A Requiem, A Dream (Part Two)
I sat down with Andy Vogt recently to talk about his work, including the “Sustained Decay” installation he created with Joshua Churchill at Adobe Books last month. (My post about this piece can be read here.)
Eric Heiman: Can you talk a bit about the evolution towards this lath-based work? I’m a bit unfamiliar with your work before this phase.
Andy Vogt: My artistic practice prior to this type of work was mostly performance and photography based. Living in Pittsburgh and attending Carnegie Mellon in the 1990s, I felt the art scene there was a little thin. The music scene, though, was full of inspiration. I helped form a “science and informatio”‘-based band called Operation Re-Information. We championed the “re-purposing” of information to expose the limits of how it’s received, and then what is lost (or gained) in overlapping this data.
I was also taking photos of Pittsburgh’s man-made landscape, both of its state of disrepair and the newly-minted, strangely out-of-place corporate architecture This seeing things out of context became something of an obsession, I would take photos and then have drunken parties where friends would watch my slide shows and together we would make up alternate stories about what we were seeing.
When I moved to San Francisco and discovered year-round flea markets, I started to photograph things at them. Not antiques, but the stuff that isn’t really worth anything—of some value, yet, if unsold, could easily end up in the trash. The “who the hell designed/made this and for what?” stuff. I love that part about the flea market. So, though the aesthetic is different from the Pittsburgh work, the sentiment of reusing and recontextualizing the material to exploit its history and imagine a different future is still there.
EH: Had you been building towards this kind of formal expression all along?
AV: I’ve always had a sculptural interest and have always built things. For years after art school I made sculptural objects for work—props and models for film, television and photography. The job was good and it was cool to have such strict parameters to work within, but the more I invested myself the more frustrated I became. I’d spend all this time and creative energy making these objects for a production and then the prop would disappear into the void, never to be seen again. Every time I ‘d have a pang of regret as the piece left the shop headed for a photo shoot or TV show, inevitably ending up in storage or a dumpster somewhere.
Ironically, I rediscovered my sculptural interest in a trash can outside a construction site. A splintery tangle of plaster lath boards, ripped from the interior of a house, was sticking out of the dumpster and caught my eye. I brought the nail-ridden bundle home and cleaned the dust off it. This batch of boards was surprisingly interesting—simultaneously varied and homogeneous. Literally architectural and organic at the same time.
I started collecting lath whenever I saw it jutting over the top of a debris box. Not only was each board different, so was each batch I scavenged. Depending on what type of structure and where in the building the lath came from—ceiling, wet wall, exterior wall—it would age differently. For example, the lath on the ceiling that defines the top floor of a Victorian-era house is typically darker than the interior wall lath. These overhead pieces have been exposed to coal-burning air conditions that wafted through the attic during the 19th century and oxidized much more than the same material trapped inside the interior walls of the same structure.
I realize now why the material and its status as “trash” was inspiring to me: it provided a constraint to work within. The material had internal character and history, but was really just a “line weight,” a “given” that had been used by an architect to “sketch” the interior space of a room. During renovation, this “drawing” had been erased and swept into the trash. I started thinking about “redrawing” with those lines and reconfiguring the shards into some kind of subconscious structural illustration. The remnants of a wall in a dumpster that has come back to life in a recrystallized form.
That’s partly how my work also took a graphic turn early on. it was so clearly linear and had this inherent shading that two-dimensional work just emerged right out of the lath. The illusion of 3D in the 2D work was inspiring, especially when I started floating these flat pieces off the wall. I created a hanging system that allowed the pieces to hover on the wall and cast a real shadow. I like this element—it works the rift between the perceived space and real space, and makes your brain go in two directions at the same time.
EH: About a year and a half ago, I saw a retrospective of Gordon Matta-Clark‘s work (in Los Angeles) and instantly thought of your work, even moreso in the “Sustained Decay” installation. Are there any precedent works or artists that influenced you or you’ve looked to in this phase of your artist practice?
AV: My dumpster-diving dad was a definite influence from both an art appreciation and love-of-scrounging point of view. He would drag the family to the studios of artists whom he had befriended (usually by knocking on their doors unannounced). One of these artists was a lesser known NYC/Maine artist named Bernard “Blackie” Langlais. We visited his studio in Maine several times when I was a kid in the 1970s. He had these huge figurative wood sculptures in his yard— Richard Nixon in that famous goodbye pose was one—made out of telephone pole sections, sinking waist deep in a little pond on the property. Eventually my dad traded a day of photographically documenting Langlais’ work for a small abstract piece made of cut-off scraps. it was a geometric tapestry of wood triangles—a raw, repetitive Nevelson-esque sketch. We lived with the piece for many years and it was unlike any other art in our house. I looked at it a lot as a kid, and in high school I got some hands-on experience with wood when I made a skateboard mini-ramp that gave me new appreciation for the Langlais piece. Regretfully, we had to sell it in the 1980s.
EH: Whether intentional or not, there is a social/environmental skew that could be projected onto this work in that you are re-using old materials, and materials that hark back to an older San Francisco, before the last decade’s increased gentrification that has changed much of the social landscape in the Bay Area. Do you have any thoughts about this? Or am I just projecting too much?
AV: There is definitely a social and environmental connection in re-imagining and reusing the material. though it’s less overt and more of a subtext. I moved here in 2000, at the tail end of the dot com boom, and had no idea what was going on. The real estate frenzy here was in full swing and things seemed pretty bleak. I heard the stories of long-running arts organizations moving away, artists’ studios being demolished for new housing, and part of my fascination with these old building materials came from those conditions. The fabric of the city being pulled apart. Dumpsters were everywhere, homes were being renovated and resold as fast as possible. It was a shocking contrast to easy-living Pittsburgh where nothing seemed to change. I don’t think I’d be using these materials now if I hadn’t experienced this major change in perspective.
Historically these materials are interesting too. Much of it is old-growth fir and redwood harvested to fuel the housing boom in the late 19th, early 20th century that swept through cities in the West.
EH: What was the impetus to add sound to the “Sustained Decay” installation?
AV: The combination of sculpture and sound was something that the organizers of the annual Mission Creek Music + Art Festival proposed as part of this year’s event. They suggested the idea to Devon Bella, Adobe’s gallery director. This coincided with Devon’s renovation plans for the gallery, made possible by funds she had raised from Adobe’s first benefit art auction. The plans included tearing down old walls, making repairs, rodent control and eventually the expansion of the gallery beyond its original footprint.
So a unique opportunity developed where the space would be in a transitional phase during the MCAMF—partly in disrepair, partly demolished, newly expanded. Water damage and age had taken its toll on the space, exposing the plaster lath and other structural anomalies. I was asked to consider a sculptural intervention directly on and in the walls themselves.
Joshua Churchill created the sound and lighting components of the show after recording sounds from the space and creating a one and a half hour program of audio-controlled lighting. He made recordings of the walls being torn down during the partial demolition of the space, as well as ambient sound from the attic, and pigeons and machinery in the basement. These recordings make up part of the audio in the show.
EH: Talk about the overall intent of “Sustained Decay,” reacting to the Adobe Books space, and the process of collaborating with Joshua.
AV: Both Josh and I felt that exposing the current condition of the space, just before its renovation, was the most appropriate way to examine its history at the moment before it transforming into a larger, cleaner space. We also share an interest in decrepitude.
As an exhibition space, Adobe is unique. The store has a history and community of people with deep roots in the Mission that extend below the surface of 16th and Valencia. The gallery was constructed by a few artists with their own money and effort 10 years ago. Accordingly, it has a unique position in the art scene as the most DIY-crazy conditions of any exhibition space in the city. The backroom hosts the gallery on one side and, over the years, a variety of “roommates” on the other, including homeless folks, rats, cats, pigeons and the natural elements. Water damage had destroyed large sections of the walls, the plaster was falling off, and natural light could be seen shining through. That was also part of its charm and “Sustained Decay” was the last chance to celebrate these conditions and exploit their emotional impact.
The collaboration with Josh was pretty loose. After we discussed the project and some global ideas about using the space above the ceiling, we worked independently. Josh’s sound elements were recorded in part at the gallery, but he produced the audio program remotely, whereas I worked in the space for the duration. We didn’t experience the finished combination of our efforts until the night before the opening.
I wanted to further the feeling of decay or disuse in the space by helping the exposed lath of the walls to emerge from behind the plaster and intrude, as if it was crystallizing, festering. I was thinking about materials and time, and how one reveals the other’s effects—a “drawing” of decay. The wood flows like ice, similar to how stalactites form slowly and in the dark over millions of years. (Someone called them ‘lath-sicles’)
Josh’s work focuses on ephemeral elements left behind the walls and under floors, whereas my work pushes architectural forms out from within. Together they sensitize the viewer to areas of the space that hadn’t been visible or had been overlooked in its previous incarnation. For example, some folks didn’t know that the original gallery walls were only 8 feet tall, in a 14 foot tall space. That’s the power of the white-walled gallery environment. It’s coded to make you read the objects on the wall, not the wall itself. We were lucky to have a chance to get beyond those walls and dig up what’s behind them.
EH: Speaking of white walls, I assume up until this project you built your sculptures in your studio and then simply installed them, already completed, in gallery spaces. How did the process shift for this site-specific work? Did you discover anything that pushed your work forward?
AV: In many ways this was my first residency. I set up my workspace in the back of the store and made all the work on site. My stacks of wood lath, saws, tools, ladders were all over the space, and it was tight. Every time I moved the ladder, I had to shuffle my tools to the other side of the room. The store’s bathroom is in the middle of the gallery space and had to remain accessible during my tenure, since it was used fairly often (This was the point where I realized my iPod had become the most important tool in my bag.) We worked for a week and a half on the show in a cloud of dust—wood shards, electronics, tools, cables, tables and ladders. The day before the opening, we removed the tools, tables, ladders and piles of wood; cleaned up the dust, mopped the floor and finally saw how sustained the decay had really become.
My process did shift with this show. It went from “object making” as you describe, to “space invading.” Or at least “intervening.” Working directly on the wall at Adobe was new and it was a good change. I started to see the material as a texture slipping out from under the wall as opposed to an object on it. Normally I’d be trying to create a piece in my studio and then figure out how to construct it to be easily installed at a gallery, or maybe purchased and shown elsewhere. “Decay” was complete freedom from that preoccupation and that in itself was inspiring. (And, there was no price list.)
This was also the first time that I’d collaborated with someone on an immersive show like this. It was valuable to get out of my normal mode of creating and experience another’s point of view while making the work. Both Josh’s sound/light piece and the passage of daylight through the space added elements of time to viewing my static sculptural work that I hadn’t considered before. Now all I want to do is cover my windows with lath curtains and turn up the bass.