Alex Ebstein's "Tone and Fit"
ALEX EBSTEIN & FABIENNE LASSERRE
artists & co-exhibitors in the group show "Borderline" at trestle gallery, brooklyn
AE: Do you have a clear vision for the finished piece when you begin your work or does it emerge from the process?
FL: My process is generally meandering and unplanned, so I've developed suitably forgiving techniques and ways to approach materials that allow for change and transformation. But I always start with a clear vision. I very rarely follow it, but I need it to start. It's what excites me, gets me off the sofa. Then I'm forced to adapt to the fact that what I've imagined doesn't necessarily apply or work, or that the spark that got me going isn't following through. The reverses, transformations, layerings, discoveries, and the stubborn insistence on making "it" work, somehow, is the core of it all. It’s a grand mix of joy and frustration!
I’m going to throw that question right back at you(!). Do you have a clear vision for the finished piece when you begin your work or does it emerge from the process?
AE: I carry a sketchbook at all times and draw tiny thumbnail sketches in pen, usually of compositions or ideas for forms. I, too, get excited about an idea and bring that drawing into the studio, experimenting with a larger scale. I work intuitively with colors and additional materials to make the piece and it often strays pretty far from the original drawing or plan.
The metal pieces have thrown a wrench into the process because they’re made from drawings I trace in illustrator and then cut in metal. The original drawing is shifted slightly, but ultimately I plan them to be a particular size and to interact with a plane in a certain way. Often, this is the element that is worked out first, with a hazy idea of the rest of the composition. I work with the plain metal forms against developing surfaces until I am happy with the balance. The foreground, powder-coat color is chosen last.
Your scale seems to have shifted over the past few years. Was that a result of having more space or a change in material?
FL: Funny you say that. Yeah, the pieces did become bigger in the last few years. I think it’s really a consequence (one of many) of my daughter, Lou, coming to the world. She was born in 2014, and I still find it near-impossible to name the emotions I felt and continue to feel since: joy, wonder, awe, fear, vulnerability, and, of course, love, the intensity of which I didn’t even suspect existed. After her birth, when I started working again, I produced the largest pieces I’d ever made. My closest articulation of the changes since Lou’s birth is that my whole being has stretched: life is wider. So, larger pieces! Another Hour Another Minute (image below), flanked by two thin steel rods that delineate large wing-like loops, is one of the pieces that embodies that expansive feeling to me.
How do you think of the relationship between some (you can pick which!) or all of these terms: playful, political, decorative, abstract, serious, sensual, thoughtful, casual, significant?
AE: I wrestle with all these terms in my work—as I am sure you do as well—lately to the point of sleeplessness.
I recently contributed an essay to accompany a show I curated at TSA in Philadelphia. The exhibition includes three artists (Alexis Granwell, Elana Herzog, and Trish Tillman). Each artist works abstractly and the descriptions of their works could utilize all the words you’ve listed. Through articulating why I felt that these works fit together, and ultimately what they contributed to a discussion revolving around abstraction and politics, I was able to sort through my own thoughts and concerns within my own practice. Abstraction is a mode of visual communication that allows the makers to process and discuss things on their own terms, utilizing the playful and casual to point out the significant and political.
My worry is that abstraction is seen primarily as playful, decorative, casual, sensual (read indulgent), and mute. An ineffective way to communicate larger ideas. I don’t think that these descriptors are unwelcome or that as aesthetic aims they’re frivolous. However, I do worry that at this time, art and abstraction are considered separate from a political conversation (read thoughtful, serious, significant, etc). The pace and quality of information in the media has caused a mass attention deficit disorder that precludes the time investment necessary to enjoy and understand art, and process why it is important. I think that these ideas can support one another, draw in a viewer, function as a bait and switch, and survive as a balancing act.
What is the ideal context for your pieces? I notice a lot of your recent projects are in architecturally unique venues.
FL: I was thinking of that the other day. I am increasingly concerned with the context surrounding my pieces; it is becoming and intrinsic part of the work. That’s not because I feel there is one ideal context for my work. On the contrary, like my process, I want the pieces to be able to adapt to different settings and be transformed, while still standing tall. Recent pieces bare openings – windows of sorts – made with stretched transparent vinyl fabric. They function as lenses or frames, cropping each other and the space around them. In that sense, I am making sculptures that include “what they are not:” the area around them, the other pieces in the room, the people looking at them.
I foreground the way in which the pieces depend on their setting and context, and on the fact, and act, of being observed. One effect of this contextual conception of sculpture is a more painterly investigation of color and texture, intensifying the relationship my sculptural practice has with painting. This blurring of formal categories carries with it the promise of a related “blur” between other ontological classes or rigid models of understanding.
AE: How/when did you begin using the translucent fabrics?
FL: I had used the vinyl fabric in the past, but I really started using it again in the last two years or so. When I first used the vinyl, I needed something pre-fabricated and slick to counterbalance the affect of my other materials, which were all very organic, hand-made, and frumpy. Now I use the vinyl to make pieces that are see-through, like giant colored lenses that filter and distort their context. Using clear and reflective material—sometimes painted or tinted—allows me to include viewers (through reflection) and surroundings (through transparency), making the context an integral part of the work. I think it’s interesting to have sculptures operate in ways that have been more commonly associated with two-dimensional media, such as painting and photography.
Although the pieces tend to be large, when viewed from certain angles they almost completely disappear. So there is this intangible quality that is in paradoxical relation to the sheer size of the pieces. They are monumental, yet lack physicality. In that sense, the pieces touch on themes of immateriality and the ways in which material bodies can constitute the incorporeal and vice versa.
How are you thinking about space/context and painting?
AE: I have gone back and forth with a focus on the space in the individual picture plane and how to subvert the obvious tactility of my materials with an allusion to deeper space. Initially, I think this came from working on them in my studio and having no plans for them to exist outside of it—each piece was its own window. The textured PVC always stood in as a reference to the body, despite using the material to describe/create space. When I brought the works into a clean context, I saw the possibility for them to engage with the physical space in a greater way. The series in Borderline was part of a larger installation that mimicked a gym or exclusive fitness program and advertising. The materials became a little more slick and the space in the work more flat. Allowing foreground shapes to pop forward and paintings to operate as part of an installation let me focus on color and design.
FL: Are you a fan of Matisse?
AE: Of course!
FL: Can you talk about color? (The reason I phrase the question like this is that I think color is one of the hardest things to talk about, even when it is fundamentally intrinsic to one's work.)
AE: Color is hard! Before I used the yoga mats in my work, my colors were mostly neutral and minimal with splashes of bright accents. I love color and admire people who use it well.
I photograph color combinations in the wild, from the color of painted buildings to moss on a rock. Using materials that came with their own ready-made color palette forced me to get over my hesitation. I wonder if I was initially hesitant because I didn’t want my work to convey fun and be pegged as decorative. Now, my favorite challenge is deciding between color harmony and odd combinations that create unease or break expectation. I often end up attached to the works in which I struggled with color the most.
AE: Does teaching impact your work?
FL: Oh yeah. Teaching is huge.