Phone Tag: Interview with Marian Tubbs

Marian Tubbs, i am series of chemical changes, 2017, Pigment print on silk

Earlier this spring, I Skyped with Marian Tubbs, an Australian artist based in Sydney. Previous Phone Tag participant Kate Newby connected us, and in this interview we discuss how the two met in New York, some of the ramifications of operating as an artist with a more international purview and how that can relate to social connections. Marian investigates images and materials that are so poor or ubiquitous as to be unnoticed, often sourced from the digital, through sculptural objects and installations that are undergirded by a philosophical framework.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

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Marian Tubbs, Quiet revolutions and enfant terribles, 2017, Installation view

LW: “Kate mentioned she knew you through a show at SculptureCenter.”

MT: “Yeah. We come from proximate worlds—she’s originally from New Zealand and I’m from Australia—but exhibit and work a fair amount overseas. I became familiar with her work through shows that were on in Sydney at galleries that I also work with, but strangely we did not meet until installing in the cold underground caverns of SculptureCenter. I took a break from my mess, walked around the corner and said “Hey I’m Marian” and she was like, “No way, I’m Kate.” When we finally met, it was lovely, there was a genuine appreciation of each other’s work. This year she is in the Sydney Biennale and I’ll work on some stuff in NYC so we will get to hang again. We’ve talked of doing a dreamy show together…”

LW: “So you were in New York recently, and you’ve been here before as well, right?”

MT: “Yes, I’ve been visiting New York since 2012 for things; first I came to present at a philosophy conference. And the next year, when I was running away from my PhD, I lived there for six months. I was pretty young and into seeing what the place was about. It’s a great city to drop out in, because there’s so much going on you don’t feel like you’re dropping out. I think those months were the most that I ever enjoyed the place— I had no agenda, so I could just go walking, do yoga, and see music. It was low pressure, though I ended up being in a couple of exhibitions before I left. Since then, I’ve come back to be in or curate shows.”

LW: “Tell me about your philosophy degree.”

MT: “It’s a Doctor of Philosophy, practice-led—…could be singular to Australian universities?”

LW: “So related to your art practice?”

MT: “Yes, very much. My PhD was on aesthetics and philosophy. Specifically how poor materiality, like found objects, images, or words play roles, as minor voices in artworks and mess with value. I wrote about practices that I learn from, philosophy, and my own work.”

LW: “So was it separate from your practice of making, or a chance to think through issues related to making?”

MT: “Yeah, I used direct examples from making to direct the questioning. Finding a voice for this can be tough but ultimately rewarding. It’s something that I hope continues to have a future in Australia, but I think we’ll be fighting for as long as cuts keep happening and the conservative government keeps being in place.”

Marian Tubbs, Abstract Sex, 2016, Installation view at the Bard Hessel Museum

LW: “If you had to say in a nutshell what you make, what do you make?”

MT: “I guess I look for objects and materials on- and offline that are not valued highly or thought through very much and by playing with them, I change this for myself, that’s the personal aspect, deepening my being in the world by relating to stuff. I think this is the nice affinity with Kate’s work. That we both go on walks and look at things and kind of see outside what objects are and can be.

I pull and push the ‘real’ into the virtual, or the ‘virtual’ into the real. For instance, I take a bad photograph of something, flatten it so it becomes a video assemblage, or the reverse: find something online and animate to give it a new narrative property, print it out and make a photo-sculpture. Right now I am heading toward some augmented reality stuff.”

LW: “Looking online at your work, it seemed like there is a dialogue with abstraction.”

MT: “Definitely, yeah. It’s funny, you know, it depends who you talk to whether your work is didactic or obscure—”

LW: “Or whether either of those qualities is desirable—”

MT: “Whether you need to have less narrative or, ‘Be less of a difficult artist, Marian.’ The linear and the non-linear I find interesting, because I think that’s where the poetry is. When the work is saying something overt, something that’s kind of really obvious, there’s another abstraction to it because it’s not necessarily me. Rather, I take floating statements, or memes that float around that I find I have some attraction to, but they’re abstract because simply appropriating does not literally communicate my opinion. This could be versus when you get the material or color just right, and it needs no explanation and you hope that someone gets that.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Installation view at Minerva, Sydney

LW: “What are you working on right now?”

MT: “Academic things. I’m writing a lecture that I’m giving loads of attention to because it’s a complicated subject, on queer digital art, or ‘queering the digital.’ This is a guest lecture for a theory course to a large cohort of students across fine arts, theory, design, and media. I’m doing very detailed research because I think it’s a) necessary, and b) I question if I’m even the one that should be giving such a lecture. But I do work with the digital and the feminine, and I’m also a massive fan of so, so many queer artists. I want to avoid presenting information that presents ‘queering’ as a co-optable methodology, so I’m excited for the complexity.

In terms of my own practice, I’m working on new sculptures, which are following on from some of the SculputreCenter’s works, creating these gestural objects and mosses with very fast curing glasses and resins. I’m creating these fairly weird pieces that are a cross in between the organic and plastics manufacturing. I’m also working on getting a studio.

I have a few shows coming up around Sydney, all quite different, curated and collaborative. A show in a curator couple’s house, a group exhibition with the gallery I work with here, Minerva, also another at a relatively young gallery called COMA, and a collaborative sculpture show—for which I am making work with a best friend. I have also just won an award, that I am going to use to assist in changing up my work. Instead of being immediately responsive, I’m going gestate on developing skills (digital and analog) and make a couple of exhibitions over the next while with longer investment.”

LW: “Are you making new work for these smaller shows?”

MT: “Yes. It’s exciting. It’s all in the starting processes right now, calling in favors, moving stuff around.”

LW: “Right. Have you had a studio before in Sydney? Why are you looking for a new one?”

MT: “Right now I live in a place for artists that has been subsidized by the city, and we all have to move in a month, so I have to find something. Even a desk space can be extraordinarily expensive in Sydney.”

LW: “What’s an ideal day like in the studio?”

MT: “I remember saying this when I used to have a studio: that it was simply half day in the studio, half day at the beach. The beach and water in general is productive for me, staring at the water all my thoughts can be emptied out. So ideally a sunrise beach swim, then get to the studio: think, stare at walls, play some music, read, figure stuff out, maybe organize some stuff. Return to the beach, run or yoga. Then do that again the next day—that would be the perfect life.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Installation view at Minerva, Sydney

LW: “It sounds good. I don’t know Sydney, but it sounds like you have the New York issues that we have with rent. One of my questions is: do you think it is more important for an artist to be in a big city like Sydney or New York where there’s a strong cultural scene with museums and galleries and opportunities but it’s expensive, or to be somewhere totally quiet—like the beach—where maybe the focus could just be on making?”

MT: “If I retreated, maybe that would be a sort of curiosity and people would continue to contact me, but there’s that drop out factor. I live in Sydney, rather than up north near water and family, because I earn a living here, so it feels kind of square at the moment. I don’t make work that sells immediately so I need to be employed—and I also find it very wonderful to work with young minds whose politics are fantastic, these conversations give me a lot of energy. I can’t speak for every artist—as the questions beckons—but there are indeed pros and cons to removing yourself from the circuit for sure. That said you can drop out in the city as well and stop being social.”

LW: “You said in passing that you don’t make work that sells, but you have been supported by different grants.”

MT: “Yes, over the last couple of years I received a couple of grants. Also sometimes pieces sell, mostly overseas and to institutions. Actually I’ve had unexpected and great support from commercial galleries. I just try to cover my ears sometimes—not hear too much—when they look at works and go ‘Oh, these will sell.’ I don’t want that to filter through as an impression impacting what I make next. That’s why I shaped my life so that teaching would be integral, so I could figure out a way to pay rent first and not get to a certain age feeling hungry that I needed to accelerate a career. If that makes sense.”

LW: “I know what you mean. It is just an interesting thing to function within that system and resist that system as well.”

MT: “Sure, and it’s not ever a refusal toward someone wanting to be with a work, take it home, or buy it—that’s such a pleasure for me. It’s about not overtly selling into a market but maybe creating new affections, we come back to challenging ascriptions of value here. And taking the risk to do this, means often as an artist, embarrassing myself or making things that don’t look like something that I recognize or have words for.”

Marian Tubbs, Untitled, 2016, Digital print on vinyl, acrylic, 50 × 60 cm

LW: “Who, or what, has influenced your practice?”

MT: “Well maybe this is two-fold. I find an ongoing silly dialogue with friends inspiring, being in touch with other peoples’ lives and chatting about trivial things while I’m doing things. There are possibilities now to be virtual with each other no matter what you’re doing or where. During day-to-day work, and when travelling, we keep joking and pushing each other, sharing generative conversations that could be read as Dada-ist, nonsensical, or neoliberal strategy. A massive sense of humor is super inspiring, because you can say, ‘Yes, you’re doing all of these things, but none of it really matters: its art and its funny and serious.’

In addition I read when I can and spend time thinking about stuff I don’t understand.

In terms of artists that inspire, I think of those who show moments of throwing absolutely everything at it. Those that have gone for the immortality of their work tend to capture me…”

LW: “I liked how you talked about how conversations with friends kept you going. Do you have a strong community in Sydney?”

MT: “Yes, the Sydney scene is very supportive and defiantly growing, no matter the lack of structural support. My convos are also international. As my work spread via the internet, I’ve found cute friends I have never physically met. Being fortunate to have had a few shows overseas and interstate, you meet the people you love and continue to talk to.”

Marian Tubbs, Contemporary Monsters, 2016, Digital video built with gaming technology (still), 6 min 10 sec

LW: “I wonder, do you think your work works well in an international circuit or is there a local element? I’m thinking about how you’re working so much with the internet and that’s the conceit of the internet: it’s this free, open international space. “

MT: “It should be, but it isn’t completely. In terms of the market, it favors material objects. There are obviously some name artists that have gotten through but deterritorialisation is a post-modern idea/fallacy; everything is still centralized and commerce happens in major cities. So conversations about your work can go to different places and that’s incredible, but also it is not a complete game changer. I am very much involved in my local community, but I wouldn’t say my work looks ‘Sydney’ or ‘Australian’ other than the fact that a lot of beach vibes seep into my works.”

LW: “Final question: when did you first think of yourself as an artist?”

MT: “I think I was in year three—that’s like when I was eight or nine years old. I did a drawing in class and I think it was good. I went home and I kept it and I realized drawing was knowledge, it was thinking. There was also some minor support, you know how family or faculty can see you are interested in something and praise you. It was that mix of doing something that I really loved with an inch of encouragement, and I was like, ‘That’s it then.’ ”

LW: “Great. Well, thank you for participating.”

MT: “A pleasure.”

Marian Tubbs, Vulgar Latin, 2014, Digital video (still), 5 min 39 sec

Charred Order: Leonardo Drew at Sikkema Jenkins

Number 185 Leonardo Drew

Number 185, 2016, Wood, paint, pastel, screws, 121 x 134 x 30 ins

Gorgeous surfaces of charred wood draw you into Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea, where Brooklyn-based artist Leonardo Drew has an exhibition of new work. Each sculptural relief hanging on the wall boasts an intricacy of material and surface that invites a closer look. Drew tends to work with new materials that he batters into a weathered submission, so that the final appearance is of found materials. The orderly nature of his compositions and aesthetic aspect of rich black textures belies the catastrophe implied by the burnt wood, as if by some kind of post-apocalyptic magic each charred remain fell into a grid pattern.

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Although the materials, which seems to drive the works, recall referents in the world, as images they are resolutely abstract. I feel comfortable talking about these three-dimensional works as images, because they hang on the wall and play with the idea of breaking through the picture plane. Number 185 comes forward slightly into the viewer’s space. More prominently, large wood pieces jut off at a vertical tilt in the top left corner of the square composition, anchored by a protruding bottom weight. The force of these divergences lies in the break that it makes from the stalwart square of the picture plane.

Number 190 Leonardo Drew

Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

As you enter the second room of the gallery and turn the corner, an arresting composition of weathered and beaten, black or colorful, composite objects runs across the two white walls like so much Morse code. Many of the same tensions of the discrete works are present here in Number 190: tensions between the roughness and variety of the material and the meticulous order of their arrangement, between the clean white gallery wall and the seemingly dirty scraps that have been applied to it, and between the suggestion of meaning and resistance to interpretation. I felt a sheer visual pleasure running my eyes over the miraculously coherent installation. It is equally intricate up close and when viewed as a whole. While it reminds me of Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker, Number 190 seems more decorative or typographical than that work because it is laid out on the walls in a linear fashion. Parker’s suggestion of entropy has no corollary here. Drew has cited the influence of growing up near a dump on his aesthetic; in this manifestation of that influence, he corrals the debris of the world into order.

On view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co through October 8, 2016.

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

A Schematic and Spiritual Early Abstraction: Hilma af Klimt

Hilma-af-Klint-studio-1895

Hilma af Klint in her studio, 1895

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint is pictured above at age 33, looking entirely comfortable in her studio space in Stockholm among figurative works and wooden furniture. This conventional photograph does not hint at her other body of work: large and dynamic abstract paintings that preceded work by such pioneers of abstraction in modern art as Kandinsky and Malevich. “The Keeper” exhibition, up at the New Museum through September 25, boasts a beautiful gallery with 16 of these audacious, tactile, spiritually driven exercises in expressing the nature of a godly reality through reduced line and color. They make a case for a kind of abstraction not encompassed by the story of a move toward reduction and simplification in response to an increasingly chaotic modern world.

hilma-af-klint-newmuseum_install

Installation view, “The Keeper,” New Museum, 2016

Af Klint was in fact trying to express a complex vision of the world. John Yau describes af Klint’s exhibition history and context wonderfully in this essay on Hyperallergic. Yau clarifies how the artist arrived at the mystic belief that “painting was the best medium for bringing the invisible or occult world into the visible.” Her readings in theosophy led her to pursue schematic illustrations in which color has distinct emotional valences (for example, blue represented masculinity; pink, spiritual love). As the image below suggests, af Klint’s works are tactile and imperfect, as if the artist was unconcerned with rigorous line for its own sake, but rather pursued form to make visible the underlying order she found in the world. Her abstract paintings were not shown publicly until 1986, writing her out the history of modernist abstraction that she pre-dated. Since then her work has been increasingly shown.

hilma-af-klint-newmuseum

The Swan, No. II, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Why did Massimiliano Gioni and the other curators include these paintings in “The Keeper”? They don’t suggest an interest in preservation in themselves. Rather than small sketches or drawing diagrams on paper, af Klint choose to work in paint on large canvases, despite the fact that she did not show or sell these works as she did in her concurrent figurative practice. Instead, she preserved these works at home until her death in 1944. Gioni, Artistic Director of the New Museum, also included af Klint’s work in the Central Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. At that time, he defended her mystic occultism, which to many people would separate it from art as such, saying:

“placing a work [of art] next to materials that are difficult to classify [such as af Klint’s], thus repositioning it in a narrative dimension, the reinterpretation of the piece is reactivated as both the trace of a personal experience and a different means through which to conceive our image culture. Thus the work of art returns to its former existence as a mysterious object charged with multiple meanings, and returns to presenting a view on the world.

…What really interested me was to reveal the mysterious and, at time, even mystical fascination with art….To escape from the definition of a work’s quality according to its market value. I believe it is essential that works are inserted into a discourse that embraces the entire system of images, including pieces that do not conform to the rules of the market”

I Dream of Knowing Everything: An Interview with Massimiliano Gioni on the 55th International Art Exhibition, by Christina Baldacci (Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, 2013)

Perhaps one can interpret preservation more generously, in which case these images display a need of the artist to preserve a vision of inner reality of the world. Their size is impressive. Yet, the square format does not recall the human figure, as is sometimes ascribed to vertically oriented canvases. They remain removed from the human experience in their non-figurative imagery as well–for example, in the dynamic composition of radial swirls spiraling across a red background as in The Swan, No. 9 below. Af Klint also used recognizable elements at times, such as birds or astrological signs. In her hands, these elements serve a symbolic purpose rather than an attempt at illusionism.

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

The Swan, No. 9, Group IX/SUW, 1914-15

Af Klint’s paintings do an amazing job of unsettling notions of abstraction in art history and the role of mystic diagrams in high art. The paintings do not confirm to the rules of the market, certainly, but they don’t confirm to the story of high art either. I, at least, experienced them as powerful and challenging images. Even at the overwhelming Central Pavilion at the Biennale, af Klint’s few contributions exercised some kind of magnetic appeal. Seeing a larger group of her paintings at the New Museum now is rewarding, as they easily slip into the Modernist, white cube context but still resist clear categorization. It is touching to see the fragile application of paint and imagine the strange tenacity which drove a young Swedish women to create such unconventional works that operate even today on several registers.