Aborophilia, Acrylic on panels & felt. 60" x 54", 2016

Aborophilia, Acrylic on panels & felt. 60" x 54", 2016


ELIZABETH DEVLIN: Separately you both maintain your own distinct visual arts practices and Nothing Ritually marks your fourth, and seemingly most complex, collaborative undertaking. Reflecting on your previous collaborations, A Monk Texting, at Redux Contemporary in South Carolina, Just Gaming at Laconia Gallery in Boston and [mon-i-tor] at University of Alabama’s Sella-Granata Art Gallery, Nothing Ritually appears to be guided by a different set of rules. The earlier shows are structured in a linear way; with inputs in the form of variables and data sets identified by you both, which are then aggregated and analyzed to create a visual output. As for Nothing Ritually, the parameters are not as apparent, and the exhibition seems to be driven by qualitative factors rather than quantitative. How would you describe this particular show’s flow? Are there defined rules or guidelines you have in place to drive the creative process?

DEREK LARSON + MARK MITCHELL: This is our most collaborative project, in the past we made things that would hang side by side and the collaboration happened in our conversation. But now we’re sharing and integrating our efforts into singular pieces that travel between our studios. So our approach is similar to past projects---like using data sets to create images, where rules dictate imagery--- but for this project we’ve let go of some of that. The narratives of the seven plays have a role (even if loose) and each piece is titled after a particular play. The plays are obscure and written by American playwrights either during wartime and/or economic catastrophe. Each of the plays are all really good and we certainly don’t do them justice.  With that in mind, we’re not trying to illustrate the plays and we’ve decided that each will be made available to read in the gallery.

LD: As an outsider attempting to wrap my head around the exhibition, it seems like the show construct is purposely vague, there is very little content in the overview which guides audience comprehension as opposed to your earlier efforts; and there are so many complex and increasingly esoteric layers to the exhibition as you drill down that at some point I, as a reader of the overview, surrendered and accepted my own naiveté . Thinking structurally about the exhibition as an artistic org chart, you have Nothing Ritually the overarching project, which can be summed up as a collaborative exhibition of two artists featuring seven works, and then conceptually these seven works are grouped within the context of a script called Dazzle Ships, a name which carries its own distinct meaning, and then the script itself contains seven acts, and each act is named after a lesser-known play by a 20th century American playwright. Firstly, have I got that right?

DL+MM: Yes you’re right.

LD: Second, in structuring this show, you must have realized that the general audience will not readily make the connection between these plays and the art on view, which seems like a deliberate decision given the obscure nature of the referenced works -- so is this connection between the plays and the artwork itself important to you? What are you hoping viewers will take away from this exhibition?  

DL+MM: Since most people will not have the time to sit down and read all seven plays, we thought our idea shouldn’t hinge on all of the background information. We wanted to create an experience with the playbill, one in which a visitor could walk into the gallery and either look at the work as one typically does, or decide to view them in the order of the seven acts. The plays are a metaphor for November and the moment we’re in. We decided to create a narrative with much more competent and eloquent writers than ourselves.

Alms for the Middle Class, Animation on monitors, acrylic, plexi on panel, 65"h x 32"w x 12"d, 2016

LD: What is the significance of the sequencing of the Acts? If they are all standalone works, whose order is interchangeable, wondering why the decision to share in an ‘Act’ format,
unless that was a nod to the use of the plays themselves. Do the narratives behind the individual plays in each Act serve as the framework?

DL + MM: Each act is a singular play and should be read separately. We were thinking about a viewing format that interrupts how people usually interact with art (linearly, chronologically, etc). There’s an order with the acts but it’s more like a suggestion.

LD: Can you explain a bit more about what it is about those plays in particular? Do they all convey and reiterate the same messaging?

DL + MM: Most of the plays are nuanced. They feature violent, dramatic fictions about love affairs that highlight various American landscapes in the South, Northeast, West, etc. They’re pure Americana, simultaneouslysatirical and affectionate, and religion plays a recurring role.

We were initially drawn to the plays for their titles, but also found the plots interesting. Many of these plays are difficult to find. Since they are somewhat obscure, many of the plays are bundled in volumes with other works. This makes them difficult to find in library or in print. While the primary attraction was titles, the stories were also compelling. For example, The Folly of Others by Neith Boyce (1904was set just after the Philippine-American War and reveals an interesting shift from Victorian to Modern social mores and ideas about citizenship. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers and adapted by Edward Albee (1963), was compelling because it was written during the first phase of the Vietnam War and the story takes place in Georgia, where both of us taught and lived (Derek still lives there). It’s a tense love triangle with a horrible twist.

Finger of God, Acrylic & gold leaf on panel w/ satin & plastic. 24" x 24", 2016

LD: Derek, you previously authored a short book called Composition, Color, and Interactivity, which you consider “an ongoing study in task performance, emotion & design” but to me, it also reflects an innate curiosity with the act of seeing and the nuances of how viewers digest stimuli in different settings and under different conditions. You employ various abstract color compositions as your vehicle for understanding, and Marc’s work also inherently seems to play with color theory and the exploration of visual languages, so, assuming this to be true, can Nothing Ritually be approached from purely an aesthetic standpoint? If so, were there any particular design principles that guided the creation of the work?

DL: Yes you could approach it from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but there’s more. The languages we’re using are borrowed; when we talk about color theory, abstraction, mid-century plays, battleship design, these things are part of our past but continually get represented to us as consumers everyday. Misguided optimism in the project gets to the core of how we feel about the 20th Century and why we titled the play Dazzle Ships.

The eye-tracking studies I’ve been running involve measuring task performance while looking at certain designs. The results have had an affect on the imagery I make but I’m more interested in how this information can be used to enhance viewer performance.

MM: There is always a balance. As Derek mentioned, you could approach the work from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but there is certainly more.  In the studio, all artists have a relationship to previous languages-- borrowing, appropriating, etc. These works have many layers that, as Derek mentioned, speaks to notions of abstraction, color theory, mid-century plays/literature, battleship design, etc.

Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Acrylic on panel with satin. 62.5" x 32", 2016

Giants Have Us in Their Books, Acrylic screen print on panel & felt. 47" x 19” 2016

LD: Apart from aesthetics, what is the significance of having Dazzle Ships serve as the title of your seven act script? Dazzle camouflage, an early instance of art being used as a tool of war, was remarkable in a design sense, but less successful as a wartime diversion technique; would it have been less compelling subject matter if the design proved to be a success? What role does failure, if any, play in the creative process? Did the socio political context serve as an influence?

DL + MM: Both failure and success are at the heart of our project. It’s difficult to find any history that doesn’t categorize things in that way. Our project doesn’t focus on failure alone (in fact, the dazzle ship technique was successful in many ways), however, we’re more interested in presenting multiple dramatic storylines created during times of major conflict. The stories we’ve chosen act more as dazzle ship painting than our actual paintings. The stories aren’t literal diversions but a parallel to the hopeful optimism in creating a diversion. The dazzle ship painting technique was created to protect merchant ships in wartime, a sort of active pacifism, maybe similar to writing a beautiful story in wartime. Most of the plays we’ve chosen don’t point directly at war but allude to it through metaphor and other literary devices.

LD: As we find ourselves in an election year, is there a relationship between Dazzle Ships and our own current political climate? Do the playwrights serve as conduits through which to express your own thoughts as visual artists, providing a verbal/theatrical framework which serves as a backdrop for your own aesthetic language?

DL + MM: Yes totally. We wanted a script that represents our climate and highlights its cyclical nature. American politics borrows too much from the past and social progress is too slow. Many of the platform issues in the 2016 presidential race are similar to those from the 1980’s & 90’s. Where’s the progress?

The Folly of Others, Digital print on dyed cotton, 67"h x 54"w, 2016

Elizabeth Devlin is an independent curator, art consultant, and founder of FLUX. Boston, an online resource for artists and art enthusiasts in the Boston area and beyond. Through event coverage, artist interviews, and educational posts, Elizabeth enables FLUX. readers to feel informed, engaged in, and connected to the pulse of Boston Arts. Her writing has been featured in Art New England, New American Paintings, and Art21 Magazine among others. As a trusted resource and friend to the Arts community, a ABoston Redevelopment Authority artist and curator of several critically acclaimed exhibitions to-date, Elizabeth strives to make the art world more accessible and to champion the endeavors of Boston's creative community.









ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Could you two talk about the genesis of your idea for this show and some of the individual pieces you made for it? I listened to the podcast on The Camel Corp ("The Red Ghost" of Arizona" on Stuff You Missed In History Class) and looked over all of the material Corey and Lindsey gave us plus the previous works on both of your websites. The story seems well suited as an intersection of some of the driving interests behind your individual art practices. What was your initial response to the story? What sort of follow up research did you do, and how did that inform the development of the show?

RAINA BELLEAU: Our initial response was that this story was too good to be true, or that is was so crazy it must be true. The idea of fact and fiction being inextricably intertwined is very appealing to both of us. Working collaboratively allows us a freedom that we don’t always feel working in our separate practices. Our collaboration developed very organically as a way to play and experiment  with our shared interests. It gives us a fluidity between humor and reverence, play and criticism.

CALEB CHURCHILL: As for the idea of individual pieces some are more loaded than others. So for example Founders consists of three busts and an oil painting. Each bust is made of a different material that correlates to what their professions were… foam for example, because Beale was an entrepreneur whose enterprises constantly deteriorated or failed. In building the story through the works we sought out imagery and forms that would convey elements of the story without directly illustrating it. The carpet we made in many ways houses the iconography of the history while the cacti and camel sculpture reflect more the legend.

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Oh that level of symbolism regarding the busts and their materials really appeals to me. I never think about art in those terms; I doubt I would have made that connection if you hadn’t pointed it out.

CALEB CHURCHILL: We researched the hell out of this, library of congress archives, Texas state archives, anything we could find via the internet, jstor, and of course the camel community & Calvary buffs.

We absorbed it all, let it seep in while simultaneously trying to forget it in the studio.

RAINA BELLEAU: The most striking thing about the research was the amount of discrepancy. Especially because half the research was on both a legend and a historical event. Of course the legend changes over time with new details, sub plots or missing components. But the history surprised us with it’s own changes, sometimes feeling like it too were a legend with missing pieces and exaggerations.

LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON:  I’d love to hear more about your research process. Did you start with the suggested reading from the podcast? How did you “live with” that research? I’m especially curious about how you tried to forget it in the studio...will you talk more about that?

CALEB CHURCHILL: At first yes, we listened to the podcast several, if not a dozen times, took note on what they found and expanded and cross referenced those sources via the internet. Once Raina and I started talking about the project other sources would appear from simple conversations with others and we would follow up on those leads. The “lived with” aspect is interesting, we treated it like oral history. We took in as much as possible and committed it to memory, if those facts got misconstrued or confused all the better as that's the gist of the entire exercise. The forgetting aspect came naturally as we layered ideas and pieces, then became caught up in different aspects of the story whether generated from the research or our failed recollection of those facts. The trying to forget aspect came by embracing this idea of the oral history (the idea that memory is flawed and the story changes with each retelling) as we made pieces and letting the pieces evolve naturally, with a bit of truth and a bit of looseness.

RAINA BELLEAU: The postcards were a way to have the research visually and physically remind us of the history, the story and the seeds of each piece. They gave us enough of a memory jog without locking us into all the specifics. The still life is the accumulated detritus of the research. We are collectors of objects and books and these are the physical things that we kept on hand in the studio while we worked.

Postcards!, Edition of 100 postcards, hand written sign, postcard rack, 72 x 16 x 16, 2016

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: How did you arrive at the specific form for the camel carpet? I get the references to tapestries and regimental banners. The fact that it’s a carpet makes me think of Americana, domestic settings, and gift shop kitsch (particularly in conjunction with the postcards).

That’s interesting to note that the different collections of work you’ve included evolved out of different phases of developing the show. Some of the pieces were planned out with specific aims while others were essentially notes or byproducts of the research process. Again I suspect this wouldn’t be readily apparent on a quick initial look at the show. Art Objects can emerge from nearly any step in the creative process and can blend seamlessly with one another despite this.

LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: Yes, the aesthetic references to folk or naive art forms--from hook rugs to wood carvings, to the postcards--is so rich in this work. In the early twentieth century, people used picture postcards, as well as newspaper advertisements, to decorate their homes. This practice is visible in some of the photographs that Walker Evans took for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men...torn out ads are tacked on the walls of sharecroppers’ homes.

So I am wondering how you researched folk art forms, if at all? How have you absorbed those forms and made them into something new?

RAINA BELLEAU: The carpet was the first piece we came up with. I think the ideas of tapestry and heraldry were in there pretty deeply but we wanted to be sure to connect this story to it’s location: the American West. One way we tried to do that is to look at the types of art people were making for themselves during the time period we were researching, like punch rugs. The carpet’s motif and the technique we used come from that research. The busts are another way we referenced the time period. But since we are also examining the evolution of the story from fact to fantasy, it was important to call on different time periods as well. The diagrams are a reflection of the research we did, accumulating and reflecting the events today. The postcards came from an association with the region, nostalgia and the idea if roadtrips and a particular tourist trap that commemorates a Syrian Camel trainer who immigrated to the US as part of the Camel Corp initiative.

CALEB CHURCHILL: Naive is such a good word for the aesthetic that came to mind. We still decorate our house with a lot of these types of objects, postcards on every surface, paint by numbers and a tapestry in every other room, etc… The story itself is built on a kind of naivete. If the people of the area had been aware of camels, what they were and where they came from, there never would have been a ghost story. We also embraced this idea for ourselves in branching out into mediums we wouldn’t necessarily think of using within our individual practices.

We didn't really research folk art forms, however Raina and I are very aware of them. And that was definitely in our minds as we made these pieces. There are a lot of legends built up around folk artists. Artists like Mary Nohl or Henry Darger have mysticism built around them that is just as intriguing as their work. Nohl’s community in Wisconsin thought she was a witch and children ran past her house, afraid. We have references to her around our house and we’re thinking about her concrete works as we made the busts.

Using the busts as an example of how we evolved beyond these references while still hanging on to them, we used our iPhone and the photo app’s face recognition technology. We both tend to want to be perfectionists so to help keep things loose with the busts, we stopped carving when the phone was able to recognize a face.

Fantasia Colorado, Cotton, flagpole, wool, 61 x 36 in, 2016

LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: I’m fascinated by all of the mysteriousness of this history….and also by the language that we used to talk about mystery and myth, generally speaking. For instance, in the podcast, both speakers say things like “she was said to,” or that one of the deaths was from “causes unknown.” How much did this language of ambiguity influence your process? How do your works augment this ambiguity?

RAINA BELLEAU: The ambiguity of the language itself wasn’t something I feel like we ever talked about. Although a certain amount of ambiguity to the show on a whole was always something we had in mind. We liked the idea of adding the works up one by one. Though some pieces give away more than others. Retelling the story was never our intention so perhaps we were influenced subconsciously!

CALEB CHURCHILL: It seems like the ambiguous language gives more weight to the “facts” even if those things  had were “said to have” happened actually did. We try not to pick a side: history vs. legend. The diagrams go both ways. One, the timeline, lays everything but with an even hand dealt to each event. The pie chart goes to the ambiguous side with fantastical data categories and colors and percentages that make a pyramid shape rather than present findings.

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Raina what you’re saying about adding the works up one by one seems to jibe with what I was thinking regarding the individual pieces being a collection of objects that evolved out of multiple stages of research for the show I like the line toward the end of your statement, “The works themselves do not seek to simply illustrate the story, but to add elements of complication.“ I feel like this gets at the heart of what you’re trying to achieve with this show and how it differs from a literal historic retelling of events.

I saw that you guys went to see a camel in person. Could you talk a bit about that? Not that I think anyone needs an excuse to go hang out with a camel, but were you hoping to get anything in particular out of the meeting?

CALEB CHURCHILL: One of the reasons I became an artist is to be able to pick up and learn or research whatever topic that I fancy. If Raina and I are going to do a show on camels not only are we going to read everything we can get our hands on concerning the topic, that isn’t enough, we need to connect to the idea in a real life context. Meeting a camel is to build a respect for the topic, experience a part of it, and also logistical things like how is a camel put together, attitude etc.

RAINA BELLEAU: It was also really interesting to talk to the guys who work with the camel. They have not only a vast knowledge of camels (mannerisms, anatomy, personality, etc.) but they have an enthusiasm and historical knowledge base similar to our own. It was great to find two more people who have invested in this history but with completely different motivations to do so.

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Yeah I think one of the most exciting parts of being a fine artist (particularly one who isn’t tied down to a specific medium or approach to art making) is the odd paths you end up taking through other disciplines and professions in the course of researching and developing your work. I brought this up with a friend of mine once who kind of put me on the spot to offer a defense of contemporary art as a whole. They responded that most of the encounters with people/materials/ideas this way must necessarily be shallow due to their brevity and lack of purpose beyond the artist’s aims. I don’t think that’s a fair assertion (not all artists are the same, obviously, and it’s not up to my friend to officiate over when a moment passes from trivial to meaningful) but I also think being comfortable with the idea that art might be a pointless endeavor is just a cost of entry for dealing with it seriously.

Were there any specific things you learned during your meeting with the camel and its handlers that you hadn’t come across earlier? Had the handlers heard about the Camel Corp or the legend of The Red Ghost? Do you feel like your approach to the show changed in any concrete terms after the meeting with them?

CALEB CHURCHILL: To finish up the story of meeting Duma the Camel, I think most of it was details about camels and what it was like to be near one and get to know it. The handlers were well aware of the history of the camel corp. They hadn’t heard of the Red Ghost and they were interested in that but mostly they were interested to meet people who wanted to know about camels that weren’t biologists or veterinarians! To Leah’s point about the non-deliverables of contemporary art, that kind of encounter is definitely one of them. We got to make a connection with two guys and camel and talk about our work and their work on a personal level. That could only happen because of this project. But as the age old adage says (I think it was Aristotle), “Haters gonna hate.”

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Stuff You Missed in History Class is a favorite podcast of mine- I think I heard this specific episode a few months ago. I imagine a story like Fantasia Colorado would have captured people’s imaginations at any point in time, but it’s interesting to think that podcasts have created a network for widely dispersing material like this. Podcasts have likely also helped to foster a greater demand for engaging reports on minor historic oddities in general. Were you intending to deal with this in your show given that a podcast was one of your initial points of contact with the story?

LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: Podcasts have also reemphasized the role of the imagination in entertainment. In the nineteenth century, when long, multi-chapter novels were popular and the primary forms of pop culture (I’m thinking of Dickens or Wilkie Collins and others), individual imagination was primary in experiencing pop culture. With TV and social media, you are really encountering other people’s imagination. So I’m struck that the podcast has returned the written word, and the imagined world, back.

CALEB CHURCHILL: Our project doesn't really deal much with podcasts as a format. However the cultural phenomenon of podcast is they are usually fleeting or factoids, but because we have this practice based off of not taking things seriously or of taking humorous fleeting or whimsical things to a whole new level, starting with this podcast seemed appropriate. We really felt like this story begged to be retold and we saw a lot of ways we could do that.

RAINA BELLEAU: I do like this idea of podcasts creating a new kind of creative platform or of fostering creative output for others, rather than just the creators. In a lot of ways it makes stories like this accessible and sharable for a much wider range of people. I’m very much an audio learner but this is the first time I’ve ever dealt with a podcast as a primary source for material.

Podcasts are usually just entertainment you relay to friends as anecdotes. The great thing about working with Caleb is that we take these small seemingly trivial or amusing (at least to us) things and expand on them taking them to extremes. Like an art show dedicated to a camel. We can take what at first seems like a funny idea or even a joke and become very serious about it through conversations. Our initial ideas build into something worth investing in.     

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Could you talk about that process? About how your initial interest builds into something worth investing in? What were some of the conversations you had along the way that made the whole thing more meaningful for you two? I imagine just dealing with the logistics of getting the show put together ends up adding a sense of urgency to the whole process.

I get what you mean about podcasts being fleeting/factoids/anecdotal. I was thinking of lumping in listicles along with them as part of the same phenomena of novel information as entertainment. What I find exciting about them as a format is that since the floor for creating them is so low nearly anyone can make one, and by extension they can be about nearly anything. They help close the gap between producer and consumer.

Moving on from podcasts though, I think what I’m interested in clarifying here is how you two have gone about finding subjects to apply your practice of taking things seriously/not seriously in the past. Is that a lens you end up using to examine a lot of things you encounter in daily life?

LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: Erik, I think your question about applying practice to taking thing seriously or not is really perceptive. Could you expand on what you mean that?

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Yeah sure thing Leah. I’ve seen a number of contemporary artists working in a way where they start with a kind of absurd premise and then really follow through on that idea in a very thorough way. Thomas Thwaites piece GoatMan (A Holiday From Being Human) is a good example. He built this rig that let him crawl around on all fours and lower his head to eat grass. Then he went out and lived with a herd of goats for three days. Scott Lawrence’s Folding Chair comes to mind as another case of what I’m thinking of.

I’d like to hear more about how Raina and Caleb see being serious/not serious plays into their work since it’s an important aspect of both their practices.

Thomas Thwaites, GoatMan (A Holiday From Being Human)

Scott Lawrence, Folding Chair

RAINA BELLEAU: I think our practice is part earnest curiosity mixed with equal parts dark and absurdist humor. We apply the serious/not serious practice of looking at the world to daily life for sure. That’s how ideas like the carpet happen. But it’s hard to really pinpoint where or how it happens.

It’s something in both of us that we have definitely created a bond over. We can both be pretty intense so it’s important to be able poke fun at the things you’re worked up about and I guess that’s the same source for becoming serious about playfulness.

CALEB CHURCHILL: Our first piece together was a kinetic sculpture titled Save the Last Dance made of a broken party light and disco ball that when laid on the floor spun in slow circles almost like a turtle on it’s back. It was tragic and humorous and nothing like either of us had ever considered to be like our own work. That’s how we figured out we wanted to work together. We saw something, said that should be art, but it’s not my art. And in saying that we realized it could be our art, but only if it was ours as it’s own thing.

ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Oh that’s a really nice anecdote about your collaborative work starting off with a shared moment of melancholy and humor. I’d be curious to hear how working together influences your individual practices moving forward from here.

One thing that occurred to me while I was looking over the material for the show is that there must be a multitude of folkloric stories like this one that have totally uninteresting backstories to them. Not every ghost turns out to be a rogue camel imported by the military with a corpse tied to its back; some must just be umbrellas that blew away and got stuck in a tree.  It’s funny to think that similarly fantastic stories could derive from relatively banal events and sightings.

RAINA BELLEAU: I feel pretty certain that most stories like this one have backgrounds that we aren’t aware of. True, probably not as outlandish as the one that inspired Fantasia Colorado. But I think our practice has an openness to possibility and a certain amount obsession that could even find something intriguing in a windswept umbrella.That's the beauty of working to together, we can be a kind of sounding board to amplify the things that catch our attention. The world is full of great stories. We’re looking for the ones that extend our notion of belief and disbelief.

LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: I’d be really interested to hear more how belief and disbelief has factored into your previous and individual work. And Is obsession integral to your ideas of belief and disbelief? How do those obsessions translate into your individual works?

CALEB CHURCHILL: I guess towards the end of last year was when I started playing with belief and disbelief in objects.  Photography is based on a belief system that isn’t real, which gets you into some heavy photo theory. Photography is incredible subjective: you’re always seeing something the way someone else presented it to you. In that way I’ve been thinking about this duality for a long time. As I’ve been branching out into mediums other than photography, I’m finding new way of using it, beyond the theoretical.

RAINA BELLEAU: I think obsession might be integral to some individuals belief or disbelief, like conspiracy theorists. And while conspiracy could be fertile ground for future projects, I think it’s separate for us. The belief/disbelief dichotomy is one that I think will continue to drive us to find new topics but the topics and stories will create the obsession. I think art needs a little obsession to keep it going. After all, if we concede that there might not be a point, something has to fuel the furnace.

LEFT Diorama, C print. 18 x 24 in, ed. 3, 2016   
RIGHT Oh Noble Heart, Bethink Your End, Brass bells with custom engraving, buckwheat, cotton, plinth, rope, 2016

Erik Davis-Heim is an artist and writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. He received his bachelors degree in painting from the Maryland Institute of Art where he also studied installation and theory. Feel free to stop and approach him if you see him drawing around the city.

Leah Triplett Harrington is a writer, editor, and independent curator focused on modern and contemporary art. She currently serves as senior editor of the non-profit contemporary art publication Big Red and Shiny, which was nominated for an International Association of Art Critics Award in 2014. She has contributed catalogue essays to CUE Art Foundation (New York) and Gallery Bergelli (California), as well as articles to Harper's Bizarre Art, Hyperallergic, Burnaway, Pelican Bomb, and others.

My work has been influenced by wildlife and a cultural relationship to nature. I engage linear and non-linear narrative, often using animal forms to create characters and symbols. Inspired by cinema, natural history and environmental issues, I create surreal scenes with an underlying dark sense of humor. These scenes are at times ideals and at others, dystopias. They convey my personal desires and anxieties surrounding the environment and it’s inhabitants. Through my sculptural work I explore nature’s influence on culture with an empathetic yet critical eye.

My precise and detailed sculptures are constructed from a wide variety of materials and techniques. I frequently use man-made materials to mimic those found in nature such as zip ties for porcupine quills or window blinds for feathers. This use of material speaks to our relationship with the natural world and draws attention to where and how the boundaries between the built, urban world and nature collide. I build quickly and freely, drawing in references through my characters and materials. I am drawn to small moments of realism where a detail of a large piece is hand rendered and painted to draw in the viewers’ attention. These moments create resting places in sometimes chaotic scenes. The sculptures become their own ecologies in which we can explore our place in the larger environment.

My work seeks to expand the way we see the world around us. Whether this is taking notice of subtle moments of beauty and humor in the seemingly mundane or questioning ideas we have taken for granted as fact. A background in photography has informed my way of looking at the world and of how we view art, both images and objects. In expanding my practice beyond just photography and into one that is multidisciplinary, I am able to explore, play with and manipulate my concepts and the overall experience of the work.

Overarching concept and medium, is a sense of both humor and earnest curiosity. I draw upon my interests in science, conspiracy, literature and art history to act as starting points for bodies of work to evolve. The works, both photographic and otherwise, take inspiration from poetry, always conscious of a sense of rhythm and over all cohesive fluidity. I ask that we step back at ask ourselves exactly how and why we see, both art and the everyday, and the rules that we have set up to do so. 





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.

Brilliant Basics (2015) (functional)
Hardwood, latex paint, carpet materials, hardware
18 x 9 x 9 inches

Royal Palm (2016)
Various hardwoods, latex enamel, mosaic backsplash, grout
3 x 16 x 11 inches


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.