Sketch for a Fountain at the Nasher presents the final version of five figures, cast in bronze, together for the first time. What does it mean for you to have the work fully realized as you envisioned?
Conceptually, it was always my intention that the piece eventually be cast in bronze and that these figures have a life together somewhere. I wanted them to be bronze, but it was more of a fantasy. I didn’t think it would actually happen, but I also didn’t care if it did. The museum gives the work a certain formality and historical context within this continuum of sculpture. Also, there’s a sense of completion around this project for me, which is amazing because the whole thing started such a long time ago and it’s been interesting to work on a piece for this long. To have a piece open and alive in my life for such a long time is unusual.
How long has it been?
It started in 2012, when I was first approached by Kasper König. He asked for a proposal, and from that point we had close to three years to realize it. So that’s seven years, which for me, as someone who makes paintings that take months and not years, that is a really long time.
What’s interesting about this project is that nature as a subject usually only serves as a backdrop in your paintings. With this work, the fountain elements of some of the figures, and details such as mushrooms sprouting from the foot of another, suggest that these figures are actually nature in and of themselves.
I think there is this idea I have of these figures where they just arrived out of the woods, walked over, found this body of water, and plopped themselves down. It’s a good narrative to think of them having that kind of agency.
I love the idea that they just sort of emerged from the muck with a beer in hand.
Yeah, they are bringing the important things with them [laughs].
Your first show in Dallas was last year, in a house with my curatorial project One Night Only, where you presented a small sculpture called Egg Eater. Can you talk about your use of cast aluminum in the work and discuss how the piece and material relate to your sculptures in the current Venice Biennale?
Egg Eater was made right alongside some of the figures in Venice, so there is a material relationship there. The ones in Venice are more involved in terms of how much my hands are in the sculptures; they were made out of foam, then covered with plaster, then they are carved into, painted, cast, and painted again. There was a lot more manipulation. Egg Eater was a really simple gesture of cutting some foam and making an interlocking sculpture that had some dynamic quality. It was a kind of puzzle to figure out, but it was born of the same family, a cousin of the works in Venice.
Maybe because of its scale and otherness, Egg Eater evoked a certain kind of empathy. This isn’t too far from what I feel when I look at the figures in your paintings. It comes from your willingness to be so vulnerable as an artist. In this openness, have you ever revealed too much and gone to bed thinking, Oh, I don’t know if I should have made that?
[Laughs.] Oh, yes! I mean, there are works that I feel really far away from, works that feel like another artist made them. Every artwork exists in the context of its time. If there’s a work I feel really distant from, it’s important for me to remember what was going on in the culture at that time and why it seemed important at that time to make that thing. But at this point, I don’t love everything I’ve ever made. I like a lot of it, and some of it doesn’t really interest me anymore. Old work is like old friends, some you grow with and some you grow apart from.
Speaking of old friends, you’ve talked before about how your friends and people in your life can find their way into your work. What happens when those relationships change and those people are still in the work?
They’re there. It’s like a tattoo. The work is a marker of a moment. There’s never ever been a feeling of regret for something I’ve done or made … well, not entirely. I think there are some early works where the politics feel really dated and we’ve all moved forward.
I love the idea of a painting functioning the same as a tattoo. The thing about painting, and art-making in general, is that it offers us a shortcut to our desires. We can think it the morning and it can exist in the evening; it can be very impulsive and ephemeral. But there is permanence to the materials you have been using in your sculptures, such as bronze and aluminum. You can make works about these fleeting relationships or ideas, but the permanence lies within the material itself.
There is a deeper concept embedded in the work that is not really about the subject matter. Think of Alice Neel’s or David Hockney’s portraits of their friends; we don’t know who those people are anymore, and these portraits are beautiful and important and are evocative of the culture at that time. It doesn’t really matter who these people are; my paintings may be personal to me, but that is superficial in the life span of the work. You look at a Caravaggio, and he is painting people who are in his life and we don’t know who exactly or what all his subjects meant to him. That eventually falls away, and what we are left with is just the zeitgeist of the painting.
You’ve talked before about the intimacy of massaging a body into existence and forming a figure by putting your hands directly in a material, such as plaster, and how with painting, there is always an instrument between you and the work. A lot of your sculptures are made by casting, which is another layer of removal from the object.
Presenting raw, sculpted, handmade work is so powerful because there is a connection to the material that was touched by the artist’s hand, and this texture presents a direct line from the viewer to the maker. Bronze to me is the most sensitive recorder of marks. I can’t think of another metal that has the mellowness, sensitivity, versatility, the softness that it offers. There is a sense of remove, it’s not the original material, but it records the minutiae of something. It’s like listening to a record; you can’t have Pavarotti in your living room, but you can have a good recording. I do find myself trying to predict the translation. It’s like chess, where you are trying to work a few moves ahead. I’m making the piece in plaster and sort of astro-projecting what objects would work in the material and what the bronze will pick up and do. For instance, the beer can that one of the figures is holding only became interesting when it was cast and melded with the rest of the body.
Your work at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, more so than any other sculptural work of yours, reminds me of your paintings because of the individualistic quality of each figure. In your paintings, you play a lot with your hand; one figure with strong gestural marks may exist next to a figure whose body has been scraped away. Each figure in Procession has a sense of self. Do you assign meaning or identity through the shifts in your hand throughout your work?
The identity of the pieces emerges out of the material; I don’t plot it out. It’s a very intuitive decision-making process regarding who looks like what. Visually, it makes a lot of sense that the guy on the cart is made out of plaster, wax, lambswool, and this junk on his back. Whereas the guy pulling it is a big and heavy guy with fists going up and down made out of bronze; there is this heaviness to that gesture. It all ends up making perfect sense. Everything is exactly as it should be in the end.
Arthur Peña is a Bronx based artist, curator, and writer. His national curatorial project One Night Only celebrated New York painter Ellen Berkenblit in her first Texas presentation.