Matthew Hassell: Outside of previous work, where do you find inspiration to begin a new sculpture?
Rachel Beach: The works usually begin with something very elemental. I try to simplify—I think about a construction: how do you build something … a stack, a mark, a seam, an edge, the intersection of two things, a point of balance, a beginning. Those basic things are meaningful metaphorically and historically, and also physically.
I think a lot about the physicality of a thing versus an image of a thing—structure and surface, form and pictorial space. I think about things like solidity and weight, permanence/impermanence, balance, precariousness, and fleetingness. In this regard I get ideas just by standing next to things in the world, feeling the physical proximity of something and then looking at something else, perhaps a small detail across the room or across the street. You have to commit to both simultaneously.
I also like to look at architecture, mostly at the visual and physical relationship of body to space and for the transitional elements—seams that transition space to plane or frame an experience.
I like to look at archeological artifacts for the way they reveal a collective desire to locate meaning in form; I’m always fascinated that similar approaches (geometry, mark, monolith) are found across cultures and centuries. But my interest is also in what is missing – the void of information surrounding an object. I like the idea of the specific but unknown.
Recently I’ve been looking at heraldry and armor. I like the protective, fierce and ancestral nature of these things and also their strange relationship to surface and structure, or body and skin, or painting and support and in the case of heraldry, symbol and language. And also abstraction. The little tick marks used on crests stand in for fur or hide and have a nice relationship to the individual brush marks that build up a painting. I like to use that type of indexical mark/symbol in my work.
MH: Your recent work seems to be so much about design, with each piece asserting a wealth of composure and balance—are these works pretty mapped out from their inception, or does intuition play into the process somewhere along the way?
RB: I think about this difference in terms of “asking” and “telling”; the idea of intuitively responding to what is there versus needing to actively plan in order to actually get these things built. There are times when I need to tell the piece what I want from it; for example, when I need to cut out an exact shape that I’ve templated, taking that intentional action on the material is a ‘tell’; I’m telling it what I need it to be. Then there are times when I need to step back and ask it: who are you, how are you working, what and how do you mean, what do you feel like spatially and physically, what do you need, who ARE you?
I generally start a work or body of work with a lot of asking in the form of digging through past ideas, pulling out old tests and running new ones, making sketches and notes, trolling my image bank and just looking around and being open. I have a very active drawing, template, maquette and sample making practice. A lot of intuition (as well as experience) about form, scale and proportion comes into play at this stage.
Once I’ve decided on the forms I’m interesting in making, I need to commit and make them. And that’s pretty much a straight build or “tell”. There’s not much room for error here, but if something’s really not working I will hack it apart and rebuild it. This doesn’t happen often though, because by the time I’ve decided to build something I’ve lived with the ideas, the drawings, the full-scale templates; I’ve tried it many different ways and asked it many different things. That said, the built objects are always a surprise.
Back in “ask” mode, I then need to establish the surfaces and how they will interact with the form. Some of these have been intuitively clear to me from the beginning, from the drawings, while others require some digging. I do a lot of drawing on the forms with chalk pastel, acrylic and spray paint, and collaging of cut paper. What I learn through this process informs my decisions about a final surface. I do a lot of trial and error and sanding. I want the surfaces to feel specific and inevitable, tight but not tortured. I want them to hold the planes and act on the forms. Be both of the form and apart from the form. I like to get it in one shot, and if it’s wrong, I sand it back off and try a different approach. In my newest work I’m leaving more and more of the raw surfaces and letting in some gesture.
I put a lot of leg work into arriving at the final piece but I don’t know that design would be the right word, perhaps it’s more like analytic intuition or intuition in conjunction with experience and analysis. Or more simply, ask and tell.
MH: In your current show at Blackston, there seems to be an interesting play between the work you are showing. The front room seems so balanced and ordered, rigidly symmetrical, while in the back room the forms feel a bit more playful and whimsical. Are these two modes of creation moving in different directions from one another, or are they integrated in some way that I’m not currently picking up on?
RB: These works were developed simultaneously. There are numerous connections although they do operate as counterpoints to each other. My desire to explore strength and precariousness both of form and of human experience is something that carries through. With the symmetrical sculptures, I wanted them to feel stoic and planted, somewhat threatening but still human-scaled. I wanted them to express that certain type of foot-planted determination that is required of us. With the contrapposto pieces I wanted to capture some of the buoyancy and levity that is also required of us humans. Two different kinds of strength. I think the symmetrical pieces have a greater relationship to one’s body–you feel those physical voids correlating to your torso and head, whereas the relationship in the offset pieces is an internal relationship of the two distinct parts. I would say the symmetrical work expresses a certain singularity or oneness while the other work expresses a very precise two-ness.
Both types were developed out of shapes left over in my scrap pile after building other work. I became drawn to these triangles and parallelograms that were the typical end-bits and cut-offs, and also to these rectangular shapes with one swooping corner that is the shape that results from cutting in with a jigsaw to remove a negative shape. After having lost my studio in Sandy, perhaps there was something meaningful about literally picking up the pieces, picking up where I had left off. Or perhaps it’s more telling of the way artists seem to continually eat their own work in a regenerative way. Either way, the reclaimed forms hold an idea about ancestry and etymology of meaning that is central to the concepts in the work.
MH: You have a very nice handle on the one word titles, each of which add something personal while being perfectly in line with the way the work operates formally. Are these titles arrived at somewhere along the way? Or are they a peek into what you were trying to convey with each piece?
RB: Throughout the time I’m making the piece, right from beginning sketches through to installation, I make lists of words. In the back of my mind I’m thinking about future titles, but I’m also trying to get a grasp on how the pieces are working and the ways in which their forms or surfaces are pointing to meanings. Finding these words helps me understand what I’m trying to do with a given piece and with the body of work as a whole. If a word/meaning combination starts to make sense, I may steer a piece more in that direction, but mostly I let those words loosely float about and let the thing coalesce as it will. I don’t finalize titles until after the show is installed and usually end up pulling at least a couple of words out of the air. In each case there is an attempt to suggest something of the “character” of the piece, its personality. It’s usually something specific but open enough that it can capture a little round-up of meanings and references that the piece might have.
As with other aspects of the work, what I’m after is balancing the specific with the open, the formal with the referent.
MH: Tell me a little bit about your surface treatments—how do you decide on color, pattern, and how to select each of these things for each form?
RB: In thinking about the color and surface choices generally I’m after a couple of things. I aim for these surfaces to affect the form–to make the object feel lighter or heavier than it is, to flatten or deepen certain areas, to steer the focus towards a part of the form or towards a certain referent that appeals to me and makes sense with the overall character of the piece. There are perceptual elements at play as well–I want to confound the form, to have the surface at times contradict or reinforce the form, to create some reversals. I want to make the image and the actual contingent on each other.
MH: What is the ideal home for one of your sculptures? Where do you imagine they will live some day?
RB: Phew. If I thought about where these things were going to end up I would never make them! I have a kind of a phobia about heaviness and logistics and the futility of objects—so much labor, accumulation, and waste. I can only live in the now of the objects’ making, not the future home of the object, or else I panic. I mean really panic. I tend more to imagine the sun imploding in 2000 years and everything being gone. In that way the objects are a push-back against time; a really laborious, weighted grinding out of the here and now, a hedge against death. That said, they’d be great in a living room. Beside a Matisse.
MH: Windows, or holes clean through your work, seem to be something that reoccurs both in your sculpture and your wall based work. Is it important that the viewer can look through the work?
RB: This is entirely central to the work. And it came out of my background as a painter. Thinking about an image on an object (aka a painting) and the space that an image occupies, I became obsessed with that transition from physical space—the space that we are standing in—to pictorial space, which is found as your eye crosses over the edge of that stretcher. When I started making sculpture, I wanted to invert that relationship so that the transitional edge became the physical sculpture and the image became the void. I think I’ve moved a little beyond that now whereby all the elements—form, image, and negative space—are more cross-contaminated. I’ve been working on the holes inside the work and the spaces created around and between the works, trying to make them operate as physical elements—persistent enough in their presence that they become objects themselves.
I also think about these negative spaces in terms of archeology and void—missing information.
I also think about them in terms of framing and contingency of meaning: that the reading of the object is contingent on context—what you see through it and around it.
I also think about them in terms of windows and seeing: foreground versus distance/vista looking; the space you’re in versus the space beyond/the space you’re looking at, and the back and forth between those. It’s kind of a figure ground relationship and reversal.
And of course I’ve already mentioned the body relationships.
MH: I’m also a bit of a sucker for your paintings. They are really nice. Did you start out making wall-based work and move to sculpture, or was it the other way around?
RB: I started out as a painter. In fact, my sculptures are still built like big shaped painting stretchers, hollow with two faces. I identify with that kind of surface-based, planar construction and I’m very steeped in color and mark (reductive though it may be). I think my whole practice grew out of staring at the side of a painting and thinking about how this whole object was being ignored in favor of image and pictorial space. Frank Stella was one of my early heroes—that kind of painting that is aware of itself as an object.
MH: Do you work your wall-based work in tandem with your sculpture? Are they connected or separate in regards to your process?
RB: They both grow out of the same scrap pile of thoughts and I work on them both simultaneously. A surface test for a sculpture may become a separate wall piece or vice versa. The basic thread is that spatial and physical dissonance; that connection between image and object, form and void, logic and mystery. Both have ideas about framing, contingency and human experience, and the references all play around with the same sorts of things. I guess with the objects I think much more about the body and with the wall work I think more about the eyes.
MH:What’s next for Rachel Beach? Please tell us about any exciting upcoming projects.
I’m currently an Artist in Residence at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation through Aug 2014, so am pushing the work forward there and will host an open studio in the spring. My solo show at Blackston just came down but I have a few works up in group shows through November/December (Meta Vista curated by Matthew Gerhing and Come Together: Surviving Sandy curated by Phong Bui). I’ll be in Miami at Untitled with Blackston in December. And then look for new work early next year at BAM in Brooklyn (alongside Katie Bell and Carolyn Salas curated by Holly Shen) and at Sargent’s Daughters in LES, where Gelah Penn and Inna Babaeva are curating a raucous sculpture show.