Artist Talk on Saturday, April 22nd. Visitors were welcome to ask questions and share their comments on Clark’s artworks.
This is one of my least favorite parts of being an artist - talking to you all, you all facing me like this. But anyway! Each piece has a little bit of its own story to tell so we can walk around in a couple minutes if you have questions about specific things. But generally, the three main questions I get are “why architecture,” “why ruin,” and “how do I make it?”
So first off, architecture! I have no architecture background, I was in graphic design. I was doing a lot of branding and book design, posters, photos, things really based on grids, for a long time. When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2008, my education and freelancing really started to focus on fine art as well. Architecture, to me, just IS the largest form of art that exists. It’s very much about humanity trying to overcome nature and that constant fight that we have trying to make things permanent. But as soon as you put that building up, it’s starting to decay. So I find focusing on that sort of overarching theme of humanity versus nature really intriguing. You will rarely find any green in my artwork, or any semblance of nature. I would consider all the negative space and the white surrounding the architecture to be that natural element.
What were you doing when you started this work? How long did it take you to get to what you are working on now?
I think that honestly came from when I was doing a lot of collage, I was doing a lot of topographical collage and playing around with design elements. I was doing a lot of client work and, naturally, I had very little money to spend on art supplies so I wasn’t in the position to start buying paint for example. So I just started to collect scraps. The insides of envelopes have really cool designs. I’d get all this different ephemera and trash, so in finding that and using that to collage I could kind of naturally create the tactility of buildings and the sort of decay, it lended itself really well to the collage element. I don’t really know how I got started, though, I know there was that big housing crash in 2008 around when I started doing this body of work, so I think that had some sort of influence on me. But I do know that I haven’t gotten tired of it, and I have a lot of different directions to go into. I tend to make work and think about it later.
One thing I pulled from this… you hear “the beauty in decay,” the term “ruin porn,” and all these things, and you are all here because you probably had some kind of reaction to buildings that are falling apart. It’s hard to tell, and depending on the day, there are a lot of different things that I am reacting to for a specific reason. But what I see in the ruin, is that when we look at an abandoned building, for example, you’re imagining some kind of past, a history of that building - Who was living there, what happened inside - but you’re also looking forward and watching that building degrade and deteriorate. So for me, the ruin hangs in limbo, between the state of the past and the state of the present. I think that’s really beautiful.
It’s easy to get caught up in the suffering aspect, but I go back and forth between the real, the despair, the intrigue. It can be really depressing when I’m looking at photos of natural disasters to get inspiration to make… but at the same time there has to be hope – it’s a metaphor for being alive, right? We’re growing for a very short amount of time. I mean we’re all standing here decaying, that’s just what’s happening. But that’s also a wonderful, special thing.
These hanging works on paper and this sculpture are newer works. My work developed because I have a new daughter and it really changes things. You have a child and your perspective of the world changes. Right now I’m, you know, I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m trying to add – challenge myself – to be a little more playful and colorful with themes of building up, rather than falling down. Also, looking towards her future and how upsetting it very well may be with the state of the world. In many ways, reflecting on these [works on paper], which I didn’t think about until now, I think I’m creating some sort of guardian for her. These are all just little gestures, ideas, which hopefully they’ll one day become larger sculptural works like this one [pointing to sculpture]. And that’s my spiel I guess!
Back to your paintings, the collages, do you work from thumbnails or sketches to begin? Or is it a work in progress and you just throw stuff together and see what it becomes?
I’d say a combination of both. If I’m working on a large piece like this [pointing to Mass XXX] I digitally collage first using Photoshop. They aren’t all my photos, but I’ll source photos from people who have sent me a bunch like, “Hey Seth, check this out!” So I have a lot of photos from people but I’ll also use photos of my own. I’m usually taking ten to fifteen images and collaging them together, like I’ll use a wall from this photo and a window from another and make little thumbnails that I’ll usually print out in black and white to have something to go off of. But a lot of the time, since I’ve been working in this theme for such a long time, I can sort of come up with the architecture without directly working from images.
A lot of your pieces look like buildings, what brought you to make that one a circle? [Referencing Mass XXX]
Yes, that one that looks like the Death Star. I’ve done four pieces like that, that are sort of worldly masses, and they all have a different feeling to them. But I think it’s really just my thoughts on the state of what’s happening. I do a lot of sculptural work like that – piecing together tiny pieces of wood. I can’t remember my inspiration for this one specifically, but I think the sculptural stuff came first and I was influenced by them.
But to me, these little piecing-together-of-things, is definitely about certain aspects of the communities, the gathering of humans, we’re all interconnected. I have a giant beehive-like sculpture, it’s about twenty feet, at the MuseumLab, and it has a ton of little windows. It’s made of the same lath material that this piece is made out of [sculpture]. The museum is very interactive, it’s an institution next to the children’s museum which is very hands-on. There’s always a lot of activity going on in that building, so having this chaos of little windows and shapes gives an impression of little bees buzzing around. It’s the feeling of activity in the community, the network, and coming together to create an architecture that’s much stronger than any one individual could make.
You mention other sculpture works, which suggests that this piece is not a one-off though it feels like it when in this room. What’s next?
Yes, this is brand new. If you were at the opening it still smelled like clear coat! It’s definitely not a one-off, I have six or seven little models that will result in larger pieces like this. I work off of little models a ton, because they are a lot more affordable to work with little pieces of wood, cardboard, or foam. If I never built a few models before getting into this [sculpture] I probably would have never come up with the idea of finding the right way to make this piece lean forward which gives it so much character.
I bought a ton of doll parts, arms and legs, and I’m casting them in resin and I’m finding this whole new relationship with my work. I walk into my studio and just imagine little arms and legs coming out of all the buildings and things. It’s fun.
There’s a playfulness with these newer works, and I’d say that you’re actually creating things and not destroying things. You’re using old things and making them new.
I like that a lot. I deal with a really heavy subject matter but I’m not a very serious person, so that’s something I’m always struggling to find a balance with. So these newer things are a bit different than my other pieces.
I was actually just telling Mark that I recently had a commission where someone had to rip down their barn in Sewickley Heights and they asked me to make a sculptural piece in memoriam to the barn they had to tear down, and that was a blast. That I really imagine doing is getting in on demo projects and those large corporations always want to preserve the architecture that was once there. This is probably many years down the line, but that would be sort of my dream gig. Getting in on the ground floor of these demo sites and taking that material and building something new out of it.
I’m curious, since you use found materials that aren’t acid free, do you worry at all about their preservation?
Nowadays my works are acid free. I think everything in this show is… except for some Japanese and handmade papers, I’m not using any trash any more, much to my sadness. Except for these [hanging works on paper], I don’t know what kind of paper it is, somebody just gave me a huge stack of free paper so I’m using it. I mean, a lot of my older works have a lot of newsprint and junk in them, dirt and grime, but nowadays, mainly by request of the collector, I’m buying handmade papers and doing my own ink washes to create that aged effect.
You shared the exploration of decay and you also mention exploring building new things. Where does restoration fit into your worldview as a third option?
Oh yes, restore, that’s all we should we be doing. Well I guess that’s not necessarily true. I own a 100 year old house, I bought it like four years ago, and I’ve been trying to restore it. It’s way more expensive and time consuming versus just tearing out the trim and putting in whatever. I think we should be preserving what’s there as much as possible. Everything else is leading to waste. I try to use as much repurposed wood in my sculptural work as possible because it’s important and it’s free – there’s no reason to buy new wood. There’s amazing, even better old wood out there.
Can you speak specifically to that one [Mass XXX]? What wood and tools did you use and how did you get to this form?
That’s actually just strips of paper! I individually cut and pasted each on there. All the two-dimensional works are paper. It’s often a pretty long process, I usually start with a quick underpainting, sketch, kind of thing, to lay out the composition. But that immediately gets covered over because I’m collaging so it’s a fun balance between slapping paper on there and rediscovering the image. But I’ll go back and forth between collaging and painting and drawing on top, then back to paper, then ink wash, paper, drawing… so it’s an ongoing process until I find a stopping point.
I was going to ask about that, how do you know when the stopping point is?
If anyone’s an artist out there, here’s a little trade secret – stop before it’s done. It just makes me want to make another one. There’s always something that pisses me off in each piece, and I like it that way. That means I haven’t solved it, I haven’t finished.
You mentioned that the 2-D works are paper and the sculptures are wood, is it that distinct? Do you ever put wood on the paper works or paper on the sculptures?
For right now they’re separate. I’ve played around with it but I haven’t come to any successful conclusions when combining. I make miniature sculptures out of balsa wood, the same thing architects use to make models or airplanes, it’s a really lightweight wood. It’s super fun to use, it’s easy to chop up and glue together, and I’ve used it a million times, but I haven’t been very happy with using it on a two-dimensional surface. Well that’s not entirely true, I have shown a couple pieces that had paper laid onto wood. But it’s something I’m always trying to figure out, how to merge the two materials, but I haven’t figured it out.
The houses you’ve made… What’s your thought about these? We tear down history, are you trying to preserve history by creating a semblance of these buildings?
That’s certainly something I’ve thought about, and that’s something that comes up a lot in my work. What’s nice about this is that I’ve found there’s so many different directions that I can personally identify with the ‘decay’, so it can certainly take a more political angle where I’m really thinking about preservation and new developments and challenging what’s going on. In the next week or month I might be thinking about my personal aging and relationships. I think everybody can take something different away from these depending on how you’re feeling and what you’re dealing with. Which is why I don’t like to get super specific about what I was thinking when I was making these. It doesn’t really matter.
It seems you’re very influenced by your daughter. Do you see your work changing to be more positive? How much of an influence do you want your child to be in what you create?
I’ve always thought about the future, and I’ve been pretty pessimistic about where we’re going. You know, you can’t explain to a one and a half year old “don’t climb on that chair because you could fall,” and you can say it fifty times but she’s going to keep trying to climb up there until she falls, right? So we’re all being told “you shouldn’t really do that to the environment,” but many of us haven’t really experienced what is about to happen. So I’m pretty pessimistic that we are actually to learn to do something about it until we fall. I’ve always been interested in my future, but I’ve never had to think about somebody else’s future until now. So it is really… freaky… but at the same time you try to find some type of enjoyment and hopefulness in life, too.