Mary Ellen Carroll is a Houston- and New York–based conceptual artist who teaches in the architecture program at Rice University. Here, she discusses prototype 180, a work she is creating in collaboration with the Rice University Building Institute, and a recent mayoral forum on land use in Houston at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston that she organized and moderated. Her forthcoming monograph is being published by SteidlMACK and will be available this fall.
HOUSTON IS THE ONLY METROPOLITAN AREA in the United States without a formal land-use zoning code. The no-zoning policy creates conditions, both physical and atmospheric, for extending free enterprise over the city, the energy capital of the world. Density and urbanism are replacing the ideal of the West as an open, expansive territory, both economically and as a seemingly endless repository of natural resources.
Ten years ago, this urban-policy condition brought me to the Gulf Coast, and the city essentially self-selected itself as the site for prototype 180, a work of art that will make architecture performative. It is literally a ground-shifting exercise, in that it structurally involves the rotation, back to front, of a house and its surrounding land in the development of Sharpstown. Following the rotation, it will be retrofitted and rehabilitated to become an occupied structure that will be become an institute for the study of considered urbanism.
Mary Ellen Carroll at NOZONE: Houston’s Mayoral Forum on Land Use
An early condition for this work was that the surrounding context and its process not be considered as urban renewal. This necessitated a location in a relatively stable yet aging subdivision––one that is invisible in effect, not calling attention to itself either socioeconomically or typologically. The area would also ideally be a model of shifting demographics, reflecting the growth patterns and diversity of the city. Sandwiched in the path of Houston’s redevelopment to the northwest and new developments to the southwest, these conditions exist and manifest themselves in the development of Sharpstown, a diverse, middle-class neighborhood.
I designed a sixteen-foot table/stage that replicates the dimensions and hardwood floor of the living room of prototype 180, which is now in the exhibition “No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston” at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston. Referencing furniture created for peace talks, treaties, and negotiations, the table functions as a site for meetings and symposia that will eventually take place in prototype 180.
On Thursday, July 9, I programmed the table/stage for its intended use by organizing and moderating “NOZONE, Houston’s Mayoral Forum on Land Use.” The forum was based on the research and a seminar I teach at Rice University’s School of Architecture. I posed five questions to the mayoral candidates pertaining to land use.
All of Houston’s mayoral candidates participated, and the forum lasted two and a half hours. Since then, everyone I have spoken with who attended the forum seems to now know whom he or she will vote for. To me, this indicates that the political image became the artistic image.
This summer, the Portland, Oregon– and New York–based sculptor Jessica Jackson Hutchins is participating in several group exhibitions, including “Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay,” which originated at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia and is at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis until November 29, and “Bent,” a three-person show at the Oregon College of Art and Craft on view until August 23. Here, Hutchins talks about her practice.
I’VE BEEN MAKING A LOT OF WORK FROM MY FURNITURE LATELY, just pulling it out of my house. Two sculptures in “Bent” are created from chairs that were in my kitchen. They were worn out, and their indentations readily invited the weight of ceramic. For Velvet Hand, I sewed some old velvet pants together to hold a pot that hovers over the indentation of the seat; it looks as if some barely sympathetic hand of God holds it there. In the other, a blue ceramic object nestles in the dip of the chair, which is decorated with a big sunflower. The sculpture resembles a landscape: the blue vase driving into an optimistic sunflower distance. I made it soon after Obama was elected and titled it And it feels great, which is a line from one of my husband’s songs.
There are also two ceramic vessels that I’ve repaired or improved with fabric, including one with denim, which I love. These vessels might ultimately get incorporated into a large table sculpture I’m working on. I’m carving into a big, wooden table from my kitchen with power tools and making large woodcut prints from it. Some of these prints have collage elements, including one in Small A Projects’ rogue summer show in Greenwich, New York.
I use common and simple objects because they can act as nouns. Strung together, they resonate like catchy song lyrics: chair, bowl, pants. They are also weird together, and loving, too. Sometimes the materials look old or crappy and that gives the sculptures a sense of urgency. They have a “by any means necessary” or punk sensibility. I don’t think the sculptures would be very interesting if they didn’t also possess disruptive qualities, if they weren’t tough and insistent. I’m not attached to dilapidation for its own sake. It’s just the way things look when they are really part of the world. They’re not slick and pristine.
With Convivium, the table piece included in “Dirt on Delight,” I wanted to speak to the potential for ritual in daily life, to suggest the polyvalence of dinner-table conversations. I have made other table sculptures, but not one yet that wants to have the multiplicity that Convivium does. It is hacked into and sanded down, and color has been built up in the raw wood from the printing ink. It makes me think of the way life leaves marks and gives way to new urgencies.
I believe in osmosis between objects. With time, there is something happening at the molecular level, where the objects come together in some way and begin to form their own associations. So I will put an item on a chair and leave it, and I think it gets better overnight, even if nothing really changes.
For the past two decades, multimedia artist Cindy Workman has created collage-based art, incorporating images from such incongruous sources as children’s drawings, vintage pornography, and mathematical diagrams. Her first United States retrospective is on view through August 14 at Lennon, Weinberg in New York.
THE RETROSPECTIVE WAS CURATED to highlight the central theme of my work: women. From early on, I’ve had a keen interest in “woman as object.” Although I wouldn’t say that this has disappeared in the newer pieces, my last show included individual portraits of women who weren’t seen totally as objects. Narrative has also crept into the work––not storytelling per se, but rather a linear situation in which I interrogate gender, specifically themes such as what it means to be a woman, the emergence of roles, and the act of role-playing.
My parents collected art––mostly American painters, including de Kooning––and from a very young age I was able to visit artists’ studios and get a firsthand look at what it meant to be an artist. Because of this exposure, I was aware that it was possible to visually express what it means to be female. I trained as a Minimalist painter, and although structure has remained very important to me, it wasn’t satisfying in the end. When I was in art school, it was possible either to be a painter or a sculptor. I wanted both, and I think mixed media serves both these interests. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for my choice of images. Sometimes I’ve bought photographs simply because I’m moved by them, without knowing how I’m going to use them. In other instances, I have a more specific agenda. For example, in a series involving mathematical diagrams, I looked for pictures that were very structured and minimal.
I use vintage pornography in my work not to comment on the act of sex itself, but rather its implications for what it means to be a woman. I’ve never considered my appropriation of it titillating. I see it more from a point of vulnerability: When you have sex for the first time, boundaries are asserted and you are able to discover who you are. This same self-defining process occurs in relationships such as those with parents and society. The exposed state that results specifically in womanhood is what interests me. I would say that my body of work is analytic but not specifically influenced by feminist theory. Women are challenged daily by virtue of their gender, even when they aren’t specifically cognizant of it.
This is also tied to my use of children’s drawings. One of the points I hoped to make is that sexuality is not just lascivious but also innocent. I wanted to show the most basic level on which character and roles are created. I also enjoy the visual contrast this provides. Many of the drawings were made by my sister as a child, and the children of my friends have also given some to me. I like to think that, because of the contrast between these images, the work presents itself like a flower––immediately very pretty, but full of many different layers. You come look, pollinate, and then commit to the piece and the fact that it has heavier content than you had initially imagined.
Aki Sasamoto is a New York–based Japanese artist who often draws on performance, sculpture, and dance for her works. Here she describes her sense of dislocation after performing and also talks about her role as a founder of Culture Push, the collaborative artists’ group. She recently performed at Zach Feuer Gallery (with Momus) and in the 2008 Yokohama Triennial.
THROUGHOUT JUNE, I experienced a sense of the unreal and constant self-doubt. A friend pointed out that I always take my time to return to real life after a performance and that I had spent the previous two months performing almost every day in four different shows. I thought I had bored her with my disorientation stories. (Is it like having an easily dislocated shoulder: no longer surprising, though the pain is acute each time?) To some extent, I enjoy the struggle to reconstruct reality after a performance, testing preexisting notions of how the post office and laundry machines operate, or whether people in my address book actually exist. It feels like a type of jet lag, and when I’m in this state, I don’t feel like I belong in a single location. The clocks inside and outside me do not match. Jet lag symbolizes the void, the space of disillusion, and the space of re-creation.
There are two ways of being for me. One is thiis world (the everyday, banal relationships, and talking). The other is thaat world (productions, improvisation, and introspective thinking). There is also a void that occupies the lapse between thiis and thaat. The void sometimes consumes an entire month, and I find it’s interesting enough to pass through many times. In this liminal period I navigate using my smell-like sense, which triggers instant reminders of distant memories and knowledge from other spaces. After enough sniffing of clues, thiis and thaat start to crystallize and inspire curiosity again.
For instance, cofounding Culture Push separated thiis and thaat within my art practice. All my egoistic work goes to thaat world, and when I work for other creative minds, through this nonprofit art organization, I’m in thiis world. Last year, I was interested in running a symposium for Culture Push that brought together a diverse group of people. I wondered what would happen when a mathematician, a sculptor, a dancer, a chef, and a doctor spent a day or month in workshops together. I wanted to find the void among expert minds, and compartmentalized knowledge. So Doing was a one-day event with ten specialists, each sharing an activity that is essential to their personal or professional practice. Culture Push is also running a month-long residency called Genesis Project with different types of artists at Basekamp in Philadelphia this August.
Nonetheless, to organize these events for others is a job that helps me to see the shape of thaat world. Learning step-by-step about founding an organization, fund-raising, and networking was very different from my self-indulgent artistic productions. However, working for Culture Push frees me to go further in the direction of the solitary, internal self-absorption of my performance and installation work in thaat world. In my own art, I use judgments, generalizations, and fictions, all crafted as close as possible to my experiences, to draw out personalized opinions and theories on nothing and everything. I want to create something that seems borderline real or general but simultaneously completely introverted and sealed up in my dreams.
The foremost judgment about my work should always come from me. The reception of the work is secondary. And when I perform, I direct my voice toward the void, pushing thiis world off into the distance. But I would be satisfied if I could find one person who connects with what I do. I look forward to meeting that person and talking with them about the void.