Sculptors Michelle Carla Handel and Amy Sarkisian discuss their work, influences, commonalities, and process. Amy Sarkisian’s current show, “American Gag,” can be seen at WPA until May 14th, 2011. Michelle Carla Handel’s show, “Strange Skin,” is on view at WEEKEND until May 29th, 2011.
AS Who or WHAT are you inspired by? Because often it isn’t other artists necessarily. My practice is more from life. I can’t really point directly to other artists any more.
MCH Me, too. The influences in my work are more experiential and cultural. When looking at art, I often gravitate toward work that isn’t anything like mine. So yeah, I’m responding more to life, culture, jobs that I’ve had. My upbringing, coming from a family of physicians, and maybe working in the beauty industry have informed my work more than anything else. I was thinking about when I was in NY and working with models for photo shoots. They’re supposed to be these perfect human specimens but there’s always the flip side when you work with them up close, because they’re also kind of weird looking. And then I always thought it was kind of crazy that we’d then take images of these perfect young girls and spend a lot of time retouching them. It’s a really odd thing, so a lot of my work is thinking about beauty and the weirdness of the body and its contradictions and playing with those ideas. And you mentioned that also for you it’s personal or cultural…
AS Yeah, now it is. I used to cite my influences as other artists. But I think that’s how it works when you’re young and then your work gets going and it’s not about looking at other artists as much as it is looking at things outside of art. My life is feeding my art and how I respond to our culture. “Who are your influences” is a difficult question because it insists on you having to name names. And I could name a few people who are probably deep in there [my mind, my work] but not directly anymore.
MCH Yeah, and how relevant is it right now for you? I agree. And when someone asks me that I feel that it’s always changing anyway so my mind will draw a blank or I’ll be like, “well, who was I looking at last week?” It’s not like there’s a constant. It’s always changing and there’s so much good work to look at. I’m sure it inspires me but I’m not sure that it’s affecting how I make work or how I approach it.
AS While I was working on American Gag I was re-reading Passages in Modern Sculpture and thinking a lot about Brancusi. I’ve never studied him so thoroughly before and there was a chord that was finally getting struck there with me; before it was always Duchamp. So I guess I could cite Brancusi as an influence, but not directly, and not as the impetus, but I guess he’s in there. So, I wanted to ask that question because it’s always the one you get. And it’s a hard one for me to answer.
MCH Yeah, it is hard. I think when I was younger, looking at art I responded to, the people you would think I responded to if you look at my work, were people like Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois. That work is stuck in there. But I’m aware of it and I enjoy thinking about that and I don’t mind having a little private homage to them in my head, but yeah, I guess they have influenced me, but I think that the themes in their work are different from what I’m interested in. I think formally, yeah, they’d be those female artists, the first ones I’ve ever looked at when I was learning about art and taking art history when I was 18.
AS When you go about making a body of work, do you have an idea for several pieces or do you work on one thing and then that informs the next and so on…
MCH Sometimes I have things in my mind ahead of time. It’s rare that I’ll have a picture; this is exactly the thing I want to make most. Especially since I’ve had a tremendous learning curve with materials for this work here. There were a lot of mishaps and figuring it out and making changes at the last minute. I would start several pieces at the same time and also because the materials I work with have cure time. So you know, I’d get something started and then start something else and several pieces would be developing simultaneously. And then occasionally I would get something in my mind and then I would crank it out and it would work out pretty much the way I envisioned it. I started with little sketches first and then start working on the sculptures.
AS And the wooden elements, in your artist statement you called them skeletal elements. I noticed that they’re all very considered, not just stock wood. You routered the edges so that they’re smooth and rounded and I like that decision. It’s very much in keeping with the feeling of the whole piece. Do you always soften those edges?
MCH Yeah, I think that’s kind of a formal choice. I worked with these bulbous forms, all the forms that are round and distended and I was attracted to that sensibility and there’s also something childlike about it that’s appealing to me.
AS All the pieces have this kind of secure feeling about them. Some are suspended and hanging on wooden brackets and there is always a security peg so they’re not going to fall off. Private Dancer is suspended from the ceiling and sits in a snug fitting skin- it feels very secure. The routered edges of wood that we were talking about almost seem like a type of baby proofing. Is that a conscious thing, the security part of it for you?
MCH Yeah, I was thinking about ideas about fragility and just the ephemeral nature of flesh. I was thinking about these things. So I felt like each of these little entities that I was creating needed their own apparatus so that they can safely navigate the space or the world. So yeah, that was a conscious decision.
AS I think that neutralizes the grotesque. All of the relationships to the body with the notion of security are an interesting thread for me. None of the work feels very precarious. Not like Dali’s forms ready to fall off of their crutches. Your previous work and the work in Strange Skin- it’s funny and a bit repulsive but pleasant, it doesn’t give you the Paul McCarthy kind of feeling. You know what I mean?
MCH Yes, I was always thinking, if I’m putting this brown shiny rubbery surface then I have to put this bright pink ring to secure it. I was always going for those visceral contradictions. It’s interesting to me and I think that also came out of the work I was doing before in the beauty industry, noticing those contradictions. And also the humor of the body in general, but then those kind of contradictions where you’ve got this thing that is really beautiful but then also weird, and maybe even funny, speaking about the models, to me, it was all those things. But I noticed you have a lot of humor in your work, too. There’s also a tug between beautiful or pretty or decorative in some of your older work, maybe not so much in your current show and something like that in your older skull pieces. I found that really interesting. The other thing I was looking at in your older work was the collages you had with the models with the babies because I think that relates to my interests in this body of work. When I saw that I was like, ‘wow, those are great.’ How did those come about for you?
AS The collages are a combination of fashion magazines and baby magazines. I’d cut out infant heads and put them on the models from the fashion magazines. Some of the models really didn’t look that much different. They kind of eerily fit.
MCH Yeah, I feel like we’re in a very hyper-sexualized culture but then we’re also in a super youth-oriented culture so it’s a really odd thing to see something pubescent and you took it even further, infantile, with really hyper-sexualized bodies and the poses and everything.
AS The collages and the drawings are done between larger sculptural projects when I get antsy and want to make something immediate. I did a lot of baby work, not just the fashion magazine collages. I did Pregnancy & Newborn Magazine meets Guns & Ammo. And some babies and porn but that wasn’t subtle enough for me. I did a lot of babies smoking cigarettes, too. It was this final little bit of rebellion against my own biological clock because then the following year I got pregnant.
When I look back on my work I notice a recurring attempt at neutralization. The skulls are a really clear example. Although the beads aren’t genuine precious jewels, I wanted to make a genuinely beautiful object from a potent cultural symbol of horror. My past work often incorporates contradicting elements that I think I’m using as a process to balance or neutralize. I would often combine gore and horror with humor.
WE That seems to be very much prevalent in your recent exhibit where effectively you have tropes of minimalism to a certain extent, these very simple sculptures and then you neutralize that with Groucho Marx eyeglasses and nose and those sort of elements. I find that intriguing.
AS Yeah, so I guess that is still what I’m doing. That’s an interesting comment because I was thinking about minimalism. Like I said, I was reading the Kraus book so it was in the front of my mind, minimalism and early modernist sculpture.
WE It’s a way of reclaiming this territory, if you could look at it like that. Like, ‘this is interesting, but how can I interject myself into this?’ I don’t think it’s quite so simple but your personality comes out very much in that.
AS The impetus for American Gag was gag and prank gifts you could buy from the back of old comics. I got a bunch of gags and then once I started working I realized that the weakest parts of some of the sculptures were the gag elements so those quickly started getting edited out. Then I was just trying to make the work work. I had to just trust myself, make some formal decisions and keep moving. Maybe I told you this before, having a kid for the first time while making a new body of work was a whole new way of working. We didn’t have a studio, we didn’t have daycare, so you know I’m in the living room with my toddler trying to figure out how to use a power saw. And I really had to plan every move. I’d make one cut and then I couldn’t do anymore until Tyler [Vlahovich] got home. It was excruciating but I think that having to stop and reflect helps the work manifest a little better. I made less mistakes. It was an entirely different way of working for me. I used to just plow through, not really stopping to think very often, just make the work and I never had to stop once it started.
MCH So when you started working with these gag items, because we talked about the wood pieces in my work, how did the wood come about and were you integrating the wood pieces with the gag pieces?
AS Yeah, there were a lot of different plans for certain pieces, like Perv for example, was much different than how he actually manifested. But the material was always wood because I know how to work with wood. Not in a super carpenter way but working with wood is within my means. It’s not like I had a fabricator to make things out of fiberglass for me, and they didn’t seem appropriate in plaster or any other material that I would be familiar enough with that I could work myself. Wood was the way to go. And I’m really attracted to wood. I like to be surrounded by it.
In regard to the materials you used in Gumhead, the textures involved can be really nice and slick and at the same time the bodily references transform the slickness into some sort of excretion. It’s working in a dual way. I feel that there’s a lot in common with our work. Besides the seemingly contradictory elements that work together, we both seem to make autonomous objects that work off one another in a space. We’re not just piling shit in a corner. An object can exist on it’s own but is also happy in a roomful of his friends.
MCH And he has a relationship with all these other pieces.
AS I really respond to sculpture like that. Maybe I’m too old school about sculpture. The big giant messes that are really common right now in sculpture – I can’t easily get a handle on them so I really love to just see the object that stands on its own.
MCH Me too, I agree. That’s what I enjoyed about your show, too. There are threads that lead you somewhere. Sometimes I know exactly the kind of sculpture you’re talking about. It’s just hard to find the dots to connect. And just purely my own sensibility, I really love seeing the crafted unique object. I love that. And I love the process of making and discovery and I love seeing objects other people make. And to create an entire kind of experience where everything has a relationship and you can see a progression…and it makes maybe a visceral kind of sense. I really enjoy making work like that and it’s what I gravitate towards also. And when I started flipping back in your work, I was like, ‘wow, your ideas really relate to mine even if the work is ultimately quite different.’ I definitely see the commonality.
MCH Object-maker, and the humor. And you were talking about neutralization. I do the same thing in a way. I made this intestinal piece…it looks totally abject, like shit. And then I have to bring it back. I can’t let it truly go to the abject. Something has to offset that.
AS I just wonder if that is just a fun intellectual exercise or if it’s something that we’re compelled to do for some psychological reason. Maybe it’s both, maybe it’s neither. I don’t consciously do it. It’s just when I look back on my work, there it is again. When you get distance, it’s almost embarrassing.