|Leah Oates: Please describe your work in terms of your processes, themes and content?
Gae Savannah: Currently I am working with Chinese bamboo plant stands, benches and other furniture. I’m stacking the benches, creating towers with light inside some of the tiers. The work references a bunch of things such as the excessive decoration and simultaneous views of inside/outside of architecture in Persian paintings. I don’t forge traditional sculpture; neither welding nor carving synchs with my character.
Lovely Beads and Things – Leah Oates
Leah Oates: Please describe your work in terms of your processes, themes and content?
Gae Savannah: Currently I am working with Chinese bamboo plant stands, benches and other furniture. I’m stacking the benches, creating towers with light inside some of the tiers. The work references a bunch of things such as the excessive decoration and simultaneous views of inside/outside of architecture in Persian paintings. I don’t forge traditional sculpture; neither welding nor carving synchs with my character. Instead, the processes I use; shopping, coordinating, arranging and sprucing up, mirror a dimension of female inner-life. On one level, I want to reflect on suburban girl ethos.
Content-wise, I am thinking about the fool archetype. Pieces such as Shasta and Igloo are intentionally ridiculous, flying in the face of what is supposed to be solid citizen, meritorious contemporary art. Fine art is so pretentious and often, if there is any kind of dog in a gallery, it is more interesting than the art.
I am always musing about craft—how laborers in India, the Philippines and Vietnam painstakingly hand-bead fabric and hand-make baskets and bamboo furniture just for us to stroll into a store and pay a few dollars for. In the global economy, the craftsmen are in effect the “fools.” My glibly using the soulful wares of indigenous people as only elemental structures to be worked into a larger piece invokes the concept of American oblivion and hubris. Questioning the actual worth of what we value and devalue related to issues of capitalism as well as gender is a central theme in the work.
LO: You create very elaborate beaded sculptures and installations. Also, your work has a very painterly quality I think. What was your evolution as an artist and how has your work changed?
GS: Yes (of course), I started as an Expressionistic painter—lots of craft classes as a kid, summers stringing complicated patterns into beads, sequined Christmas ornaments, and then there was the sewing and photography throughout high school and college (B.A. Art History). I was running a bookstore in Connecticut after college and got the calling. Books are a close second, but “Move-to-New York City-to-study-art” won out. At Parsons School of Design and elsewhere, I spent seven years training in the fundamentals of drawing and abstract painting (never figure painting). Then, at East 2nd St. studio, I began experimenting with rubber, acetate, foam, etc., and building up and peeling off layers from shaped canvases. While at graduate school at SVA, studying with Petah Coyne and Tommy Lanigan Schmidt, I figured out pretty quickly that I never wanted to make anything that looked like conventional art again. In my first year, I made a couple of large and complex installations, Personal Mythology and Water Forest, where my new materials quest really took off. I was walking by a trimmings store on 57th Street and had an epiphany. Water Forest evolved with trimming—in a profusion of textures, weaves, widths and color combinations—hung en masse from the ceiling. Mixed in were suspended abstract organic forms and creatures, mirrors, spotlights and even a pool. With a nudge from Lynda Benglis during my second year, the “Footstools and Vanity Benches” series began with rudimentary footstools hand-wrought in copper and topped with decorative canopies.
The Asian thing came into the picture first through travel to the East. In Japan I spent whole days hanging around temples in Kamakura and Kyoto. Then at some point I also realized that the hair accessories and fabric I was garnering to speak to my Connecticut appearance-obsessed background were in fact fabricated and marketed by Chinese, Koreans and Indians. So this sent me back for more traveling and a chance to buy in more volume at the source.
LO: I’m sure everyone asks the same question, but is Gae Savannah your real name? If not, what is the story behind your name?
GS: Ah, that. Gae is close to my real name. The rest is pure invention. I have a pathological compulsion to aestheticize everything. I add “H”s to words for instance to add exoticism and breath. I manipulate the spelling of all the names of pieces. Words in general have a big onomatopoeic and poetic flavor to me. For example, I love the sound of Sanskrit—so many “A”s. Many times, I will get a name such as Tahra for a piece through an organic process such as meeting a foreign person and then playing around with her name (in this case, Indian filmmaker Mala Sri). Then however, I’ll look up what I’ve got in mythology and etymology books and discover links to ancient deities or other compelling connotations.
LO: What do you think the function of art is in society? In the art world? What is the function of the artist as well?
GS: Let’s see, the function of art in society, I’d say, is to delve into and elucidate the deeper issues of who we are (for those who are interested in such a discussion).
In my opinion, artworld-wise, the function of art is not, as is often protocol in sanctified institutions, to illustrate erudite people’s concepts. I won’t mention any names…tar and feather me however you like but I feel, in addition to all the significations derived from surface references to culture, an elusive sensory expression emanates from a resonant piece of art.
The function of the artist is to foray into the meanings of objects and systems in external culture as well as in the inner psyche, through the emotional language of art.
LO: Why are you an artist? I was recently asked this question and I find that
I can only have a life in the arts at this point as I love it and have been doing it for so long. What are your thoughts on this?
GS: Agree, no choice. Travel to Morocco, Taiwan, Korea, etc. while teaching contemporary art and film, books—Hillman’s Blue Fire, Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie, Barthes Pleasure of the Text, Mishima, Thomas Mann—fashion, shopping, susurration of trees—none of it would have meaning for me if it couldn’t exist in concert with an art consciousness.
LO: You come from a family of creative people. Please tell me a bit more about your family background and if and how it informed your art?
GS: I grew up with hundreds of pieces of a great aunt’s metalwork laid out on the tops of old furniture and lining the floor of our upper attic. A metalsmith in the early part of the 20th century in New York, she had a studio at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park and lots of high society clientele. She made eclectic, stylized candelabra, fluted bowls and pitchers, ornate jewelry and daggers, gold-plated silverware, lamps, and tables—all mostly in copper, semi-precious gems and wrought iron. It was such a treasure trove up in the attic, jars of shimmery iridescent cut stones, coral beaded bracelets, garnet chokers, cameos, boxes with intricate jade finials imported from the Orient, a medieval castle-like chest, unfinished lotus petal fountain bowls and myriad variations of floral shaped objects in different patinas. I think the rooting of my sculpture in the sphere of the decorative arts is a result of exposure to my aunt’s work.
LO: What has been your best experience in terms of the response to your work? How do fairs differ from a solo or group exhibition?
GS: The best response to my work was at last year’s solo show in Williamsburg at Dam, Stuhltrager gallery curated by David Gibson. After a jam-packed opening and lots of traffic, I got nine press mentions and articles. I think it was an issue of joint buzz. Leah and the gallery were just then hitting full steam and making waves in the art fair scene thanks to her happening program and personal charisma. David’s shows have been getting better and better, and a lot of people have come to respect his vast knowledge of artists, so he also always attracts a crowd. Lastly, well-connected private dealer and –scope co-founder, Robert Curcio, has tirelessly brought my work to –scope and other fairs where, although collectors there are often more compelled to purchase sexy girl or good technique figurative paintings, the press and some independent thinking collectors and curators have gradually become interested in my work. I think that finding a responsive audience to one’s art, and in whatever venue, directly correlates with how good a team you’re a part of.
LO: I really value my friendships with my colleagues in the arts. I find these relationships nurture me and keep me going. What are your thoughts on this?
GS: Dinner parties and studio visits/swaps are my social drugs of choice. Whatever other on-the-fly art vernacular I can exchange with art world denizens is absolutely gratifying. I usually have two or three really close curator/writer friends in the inner sanctum. The dialogue that we share fuels everything!
LO: What advice would you give to emerging artists or mid-career artists?
GS: Pain is good (ha ha).
LO: Please speak about upcoming shows, projects etc.
GS: There’s the “Paper and Plastic” show at the Swope Museum in Indiana on Oct. 13 to Dec. 30. Then there’s “The Raw and The Cooked,” curated by David Gibson at U-Mass Amherst, which runs from Sept. 21 to Oct. 29. Also, I’m currently working on an eight foot tall, round-lit altarpiece for curator/writer Lisa Paul Streitfeld’s “Hieros Gamos Project” to be shown in a venue in Stamford, CT later this year. I have two other shows on the horizon, but can’t go public with these just yet.