Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rereading Letters to the Editor

Shane Aslan Selzer
Artist In Residence
School of the Art Institute
Summer Studios

In July I participated in Summer Studio at The Sullivan Galleries, sharing an open studio with a dozen artists and at least as many different approaches to the idea of a studio practice. In the weeks following, I’ve been reading, The Studio Reader, and enjoying the diverse tapestry of studio descriptions compiled within it. Inevitably, this led to personal observations of my own studio habits, and models for working in the nine cities that I’ve maintained a studio at various points in the past twelve years. My practice usually looks back in order to move forward, gathering an index of images, attitudes, and production through a determinedly assemblage method of research and practice of looking, analyzing and categorizing.

For the summer, I committed to memory a black and white, scanned catalogue image of a geometric sculpture made by Burgoyne Diller in 1943. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the image I had seen was oriented sideways, within a scanned catalogue of images oriented vertically. By the time I realized the error in my perception of Third Theme Construction, opinions had already formed in my mind’s memory map and I had grown attached to the shallow depth provided by the side view. Which side? I rescanned the faded Xerox I’d held onto, and flipped the image, re-emphasizing the distance between the page and the space it contained.

Third Theme Construction III
xerox print      2010

Diller was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, and the head of The Mural Division of The WPA/Federal Art Project. In 1936 he commissioned little known abstract painters to create nonobjective murals that were intended for public spaces of transience, gathering, and leisure in the Williamsburg Housing Projects.

In time, the maintenance and protection of these public in between spaces diminished and the murals were covered over, and disregarded until their recent restoration and exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum.  I draw on the potentially overused term in between to describe a type of time spent. Neither completely engaged in work, nor leisure, these spaces were multi-use, occupying visitors during brief durations of time spent daydreaming, having a cigarette, or chatting with a coworker. This time spent in proximity of the murals was neither fully subconscious nor fully conscious and as a result, the mind was able to wander, dwell, skip ahead and fall behind. I have an Eames chair in my studio on wheels, which serves as a vehicle for this same sort of in between time in my own practice and I began to wonder if, and what types of seating were originally present in view of the murals. The space between the viewer and the mural seems visually aligned with the shallow depth of field created by the sculpture Third Theme Construction, at least when viewed in black and white, on its side. I began to reference this shallow space visually in the gestures of simple objects at hand.

Third Theme Construction V
inkjet print    2010

I wonder about the specifics of the studios used by the artists commissioned to create the Williamsburg murals. By indexing the shapes found repeated between several of the murals, I imagine a series of studio visits and visual discussions happening between the artists during production. These fantasies are based in part upon my own desire to work amidst a community of individuals engaged in the lexicon of visual culture today. These visual overlaps are comforting, as if reassuring me that on some level we do have shared perspectives, albeit across our oceans of difference.

The formation of The American Abstract Artists (AAA) Group fascinates me as a community effort to draw attention to a shared way of seeing and interpreting, not previously acknowledged through American exhibitions. Indeed, it was Diller’s support for the group that lent it credibility in those early years; a brave move for a federal employee during the latter part of the Great Depression. A year after he commissioned the murals, seven members of AAA Group wrote a letter to the Art Editor at The New York Times, which was published on August 8, 1937. The letter was signed by; Hananiah Harari, Jan Matulka, Herzl Emanuel, Byron Browne, Leo Lances, Rosalind Bengelsdorf, and George McNeil. These artists were repositioning themselves in response to statements made by the AAA Group, of which they were all continuing members.

Using the following paragraph from The New York Times letter as a grounding text concerning my own practice, I started a series of single session sculptures, which attempted to index the reoccurring shapes found within the Williamsburg murals:

It is our very definite belief that abstract art forms are not separated from life, but on the contrary are great realities, manifestations of a search into the world about one’s self, having basis in living actuality, made by artists who walk the earth, who see colors (which are realities), squares (which are realities, not some spiritual mystery), tactile surfaces, resistant materials, movement. The abstract work of an artist who is not conscious of or is contemptuous of the world about him is different from the abstract work of an artist who identifies himself with life and seeks generative force from its realities.

– excerpt from Letter to Art Editor at New York Times, August 8, 1937

Working in clay, a material I had little prior knowledge of, I rolled out slabs, cut out the discrete shapes seen in the murals, and then draped the leftover, remaining slab in a single gesture fold. I found that these intimate gestures carried the connective force that the murals brought to viewers’ physical awareness and symbolic relationships to other works in the body’s visual vicinity.

Single Session Sculptures
clay and steel (view of six, from larger series)

Shane Aslan Selzer is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been exhibited internationally in venues such as P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Jamaica Flux in Queens and The Bag Factory in Johannesburg. She teaches a contemporary art seminar for graduate students at The University at Albany and is currently organizing a symposium based on experiences of FAILURE.

All Images Courtesy of the Artist

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