A conversation between
Steven Pestana and Sarah Montross
Sarah Montross- Can you first explain your process to create your recent wall-mounted pieces, like Marsyas, Supplicant?
Steven Pestana- Pieces like Marsyas, Supplicant and its sister piece, The Sadder Path of Pastoral Apollo were created using the technique of etching. Etching is a means of transferring images to metal dating back to at least the early Middle Ages. In this process, a protective film is applied to the surface of a metal. The film carries the image intended for the final piece, exposing certain areas of the metal beneath — the lines of a drawing, for instance. The metal is then immersed in an acid, which “eats” away at the exposed areas (hence the etymological origins of the term “etching”).
Artists such as Rembrandt would physically carve the image into wax, but more recent technologies allow images to be transferred via photo processes with remarkably high degrees of detail. In fact, these processes were the foundation for huge leaps in the production of integrated circuitry around the mid-20th century. This connection between archaic technologies developed for artistic purposes, their modern analogues, and the science shared between them is central to my use not only of the etching process, but many of the media that I work in.
SM- Do the reflective, metal surfaces and your methods of mark-making relate to your interest in measurement and wayfinding?
SP- Etching entered my own vocabulary of media via jewelrymaking, which I was approaching as a form of “tiny sculpture”. I was drawn not only to the lustrous surface of metal for its inherent beauty, but also the ability to use the metal as a sculptural surface, and the possibility of imbuing the drawing with sculptural qualities. Hence, while the drawing itself is representational, it is simultaneously embedded in its ground. I like the idea that the image can be more than a representation of something, it can be the thing itself. For instance, a circuitboard, separated from its useful context, may appear to be a drawing of a network, but in fact it is the network. That's something I try to capture in these etched pieces.
This approach, wherein the object is the thing vs. the representation of the thing, was developed during my previous project, Metaphysics, but remains equally resonant here. A central tension underlying the ideas of Geometer is the contrast of qualitative forms of measurement against quantitative. How do the metaphors, ideals, and images that we employ to gauge our experience affect our understanding of the world? How would a more numerical approach to analysis change that?
The answer, naturally, is not so black and white. Straddling these two sides, the products of applied mathematics such as engineering, architecture, and so on, offer the most common example in their synthesis of mathematical principles with design, aesthetic, and even philosophical values. In this respect, technology takes on a qualitative property as a form of metaphorical measure, a gauge of ourselves, our physiologies, our needs as a society, and more.
Before Geometer, my interest in reflective surfaces went beyond metal. They were a way of inserting the viewer into the work, making it impossible for the viewer to engage the work without also encountering oneself and the surrounding environment there. I find that this idea remains present in the work with the use of lustrous metals, and the idea that these pieces use, embody, and reflect the technologies of their making.
SM- Where do you find or create the imagery for your compositions?
SP- The images are, for the most part, collages, cut and pasted from archival sources around the web. Many rare book libraries now host scans of their collections on-line which are easily and legally downloadable. Often, the original images are etchings themselves, since their use was widespread for the reproduction of images in texts for centuries.
For the most part, the texts themselves are scientific, often with images intricately rendered by the scientist’s own hand. Some of the more interesting texts deal with speculative cosmologies. I rarely take these images as-is, often combining the images with other similar images, or just using them as a jump-off point. Many of the images involve 3D modeling, which I create from scratch and export as 1-dimensional drawings to be tinkered with in Photoshop and Illustrator.
To return to the Marsyas example, the central figure there was taken from an écorché figure, i.e., an educational diagram of an apparently flayed figure to expose anatomical details beneath. Here, I traced the outline of the figure and deleted the details, leaving only the semblance of a human with almost no ideological connotations attached to it. The figure was then mapped into the setting via the cartographic devices framing the periphery of the images. The end result is a relatively neutral signifier of “human” amidst a landscape fluctuating between realistic and idealist imagery.
SM- Your artworks seem imbued with a sense of mystery, and evoke ritual or alchemical processes. Some of the compositions in your recent work are familiar and yet I can’t place their origin. Are these sensations important to you? If so, why?
SP- I’ve been working with alchemical imagery and concepts for a while now, so I think that feeling has stayed with the work. I don’t mind it. The idea of “occult” stems directly from this, since much of the knowledge was, historically, hidden or intentionally obscured. So with that comes the sense of mystery.
Sometimes, mysteries exist to be solved, and invite people to participate in that. Other times, a mystery exists
for its own sake, and perhaps doesn’t need or may not have a resolution. Either way, there is an element of meditation involved for the participant. In this sense, my use of mystery takes on an aesthetic dimension. I hope to use it as a painter might use a color to evoke a particular ambiance in the work.
Most of all, I hope the sense is one of presence. Yes, a sense of familiarity is essential to this. It acts as a clue, an entryway into the work. But familiarity is also a very human feeling. I’d like to think that these pieces carry that feeling of humanity with them.
SM- Themes of nature, animism, and metaphysics deeply occupy your artmaking. Prior to creating your works of art, do you closely study natural environments and phenomena (like star-gazing or find other ways to commune with nature)?
SP- While these explorations underscore the role that activities like star-gazing have played in the understanding of our place in the universe, I’m more focused on how these perceptions can shift relative to the means by which they are observed. I’m particularly drawn to the ways that natural phenomena can actually become a sort of technology itself. Some examples include the usage of the heavens for navigation, the observations of the Transit of Venus to better understand astronomical scale, and methods of converting environmental forces into usable energy.
Of course, this has involved some study of related scientific literature, but I hope to express a faith in the possibility and potential of more poetic
reflection via the far less precise but much more human models of analogy. I first explored these thoughts in my Metaphysics series. There, I was hoping to emphasize the link between intuition and scientific discovery going back to the philosophers of antiquity. Without the aid of modern scientific instruments, these thinkers were able to devise metaphysical systems bearing a remarkable resemblance to modern understandings of quantum physics.
Although theoretical, generally unproveable postulates are integral to many fields of scientific inquiry, the common conception of science is that it is comprised of tangible, quantifiable certainties. It seems the general public is sometimes more hamstrung to what science supposedly represents than scientists themselves, too eagerly pouncing upon statistical data and the like whenever its convenient. To the contrary, I think the freedom to allow oneself to think beyond numerical data is essential to personal agency.
SM- At first glance, your work seems to deliberately avoid references to contemporary ways in which we know, map and measure ourselves digitally (ie. Google Maps, etc.). But I look more closely, certain compositions could recall uncanny, vacant landscapes of certain computer games. Does our contemporary digital life inform your work?
SP- I’m both tremendously informed by contemporary digital life as well as ambivalent about it. The dominant paradigm of internet life and its promotion (indeed, imposition) of the quantified self is shaped by relatively
strict numerical metrics. These metrics are often, if not always, intimately bound up with marketing and advertising in all their manifestations. There is a subtle but pervasive philosophy promulgated by this outlook which only leads to the deeper entrenchment of exploitative systems.
That being said, digital devices and software are essential parts of my every day life from regular things like running errands to creative applications in my artmaking. I hardly go a day without using Google Maps. Moreover, an important theme in my earlier work was that of quaternions, a type of four-dimensional mathematics largely responsible for most types of 3D computer-generated imaging (although my use of it was much looser than that). And much of the research and sourcing of images would not be possible without these things, or would require much greater hardship.
SM- I believe I read in an earlier interview or statement that you are drawn to 1970s-era counterculture, psychedelia, and filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky (a personal favorite of mine as well). Does the cultural activity of this time period still fascinate you?
SB- My research into the music, movements, art and imagery of that era were formative in many ways for me, and, for the most part, the things that interest me stay with me. That probably applies to the late 60s and 70s more so than most other influences. In that era, the seeds of everything in the contemporary cultural landscape were sown in ways still recognizable and not so remote as to require leaps of the imagination to make the connection.
Music stretched from the Beatles and Kraftwerk to Minimalist composition and punk rock, art gave rise to an explosion of conceptual movements, many of the 20th century’s pivotal philosophers were still out there doing very relevant work reaching well beyond the ivory tower, film developed the pacing and thematic realism of modern cinema, to name just a few. The list is endless. The 70s seems to have been Modernism’s last gasp, with figures like Jodorowsky as its final torch bearers. Brilliant as the flame may be, that era was witnessing its dying embers. From then on, we see its ashes scatter into this era of atomistic pluralism, market obsession, and celebrity worship.
I’m still very inspired by Modernist principles. It was still possible to hold ideals unironically, to live your art, and be fearlessly inventive, celebrating your idols even as you attempt to transcend them. I try to make work that can be a vital expression of these aspirations. Through its promise of communication, art is a hopeful beacon of the human spirit, even in its darkest moments. I hope to show, in my work, that the image still holds this power to inspire, transform, and empower us.
Sarah Montross is Associate Curator at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA. From 2012-2015, she was the Andrew W. Mellon Post-doctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art where she organized numerous exhibitions including Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas (exhibition catalogue published by MIT Press, 2015) and Breakthrough: Work by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists (2013). She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Her dissertation focused on the work of Chilean Juan Downey and Argentine Jaime Davidovich, two new media and performance artists from Latin America who lived and worked in NYC from the 1960s onward.