Ruby Sky Stiler’s handsome yet disorderly foamcore sculptures, which often reference classical antiquity, have been exhibited at Callicoon Fine Arts, Socrates Sculpture Park, and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in New York. Here she talks about her solo project for TBA:10 in Portland, Oregon, which opens at Washington High School on September 9.
I’VE BEEN DEVELOPING the work in this show for the past year. Kristan Kennedy, a curator at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, encountered two of the initial sculptures in my studio, and the undertaking moved forward from there, with a steady dialogue between us and the site in mind. The project consists of three “figurative” works, each slightly larger than life, and a group of twenty-two collages. I’ve created a corresponding artist’s book that includes the collages and shares the title of my installation: “Inherited and Borrowed Types.” Though the pieces themselves are independent, I’m excited to see how the formal, academic aspects of Washington High School create a different context to support them, and I have worked with the space to tease a distinct mood from the classroom/gallery.
The reference to classical iconography popped up in my work a few years ago. I was in Naples for a brief visit with friends, and we visited Pompeii, the formerly ash-buried Roman town–cum–tourist attraction. A controversy involving the colors of the frescoes captured our attention during our time there. Apparently “Pompeii Red,” which is synonymous with our collective sense of this historical time and place––and a standard paint-chip color––may have been an archaeological mistake. Reports stated that the original color could have been oxidized through the heat of the fire and mutated to appear red. Meanwhile, the entire site has been restored with this color in mind, which is nuts. I love this subject, which exists primarily through the lens of contemporary historians and is therefore a constantly evolving and engaging fiction. The sculptures in this show play with authenticity and with how that quality is perceived, creates value, and can prompt an atmosphere of authority surrounding the object.
My basic process for this work is to jam together disparate parts to make a whole. I think of this as a hopeful, loving gesture: finding solutions (or a suitable repair) that will bring the figure to life out of crumbling, incomplete appendages. The sculptures are made to be viewed in the round: From one side, a classical figure is seen, while the opposite section gives off an abstract modernist vibe. The resulting sensation is that these works are referencing both ancient art history and sculpture of the twentieth century. My incorporation of shifting perspectives, varied art-historical references, gender combinations, and juxtapositions in scale encourages a sense of striving to make something work, even when one doesn’t have all the appropriate resources at one’s disposal. This activity feels like a metaphor for daily life.
The shifting line between common kitsch and singular originality is an element that interests me. On first glance, these ancient-seeming figures appear to be chiseled from marble. Looking closer, it’s clear that they are constructed from contemporary art supplies and conflate iconography that spans different centuries and societies. On the one hand, elements of these works copy from recognized ideals of art history, and in this sense, they are tacky imitations. On the other hand, however, I aim to make the sculptures’ presence feel elegant, convincing, and originally expressive.
Left: Molly Dillworth, Cool Water, Hot Island, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view. Right: A crew working on the piece.
For one of Manhattan’s largest public art projects to date, Brooklyn-based artist Molly Dilworth was awarded a commission from the New York City Department of Transportation to create a temporary site-specific installation in Times Square designed to “refresh and revive” the streetscape. Dilworth’s work, Cool Water, Hot Island, is a fifty-thousand-square-foot painting that winds through five city blocks. Her project diary can be found on the artist’s Flickr website.
TIMES SQUARE is a funny place because it’s so coded, iconic, and commercial, and most New Yorkers avoid it unless they work there. At the same time, it’s like a live microphone, so everyone is aware of what’s happening there. Cool Water, Hot Island is a performative public project in a venue that could be watched live in real time. Getting started, I read Mannahatta by Eric Sanderson and studied Manhattan’s natural history as a pre–twentieth century site, specifically in relationship to how it feels now: wired, chaotic, almost illegible. I spent a lot of time thinking about the balance of freedom, control, and playfulness––particularly in the work of Brian Eno and John Cage. A Year with Swollen Appendices, Eno’s diary, is a touchstone. I wanted to create a public project that would feel calm––and like it belonged. I studied the 2002 NASA infrared scan of Manhattan and created a design that covered five city blocks. I decided to take that design, translate it through the poured-painting process that I have explored for some years, and stretch the whole thing to create a “river” flowing through Times Square. Later, I learned that at one time there existed three estuaries nearby called the Great Kill.
Prior to this project, I was creating paintings on rooftops, specifically so they would be photographed and documented by Google Earth. The idea was to invert my typical relationship with technology by making a real thing to be experienced in the virtual world. I am interested in technology’s potential to overwrite the codes of public and private space. The rooftop project began as an abstraction, but once I started working, it developed into a rich set of practical issues related to sustainable building and cutting-edge environmental technologies. I used these technologies as much as possible in Cool Water, Hot Island.
The work is fifty thousand square feet, on Broadway between Forty-second and Forty-seventh streets, and it is made of street paint mixed with grit and hardener. My crew consisted of men who work for a contractor that is often hired to do large road-painting jobs for the city. I worked with the contractor to figure out what types of painting processes were possible in relationship to my design, and I spent a great deal of time figuring out a stenciling system that would be flexible and tough enough to work on the ground. I designed a set of about forty stencils to create the curves and patterns of the painting. I’ve made several large-scale works in the past, so I had a sense of what I was aiming for, but I was nervous since I didn’t have any room for error. Street paint is like an epoxy, and it takes a few hours to harden, so tiny amounts of rain would ruin a coat of paint. There were a lot of little bumps in the road––and environmental situations, like leaking hydrants––but the weather was by far the biggest challenge.
Initially I was nervous to work in Times Square. I had an amorphous fear of the crowds there. My fear turned out to be totally unfounded. I had amazing encounters with people: I bumped into a friend’s mom I hadn’t seen in twenty years, a paint manufacturer who saved me days of research, a professor from the Annenberg School for Communication who invited me to speak at Cardozo Law School, and many others. I was surprised how much I liked working in public. It’s exhausting, and I couldn’t really socialize while on the job, but it was good to put myself in such a vulnerable situation. I was learning at warp speed and receiving superpowered feedback.
Left: Sokari Douglas Camp, First Man, 2009, bronze, stainless steel, terrazzo, 6 x 1 x 31’. Installation view. Right: Installation of First Man.
To commemorate Britain’s bicentennial of the abolition of slavery, London-based sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp was commissioned to produce a major public art work. Here, she discusses her forthcoming project for London’s Burgess Park, All the World is Now Richer, a collection of six bronze figures.
I ORIGINALLY MADE this work for London’s Hyde Park; it was submitted in a competition to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery. In the end, I lost the commission to another artist. Not long after, though, I had an exhibition at London’s Wallspace and was fortunate in that another borough in the city decided that they would realize this commission. It did take some bargaining, and persuasion, but they found the funds to do it. The borough that took it on, Southwark, is right next to Westminster, and it has several important landmarks––the Imperial War Museum, Tate Modern, Tower Bridge, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Peckham Library––but it also happens to be extraordinarily poor. The sculpture is going to be in Burgess Park, which is a regeneration park in Southwark. It’s not Hyde Park––not a royal park––but it’s a people’s park. It hasn’t been nurtured as much as the others in London, but it’s getting there. Southwark is an important borough and there happens to be a large African population living in it. My main aim for the work is to create a sense of pride for black people, because although Wilberforce’s movement [one of the eighteenth-century abolitionist lobbies] was fantastic in its day, the monuments of the period—such as the antislavery medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787—seem inappropriate today: A black man on his knees begging to be recognized as a man is hurtful, and from a black perspective it doesn’t make me feel proud.
During Britain’s bicentennial abolition celebrations, I was reading various essays about the slave trade and Middle Passage, and I came across a passage of text from the Quaker campaign to raise money for abolition efforts. I felt that these were the perfect words to go along with the sculptures: “From my rich ancestral lands, we were sold, bought, and used but we were brave. We were strong. We survived. All the world is now richer.” This helps to emphasize that the cities of Bristol, Liverpool, and London wouldn’t be the same without having profited from the slave trade. The fact still isn’t recognized enough, especially in London, where black men are so often arrested or searched for no reason. It’s a question of leaving a legacy of pride for future generations of black British people or black people in the world.
The first bronze, which is called The First Man, is going to be put outside the mayor’s office in Southwark, near Tower Bridge. It’s made of steel, and the figures in the work look welded, fabricated. They have an element of shantytown about them. But I also wanted this piece to have a look of expensiveness, so the ground these figures stand on is a huge terrazzo platform that offers similar words from the Quaker passage. The figures vary in size, from six feet to nearly eight feet tall. The tallest is the plantation worker. He is formidable. He nearly fell on me in my studio several times. The third figure is sort of a mama type with nice droopy breasts, and you can imagine her feeding many children and tending house. The fourth is a Creole woman based on Sierra Leone women living in London. This is a lady that obviously has style and is sophisticated. Then there is a person in a suit, the fifth person. The last figure is in jeans and a T-shirt, which is a uniform that is universal and yet very contemporary. He is like every other man of the future in that his heritage is what has made the world what it is today. Behind him are the words ALL THE WORLD IS NOW RICHER. It is rather ironic that I am talking about profits from slavery during recession. But that seems to be how the world functions: There are slaves somewhere who enabled us to have the status we have in more developed countries. I think it is a story that needs to be told continuously.
Influenced by the Italian student movement of the 1970s during her childhood in Rome, dealer turned curator Emi Fontana recently closed her Milan gallery to found West of Rome, an organization whose events are redefining public art in Los Angeles. Eschewing this American city’s more conservative tendencies, she commissions projects by international artists that draw out the psychogeography of LA’s confusingly interstitial urban space.
I OPENED THE GALERIE FONTANA in Milan in 1992, but I always looked for ways to work in different modalities. I never wanted to be a dealer! I was always less interested in exhibiting work than in producing adventurous things. In 2005, I began living part-time in Los Angeles because of a romance, and I decided to start working. I didn’t want to just open another gallery. The planet didn’t need one more gallery. I had the idea of doing things without any fixed space. I would find spaces for each exhibition based on the needs of the artist and the nature of each project.
I like the name West of Rome for various reasons. It indicates a vague geographic position, but it’s somehow a nonplace as well. I stole the name from the Los Angeles writer John Fante. I have such a soft spot for him. The first time I traveled to Los Angeles, I was reading Ask the Dust on the plane. And then I got into him and read West of Rome. It’s a novel about a southern Italian who moves to LA and becomes a successful scriptwriter.
The first project I did was with Olafur Eliasson. His work, to me, is connected with California art—light, movement, and space. I asked him to name an ideal place to exhibit his work in LA, after he’d just had a big show at the Tate, and he decided he wanted to show at a more domestic scale, in a house. I found one in the hills of Pasadena that had been built by the architects Escher and GuneWardena, and I convinced the owners to lend us their home and move into the Beverly Hills Hotel for two months. The show was called “Meant to Believe In: Today I Am Feeling Prismatic,” and when the owners came to the opening they couldn’t recognize their own house!
In 2006, I produced Not for You with Monica Bonvicini at Shops on Lake, a mall in Pasadena. At first, Monica didn’t like the space. It was too weird. But it was perfect for her, because her work explores consumerism as a critique of modernism. After that, West of Rome started growing. I organized a show in an empty bridal store with Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason. And then, my big public project: Women in the City in 2008. That project is ongoing, though it started with Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Jenny Holzer. I wanted to recognize women artists from the ’80s because that was the first generation that broke through into the art market. To me, this was really important. My idea was to bring Holzer’s and Kruger’s work back to its origins, which was the street. Sherman made billboards, and they looked almost like ads for B movies.
Last year I closed the Milan gallery and moved to LA to do West of Rome full-time. This summer, Jennifer Bolande continues the Women in the City series with a set of sculptural plywood curtains installed on various buildings. At first sight, the curtains seem like boarded-up store windows and doors, but if you look closer, they have an undulation. There is elegance to it, but I feel it is also extremely timely: Beyond the financial crash, there is a crisis in retail. Who is buying from retail stores anymore? We all buy from the Internet or the big malls. And at the same time, we have Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s collaborative installation The Voyage of Growth and Discovery installed at the Farley Storage Building in Eagle Rock. The collaboration was initiated by West of Rome. It debuted in New York last year at SculptureCenter, but seeing it at the Farley building is a real trip. Built in the late 1960s, the Farley doesn’t have any windows, and it takes up a whole city block. It was always used as a storage facility until Kelley turned it into his studio in 2008.
Curating locations is very important to me. Generally, people believe that public art needs to occupy planned and assigned spaces. What we’re doing is much more fine-tuned: You have to find the space that resonates with the work and with the artist’s practice in general. This is fascinating to me. It’s something you can do well in a city you love, and I really love Los Angeles. I came here for romance, but when the romance was over I realized I still had a huge romance with the city. It is a constant source of inspiration for me.
Left: A view of The Suburban. Right: The opening of Donelle Woolford’s exhibition, November 8, 2009.
Artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam run The Suburban, an exhibition and project space in Chicago, which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. Can I Come Over to Your House?, a book about its first decade, with essays by Grabner, Forrest Nash, and Michael Newman, is forthcoming from Poor Farm Press.
WHEN WE MOVED to Oak Park in 1997, the property we bought had a little cinder-block outbuilding adjacent to the garage. We parked the lawn mower in it but knew that it could be put to more interesting use. At just eight by ten feet, it was too small for a studio, but as an unusual exhibition space it had possibilities. Places such as Thomas Solomon’s Garage in LA or Matt’s Gallery in London, way out in the East End before the East End had any galleries, as well as Gavin Brown’s early exhibitions in pubs and the like, encouraged us to create something different. During our years in Milwaukee we’d regularly arranged exhibitions or magazine projects and brought in artists from outside the Midwest, so we’d already formed that habit. Another influence was new friend David Robbins, who had just returned to the Midwest from years in New York and Europe. David had participated in the early phases of several important galleries—Nature Morte and American Fine Arts in New York, Christian Nagel in Cologne—and his move to the Midwest drove home the point that, with the Internet dispersing information more evenly, American artists no longer needed to be in New York or LA to stay current with contemporary art practices. He talked about wanting to open an experimental gallery in a suburban strip mall. David’s attitudes reinforced our feeling that we could make an art outpost right in our backyard in suburban Chicago.
The plan was to make exhibitions that wouldn’t rely on commercial considerations or go the nonprofit grant-seeking route. We wanted to avoid the pressures that ordinarily determine some or all of what is exhibited. Both of us teach, and we pay for the Suburban out of our pockets; we put the pressure on ourselves and keep it off the shows. The gallery isn’t so different from other kinds of exhibition spaces––there are white walls, and often there’s a painting on the wall or a sculpture on the floor––but an exhibition at the Suburban is more closely related to what happens in the artist’s studio than to a proper show at an institution. Artists come here and do whatever they want. We give them the space but we don’t give them conditions. You’re free to succeed or fail just as you might in whatever studio construction you employ. An artist can use the yard or install something in our house, if they like.
David Robbins, TV Commercial for The Suburban, 2010.
Exhibitions here tend to follow one of three routes. Some artists break off a little piece of their usual production and show it here to see what it looks like in this context. Others take the opportunity to develop a minor yet key part of their work. Still others will jump out of their skin, so to speak, and try something completely different than their usual practice.
Who shows at the Suburban is related to our movement through the world and who we encounter through the normal networking process; our relationships are with artists rather than with the commercial galleries that represent them. Extending an invitation to exhibit is a curatorial decision. There’s no getting around that, but there is a way of sharing it. Since 2003, we’ve had two spaces––one small, one very small––that run concurrent exhibitions. We deemphasize the curatorial model by letting one artist invite another. This introduces us to more new artists, it reduces potential interpersonal friction, and it recognizes networking as another shaping force in the contemporary art world.
Artists who show at the Suburban come from all over the world, and they come to the opening on their own dime. Only 5 percent of the artists we’ve shown haven’t installed their own work and made the opening. Not surprisingly––but still disappointingly––it’s younger artists, who perhaps just want the Suburban on their résumé, who give the least of themselves. Artists who have established careers are the ones who really understand the difference that the Suburban represents, and they are often extraordinarily generous.
We didn’t set out to determine a business plan to draw a certain audience. The audience has happened the way it has happened. Not surprisingly, it turns out that artists, more than any other demographic group, have the greatest interest in exhibitions for exhibitions’ sake.