|An Interview with Stuart Allen
Allison Hays Lane
Director, Olana Group, San Antonio, Texas
In the late 1970s, American artist Scott Burton coined the name “new building art” to describe the architectural elements of exterior and interior site-specific works. Friend and architect, Siah Armajani, described this art more concisely as “architectural sculpture.” Robert Smithson’s outdoor earthworks, Gordon Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture” and Bruce Nauman’s corridors acknowledged these defining elements and pushed the “art-world context” to new perimeters. Found materials, unusual settings and unique subject matter inspired new definitions and interpretations that challenged the viewer.
Stuart Allen’s installation 29° 26' 14" N ~ 98° 28' 55" W, created for the Great Hall of the San Antonio Museum of Art, updates and embraces this history and addresses its challenges. A combination of technologically advanced materials and natural elements allowed Allen to envision the space in fresh fashion. He created a sense of changing light and form with a formula of shapes and passing daylight.
Allen’s 29° 26' 14" N ~ 98° 28' 55" W pays homage to a quiet and classical sensibility found in traditional Japanese screens, architecture, fabrics, and, most notably, kites. The poetic quality of the kite has intrigued the artist since childhood. This fascination, an inquisitive mind for science, love of sailing, and appreciation of ever-changing technologies has served the artist well for many years and brought Allen to this juncture and time in his career.
Echoes of Christo and Jean-Claude’s Running Fence (1972-1976), reverberate in the use of contrasting form and light on fabric as a sculptural medium. Allen’s taut white sailcloth, however, is radically different from the kinetic, free flowing Running Fence. Allen draws his static forms horizontally across the open interior of the space, creating a calming aura high above the movement and sounds of the visitors below. Each fluctuation of light and shadow invites the viewers into deeper interpretation and appreciation.
Allen’s own interpretation and use of “actual” light adds an element of unpredictability to the work. As artist James Turrell noted, “My art deals with light itself. It is not the bearer of revelation – it is the revelation.” Allen’s 29° 26' 14" N ~ 98° 28' 55" W succeeds in revealing itself exquisitely on multiple planes.
Allison Hays Lane: Stuart, I wanted to begin by touching on something I read about your Dance Lines series, written by Scott Shields, Curator of Art at the Crocker Art Museum (Sacramento) In his essay, he makes reference to the American abstract expressionist Mark Tobey’s “white writing” paintings. With some of your new work, I’m making a different connection, to a slightly later artist, Agnes Martin. In the Baja series, for example, there is a major shift from the expansiveness of the light line pieces, devoid of color, to an inward focus on the ever-changing relationship between color and light. Can you comment on that transition?
Stuart Allen: Yes, it’s not as significant a shift as it might seem. The fabric installations and kites I’ve made in the last ten or twelve years have, in some very direct ways and in some indirect ways, addressed issues of light and space. In terms of my photography, I worked primarily in black and white until about three years ago when I started the Baja series, only because color didn’t serve the earlier work. The studies were primarily about movement and space. For example, with the Night Lines work, it was about my own movement through the landscape or, with the Dance Lines series, the dancers mapping space through dance.
Color seemed a distraction with those investigations. In my current photographic work, including the “pixel” pieces and the more recent Light Maps, I’m looking at how light, and consequently color, is filtered through the camera. I didn’t draw an immediate connection between the fabric installations, kites and this work, but it quickly became apparent that my preoccupation with the color of light is one of the primary drivers in all of it. Where the fabric has served as the sounding board for light in the sculptural work, the CCD chip inside the digital camera is serving the same purpose in the photo-based work. In both cases, I’m using these tools to call attention to the specific character of light in a given circumstance.
AHL: There’s an element of simplicity and fluidity that transcends sculpted forms and reveals a spirituality to your work, almost in the same vein as the paintings in the Rothko Chapel. It will be very interesting to see how the SAMA piece will work in the Great Hall, which is such a large and public space. What do you hope the viewer will glean from the installation?
SA: To say that you find a spirituality in my work is something I appreciate, though I would never be so presumptuous as to make such an assertion myself. However, I am very interested in notions of the sublime, in the idea that perhaps things can be greater than the sum of their parts. Again, I would never claim that this is the case because, in the final analysis, my work is exactly the sum of its parts: it’s fabric, wood, aluminum, stainless steel, ink on paper, whatever. But, if I can put something out there that’s been edited down to a point where it’s truly open to interpretation, on a guttural level…well, that’s where the viewer steps in; they complete the process.
AHL: They come away with their own interpretations.
SA: Yes, it’s a clean slate, let’s say, and if it encourages a reaction to or heightened awareness of place for the viewer, to me that’s a successful piece.
AHL: I think it’s good that the audience will be able to get closer to this installation on the second level. It creates multiple perspectives for the work.
SA: That’s one of the most exciting things about this particular architectural space. Visitors will be able to walk underneath the installation on the main level, then walk up through the plane of the piece to see it from above on the mezzanine level. The installation should read very differently from these various vantage points. Of course, no matter how many CAD drawings and models I make of the thing, we won’t really know how it feels until it’s finished.
AHL: Another aspect of your work I really appreciate, as I’m not an artist myself, is the way you embrace technology but also have a deep appreciation for traditional forms and traditional use of materials. What strikes me is that you challenge yourself and look for updated materials while, at the same time, you have a sincere and honest respect for the art of sail making, kite making, woodworking and the artists who have gone before.
SA: (smiling and laughing) This is great! I could listen to these comments all day. One of the most difficult and time-consuming things about making artwork is researching new materials. I envy artists who use one medium. It must be comforting to know that, if you have a show in a year, the work will be oil on canvas, or painted steel, whatever. I spend an inordinate amount of time buying material samples, running tests, learning how a material behaves. I often feel like I am just getting to know a process when my intellectual interests force me into some other arena. On the other hand, I’ve assembled a nice little collection of esoteric skills. Maybe I’ll open a sail loft someday…
AHL: That leads me to your childhood. Did you grow up learning these skills from your parents?
SA: Absolutely. I’m fortunate to have two parents who are capable and accomplished makers of things. For my Mom: painting, drawing, ceramics, photography; traditional media. And with Dad, the fabrication and/or repair of just about anything: steel, wood, electronics, diesel engines, etc. It’s not always pretty, but he gets things done, and he almost never leaves a project unfinished. I grew up in a house where things were constantly being made. We had a darkroom in the basement, a pottery wheel, all manner of tools, paint, easels…you name it.
This family tendency to make things continues to this day. A few years ago my brother convinced us to spend a Thanksgiving holiday together in Colorado building a trébuchet (a form of medieval catapult). On completion, we launched a dozen or so pumpkins about a hundred feet in the air. It was glorious!
AHL: So your father is more technically minded and your mother more artistic, in a traditional sense?
SA: Yes, they’re both very creative, though my father would refuse that compliment. My mom is an excellent painter, ceramicist, photographer. She masters whatever media she touches. Dad’s a builder in the best sense of the word. He’s not happy unless he has a project.
AHL: So you’re balanced in the way you inherited these traits. Now that you’re a parent of two young children has any aspect of your own work changed? Think of their memories of childhood growing up with a biology professor mother and an artist father.
SA: Yeah, they should be good and messed up by the time they go off to college! Having my daughter around, who’s three now, has certainly changed the way I look at things; not in a way that’s real obvious; it’s something I feel more internally. I find myself thinking about things differently because I’m constantly explaining issues to her in terms she can understand. Consequently, it’s forcing a deeper understanding of whatever we’re discussing, and this includes my work. So when she asks me what I’m making, it’s the ultimate test audience. I’m forced to look at the work under a whole new light. I mean, the vocabulary isn’t there, but her questions are really valid.
AHL: I’m sure they’ll have quite a fascinating combination of interests. You have a strong foundation in art history but also, as you describe, a “layman’s” fascination with
science and nature. How does this factor into your work?
SA: I probably look at more contemporary science than art these days. I suppose it’s harder and harder to find artwork that really moves me. The more familiar you are with a given subject, the more difficult it is to be satisfied with what you’re presented. As a reader of science, I’m such a novice; it’s all fascinating to me.
AHL: But you’re gleaning important elements from it. There seems to be a blending of natural and scientific themes, along with cultural ones, such as your fascination with kites. All important?
SA: Definitely. Like most of my peers, I’m drawing from many sources. In terms of cultural influences, I’m particularly taken with Japanese kites. There’s a sense of the object being exactly what it needs to be, and nothing more.
AHL: The “less is more” theory?
SA: I suppose. Of course it’s a very modernist ideal as well. Le Corbusier’s notion of the house as a “machine for living” for example. Anything that doesn’t serve that end is considered excess.
The challenge with being reductive is that you’re putting fewer marks out there, so each of those marks needs to be very carefully considered. Though I put a very high premium on the conceptual construct, I’m compulsive about craft. There’s a lot of information in the world these days. If I’m asking for a viewer’s attention, I feel I owe them a finely finished object.
AHL: Speaking of materials, I’m often struck by the tension you achieve through the juxtaposition of wood, metal, rope, fabric.
SA: Buckminster Fuller coined the term “tensegrity” to describe tension structures where no rigid elements make contact with one another. A symbiotic relationship exists between compression elements and tension elements resulting in a form that, in my mind, exhibits a compelling sort of lightness. Because there are no hard and fast connections between rigid materials, the structure appears almost weightless.
AHL: Your work always seems to have a very calming, contemplative effect on me in a world where a lot of contemporary art is flashy, intrusive, and often keeps the viewer from seeing through to its basic form.
SA: A couple of quotes come to mind. Einstein said that “things should be as simple as they can be, but not simpler.” This doesn’t preclude the necessity of some things being flashy or noisy; some work needs to be just that. But I’m more inclined to subtract rather than add. When you’re reducing something, editing the noise out, there does come a point when you go too far and there’s nothing left. But it’s surprising how far you can go and still end up with something substantial.
The other quote is from Josef Albers, speaking more directly about art, he said, “the origin of art is the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect.” This goes back to my earlier comments about the sublime and the idea that an object can elicit a reaction that seems to transcend its physical construction. Presumably, people look at art to find something that catches them off guard, maybe even transports them, something they don’t expect. Or maybe that’s just what I’m looking for.
AHL: When you work on a series, do you come to a place in time where you have a sense of finality, or do you feel you might go back years later and readdress subjects or interests?
SA: It’s certainly possible. On several occasions I thought I was done with kites, but new ideas keep cropping up where the kite seems to be the right tool. It’s a very rich mechanism for me, combining many of my interests in a form that is non-threatening—easy for many people to relate to. There’s also a performative element with the kites that’s unique in my work. Last year I convinced about fifteen friends to go to the coast for a birthday weekend. Included in the package deal was a day on the beach working to get ten large, Japanese-style kites in the air. I’d shown the kites in several indoor venues, but this was their first actually air time as a group. The weather was pretty horrible—cold, too windy, a little rain—and it was a very long day. We were still packing up equipment as night fell. But it was wonderful to get everyone together and work towards a common goal. I thought it was a great success. We’ll see if anyone agrees and signs up again this year!
AHL: So never say never?
SA: Right, but it’s important to me to keep moving on to new ideas. I don’t want to be that guy who makes the light line photographs or the large pixel prints. I want to give all of these things their just due, but there are too many other things waiting to be made.
AHL: Stuart, thank you for a fascinating look into your life and creative process.
SA: Thank you Allison.
- Interview conducted in the artist’s studio on April 17, 2007.