Interview: by Glen Harper, Editor of Sculpture Magazine; Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ, 2011
Glenn Harper: You’ve said you began to make sculpture while watching the presidential debates in 2008: it sounds a bit like meditation or setting your hands free from your conscious mind. Is that the way you felt when you started making them?
Carol Brown Goldberg: Yes, that is exactly how I feel. I try to get into a meditative, rhythmic state whenever I begin to work with my hands. I may begin a project with automatic writing, doodling, repetition, memory, inspiration from another visual artist—but i do find the best way to feel free (unless I am going after representation, in which case, I am concentrating on the visible) or maybe the best way for me to feel authentic (whatever that implies) is to take in information while simultaneously using my hands. This actually works best after I have created a system that I want to fall into. It is a definite form of meditation for me. In fact, when I have gone to the Buddhist Center, I feel frustrated and edgy, because I am not using my hands. It is a bit like playing the piano; I sit down to play without thinking of every finger movement. I had to play a piece well enough to lose the super-consciousness of each finger action. To repeat the idea of the “authentic,” and I know that has many spiraling levels, I did not just want to put forms together to see what worked. I wanted to create many forms so that my hands would move somewhat without me. Hands would be active partially out of habit, with little consciousness, except how to attach the forms. The debates on TV kept my mind engaged, so that my hands were not so controlled by my artistic thoughts. I had over 150 maquettes within weeks—I felt my hands flying.
GH: Scale is an important factor in the work: The figures seem miniature, doll-like, but they are made of objects “at-hand,” both literally and in Heidegger’s phenomenological sense: tools, corks, gadgets, etc., that are present in the works at their normal scale. But in the large sculptures, scale is a different kind of issue. How do you think about scale when creating the original works and in sizing them to human or monumental scale?
CBG: In the original works, I am at play. It is a true regressive state, where I put “stuff” together clumsily, without finding the “perfect” fit or form. It is repetition of my first 18 years of life, where I was on the floor playing: acting out scenarios of relationships with dolls, marbles, trading cards (from my mother’s canasta and bridge decks), cut-out paper dolls, my older brothers’ stamp collections, model cars, and any objects that were more than singular objects. When I was 22, my first son was born, and for the 2 years following, I was back on the floor playing, during my 20s. This imprint of play is strong within my psyche.
The first transformation was from state of mind to objects “at-hand” as you aptly call them. After making 150 of these, I wondered what to do with them. I had only thought about making something. Some of the objects were attached because of their color, so I had not thought out them being in other materials or sizes. I had not thought about the anthropomorphizing of objects. I just watched the debates, kept the glue gun plugged in, and went to work. I asked the foundry in Lancaster to take a look at the works. The owners came down to DC and took photos, and were so enthusiastic about them as sculpture that I got excited. We decided to fabricate a few in bronze and see how they looked. The evolution to bronze was a major step and set the pattern for trusting in the process of morphing. I truly couldn’t wait to see them large.
The larger size increases the amount of flat surface, and for me this was an invitation to add more elements. You will see that the smaller maquettes and smaller bronzes are different than the larger ones. There is sometimes more detail. I do love the Oldenburg effect of changing the scale of an object, of seeing differently. When teaching, changing scales is one of best exercises for changing the way we see.
GH: Art history is also a real presence in the work, is that in your mind when you create the works? Or when you confront them (and title them) later?
CBG: This is a really good question. It is not so easy to remove history that has been absorbed over the years, and each artist is probably faced with this issue when a project begins. I had not worked with three-dimensional structures since the mid-1980s. At that time, I painted on wood and engineered them into free standing arrangements. They echoed the flat-surface work that I was doing at that time. By the late 1980s, I returned to painting on canvas and flat wood surfaces. Then in 2007, I was invited to create an outdoor sculpture that would travel with 55 paintings throughout Spain. I needed to feel the dimensionality of form again, so I assembled an aggregate of objects—found objects, thrift-store objects, building supplies—and began glue-gunning the sculptures together.
I think ultimately, an artist dives into a work with a lot of faith; plowing down a path with focus and intensity, with a pin-point focus on the “moment,” and a conscious abandonment of historical references. After completing a dozen or more models, I imagined them out in the world and began to make observations: what are the forms saying? has this been expressed before? and how do the images relate to present culture?
At first, I titled the sculptures with the names of people I know or have known. Each piece was unique and yet familiar. Seeing them in a large group reminded me of class pictures, or an audience (like the art looking back at the viewer). When I photographed them in groups, I continued the allusion to real people. I had just read an essay about “20th century art fatigue,” and decided at that moment to intentionally chronicle modern master artists or events that I admired. Maybe it’s the “teaching/teacher” in me, that I don’t want the “it’s all about today” to forget what our art is built on.
After 150 sculptures, I decided to number each one. I preface the numbers with RA, which stands for Relational Aesthetics. The outdoor works include 2 figures, so that they do not stand alone.
GH: Your sculpture has precedents in three-dimensional collage (or perhaps bricolage is the word), from Picasso’s bicycle-seat/bull’s-head to Tom Otterness’s creatures, but the precedents you mention in conversation or more often from paintings (such as small figural details in Andre Masson’s work).
CBG: This is true. I align myself with painters. Models of sculptures or three-dimensional collages are more like sketches, rather than a formalized study of form in space. I spontaneously grasp shapes and don’t think that I am making sculpture or collage. I am not identifying or naming what it is I make while I make it. I take one shape and see how it works on or with another; will a telephone receiver work on top of a shoe tree? Will a garden hose work with a bottle top? Will an old book make a good base for can opener and funnel? Titles do not come to me while I work. They are separate from the object, and come from a different zone, long after I have completed a series.
GH: Do you see a relationship with Dada and early performance? There was a frequent use of everyday objects for theatrical and philosophical effects in performances and films and sculpture at that time.
CBG: This is a big issue. I definitely have an affinity with the attitudes of the Dadaists. I relate to the humor, whimsy, or serendipity of placing disparate objects together. I relate to the challenging of the prevailing culture, probably most artists feel same. I relate to the kind of optimism that obscures disillusionment. Many of the objects created by Dadaists are statements against politics, social conventions, intellectual thought. I have no agenda. The objects I create from found pieces seem to have human characteristics with no agenda. Working rapidly helps me keep my own inner censors in their place; my hands seem to fly faster than my thoughts, trying to lean more on spontaneous tendencies rather than pre-conceived imagery. So I suppose the need to express an inner consciousness or sub-conscious that supercedes the angst that I may share with Dada artists.
Early Dada performance was new and fresh and therefore not as self conscious as performance is or would be today. I have recently explored using film/video to move the sculpture into another arena, but the intention and premeditative approach of the dadaists would not work for me. I do see a clear line between Leger’s Ballet Mecanique, Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, and appreciate them all, but I don’t yet know how I will use today’s technology for expression.
GH: There are a number of writers that your sculpture brings to mind. One is Carlo Collodi, of course, and a number of artists have talked about the artist as Gepetto with his Pinocchio. But I think also of Jonathan Swift, who invents a language of things in Gulliver’s Travels. It seems to me that you are thinking with things, in that sense, or is it more thinking with your hands?
CBG: This “Swiftean” perspective of creating sculpture sketches of random objects is transforming on multiple levels. Hands do help me think, but I am not sure whether when I need to think I turn to my hands, or when I use my hands I begin to think!
Swift’s imagery is appealing and relevant. Students in Studio class work well and free when scale between model and objects is outside of their reality, when the can invent out-of-scale connections.
Listening to the radio at night as a child in a dark bedroom, I watched the rear of my backless radio. Tubes and bulbs of gold light lit up a small section of my bedroom. I was God, or a giant looking down at skyscrapers at night. There was a city on my night table. I was fascinated with this change of scale and imagined activity and conversations coming out of the back of this small, pale blue plastic radio. Gulliver’s Travels, especially, plays with the way we see, something artists are searching for.
GH: Now that you have done three-dimensional work at several levels of scale, all of it based on your own hand-work but some of it executed through the ancient tradition of bronze-casting, do you think more in three dimensions, or see yourself as a sculptor, some of the time at least?
CGB: We all have a bit of a split personality: the public and the private at least. I actually think of my painting as more public, which does not have to do with the outside world as much as it has to do with the world of conformity and adaptation, or to what I believe is expected. So painting becomes even more intellectual to me, a world of words, ideas, and concepts.
The private world, or the secrets that one does not know what to do with, I think emerge in my sculpture. I don’t quite know how this happens or how to explain, except that childhood games and fabrications were not celebrated until I put three-dimensional works together. An image comes to me: I am a female walkin down a road, dressed for autumn in the country, with a feathered hat, when suddenly, my camel chesterfield coat gets ripped open, and a dwarf-like Dadaist wearing a beanie jumps out of the fabric.
I think I will continue to make the most of this inner divide, even celebrate it, by continuing to work on paintings by day and sculpture at night. They are both integral parts of me now.