her kids in Philadelphia. The materials she used feel close to home, prosaic and familiar. Her tone is confessional, autobiographical, funny, at times even embarrassing. Her installations, sculptures and drawings toy with the decorative, the domestic, and fantasy (all too often considered easy, backwards, regressive).

In the late 60’s and 70’s, along with the lack of opportunity for women came a certain independence and freedom: women were creating and inventing radical new forms of art, outside of the pressures of history and power. By saying this, I really don’t mean to dismiss the exasperating injustices, or to sound positive about a situation that has really not changed enough yet. But there is truth in Elizabeth Murray’s words: “I think that the greatest part of being a woman in the world of painting is that I'm not really a part of it. I can do whatever the hell I want."

MS: Inheritance and transmission is just everything to an artist. Especially after so much art education that never really satisfied or fulfilled the feeling I've had standing in front of a Ree Morton, or Sheila Hicks, or Eva Hesse or Anne Truitt. I think there’s something particularly poignant in the idea of inheriting a lineage (at the risk of sounding presumptuous) from women like Hesse or Morton, whose careers were cut short. But the idea of transmission feels quite relevant to the way we all work, the idea of insight being passed on through absorption rather than words, or through proximity and subtle gestures rather than through formal education.

Interview by Daniel Gerwin

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