ELEANOR ALDRICH + BARBARA WEISSBERGER IN CONVERSATION WITH CHARLIE SMITH ON THE OCCASION OF HIVE AND DOUBLE AT GRIN
CHARLIE SMITH: Both of you mentioned to me that you like puns. This makes me think about doubling, or, more specifically, the idea of something “doubling as”. For example, this exercise bicycle washing machine pictured here. This is a phenomenon that exists for the sake of efficiency - literally doing two things at the same time. Knowing that you work remotely but your individual practices are intricately woven with the collaboration, can you speak a little on how the nature of making an object is or isn’t influenced by knowing that it will need to be a part of a dialogue that you can’t see until you’re on site?
ELEANOR ALRDICH: Eleanor Aldrich: Usually we start out with a vague idea of what we will be working with. Our installation at the Drawing Center started with the idea of something that would be displayed on the floor, so that got me thinking about rugs, and we already had the loose idea of a mop. But, I think it is critical to the success of our collaboration that we both have autonomy over (or with) what we are making in the studio. Neither of us are executors. The idea doesn’t precede the object. But, there is some necessary consideration of how it will fit together. What I do is make or gather up more work than we will need, and then edit in the space.
What brought us together originally was that we had a natural affinity towards each other’s work. I think we are still in sync, as far as the rather banal objects we are interested in working with, our interest in formal considerations like the illusion of space, and our shared conviction in the autonomy of the object.
BARBARA WEISSBERGER:: I love the idea of the pun as double, or doubling as. It resonates with our discussion about the edge between image and object, material and image, individual mark or gesture, and representation. For Hive and Double we arrived at the conceit of a show within a show. Among the objects in it, mostly hand-made by us, some would refer to the tools of the studio and gallery, and some would be the finished works of an exhibition. The audience will be left to piece together what is extraneous and what is the final product. In The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton asks “Does the beaver phenotype stop at the end of its whiskers or at the end of a beaver’s dam?” Our installation would express the “phenotype” of the work of art; how it extends from artist or tools or studio, to viewer or gallery space.
EA: The answer is it stops at the beaver’s “damn!”.
CS: Hahaha! Of course!
This makes me think of performance, or, perhaps performative making. It also makes me question what we can or can’t call “making”. I’m not particularly interested in the Beuys model – as in, let’s all get together and watch this grand spectacle where the Artist enlightens us. But, that’s not what your collaboration is doing. It’s closer to, let’s all get together and watch these people do dishes or sort the recycling. What is it about these objects/actions that you refer to as “banal” that makes you want to spiritualize them as handmade, cared for?
EA: Maybe it has something to do with the hierarchy of objects or practice, but, speaking for myself, it is not as much about wanting to spiritualize the banal as it is pointing out the mystery and potential - the talismans of human experience that the objects are. The experience of seeing the back of someone’s head is like seeing a mop with its head up. Even in the most sanctified or set aside places you have the banal, the tile, the cleaning products, the napkins.
BW: I wouldn’t say that I want to spiritualize the banal objects either. I have always been drawn to abject things. The mops and tools have a sad quality that interests me. Something about pathos in humble things. There’s always a lot of dirt in my photographs and much of what I set up is on the floor - a humble, abject place, but also solid and grounding. Eleanor, I believe you work on the floor a lot too.
Eleanor had been playing around with portraits, and after some time it seemed that portraiture - rooted in art history, so familiar that the portrait can be taken for granted and used as raw material - would be a useful subject for the internal show. Because anything in the studio can be, and often is, a part of my images, I started by thinking about tools. Within the fluid space that I like to work in, the tools became part of loose portraits - twin heads with an oversized plaster hammer that I made for a nose.
While we are both working in our separate studios we exchange .jpegs and emails and talk on the phone, so throughout the process there is exchange and influence, which happens on a subtle level. As we send photos back and forth, we sometimes respond to each other’s work in the next pieces that we make, and that can loop back. Our text messages would make a good archive of our process.
CS: Putting a face on an object is a strong statement about giving it a life. Are you thinking of any specific people when you make a portrait, or is it more like you’re looking for the face that would belong to this arrangement of hammers/tools? How does a tool get anthropomorphized?
BW: Wow. I am really not thinking about a specific person. I don’t think I have a precise portrait in mind at all, although with the piece “The Saddest Clown” I did have the intention of making a sad clown. Mostly I go by feel. It’s really an improvisation. I think about a face, features, and poke around the studio for things to use. I like to use things in ways that take them outside of their usual functions or associations, although that’s not even so conscious. There’s a lot of trial and error. I think I have a natural inclination to anthropomorphize things in a cartoonish way.
CS: In each of your individual practices, the frame seems like an important tool, but the manners in which each of you employ this tool find them selves at odds. With your “Collage Formations”, Barbara, our perspective into your confusing spaces are totally contained by the frame - like a window looking into another dimension. Eleanor, you often break the frame to bring us out of that container and into the very real space between our bodies and the surfaces we look at. How do you locate the frame when you collapse these logics, that is, if it can be located? Is it extruded?
BW: Collapse may be a good way to think about the frame(s), or perhaps expanded is better. One of the things that happens to our images and objects, in the context of the collaboration, is that the photograph, painting, or object becomes material. So, yes, the frame is critical to the experience of the spaces in my photographs, but when the photograph is curled over an object or painting of Eleanor’s the paper-ness and the edges of the print are in high-relief. I’m not sure if this intensifies the feeling of an image held inside a frame, or if it somehow acts against the pictorial. Maybe both. Eleanor do you think the interaction of our separate elements shifts the tensions between thing and image in your work?
EA: Yes. I want my images to first be taken as objects, and then seen in terms of image. The installation gets rid of the fixed viewpoint, and therefore the frame. But I like the play between actual light and shadow, and photographed or painted light and shadow. There are so many different realities couched in them.
BW: Right! I think that’s critical to both our work - the tension between actual and depicted light.
CS: I also am intensely focused on this phenomenon when I look at the work. I think that your collaboration is one of those situations where the images and documentation of the work can be considered an extension of the making process. It’s one form of experience, in addition to the experience of the work in person. This is definitely related to your collage formations, Barbara. I keep coming back to the image of the “gloves” (?). I can’t tell if they are objects carved from foam, then placed on the surface of a book, or if they’re actually printed into the image IN the book, or both. I keep looking at the shadows beneath the hand and trying to discern if the shadow is cast on the page of the book by the object, or if the shadow is part of the image.
There’s something really interesting about trying to discern the “reality” of an object by looking at its shadow - like measuring the volume of an object through displacement. I’m also interested in this idea of a practice that can continue to grow to encompass more and more of itself, its “background labor”. Documentation is, perhaps, part of that realm.
This collaboration is still in an infantile state, but it’s like The Blob… It’s GROWING…… IT’S GROWING!!!!!!! Will it ever stop? Are there boundaries in your lives that you are holding onto? As an extension of this question, is there an “adult form” for your practice?
BW: Oh that’s cool, I’m glad tohear about that uncertainty.
EA: I like what you said about shadows - They are never wrong, are they?
BW: I’m not sure I would put it in terms of infancy and maturity, but I suppose there’s something to that. In the relatively short time that we’ve been working together, I think our process and what we’re doing has evolved a lot. We’ll see what happens. It continues to be a work in progress. Eleanor has described the coming together of the parts to make a new whole as phenomenological.
EA: Yeah, I don’t know where the collaboration will go; if we can make it through the emotionally raw teen years, and a gap year finding ourselves in Europe, we might have a chance at an “adult form.” But in all seriousness, I think something we are talking about and considering for the future is how we document our collaboration - the types of spaces we show in. Labor in a DIY space is different from a non-profit, which is different from a commercial or educational space. I think one boundary that we hold onto is that most of the objects are made or altered by us. So, if you unpack the photos all the way down, you end up with objects from a handmade parallel universe.
CS: There’s so much distance packed into this collaboration. Both of you work nomadically, alternating between different cities, states, even regions of the country. It’s interesting how both of you then make things that are so focused on what’s immediately in front of you, but always stay tied to a possible “coming together”. If any, what is the role of narrative in your collaboration? Can you trace the evolution of an object from Knoxville, to Montana, to Pittsburgh, to Providence?
EA: Well, no-mad is an island. Place doesn’t really matter as far as my work goes. The distance between Barbara and I is always so large anyway, it doesn’t matter if she is in Pittsburgh or Montana, our collaborative process of texting and emailing is the same. The places that matter are when we are actually together. Then, it matters how big the space is, and how much we could mail/fit in our car, and how much time we have. But I think we have always taken on limitations as part of our work. I know I am always working just on the verge of material deficit, and it makes me more inventive. Both our work has that kind of DIY aesthetic.
As far as narrative goes, Hive and Double has more of a narrative than anything we have done so far. Working with the idea that we were making “work” for a loosely defined portrait show, as well as the stuff that might be out when putting up the exhibition, or in the studio; ladders, hammers, buckets, etc. It was very important to us that we weren’t making work with some false pretense around it. We weren’t aping personas of other artists to make the portrait work. It just became another open-ended phrase to make work from.
There are a few objects that have actually made the trip between Knoxville and Pittsburgh, and early on in our collaboration (a whopping year and a half ago) we did send each other more objects to use in compositions. There were some silicone mop heads that appeared in each of our work, but I think we agreed that generally we aren’t as interested in the same thing changing mediums as we were in distinct things we have made coming together.
BW: Agree. I think we do both work with what’s in front of us, and have a DIY attitude. I myself like to work in various studios with a pared down kit of tools and materials. I like how it pushes me toward invention - as Eleanor says. This carries through to the installation, where we try to work from a position of responsiveness.
CS: I’m imaging how the pace of your practice must radically fluctuate from studio to installation space. You’ll only have a short, rigid timeframe to work once you meet up. How does your decision making change when you’ve entered this space of necessarily immediate resolution? Can two minds tackling the same problems work them out in half the time, or does it take twice as long to reach two understandings with equal validity?
BW: The tight time frame for doing the installation is energizing. The objects we make independently exist as discrete objects. When we bring them together for the installation they have a dual life (back to the double). Each object is a separate thing and also is material. This relates to the idea of bridging the space between the studio and the gallery, keeping the object in flux. When we install, our larger ideas provide the ground. I think we both make a lot of the formal and conceptual decisions from instinct. Probably, at least in part, because of the deadline, momentum carries the whole thing. We seem to find a synergy in working together. Certainly working with objects that clearly have been made by one or the other, we each have to be willing to allow some distance between ourselves and the objects we’ve made. But that is where things get interesting, where the pieces take on a second life in this third thing, the collaborative piece.
EA: Yes - that third thing! I think what is crucial to the success of the work coming together is that we work in a way that is natural to how we each work individually. I know I am driven by the mystery in objects and combinations of objects, and I use all kinds of materials, found and otherwise. I think Barbara is similar in that she makes photos, but also objects, and uses found objects. We both have an affinity for collage. We tried installing work with a more prescriptive plan on one occasion, and it didn’t work, so it really is just a lot of trial and error with the limitations we have.
CS: So, you both make work with what you have around you, and, time is one of those resources, albeit a resource that is totally relative and limited, but also somehow useful in that sense?
EA: Yes - I think collage can be incredibly paralyzing - the tyranny of endless choice. Time is a good constraint in that way, as is the practicality of bringing only what fits in the car. So much of my work relies on constraints. I work with materials that are just out of reach of my ability to control them. That is what makes it exciting, and where some of the mystery comes from. As far as our collaboration goes, it is really important to leave the work and come back to it, whether just for a coffee break, or overnight.
BW: Ha! I find collage liberating in that found material - things that already exist, even if I initially made them as parts for something else – provide something to respond to. The way I work there’s always the possibility of re-recombining elements into new configurations – aaahhh! And that also goes to some extent with the way we’re approaching the installation. It may be somewhat arbitrary, but time constraints are a good catalyst for finishing a piece.
CS: In an earlier text, you offer a mop as a symbol for something you call “backstage labor”. It’s a phrase that articulates how you’re looking for an overlap in actions that are directly tied to making an object - painting, photographing, sculpting- with more ritualistic actions that provide structure for working artists - cleaning, earning income, maintaining. In the newer text, it seems like you’ve replaced the term “backstage” with “domestic”. What new understanding about your collaboration led you to this change? How would you articulate the difference between these two phrases?
EA: Well, there is a long history of “domestic” as analogous with “backstage” in terms of female roles, and it is something I am certainly aware of. Both kinds of labor deal with physical substances. It is also something that has to do with private and public. As artists, or object makers, our labor and action is done in private, but the showing is staged in public. I am not sure if we changed backstage to domestic for a specific reason other than that we developed another idea for a more literally staged show. I guess we use “backstage” and “domestic” both to refer to the studio, and the implied authenticity that comes from doing something in private. Still, of course, in the studio, we are thinking about audience to some degree, and who or what the work is in conversation with, as well as speaking to each other. That is what this show plays with, the idea that the “backstage”, or the stuff that contributes to the public face, can be staged itself, and can be interesting or valuable.
The collapse of backstage/exhibition or private/public partly comes out of thinking about provisional painting (a phrase coined by Raphael Rubinstein where the finished product is a non-product, an anti-masterpiece, a partially wiped canvas), Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and Jasper John’s objects from around the studio.
BW: I would add, to Warhol and Johns, Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum collection of small models, made fragments and found objects.
EA: Rubinstein describes provisionality as painters not showing up for the task of painting - a kind of slacker cool, or Zen humility, or the flexing of a privileged position. On its surface, it is a kind of spill, a half finished job, something that traditionally would be left backstage to be cleaned up later. In making the work for this show I have been thinking a lot about the history of painting and its doppelgangers in the home, for example, my piece with the Mondrian-esque tile being cleaned with a plaster rag.
BW: “Backstage” and “domestic” both suggest labor that is hidden and in support of something else that is primary - we can leave it to the viewer to draw connections to labor, gender and other inequities. For me, the tension between private and public speaks to a condition particular to the object as it goes from the studio out into the world. I am always looking for a way to keep the play and open-endedness of the studio an active presence in the finished work. What Eleanor said; always interested in the mystery of objects.
CS: Right, and so much of that mystery seems to be coming from us not being able to contain the thing by identifying it or labeling it in an all-encompassing way.
On the subject of private/public, I can’t help but think of this piece, Landscape in Front of Blinds, by Eleanor, as embodying an important element about how the collaborative practice approaches this subject. I get emotional when I look at this painting. It’s beautiful, and very melancholy. Formally there are so many reversals happening. We see a representation of outdoor space, that would belong in an interior, in front of a boundary between exterior and interior, that we call “blinds”, but we actually can see through…
EA: Right - glad it reads that way.
ABOUT CHARLIE SMITH
Charlie Smith, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, received his BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2010. He currently lives and works in Hudson, New York.