In Conversation with Wynn Kramarsky & Rachel Nackman
March 2012, New York
Rachel Nackman: When you’re working on a particular series, is there a progression from works on paper to sculpture? Or do you work on a plurality of media at the same time on a similar theme?
Sharon Louden: I work on everything at the same time. I don’t really see a difference between drawing on Mylar and drawing with rubber. I see it as very similar.
Wynn Kramarsky: For you, shaping these objects feels similar to drawing?
SL: I decided to start making sculpture because I wanted to be able to embrace forms; I wanted to feel them. I asked a sculptor, “How do I get into this?” And he said, “Just pick materials that feel like the marks that you make.” So I picked rubber initially because I can mold it in the same way and use a similar stroke—it’s a familiar way of using my hands to make the form. Yes, I can hold rubber, and I can’t hold paint in the same way, but for me it’s the same process. It feels different because the materials are different, but the thought process is the same.
RN: The muscle memory and the mechanics of it feel very similar?
SL: Yes. I make one mark, then another mark, next to another, next to another—pulling it out, putting back in. . . . The Agents were the first body of sculptural work that I made.
RN: You began sculpture working with this rubber tubing?
SL: That’s correct. I initially used pins because I wasn’t sure—I was tentative. Then I started using Krazy Glue and epoxy, and once it held for me very quickly, I thought, “I’ve got something here.” That’s how it started to form.
RN: So for you the immediacy of the glue drying and holding those forms together felt like adding paint stroke after paint stroke?
SL: Absolutely. One stroke, secure. Another stroke, secure. It’s exactly the same, at least in my mind. Drawing on Mylar—with the resistance that the Mylar has to paint and the way it lies on the surface and creates an elastic feeling—is about building up rather than working with something there that’s already built. But the process and where the marks go are the same.
RN: When you’re working on a drawing and working on sculptures, do those two different mediums relate to each other? How does pausing and working in one medium then affect the other?
SL: It’s about relief. If I can’t see in the sculpture so much, then I go to the drawing, and I go back and forth. Even though it’s a similar process, they’re two different things.
RN: And do they complement each other, or are they very separate?
SL: I think they totally complement each other. The nature of my work is such that all the mediums I use assist a visual vocabulary, and that visual vocabulary transcends through these different mediums to be able to speak of one thing.
RN: In this series the works are all called Agents, and you’ve said that you think of your gestures as characters. Can you tell us a little bit about the Agents and what kind of characters they are?
SL: When I think of an agent, it’s an agent for something. If you think of Bond 007, you think of an agent as somebody who’s a quiet person that is doing something for somebody else. So it immediately has a character. . . . I think that these things—since for me they imply movement and they have mystery to them—are agents for someone or something.
RN: How do the Agents differ from your other characters?
SL: [Laughter.] I think they’re funny. I think they are complex. A museum curator for whom I have a great deal of respect once said to me, “Your work is either very straight and minimal, or it’s very knotted up and complex and clustered.” And I think that’s true. I think she made a very good observation. I seek that relief, and then I find that complexity that I want too. The Agents are about the richness of energy being stored in one place—and they’re also meant to be very funny. They’re very minimal little gestures, and when they’re put together, they create a whole character. That’s very similar to the rest of my work.
For example, in the piece in Minneapolis in which I used 250,000 strips of aluminum [Merge (2011) at the Weisman Art Museum]: each piece of aluminum is hand formed. They’re all individual forms. Singularly, each one has an identity, but when they’re put together, they create a whole environment. It’s very much like the body; you have one cell that may have one function, but together with other cells, it makes the entire machine run. That’s what I’m thinking about in the work.
The Agents are very special to me because they’re the first characters that led me into three-dimensionality. They’re very funny. I now have a great relationship with rubber; it’s like one of my best friends.
RN: How did you get acquainted with the rubber tubing that you use?
SL: A few sculptors mentioned it to me when they were giving me advice. I think getting information from other artists is extremely important. Having that exchange has fed the growth of a lot of my work. So they mentioned rubber . . .
Also, of course I love Eva Hesse. When I was at Yale for graduate school—and afterward when I was finished with school—I leaned on Hesse a lot in my drawings. And I loved her sculptures; she helped me with this body of work as well. Then I had to work through her in order to become more independent from her. I love her work quite a bit, but I have to stay away from it because there’s a certain amount of vulnerability there that’s too close for me.
RN: You tried to move beyond your original attraction to Hesse, toward working with the materials and the forms that you see in her work?
SL: I think that she gave me the confidence, along with other artists who are living and breathing in this world, to work with that material. I eventually moved past her and others who influenced me.
RN: Is the rubber tubing an art-making material? Or is it an industrial material? And if so, what is it used for?
SL: This foam rubber is used for storage and shipping of cosmetics actually. It’s also used for plumbing and has other industrial uses that I’m not familiar with.
RN: Do you buy it in a long roll? Or does it come in sticks? How do you detach the gestures that you make from the original mass of the material?
SL: I have had a great relationship with Canal Rubber in Lower Manhattan since the mid-1990s. There’s a guy whom I work with there, and at first he didn’t understand why I was buying coils and coils and coils—mounds—of this rubber. They love me for that, but they’re still puzzled about why I need that much. The rubber comes in huge rolls, and I usually buy in bulk.
RN: And you’re working with glue?
SL: Just glue and epoxy, and that’s it. It’s simple.
RN: How did you decide to start working with the black rubber tubing? Is that just something that arrived at Canal and you picked it up?
SL: Yes, I saw it and it was just like the marks I was making in the drawings. Anything that looked like the marks I was making, I was going to try.
RN: When you started working with black rubber tubing, did you then start working with black acrylic, as in this drawing [Drawing for 'Agents', 1996; fig. 2]?
SL: No, I was already working with black acrylic. This is ink and acrylic with gel medium. I generally go with whatever I’m using at the moment. I don’t question it too much. I’m in this work, so it’s sort of automatic.
RN: It’s all about the gesture.
RN: Can you tell us about the materials in this drawing and the application of the medium to the support?
SL: A lot of people think I work with just my fingers. That’s been a recurring comment, especially in the last ten years. But this drawing was made with a brush. The way I got that circle was by going over and over and over it again, so that the paint started to recede and move to the outside edges of the stroke.
To make these drawings, I would take a stack of paper—in this case Mylar—and then I would edit the group by throwing out drawings that didn’t work. So these are quite spontaneous, of the moment, and very special.
RN: You chose to have some of the rubber Agents cast in bronze. Can you tell us about that decision?
SL: I wanted them to go outside. [Laughter.] That’s the only reason. I just wanted them to walk outside—that was it. I felt bad for them. At Rhona Hoffman Gallery in 2000, I had them cast very small in bronze, and they were put on the floor. People would walk into the show, and they would have to crouch down to look at them. I loved the power of that size—the Agents had a lot of power themselves. They were like, “We’re here too!” I loved it.
RN: Can you tell us a little bit about installing them, how they related to one another and to the space around them?
SL: It’s all about drawing. I think of using sculpture much like I do a drawing. Space is like a blank sheet of paper. The tension between those forms is determined by the way they are carved out and placed within that space.
RN: The sculpture that’s on view is a lot larger than these earlier, smaller Agents—and it has a very lengthy tail gesture.
SL: That’s right. Oh, I love it! I think that Agent is, in a way, an ugly little thing. It’s not very glamorous. But lately I have embraced more and more a sense of glee or flamboyance in the work. I wanted to extend the gesture further into space and reactivate that space with it—to create that sort of flamboyance, with a peculiar form that has this odd head. It isn’t as beautiful per se (or funny or cute), as those other Agents were. It’s just where I am in my head right now. The fact that I still love these forms and still have a relationship with them—that they’re with me as I keep growing—is important to me.
RN: Is there anything that you consider crucial to the installation of this Agent that you wouldn’t want someone to change?
SL: If that little Agent was flat on its back (the poor thing), that would be pretty upsetting. But I think that if the orientation is correct, we’re in good shape. I like things not to be centered. Once you move something off to the left or off to the right, it indicates a question: Is it entering the space? Is it leaving? Where did it come from? There’s a history then—and it also implies momentum, implies movement.
RN: It implies volition too, like the Agent itself is making some decisions that you can then question.
SL: That’s right; that’s good.
RN: Your really early history was in figuration.
SL: I still find the Agents to be very figurative—I really don’t find this work to be that different for me. I’m in dialogue with these forms, and I feel like they have a heartbeat. They’re anthropomorphic. They’re little beings. I don’t quite know what they mean sometimes, but they are important to me.
My dialogue with my work has been linear. It really developed after I left Yale, and my mentors there—Mel Bochner and William Bailey, among other people—helped me to see both the conceptual and the formal, and how they relate to each other. To this day, I will always say that I feel like I’m a formalist. I’m very traditional in a lot of ways.
In my studio now, I don’t think about drawings and paintings and sculpture. I don’t think about it that way anymore. It’s across the board what it is. Some people call me a sculptor, but I don’t look at myself that way. I think all my work is part of a visual vocabulary—my truest expression.
Drawing is an act. It’s an extension of my hand. In whatever manner I use that hand, with whatever medium—my hand is still there. Some people call it painting; some people call it drawing. I love the fact that this debate is there. Because it is what it is. [Laughter.] It’s a piece of work!
Play to hear Sharon Louden discussing sculpting with rubber.