SCOTT LAWRENCE IN CONVERSATION WITH ALEXANDER CASTRO ON THE OCCASION OF PASSENGER WITH HORIZON AT GRIN
ALEXANDER CASTRO: You refer to minimalism as a “misnomer” when discussing your work. What separates your work from minimalism proper? Thinking of your use of objects of supreme banality (wire hangers, chairs, business attire), you do seem to interrupt the self-seriousness of a reductive aesthetic. But why the hesitation to associate yourself directly with minimalism? Does it imply a philosophical or discursive mission you don’t share? Would you say you create art that’s anarchic or disruptive?
SCOTT LAWRENCE: I try to achieve a level of visual clarity or directness in my work. I try to strip away the non-essential. I’ve casually (confusingly, maybe) called this a minimalist approach. My interest in minimalism proper - the canonical work of Stella, Serra, McCracken, Smith and the others – is more satirical, to be honest, and I’ve referenced it pretty directly in a number of pieces. The values I associate with that minimalism, like the domineering approach to space, its declarative attitude as opposed to receptive or sensitive, its embrace of commodity and alignment with industrial capitalism, are values I question. So you’re right that there’s a disruptive impulse at work. My motivation there is more in the spirit of David Hammons’ Shoe Tree from 1981, where he tossed all these pairs of sneakers up on top of Serra’s giant steel sculpture T.W.U.
There are a few reasons I choose the objects that end up in my work. Universality is maybe the most important. I want them to be recognizable to practically anyone. Instead of the high-end corporate interior look, as in Judd’s brass boxes, I’m doing something a little bit pathetic, more human – while still working in this reductive A. These aren’t high-design objects pulled from the consumer landscape. Their forms are engineered for the bottom line and in that sense I think of them as being impoverished, or desperate, in a way. The exceptions to this are the pinstripe pants and dress shirts which I intend to be associated with a more white collar environment and to make this connection between minimalism and corporate hegemony more explicit.
AC: You mention Max Weber’s idea of “disenchantment” --the loss of mysticism to positivism-- as an influence. The asceticism, efficiency, organization and bureaucracy that defined Weber’s sociological concerns were arguably instrumental in establishing the world we have now: one in which ontology is grounded in predictability, rationalism and forms (visual, social, or otherwise) whose contents are clearly defined. How does your work engage or tussle with disenchantment Aits metaphysical implications? Furthermore, how do you see disenchantment expressed in the arts? Thinking of Weber’s Protestant Ethic, one does find some overlap with the goals of minimalism.
SL: Weber’s thesis of rationalization has been a useful framework for me because I think it’s an accurate, relevant picture of the world and it describes what I imagine is commonly thought of as progress. Basically he said that the entire history of western civilization could be summarized as the gradual disenchantment of the world, and the replacement of magic with rationalism. The end goal of rationalism being security, via control, predictability, description, convenience. But I’ve always been struck by the extent to which art is the exact inverse of rationalization. Like, I can’t think of a less interesting quality in art than predictability. And when I’ve ever made anything that’s very hard for me to describe to someone, I know I’m onto something. Or, all the art that gets its power from the amount of care that went into making it - efficiency would kill it. Wolfgang Laib’s installations with the pollen he collected, for example. But obviously there’s this very long history of artists thwarting the rational in all sorts of ways, trying to access the subconscious, doing anything to allow something other than their conscious brains to take the wheel. Dreams, stream of consciousness, Mark Tansey had his spinning wheel of random subject matter and Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt had their Oblique Strategies. And then on the other hand there was this group of minimalist artists fully embracing the values of rationalism. So I’ve tried to use this odd window where art and rationalism overlapped as cover in some of my work.
AC: You reference a minimalist or reductive aesthetic, but the objects you create seem to contain a jouissance that spills outside the boundaries of pure form. So what place does the euphoric or visionary experience have in your work? Are your pants sculptures writhing in ecstasy, perhaps, rebelling against the utilitarian purpose for which they were created?
SL: This is a great question. I’ll start with the easy part. I had wanted to find a way to make sculptures of people in suits falling down, in a slapstick way. I realized I could do this with just the pants. For me, those sculptures have always been about... well, falling down. Pain (in a funny way) more than ecstasy. But they are really ambiguous and get a range of interpretations. Dancing is one I hear sometimes. If you look at them as objects, they’re very static and architectural. Each one is its own design problem. But if you look at them as figures, they’re writhing or falling down or crushed. So there is this structure/ anti-structure interplay, not just in these but in a lot of my other work, too. I read once that Victor Turner said we conserve through structure and grow through anti-structure, and that always stuck with me.
As for the visionary experience – it’s always the place to try to get to, right? Proof that there’s more than just rationalization. I think it happens but it’s unpredictable, at least in my experience. But processes, and seeing materials do unexpected things, can be like a hard-earned substitute.
AC: You mention R.H. Quaytman as an artist who personalizes her work despite its ostensibly “rigid and formal” nature. Your art seems to exist in the same realm: personal without being confessional. So how —or through what— do you express your self in your work?
SL: Quaytman set up her practice as a sort of open system. She imposed a set of limitations to work within, like setting standard painting sizes for herself. Her work progresses in ‘chapters’ within an overarching archive or book. But within these set decisions she incorporates shapes or images taken from the locales of her exhibitions. She doesn’t have to reinvent what she’s doing every time, but there’s space built in to incorporate her life. In my case, I’m sort of an ‘everyman’ in my own work. The same way I pull in ubiquitous objects as subject matter, I pull in some of the more mundane details of my everyday life. And it’s not in an ironic way but more of a way for me to make those otherwise insignificant times count for something, to give them significance. Part of the way I want these pieces to spill outside the boundaries of their restricted forms, as you said, is to give them a narrative quality, to tie them to a larger story outside themselves.
AC: Did your experiences commuting between Providence and Brooklyn for several years inform Passenger with Horizon? More broadly, how can an artist represent or visualize their interiority —even through the detritus of mass consumer culture?
SL: They did. I moved from New York to Rhode Island and then started commuting back and forth once a week, because I kept my job and my studio there. The 3 ½ hr train rides along the coast became really valuable time for me and the details of that commute started finding their way into my work. For example I had been having this odd feeling that I wanted use an ellipse. Then I realized that the mirrors in the Amtrak bathrooms are all ovals and I was sure that’s where it came from. So I traced the mirror and used that shape in the coat hanger piece. Other imagery too, like the backs of people’s heads. I saw so many amazing sunsets over the ocean on those trips and I took all these snapshots of them. I looked at them a lot and the gradations of color sort of took hold. It got me thinking about the Light and Space movement in California, and also the way that those gradations can be used to show motion or dematerialization. All those elements worked their way into this show.
You’re absolutely right that in general, and especially in New York, so many things compete for our attention that it’s really difficult to ‘listen’ – or to be open to subtle possibilities. In a lot of the art I like the most, I find myself asking, how did the artist even hear that? In those several years, my studio space was not necessarily a fixed physical spot but more of something I had to carry with me internally. The time on the train was quiet and was its own sort of empty space. I would rush to finally make the train, then just sit there, decompress and watch the landscape go by for an hour or more. I’d think and think until I basically had no more thoughts and then I could just keep watching the landscape. That emptying of thoughts helped me to get down to a receptive place.
I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that Amtrak actually has a residency program, like a cross-country trip, that they offer to writers, because the train is such a good place for that. You should apply!!
AC: Ha! Very neat. I just looked up the Amtrak residencies. What a fascinating program. Like you describe, those long train rides certainly invite both stillness and daydreaming -- definitely a good place for a writer. Thanks for the interview, Scott!
SL: I’ve enjoyed it. Thanks Alex.
ALEXANDER CASTRO Alexander Castro is a journalist and writer based in the Providence/Boston area. He regularly covers the Rhode Island arts scene for publications like Newport Mercury. He won First Place in the 'Arts Review or Criticism' category at the 2015 Rhode Island Press Association Editorial Awards.