interview by julie farstad
Left: Amy Honchell, detail from Glands and Soft Parts, installation at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago, colored tights, glass marbles, 2002. Courtesy the artist. Right: Anne Wilson, From the Feast Table #9, hair, cloth, thread, 18x18 in., 2001. Courtesy Roy Boyd Gallery, Chicago.
Let's start by talking a little bit about your backgrounds.
Amy: Well, I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, just north of the Pocono mountains, which is a very beautiful and sort of rural area. It's close to New York City and Philadelphia, but it's still in a world all its own. And although I grew up going to the theater and museums, I had no idea of what the outside world was like until I left to go to college. I did my undergraduate degree at Rhode Island School of Design; I studied photography there and did a concentration in art history, because I was really trying to decide whether I was more interested in talking about art and ideas, or making art and exploring my own ideas. It's hard, I think, when you've only been in school and are a teenager, to have a lot of ideas about the world at large. So after graduation, I worked for four years at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, with an incredibly talented curator named Alison Ferris. She was the person who helped me learn about Chicago, and about Anne and her work. Then I came here and got my MFA from the School of the Art Institute in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies in 2002, and I've stayed on there teaching, doing research at the museum, helping students in the Student Affairs Office--a little bit of everything. That's a brief, abridged version of my life to date!
Anne: I'm from Detroit, Michigan, and I began my undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, School of Art. I got my BFA from Cranbook Academy of Art, and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for eight years, from 1972 to '79. That was an incredibly formative period in my work and thinking--it was a time when video was first emerging, and there was early interest in contemporary art using fiber materials. Artists were also looking at non-western cultures, and textile productions that were grounded in spiritual and cultural identities, rather than simply aesthetic foundations. So there was this rethinking going on about the context of cultural production as it related to textiles, which was really, really important for me. I went to graduate school at that time, at California College of the Arts, and subsequently worked at the DeYoung Museum Art School and a number of alternative schools in Berkeley that were dealing with textiles. Finally, I decided it wasn't coming together financially, and I applied for two teaching jobs--one was here at SAIC, and the other was in Colorado. I thought Colorado would be a much more interesting place to go than Chicago, because I was from the Midwest and really didn't have any interest in returning here! But lo and behold, I didn't get the job in Colorado and I did get the job here. So I drove across the country, and rented out the warehouse space in Berkeley with full intentions of returning to the Bay Area. But I never did--partially because the school here has afforded such an incredible opportunity to build a department, and a vision, with my colleagues.
From what you've said, Amy, you knew of Anne before you came to SAIC.
Amy: Yes. Anne and I met when I was working at Bowdoin; we were organizing a show called Memorable Histories and Historic Memories that focused on five women artists who were sort of mid-career--who'd been working and showing and maybe hadn't gotten the recognition they deserved to date. Anne was in that show, and that was how I was first introduced to her work. We wound up talking and e-mailing in a completely official, administrative capacity for about a year and a half. Meanwhile, Alison was starting to encourage me to think about graduate school. She thought it was time that I move on--and I knew it, too. But I really liked the job, so I hadn't been pushing myself that hard. The whole time I was at Bowdoin, I was so wrapped up in curatorial things, helping students at the College become familiar with the Art Museum, and helping to find a role for art in that community, that I wasn't making things myself. I'd let my own practice completely slide. I was doing small projects on the side, but I didn't consider them my artwork; I just considered them "busy things."
Did you know how you wanted to focus your graduate studies, at that point?
Amy: Well, when I started to think seriously about graduate school, I was originally interested in SAIC because they had a master's program in contemporary art history, theory, and criticism, which most schools don't have. I was coming to Chicago for an interview with the art history program, and I got in touch with Anne because I thought it would be so nice to finally meet her. So after my interview, I rode the train to Evanston and met her at her home and studio. We talked, and I got to see her work in person--and I think I even helped her turn something inside out for, like, an hour! (laughs) Then we went to dinner, and over the course of that Anne was telling me about the fiber program at SAIC--which really opened my eyes, because up to that point I didn't know where I fit into the art world as an artist, or maker, at all. I wasn't really a photographer, and I wasn't really a sculptor. I didn't know what to call myself, and I felt like labeling was terribly important, at that time. Meeting Anne, getting to know her work better, and hearing about the fiber department made me realize that coming to a school full of makers, and being on the outside of that community, would make me really unhappy. So I wound up only applying to SAIC, and only applying to the fiber department. I just figured if I didn't get in there, I didn't want to go anywhere else. And that's how it all came together for me. You know, I thought I knew what a fiber department was, because at RISD, the textile department is very strong, but it's much more geared toward the textile industry--fabric production and design, things that have been woven or screenprinted and used in more commercial applications. This might have been my own ignorance, but I assumed all fiber and textile programs were the same--and I knew I didn't want to weave napkins! I didn't have a sophisticated understanding of what a different approach might be. So I was very lucky to talk to Anne, because SAIC turned out to be a perfect fit for what I do.
So Anne, you basically recruited Amy.
Anne: I didn't know that!
Amy: I never told her that before. It puts a lot of pressure on the situation!
At what point during Amy's graduate studies did the two of you start working together?
Amy: I think Anne was actually on sabbatical during my first semester. But we stayed in touch, and I was accepted and deferred a year before I officially enrolled. During that time, however, I met some of the other terrific faculty from the department, like Joan Livingstone, Darrel Morris, and Park Chambers, who were great to work with, and have been really influential for me, as well. Anne and I didn't actually get together, in terms of her advising me, until my third semester. Then we worked together all through my last year of school.
You've had the opportunity, now, to observe the evolution of each other's work. Recently, Anne has moved into using video and sound, which is quite a shift from her usual media. Was that something that surprised you, Amy?
Amy: Well, I've often found that works of art project their own personalities, and now Anne's work has literally become personified; she's animating the inanimate. So Anne, I wonder whether you've been surprised by the types of characters that have become manifest in the work.
Anne: Maybe I'll go back a bit into the context for Errant Behaviors, which is the new video and sound installation you're referring to. I have a show ending this month at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and it features three big projects: Errant Behaviors; A Chronicle of Days, which is a 20-foot wall piece of 100 pieces of damask cloth stitched with human hair; and Topologies, which is made of thread and thousands of black lace fragments held to a horizontal surface with insect pins. Topologies was first shown in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and as it travels from venue to venue, the scale changes depending on the exhibition site--in Houston, the horizontal platform is 36 feet long. At each site I noticed that viewers were projecting these fictional scenarios into the topography of that piece--imagining sci-fi or futuristic worlds, or very odd cityscapes. That audience response inspired me to think about making a moving image. I had a lot of ideas about how to do that, and the one that ended up being technically possible or successful was stop-motion digital animation. I took "sets," if you will, from the Topologies platform and set them up in another location in my studio, and made them move. And for a long time, the working title was "Rude Behaviors"--
Amy: I remember that!
Anne: It had something to do with subverting the expectations of materials--an idea I've been investigating for quite a while. I was interested in the notion of animating these bits and parts of found and re-made laces, and having them exhibit behaviors that seem oddly inappropriate, or that collide with the expectations of the material as it exists within the cultural realm. I worked with Cat Solen, who's an emerging filmmaker at the school--she was the animator, and Daniel Torrente was the post-production animator. Shawn Decker, who's a sound artist and professor of art and technology studies at SAIC, composed original soundtracks for each of the 23 segments, or behaviors, in the film. So one of your questions, Amy, was whether the nature of the behaviors surprised me. While my vision generated it--I'm the director and producer--it was also a collaboration, and I think Cat's sense of humor entered into it as well. There are moments in that work that seem terribly adolescent, and kind of wacky in a way that's unexpected, coming out of my aesthetic. And Shawn's sonic environments contributed hugely to the formal and emotive range of the work. That's the great gift of collaboration--you have these characteristics and sensibilities that are not only yours, but are augmented and modified, and evolve through the sensibilities of others who are working on the project.
Can you give us examples of some of those behaviors?
Anne: Well, in one segment, called "Whack," there's a ball of thread on a white surface with a pin next to it, and that pin is simply going back and forth and back and forth, whacking away at that thread. The sound serves to further materialize the thread ball as being wet and soggy. It's sort of abusive--and funny; it's a behavior that's rude and unexpected. Other behaviors exhibit odd kinds of accumulations and repetitions. In "Flirt"--which I call the little procreation animation--the pin moves up and down into this mass of thread, and then it becomes a group activity of pins moving up and down in these tangles of threads. The behaviors present different registers of emotion, from humor to something that might be called pathos. And these notions of quirky growth--accumulations and repetitions of forms that amass and then dissipate--can be kind of eerie or haunting, as well.
Anne Wilson, "Flirt," still detail from the video and sound installation Errant Behaviors, 2004. Photo by Cat Solen. Courtesy Roy Boyd Gallery, Chicago, and Revolution Gallery, Detroit.
Amy: Errant Behaviors is abstract and formal, and so elegant visually, in the way that your work always is. But it also has this sense of levity to it that's less evident in some of your other sculptural works. I was wondering how you felt about that introduction of humor--and maybe one would even go as far as to say comedy--into the work.
Anne: I think there was a long period of time, in my use of human hair and cloth, when I was really absorbed with ideas surrounding death and mourning. They were somber subjects, and they came out of somber positions in my own life--the death of my father to cancer, the loss of friends to the AIDS epidemic, and so forth. Using materials embedded with histories of loss seemed to play out in my work for a number of years. Clearly the work is evolving, and right now, I appreciate the way humor, or a kind of lightness, allows for a different kind of access into the work.
Let's throw this whole question about humor back at Amy. I definitely read playfulness in your work--sometimes, it's just outright funny.
Amy: Yeah. I've always felt I had a good sense of humor, but it wasn't necessarily coming across in my work until I came to Chicago. I was very serious, and sort of moody--like everybody is when they're in art school. Right before I started graduate school, I gave a public lecture at Bowdoin. The director of the museum, Katie Kline--who is also a great curator in her own right and a good friend of mine--was there, and at the end of the talk, she said, "Jeez, I'm just so surprised by your work now, because you're so fun and colorful and ebullient, and your work is so serious." And I said, "I never thought about it like that!" It wasn't that I was taking my art so seriously, but I thought art was something serious. And once I realized that art didn't have to be so serious, I think it helped me a lot. I do have a great love of kitsch, and of things that are really playful in imagery, popular culture, and fashion. Once I was able to embrace that side of myself, I had a much better time making things--and making things I felt really strongly about. I also love the fact that I can go to the toy store and find some of the best materials ever--
And it's research!
Amy: Yeah! I recently gave a lecture to some students in conjunction with an exhibition of my work that just opened in Pennsylvania, and I was telling them how satisfying it can be to go to K-Mart and Wal-Mart and Target, and have those be the places where I find a lot of my materials. The work is from popular culture--it's from mass production. I like the fact that I can see things that are part of the everyday--although not necessarily vernacular, because I do pick out some strange things to work with every now and then--and find all this potential in them. I can take them back to my studio and just have fun experimenting with them--playing and dissecting and inserting and inflating. Whatever I'm using--balls, marbles, pantyhose, hula hoops, or plastic bubblegum-scented trinkets--can still wind up being recognizable, but I think I transform them enough that they lend this sense of fantasy, in a way.
Is this new element of humor surprising your viewers, Anne?
Anne: Well, a quotable quote from a reviewer in Houston was, "Errant Behaviors is the single most entertaining work of its kind that I've ever seen in a museum setting." And I thought, "OK, what do I think about that?" It's a superlative--it's supposed to be a compliment, I guess--but "entertaining" is not something I ever imagined to be my intent in my artwork. And maybe that's just a user-friendly term for a larger audience--which I appreciate, of course. I also know that kids were very interested in it. There were some notes from parents in the comment book that it was a wonderful way to introduce their children to art. But you know, there's something else we're not talking about, in this brief conversation about humor and accessibility in the work, which is what comes with humor--the darker aspects, or soulful problematic complications. How would you speak to that, Amy?
Amy: Well, in everyday life, humor is often the first defense for something that's really uncomfortable or awkward, or perhaps is a way of deflecting the issue that's really at the heart of the conversation. A lot of my work grows out of things that happen with the body--our real, live bodies--and even though I'm not striving to make work that is illustrative of bodies, I still start there most of the time. I think my most recent work is really fun--they're these large fabric tunnels that seem outer-space-y; they emerge from the architecture and then recede back into space, or set their feet down to land on the gallery floor. But underneath it all is this structure that came out of my intense fascination with the digestive system. My father was really sick a couple years ago with diverticulitis, which is a very serious condition; the little sacs in your colon become infected and can rupture, spilling all this badness into your abdominal cavity. It happened while he was traveling in Las Vegas, and he nearly died--he was in the hospital in Las Vegas for months. The year before that, he had a heart attack and needed bypass surgery. Now, that's not where my fascination with the body comes from, but there are definitely these other things, that are perhaps more serious, underlying it, and they end up being jumping-off points for me. My work is always connected to my life and my own experiences in some way, even if the viewer can't necessarily connect those dots. I don't think I make work that's particularly narrative, although you can pretty much project a narrative into anything. I think of it more as experiential. So, for me, humor is kind of like the candy that lures the child to the van before the kidnapping! You're drawn in by these pretty colors and shapes and textures and materials, and then when you get up close you have to ask, "What am I really looking at? Is it kind of gross, or is it sanitized?" The underlying issues in my work are not that funny, at all. So it's kind of my hook, in a way. How are you thinking about it, Anne?
Anne: In Errant Behaviors, there are a lot of complications between nature and culture--these odd hybrids. I see that in your work as well, Amy--hybrids between that which is thought to be animal, or human, or in some way mechanical. There are also a lot of accumulations of parts--a kind of overgrowth or bad evolution--in Errant Behaviors, and I think that suggests some cultural parallels that are very problematic. So one can take that to many levels, in many places. Also, in some of the situations, there's a kind of bleakness--an odd, sad, loneliness.
And in those situations, sometimes humor is the only thing left.
Amy: Although I'm not interested in the single punchline, joke-art piece. For me, work that includes humor to a satisfactory end tends in some way to contrast it with the alternative, or to suggest that there's more to life than just this funny thing. I have guilty pleasures, of course; for example, I think Nancy Davidson's work is funny, and I like to look at it. But it doesn't keep me up at night wondering what it's about. So I think work that employs humor in a way that I find compelling, and that I want to continue to think about and be engaged by, is using it in a way that offsets it with darker and more sinister, or sad, lonely things. I never think of humor as being a solitary experience, even though I guess you can be entertaining alone. But humor seems to be some sort of shared or communal experience, and I think that's a nice offset to some of the more serious concerns we've been talking about.
What first attracted each of you to the materials you use?
Anne: During the time I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the 1970s, there was a growing recognition of a new art using fiber by artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz from Poland, Ritzi and Peter Jacobi from Germany, and Ed Rossbach and Lenore Tawney from the United States. Robert Morris, Claus Oldenburg, and Eva Hesse were also using soft materials, for a variety of other reasons. Cloth was pliable and absorbent, aligned with the body or skin, and afforded a whole new range of sculptural potentials. At the same time, artists of the Arte Povera movement were using materials from everyday life, including found textiles and ephemera. And early feminist artists were reclaiming textile-based practices that were grounded in the histories of women's work. There was also an ideological interest at this time in deconstructing the western canon, and including methods and materials that had been excluded. Certainly, textiles and fiber had traditionally been relegated to the margins, in terms of fine-art practice in the western world, as being lesser, craft-oriented, and decorative--intellectually insubstantial. All of that exploded, for so many different reasons, through the range of artists and art movements that were all participating at the same time in the late 1960s and '70s--although they weren't necessarily talking to each other! These multiple influences really encouraged many artists of my generation to work with fiber materials. As well, I think I was especially influenced by a postmodern embrace of multiculturalism, through graduate studies in textiles and art history looking at, say, what artistic forms like the saki-ori obi mean within Japanese culture, or what Indonesian ship cloths mean to rites of passage in that culture, or what molas mean to the Cuna Indians of the San Blas Islands--and how these textiles are carriers of significant cultural narratives. Materials are not just formal, nor ever neutral, but represent a profound range of personal and cultural contexts.
Amy: For me, it kind of evolved. My very last semester of undergrad, I was making these installations that involved photography--of course! But I was also taking some blacksmithing classes, making these huge cages, and doing some silkscreening to make my own newspapers. Everything was focusing around the body, and the construction of a feminine identity. I was influenced strongly by some African-American female photographers, like Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems--partly because of their use of text, but also because I thought they were political in interesting ways, and engaged the viewer on multiple levels. Their representations interested me in thinking about this constructed female body that is part of western culture. But in general, I was having a hard time with traditional, straight photography, so I was employing my own devices, starting with clothing and found objects I collected while traveling. I spent a winter term in Paris, and found this corset that was not really a sexy corset. It was almost medicinal--it was made out of this really nice jacquard woven fabric that was feminine, but the corset itself seemed like it could have been almost utilitarian and not particularly gendered. I was interested in the weird in-between-ness of that, so I brought it back and used it in a lot of photographic studies--I would have men and women wear it, and observe the differences. And I found it was so much more pleasing when men wore it! I wound up doing a whole series of images with that, and began thinking about skin, and bodies, and things that could represent the body without its being literally depicted. It started with clothing and undergarments, and by the time I got here, I was really trying to think about a way of mapping a body into space, and what kinds of materials would inherently do that, or further that concept. I started with pantyhose, as this second skin that's synthetic and manmade and eternally flawed--yet somehow more presentable than our real, bare, pale, hairy legs. My first semester of grad school was really an exploration of that material. And as it happens, it had a connection to my childhood. I always wanted to have long, beautiful, flowing hair, but I never did--and I still have very short hair now. But my mother used to humor me, and make me wigs out of her old pantyhose. She would cut the legs up and braid them, and then I would stuff the waistband over my head and run around the house thinking I was Sophia Loren. I thought I was so beautiful! So there are all these pictures of me from when I was 3 and 4, wearing pantyhose on my head and posing very provocatively. (laughs) That was a really big thing for me, this association with femininity and sexuality and attractiveness. Granted, it was totally not any of those things at all! But it made me feel that way. I should note that I'm not a huge pantyhose fan; I don't particularly enjoy wearing them--on my legs, anyway. But during school, I became focused on skin as an idea, and eventually managed to find other materials that could function like pantyhose--that could be sheer and resilient and stretch, and have other possible meanings. I just kept going from there.
Left: Amy Honchell, Perfect Specimen A, installation at Chicago Cultural Center, nylon fabric, hula hoops, rubber balls, marbles, ball bearings, fishnet stockings, 2004. Right: Amy Honchell, Membranes, installation at Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston, Illinois, nylon fabric, pantyhose, fishnet stockings, white fetish vinyl, rubber balls, glass marbles, foam ball and tubes, glass beads, Halloween wig hair, balloons, 2002. Courtesy the artist.
I've noticed, Anne, that one of the first things people talk about, with respect to your use of found objects and lace, is this notion of domesticity. Fiber art seems to be automatically simplified or essentialized into that kind of discourse--that it's inherently a medium for feminine or feminist concerns. I was wondering how you feel about that.
Anne: It's so easy to align textiles with feminism, in that kind of one-note way, and I'm trying to avoid that. That truly was not the primary reason I started using textiles. I wasn't aligned with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro; they're important artists, but they weren't my models. As I said earlier, I was more engaged with ideas around multiculturalism, and the ways it embraced a much wider range of formal, aesthetic, and content-based possibilities. My personal associations with domestic materials, such as white table linen, actually stem from my grandfather--the presence of the starched white table cover, and the formality of the home, signified his sense of propriety. So for me, the domestic sphere was gendered male as much as female.
Amy: As an artist, and in my new role as a teacher, I do get frustrated by this tendency to oversimplify anything that's sewn, and instantly relegate it to women's work. Obviously the history is there, and millions of things have been written and said about that. But I don't think it's that simple. It's the same thing when you make work that is playful, remotely evocative, or slightly sensual--it's so easy to have it be instantly categorized as "sexy art," or art about sex. I think that's a gross oversimplification, too. I get tired of those kinds of conversations, and of people so readily expecting them.
Anne: One of the challenges for me, too, as an artist and educator, is to honor and acknowledge histories, and in textiles some of those histories come very directly through the lineage of women's work. But I don't want art in fiber media to be limited by any single perspective--there are multiple historical perspectives that are important to research. In our Department of Fiber and Materials Studies at SAIC, we have a strong composition of men, both as enrolled students and new applicants. And they're using a wide variety of techniques, from sewing and stitching to other, mixed approaches, and referencing a wide range of attitudes and conceptual positions.
Although there's this sort of stitch-and-bitch phenomenon going on right now, where it has become chic for women to sit around and knit. It seems to be reemerging as a feminine, or feminist, practice.
Anne: Well, one theory about that--which I think is interesting and I've been considering a lot--is that the renewed interest in the handmade and low-tech is a direct response to the way in which the digital has completely infiltrated all our lives. Shannon Stratton, a recent MFA graduate from Fiber and Material Studies, has been writing a lot on this subject. There's a desire to work with something more tactile, to have a more direct experience. Though I don't think that's a gender thing; I think it's actually something both men and women feel.
Amy: It's almost retro; it's harking back to something that was not really part of anyone's lives, and embracing it. But I never think it's bad if people want to knit! More power to them. If there's a weird, yuppie knitting persuasion happening, that's probably a good sign!
Do you see a connection to feminism, or to gender?
Amy: I think people are looking for causes to rally around. In the five or six years before I came to graduate school, a lot of young women--and not just artists--were culturally rejecting feminism, because to them, "feminist" equaled "bra-burning man-hater." It had been distilled into this stereotype, and they saw it as this ultimate extreme. It was almost like the left-wing equivalent of a right-wing ideal. So I think it's interesting that there's now a reemergence of interest in what it means to be feminist, and in revisiting what feminist ideas are, after its having been loudly rejected. Again, I think it's a word that's overused and oversimplified--I don't know how these groups are necessarily taking it. What happens when they get together to knit? Are they watching Sex and the City? Or are they having deep conversations, or talking about their lives?
Anne: I just finished a critique in a class where I taught everyone how to crochet, which is one of the techniques most associated with the craftsy and the domestic. At the same time, it's an integrated, generative structure, so that if you crochet with ultra-fine thread, you make a spider web. If you crochet with wire, you make a trap or a net. If you crochet with large inflated tubing, you create architecture. The associations can be incredibly diverse. I'm really interested in a technique like that--which initially has such a hyper-domestic association--and the possibility of expanding it.
On the topic of sexuality, Amy, you and I were part of the Luscious show at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Summer 2002. I know aspects of that show's premise were problematic, in terms of potentially oversimplifying the intent of your work. But there's undeniably a certain sort of sexiness in your materials. How do you want that to operate?
Amy: Well, I'm definitely interested in materials that can suggest something sensual--and sexy, sometimes. But that's sort of the surface. I think the work can talk about things that are deeper than that. The piece you're talking about was an installation called Glands and Soft Parts, which I made specifically for that show. It was trying to push some buttons, because I was asked to make something that would fit into the context, but at the same time I wasn't willing to completely give up my own artistic interests in light of one curator's vision. That's something I'm always struggling with, as somebody who makes a lot of site-specific installation work--riding the line between my own studio practice and interests, and the organizer's vision of what I should make to fit in with all the other work. For Luscious, I did use materials that were especially evocative--I used some fetish vinyl and fishnet pantyhose and balloons that were suggestive, yet still abstract. To me, when I'm installing my works, they're these formal compositions of elements I arrange on the wall. That wall then starts to be part of the piece for me; the architecture is a part of this fantastical body I'm exploring on some micro- and macroscopic level. It's almost like a connective tissue for these things that are coming out from the building. So I'm more interested in exploring our relationships, as people, with these spaces that can potentially be bodies themselves, rather than just making a large penis out of balloons. Interestingly, I think I was the only person in that show whose work was not really representational. Almost everything was painting or photography, and pretty realistic or figurative--and some of it was very graphic. But my installation was in the front window, and when the building owners--not the gallery people--came down to see the show, mine was the only work they found offensive. I didn't get censored in the traditional sense of having to take the work down, but the gallery was told they had to put paper up in the front window, because the building owners didn't want children to walk by, see my work, and be disturbed by the balloons! Now to me, that was like the ultimate compliment, because it spoke to the power of imagination. I didn't make anything that really looked like anything--it was abstracted, and certainly suggestive, but not at all specific. It was not based on the reality of anything; it was just playful. And I was fascinated by that response. I think that fear of sexuality is something that makes work like mine easy to dismiss, or lump into that category. Some viewers are just not willing to engage it on any kind of intellectual level.
Well, I see a lot of shows now about sexuality or sexiness, and more and more of the work is non-representational--for example, painters like Paul Henry Ramirez and Nina Bovasso. Maybe we've become so accustomed to equating sexuality or sexiness in art with the image of a person that in order to continue the dialogue, it has to become more complicated. Anne, I want to ask about your use of hair, and the idea of the hair fetish. Your work has this amazingly detailed, almost neurotic obsessive quality--
How are you playing on the psychological associations of hair, and fabrics like linen or lace?
Anne: The reason I first started using human hair had a lot to do with the assumptions we make about who people are, and what their identity is, through appearances. I tried to question that by working on these diptych relationships, using hair that was completely other than what one assumed it was, based on appearance. The use of found, white domestic table linen in relationship to hair came directly from my mother, who gave me piles of starched white family linens when she was divesting the household of possessions. Those cloths held tremendous significance for me, as carriers of these notions of propriety and formality within the family. A lot of the cloth was also damaged, and in bits and parts, and I started working into those fragments with human hair. The hair--something that's usually unwanted once it's detached from the body--represented dirt, or death, or sexuality, in relationship to the cultural propriety represented by the white cloth. That was essentially my enterprise for quite a lot of years--this aesthetic of oppositional tendencies. There were many formal developments within that basic strategy, but the relationship between those two dueling associations, and the tension that existed in putting them together, remained constant. In a lot of the work, I was taking found holes in the fabric--from wear, cigarettes, or over-bleaching--and binding the edges, or in a sense dis-repairing them, with hair. That set up a whole range of interpretive possibilities. As for the lace, when I was working on Topologies, I wanted the material histories to be available to read within the work--histories of gender, sexuality, death, propriety, class, economics. But I didn't want these histories to be the dominant voice of the work--and that was probably one of the most critical challenges in using found lace materials to make art. I wanted to encourage the references to microscopic images of biology and the internal body; macro views of urban sprawl and systems of organization of city structures; interdependent and/or parasitic processes of expansion; and relationships between systems of materiality--textile networks--and systems of immateriality like the Internet and the World Wide Web. As the Topologies project moves from site to site, it has been a constantly unfolding process of inquiry and discovery, in which no single theme or position is privileged over another.
Anne Wilson, Topologies (3-5.02), lace, thread, cloth, pins, painted wood support, dimensions variable, detail of installation at the Whitney Biennial, New York, 2002. Photo by Stephen Pitkin. Courtesy Revolution Gallery, Detroit.
As you've said, Amy, your work has been taking on this outer-space look, and I notice in Anne's pieces--like the series From The Feast Table--the hairs and fibers make the holes look like nebulae. You seem to share a sense of the cosmic.
Amy: It's a newer way I've been thinking about my work. In my own mind, I was so enveloped in the body, and its relationship to architecture, and I guess I've started thinking about heavenly bodies as well--although not that literally. But the way my work gets installed does take on these qualities of constellation. In the piece I did for Perfect at the Cultural Center this past winter--Perfect Specimen A and B--I started making things that were more volumetric instead of planar, and the shapes I was attracted to started to feel outer-space-y--like that alien from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. It's not quite Barbarella, but I don't know exactly what it is. I wasn't thinking about that when I made the work; it was a sort of by-product or afterthought. I don't dismiss it; I just haven't really reconciled it, or thought about it intensely, yet.
Anne: I think we share an interest in circularity--in circles, spheres, balls, and holes. Also, we both work with parts to construct these larger systems. What directs that is very different for each of us, but maybe it contributes something related to that idea of the cosmic.
You both move among different media, and often use one medium to evoke another. Amy, many of your photos are, at the same time, performances. And Anne, your most recent photographs used fishnet material to suggest landscape drawings. What prompts you to cross-pollinate these various artistic processes?
Amy: I think I'd sort of broken away from photography--but only in my mind. I couldn't really escape it, because it's part of the way I think, and see the world. Anyway, I was making these smaller-scale sculptures that were sewn--some were beaded, some were appliquŽd fabrics--and I was thinking so much about skins that when I started getting back into photography, I became really interested in seeing what would happen if I put my little manmade skins and bruises and warts and nipples back onto real bodies. What would that alignment between the real and the fake, the contrived and the "natural," be? So in the last four years, my photography started off simply as an exploration or a series of investigations. Once I actually saw the images, though, I realized I was interested in them as images on their own, and not as documentation of a performance, per se--even though there's this performative element underlying them. And I wasn't really interested in them as a means of explaining my sculpture. Often, when I feel really stuck with my sculptural work, I'll turn to photography to kickstart my creative process again. And then if I feel I'm too far into the sculpture, and I haven't been able to resolve it, I'll take a lot of pictures in the studio with my digital camera or a disposable point-and-shoot, because it lets me see things more clearly than I can in person. Sometimes the images that come out of that are compelling on their own, and sometimes not. But it's kind of a woven way of working; I go back and forth between sewing and sculptural explorations, and the two-dimensional photographic image.
Anne: And I should say, Amy, that I really, really enjoy--and think very highly of--both your photographs and your sculptural works; I think they inform each other. Personally, I'm really interested in the idea of drawing, within an expanded field of definitions of what drawing can be. In my own art practice, I think of a lot of my threadwork as drawings in which the line is materialized. I sometimes talk about my work as being "physical drawing." And I've been invited to participate in a number of group shows about drawing--there seems to be a lot of interest in drawing in general over the last four or five years, and many of the shows are exploring the parameters of drawing, and moving into spheres that certainly include work like mine. As far as stop-motion animation and using the camera, I'm really interested in how the handmade low-tech meets the digital high-tech. The frame-by-frame hand-construction of animation is very much like the structural development of lace--a structure that accumulates part by part over time, through sequences of motions with the potential to replicate and expand infinitely. The hand-processing of both the animation and the textile displays aspects of foible, imperfection, curiosity, and irregularity. And also, what one might think is high-tech--using the digital--is now available for all of us, as artists, to do on our G4 Mac computers in our studios. The fact that that's possible--and Errant Behaviors was done entirely in our studios--makes this just a phenomenal moment in time for artists. So it's high-tech in one way, but also accessible, available, and everyday.
The camera gives you the opportunity to animate things, Anne, but it also creates this distance from the immediacy of your materials. Do you ever feel something has been lost, in order to gain this other dimension?
Anne: Well, these animations are ultimately shown as two projections that are each 9 feet wide, on opposing walls in a darkened 24-foot-square room. You're sitting in the middle where two stereo soundtracks mix, and the pins and fiber fragments become huge--they're just under human size, and they're creating these behaviors that are sometimes almost monstrous in their scale. So scale means a lot, and along with these new elements of motion and sound, affords a completely different kind of experience than the more contemplative mood created by the stillness of the Topologies piece. I hope these two works, Topologies and Errant Behaviors, are complementary.
One thing you don't have in common is that Anne is represented by a gallery, and Amy is not--although you've managed to create an exciting emerging career for yourself, Amy, by showing at the Chicago Cultural Center and in different commercial spaces. Are you interested in finding representation, or are you making a deliberate choice to work outside that system?
Amy: It's funny--I guess gallery representation is set out as this goal for many artists. It's assumed we should want to have it, because it helps your career and makes your life easier...or not; I don't know. I've been existing in this weird, in-between space--I've been fortunate enough to have fairly regular shows, both at one particular gallery and in other locations in the city, and more recently, across the country as well. But it's all stuff I'm doing by myself; I'm finding the shows, organizing the trips, and doing the installations. I can't tell if that's the kind of work a gallery does for you, or how having representation would alter that experience. I guess I might be lucky enough to sell things more often, but it's not something I've ever aggressively pursued, so I don't know all that much about it. But I know, Anne, that several galleries represent you in the United States, and you show here with Roy Boyd, which is known as a gallery for abstract painting and sculpture. How did your relationship with gallery representation come about, and how did you decide where you thought your work would fit?
Anne: When I first moved to Chicago, the relationship of the collective audience--and a lot of my peers--to work made with textiles was, "Oh, we love quilts and folk art!" And it sort of stopped there. Now I love quilts, and some folk art, but what I was doing came out of a conceptually driven fine-art practice. So it was complicated and challenging to try to change that perception, and to help the identity of art in fiber, and related new materiality, evolve in this city. As an artist, it was very clear to me that I would like to show through a gallery--it provided a platform for the presentation of the work. My friend Buzz Spector was showing at Roy Boyd, and he introduced me to the gallery. I had a show at the Cultural Center in 1988, and I think it was around then that Roy Boyd took me on. It really was a very good move, for me, in terms of providing one kind of community I was seeking for an art discourse. In 1998, I had solo shows at Revolution Gallery, in both their Detroit and New York City locations, and I've been represented by them as well since then. Revolution is a gallery that embraces a very multidisciplinary position in the arts, including sound, video, and new media, as well as painting and sculpture--it's another great community.
Amy: It's interesting--I grew up on the East Coast, so when I moved to Chicago, this was the furthest west I'd been. And I was amazed at how painting-centric Chicago is compared to a lot of other cities, even though there's a really rich arts community here that goes well beyond painting. And I should say that I have nothing against painting, Julie--
No offense taken!
Amy: But the tradition of the Chicago Imagists, particularly at the Art Institute and at SAIC, is so strong. And then there's the interest in Outsider art, which is often painting and drawing, because those media are most readily accessible. So it was interesting to come here, be confronted with that history, and not really feel connected to it at all. It had no impact on my choosing Chicago, or my choosing to stay here. As an emerging artist, you see how the gallery scene is built on a tried-and-true method of work that can be shown and sold; you're constantly reminded that it's about the commerce of art. It's not about conceptual discussion and display in the way that museums, and other spaces I've been more involved with, are. So it's sort of interesting to try to locate myself in that sphere, and see where I think it even makes sense to situate myself and my work. I haven't resolved that, so I haven't really tried to convince anybody that I'm worth representing--yet. Although I'm getting closer!
Amy Honchell is a Chicago-based artist. Her work recently appeared in the group shows Perfect at the Chicago Cultural Center and Curators' Intuition at ICA at MECA, Portland, Maine, and will be included in the Summer 2004 group show at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago. Her solo exhibition Amy Honchell: Sense of Skin is on view at Bertram N. Linder Art Gallery, Keystone College, Pennsylvania, through May 2, 2004. Anne Wilson is a professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is represented by Roy Boyd Gallery, Chicago, and Revolution Gallery, Detroit. She has recently appeared in group exhibitions in the United States, Canada, and Germany, including the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and in solo exhibitions at MassArt, Boston; University Art Gallery at San Diego State University; and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Her work will be featured in the 2006 exhibition Sleight of Hand at the Milwaukee Art Museum.