A CONVERSATION BETWEEN AMY ARCHAMBAULT AND SARAH TORTORA ON THE OCCASION OF FICKLE GROUND AT GRIN
Amy Archambault: In writing about your work for “Fickle Ground”, you expose a curiosity in the functionality and significance of the “pedestal”– both in the exhibition space via its coupling with modern sculpture, and for its purpose in historical equestrian monuments. Can you talk about the root of this curiosity– your choice of subject matter?
Sarah Tortora: I often liken the relationship between sculpture and pedestal to that of a sentence structure– that the "sculpture" is the subject, and the “pedestal” is the predicate. It serves to qualify the conditions of the subject's existence, or to state the action, or level of reverence / disregard, to treat the work. I see it as kind of a literary or didactic tool. Modern sculpture is in this really ripe in-between space. Its institutionalized display has domesticated it– it's no longer this index of radicality, but it's also not unfeasible to imagine that a lot of people still wouldn't consider it "art" at all. I personally make nodistinction between sculpture and pedestal in my work- the sculpture is the sculpture, which includes any pedestal in its entirety, and cannot be fissured. No “pedestal” is ever used for more than a singular work.
Equestrian monuments have become humorous to me– how so many commemorative sculptures still default to this aristocratic symbol of a mounted, domesticated animal. I am attracted to the gravitas of the structure itself. Equestrian monuments have an authority of longevity. But, they're also a default way of accepting a privileged narrative of history– every equestrian monument has also inevitably become a trojan horse. All of this is also to say, I see my work as deeply sociological, deeply animal. Beyond a tendency toward anthropomorphism, there is a physical posturing to each piece that, to return again to language, is evocative of a battle cry, a mating call, or a primal scream. A dejected whimper. Sculpture, for me, is the art form linked closest to survival.
AA: I can certainly relate to your acknowledgment of sculpture being the art form linked closest to survival– In its completed form, its posturing, and its presence– but also, for me, strongly in the process. I find myself entering the studio, spending hours consumed by a process, a body of work or so little as a single gesture– there is an overwhelming necessity for making that fluctuates between aesthetics and functionality. The studio becomes a psychological space for me– an endless cycle of getting lost in the forms, the materials themselves and oddly trying to assign narrative– trying to make sense of it all– a very personal experience. Visually, your work also exists in this state of in-between – oscillating between a sculptural form and a functional stand for something else. Do you find yourself fluctuating between “artist” and “maker” amid your process? Do you see a difference between these identities? What is the psychological space of your process?
ST: Oh, so glad you asked this. With regard to my work itself, I think the oscillation between sculptural form and function is always about suggested potential, unyielding potential, like a radio stuck in scan mode. I suppose That is how I feel while deep in the throes of the process of working as well – I feel as if my movements become automatic, unnecessary sensory information shuts off, words and phrases spontaneously pop into my head. Perhaps that’s where this kinship to language comes from– as if my work is a form of automatic writing, sans pen and paper.
In terms of identity, I am satisfied with calling myself an artist– because being an artist already has the fluidity of identity built into it. Of course, to be an artist is to be a sponge; it's about creative problem solving, absorbing ideas and experience from everywhere, rather than some fixed approach to process.
The recent popularity of makerspaces and people branding themselves as "makers" seems conflicting to me– and I make a distinction between these terms and craft. Craft is something with greater historicity (and indicates traditions which my personal processes have been too topical or flighty to uphold) which seems to have been co-opted by this seemingly populist maker movement. On one hand, I completely agree with and advocate for the redemptive potential of working with your hands. Not everything you own, every place you live in, needs to be outfitted with a limited vocabulary of prefabricated materials, or big-box derived plastic tchotchkes. Not every surface we touch should be derived from petroleum. I believe in an almost radical self-sufficiency. But not everyone has the option of such flexibility, and on the other hand, I inherently distrust the recent trendiness of the term "maker" as a lifestyle brand that acquiesces this spirit of self-sufficiency into a form of gendered, commodified production. I don't think I'd call myself a maker just because it feels too materially grounded or focused on output. Debbie Chachra wrote an essay titled “Why I Am Not a Maker” for the Atlantic last year that I wrestled with for quite some time– as someone whose art encompasses physical processes and tangible materials– which describes about how this primacy upon “making” can belie actions of “repairing” or “teaching”, and that making in and of itself does not necessitate caring. I would hope there is some perceptual shift, some animal experience, some phenomenological reckoning to my work that transcends this primacy of making. But still yet, for me to express disdain for this term as a trendy index of commodified production is also to hypothetically state that the only way certain things can be “made”, or the only way we can describe their “making”, is linguistically tied to the spectrum of capitalism. My tendency is to try to escape or deny anything tidily categorical, even if naming an alternative seems just as impossible.
AA: “Potential”. Yes. And, I think you are spot on with identifying the “maker” as being materially grounded. I hadn’t directly considered this. The artist’s process is never static! Like you, I find myself avoiding planning (despite some strange internal goal to begin with a plan). Regardless of the initial images in my head, the physical act of problem solving, the interruption of my memories (often theatrically brought to the surface), and my role as some degree of unconventional engineer take command in the making. There are certainly perceptual shifts that occur as an artist-- moments that are wonderfully uncomfortable.
ST: The interruption of your memories– that’s a great phrase, because it can work both ways: while in the process of embodying memory (in the work itself), memories are also acting uponyou, shifting into something different each time they are conjured. That’s a more generative way to examine this transformation that happens, this development of a narrative– simply, the process of communication– without funneling it through a singular channel of ‘making’.
AA: In the First Place and Swage take on another approach to making: as wall mounted works that allude to visual references of the pedestal, modular shelving units, or an abstract carrier / support of some kind. As these works do not physically support another form, do you intend for them to be a mediator between the viewer and the exhibition space itself?
ST: Yes, perhaps they can begin to turn the architecture of the space into an object as well– I think of this experience as something anxiety-provoking, like derealization or depersonalization– psychological experiences in which you feel as if your surroundings, or yourself, respectively, are not real. As if you are in a movie, walking through a movie set, and everything around you acquires this same soft texture of disbelief. But, although that's an experience I'm interested in, it's probably not how most people are experiencing those works. I began making them after a month-long residency at the Jentel Foundation in Wyoming– a location which has had a profound impact on my work, my understanding of geologic time, and my sense of humanity. Of course there is a special fondness out west for taxidermy mounts– these wall pieces perhaps became a means of translating those animal forms into vague gazing presences– they are definitely corpses, skins, skulls, already dead, much more object-based than my freestanding works. If the freestanding works are sentence structures, perhaps the wall pieces are individual characters, or punctuation. They're also written language, because they are also much more image-based, something between sculpture and painting.
AA: I am really taken by this idea of allowing the architecture of the (exhibition) space to interact with the work itself. In my own work, responding the site yields a greater level of engagement. My process changes dramatically when the site has no relationship to the work. With regards to your wall mountedworks (freestanding too for that matter), do you see these works ever taking on even more information from the space– or going as far as to manipulate the surfaces which it is mounted upon? This, however, moves away from your interest in taxidermy mounts. The works have an anthropomorphic presence, but also an architectural presence. I recall my encounter with the minimal and very alluring drywall manipulations of Wilson Lawrence’s work at the DeCordova in 2013– as a part of a “experimental” painting exhibition– as you mentioned, that “something” between sculpture and painting.
ST- Certainly, and although it’s not a process I have pursued substantially, yet, I do think it can be approached through very minimal gestures, as simple as matching the paint or material of the walls or floors to the components of a piece, or strategically spacing work so the architecture becomes a force you can’t ignore– a deliberate distortion of form following function. I am really attracted to the work of Oscar Tuazon, and his solid, sculptural installations which merge into believable impositions upon institutional spaces. I also think these ideas have perhaps a greater potential for outdoor installations– creating large scale pieces which feel a greater potential for outdoor installations– creating large scale pieces which feel mimetic to a certain environment, but with enough openness to remain follies. I’m really interested in the idea of sculpture as chameleon– I certainly expect to delve into this more in the years ahead.
AA: Oscar Tuazon– fantastic reference. I too am very drawn to his work! Can you talk about your interest in materials, construction and scale? Your work shows no hesitation to take on a form that is anthropomorphic in scale-- it commands the space while simultaneously demanding the viewer's attention. What challenges and / or discoveries arise when working with this scale, your process and these materials?
ST: I work much more intuitively than most people would probably believe. I rarely make drawings, save for the occasional large blueprint / template to rough out the dimensions of a form in its actual eventual scale.
Most of the time, I am extending a tape measure at arm's length and estimating dimensions that have a vague correspondence to the human body, to furniture, or physical interfaces, and when it "feels" right, I start assembling. My chosen materials for the past few years have been economical, planar, building materials– plywood, wood composite boards, foam, thin steel. I recently heard Tom Sachs refer to plywood as a "democratic" material– and in terms of accessibility, or recognition– a familiarity or warmth– it's true– I think sculptors understand what he means. The materials themselves conjure the construction of shelter, at least for the northeast area of the United States– linking back to the art form of survival. By no means, however, am I utilizing any traditional carpentry or carving techniques. There is a disastrous immediacy to the manner in which I build things, that is rarely ever revealed. Color choices are intuitive too– domestic color choices and textures are often my default tendency, so I actively try to compliment them, if I can't avoid them altogether. When I'm searching for a palette, I usually think about the colors of industrial machinery, urban infrastructure, Route 66, dumpsters, geriatric living rooms of the 1970s, Las Vegas, Fisher Price, Yellowstone, curtains of Versailles. All of which scream Americana, except for the last one, although the tyrannical aesthetic of Versailles has certainly become part of American consciousness. I think my favorite feeling– and always a strange unexpected one– is when my work viscerally or physically frightens or surprises me. When I'm on my way to my studio, lost in thought, physically reciting a muscle memory of routine– and I open the door to my studio and gasp– actually do a double take– because out of the corner of my eye, I mistaken a piece for a person creeping in my studio. It's rare that this happens, but I think it's somehow an important or telling experience, that indicates the challenge of creating something, fighting something, that has such a reciprocal and palpable impact on my physiological being as well.
Amy Archambault received her MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and BA in Studio Art / Psychology from the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. Archambault's large-scale installations, sculptures and inspective mixed media drawings uncover playful and unconventional activations of sites and structures. Her complex and energetic installations incorporate both the material and the visual languages of athletic culture, childhood play and the "home improvement" / constructive domain.
Recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship Grant (Sculpture / Installation) (2013), Archambault has exhibited her work throughout the Northeast. As a member of the Boston Sculptors Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts, she will release a new body of work in her 2016 solo exhibition. Archambault was most recently named the Boston Center for the Arts Artist in Residence (2015). Her public interactive installation "inMotion: Memories of Invented Play" was featured on the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza (Summer 2015) and earned her recognition in the Boston Globe. In addition, Archambault participated in the ambitious Isles Arts Initiative (Summer 2015) with her work being installed in Fort Warren (Georges Island, Boston Harbor Islands, Boston, Massachusetts). Archambault's installation, "Futile Ascent", was featured in a group exhibition of faculty artists, "Pulse", at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts and additionally at GRIN, Providence, Rhode Island. Prior, her installation, "Live-work", was featured in a solo exhibition at 17 Cox, Beverly, Massachusetts in 2014. In 2013, she participated in a group exhibition of alumnae artists, "Spark", at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. Prior, Archambault was featured in a solo exhibition at the Mill Gallery in Hartford, Connecticut in 2012. Archambault was recognized in Pulse Magazine for its "Up & Coming Local Artists" outlook in Central Massachusetts, 2012. Her work has been selected on multiple occasions for the Dave Bown Projects Competition (online). She is currently Studio Supervisor and Lecturer at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts.