In Conversation with Alyson Shotz

Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović interviewed Alyson Shotz in the artist’s Brooklyn studio on March 9, 2020; an excerpt is featured here. The full version is part of the Phillips’s major centennial publication, Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century, to be published in 2021. Shotz was an Intersections artist in 2012, and her work Allusion of Gravity (2005) is part of the permanent collection.

Alyson Shotz in her studio with her work Intricate Metamorphosis, 2020.

Vesela Sretenović: It has been more than 15 years since we first met, and looking around your studio, I’m once again so surprised by your new work…

Alyson Shotz: Yes, this work is really different than my work of the past few years, but it’s related. In the past months, I really struggled over how I was going to remake my sculpture in response to the political climate. Making light, ethereal work was almost impossible and I wanted to make something heavier and darker. I became attracted to used bicycle inner tubes; I found some on the street, and then I asked the owner of my local bike shop if he could collect them for me. . . . I began by folding the inner tubes, getting a density that’s like a very dark, solid negative space. After that, I started adding copper that I had around the studio, creating an interplay of light and shadow. Then, suddenly, these new pieces started to feel more like my older work; the light moving across the copper . . . I see these as “21st-century icons” that encompass distance as well as light. There are many miles contained in the tires themselves, there are the hours in those miles, and there is light acting on them through time.

Alyson Shotz, Through, 2020, Recycled rubber bicycle inner tubes, copper nails, punched copper, wood
72 x 48 x 2 in., Image courtesy of the artist

VS: In addition to these heavy icon-like paintings, you have a lot of filigree-like sculptural pieces suspended from the ceiling. They feel light and almost ethereal. What are they made of?

AS: They’re made of plated steel. I design specific shapes that will fit together as a whole and have them punched industrially, out of sheet steel, then I connect the pieces with stainless steel rings. Each piece has to be individually folded onto the rings, and the whole thing, completed, becomes like a fabric made out of metal. The electroplating gives it its color.

VS: How do you get this kind of finish?

AS: Well, with all of my work, there’s a testing and refining process—which type of metal is best and which thickness is best, and which finish. There’s also a randomness inherent in the plating process that I really like: depending on the temperature and composition of the bath, as well as the temperature of the room, the color will vary. Because of that, I don’t do the finishing all at once—I send in pieces for plating and then connect them afterwards. The shape of the sculpture as a whole is greatly influenced by the material I’ve created and by gravity itself. I act as a kind of facilitator—guiding this new material into the sculpture it wants to be.

Alyson Shotz’s studio. Photo: Allan Northern

Shotz’s exhibition featuring this new body of work was due to open at Derek Eller Gallery in April, but has been postponed due to the covid-19 pandemic. 

Celebrating 51 Years of Pride

This month marks the 51st anniversary of Pride, a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community that is only possible because of the Queer POC who rebelled against oppression, discrimination, and police brutality. We are sharing some of the work, voices, and ideas of the LGBTQ+ artists in our collection. It is with reverence to the Black activists that paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights that we reflect on art as activism and an agent for change.

Lyle Ashton-Harris, Blow-Up II (Armory), 2005, Digital c-print, 24 x 20 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Carolyn Alper, 2010

Lyle Ashton Harris is multimedia artist working in photography, collage, installation, and performance art. His work often explores the theme of identity—specifically how gender, sexuality, and history are tied to Black and Queer identities. The artist began a series of collages in the mid-1990s, which use transparency, layering, and fragmented images to connect the disparate elements that form a person’s identity. The quote is from Harris’s artist statement from when he was an MFA student. Art historian Deborah Willis once described his work’s importance “on being visible, and not necessarily where people talk about hyper-visibility. It’s about staying present and using the archive to code and decode Black stories. That’s been an essential frame for him. That’s why his work has an impact. He’s in your face with it.”

Alfonso Ossorio, Recovery Drawings #6 (A Good Night’s Sleep), Book 1, 1989, Felt-tip watercolor marker on paper, 8 1/2 x 11 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the Ossorio Foundation, 2008

Alfonso Ossorio was one of the most colorful figures in postwar American Art. Following his work as a medical illustrator during World War II, Ossorio went to the Berkshires where he began exploring surrealist painting. It was there that he met his partner, ballet dancer Ted Dragon, while he was sketching flowers at an outdoor festival. The two remained together until Ossorio died in 1990. While his roots were in surrealism, Ossorio was drawn to the anarchic, cathartic, and rebellious style of artists Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffettheir friendship was explored in the Phillips’s 2013 exhibition Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet.

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow/Orange, 1970, 2-color lithograph on Arjomari paper, 41 1/2 x 30 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Fenner Milton, 2013

At first glance, the hard edge paintings of Ellsworth Kelly seem more similar to the work of pop artists or minimalists than the work of his contemporaries like Picasso or Rothko. But Kelly missed Abstract Expressionism almost entirely, as he was serving as a camouflage expert in Paris during and after the second World War. It was during that time that he was exposed to the work of modern artists that would influence his exploration of color and form. It is possibly because of this—his exposure without assimilation to any one movement—that Kelly developed work that was so unusual for his time. 

Joan Snyder, Savage Dreams, between 1981 and 1982, Oil and fabric on canvas, 66 x 180 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips in honor of Laughlin Phillips, 1992

Joan Snyder’s work incorporated non-art materials, often associated with domesticity, to create confessional, personal works of art. When Snyder was making work in the 1960s, there was a greater artistic concern for process; she considered the application of her materials to be a ritual that further pushed the intent of her pieces.

Allan deSouza, No Entry, 2011, C-print, 12 x 16 in., The Phillips Collection, Purchase, The Hereward Lester Cooke Memorial Fund, 2014

This photograph by Allan deSouza was made in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series as part of Intersections, a series of contemporary art projects inspired by the art and spaces of the Phillips. The Migration Series tracks a journey and a movement toward a better life. Allan deSouza focused on that narrative and his own history of migrationhis family’s move from South Asia to Kenya, and his journey from Kenya, to England, to the United Statescreating a series of photographs that explore themes of diaspora and colonization. The World Series was shown at the Phillips in 2011.

The quote is from deSouza’s How Art Can Be Thought: A Handbook for Change, strategies he has developed as an artist and educator on how to decolonize museums and academic spaces. 

Marie Laurencin, Flowers, not dated, Lithograph on paper, 14 5/8 x 10 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Marjorie Phillips, 1985

Marie Laurencin, one of the few female Cubist painters, pushed beyond the norms of that movement by introducing curved lines, pastel colors, and other artistic elements that were often dismissed as too feminine. Laurencin frequently had her work shown at Gertrude Stein’s salons and was very active in the emerging gay and lesbian scene in 1920s Paris. During this time Laurencin began referencing neoclassic and sapphic imagery in her work and those themes eventually became the entirety of her practice.

Bradley Walker Tomlin, Still Life, 1940, Oil on canvas, 22 1/8 x 29 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

Bradley Walker Tomlin straddled two different waves of American artists—he began working as an illustrator at the same time that Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, and other representational artists were at the height of their careers. Only five years later, the New York School and action painting took center stage. While Tomlin’s style evolved during this time, his work was often described as gentle, reserved, and unobtrusive. The Abstract Expressionist movement formed its identity around masculinity and bravado, and was never fully accepting of women, Black artists, or any perceived “outsiders.” Hedda Sterne, one of the few women involved with this group once said, “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.” Tomlin was unacknowledged as gay during his lifetime; it wasn’t until his long overdue retrospective in 2017 that his work was viewed within the context of his sexuality.

Jennie Lea Knight, Bluescape, 1950, Oil on hardboard, 20 x 16 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1951

Abstract painter and sculptor Jennie Lea Knight changed the DMV art scene in the 1960s. After studying under Kenneth Noland, Knight co-founded Northern Virginia’s first and only professional art gallery. She directed the gallery for 10 years before giving ownership to the participating artists, making it the city’s first cooperative. While her work was largely non-representational, Knight was influenced by forms found in nature. In addition to working as a full time artist, she was also a certified wildlife rehabilitator who lived on a working farm with her partner.

John Edmonds, Untitled (Hood 2) (detail), 2016, Archival pigment print, 20 x 14 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vittorio Gallo, 2018

In 2019, Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay spoke with artist John Edmonds during a Conversations with Artists event about his Hood series, which he began as an MFA student at Yale. The series confronts the toxicity of racial bias, while exploring themes of privacy, vulnerability, and protection.

Makeba Clay: So the hood is complex, it’s a complex symbol that is having us…thinking about the politicization of the Black male body, the policing of the male Black body as well, and also thinking about the softness and the beauty of the way that it is framed in your photographs. 

John Edmonds: For me the hoods are about this kind of Black masculinity, specifically as a form of protection. Those pictures kind of operate at a different frequency in how they’re really about this kind of exterior hardness.

Here’s to visibility, Black stories, and making an impact!

I Miss the Wax Room

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Manager of Teacher Initiatives Hilary Katz on why she misses the Wax Room.

The Laib Wax Room at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room immerses us in a space covered in beeswax; the sights, smells, and practically the taste consume our senses. We are transported inside a beehive, but instead of swarming bees, we find ourselves. Instead of dripping honey, we find a solitary hanging lightbulb. Instead of hexagonal honeycombs, we find smooth layers of hardened beeswax.

But what happens when we cannot physically walk inside works of art, such as the Wax Room? What happens when we can’t smell—in this case the beeswax—through our digital devices? How can site-specific, immersive artworks be experienced from the comfort and safety of our homes?

Museums should always prioritize accessibility; now, the public health crises of covid-19 and racism have intensified the need for accessibility. Covid-19 has led to the closure of the physical museum space, forcing us to find alternate ways of opening our doors. Racism, flagrant throughout America in 2020 and the past 400 years, has incited protests and momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrating how urgent it is for us to make our spaces accessible and provide a platform for reflection and action. As a museum educator, I aim to increase access to the museum in everything that I do. With my background educating through contemporary art, I relish teaching through immersive artworks—a daunting task to do while we’re at home.

The full title for the installation—Wax Room: Wohin bist du gegangen – wohin gehst du? (Where have you gone – where are you going?)—adds layers of complexity. Who is the “you” to which the title refers? Is it the bees? Is it someone the artist seeks? Is it us—the viewers, the participants?

Does Laib want us to consider how essential bees are to our survival, yet climate change threatens them? Alternatively, does the title serve as a metaphor for the people that come and go? Perhaps the singular lightbulb demonstrates the emptiness and loneliness one feels when someone is “gone.” Since only two people can fit in the Wax Room, the experience is solitary, something we can relate to all too well right now.

Laib engaged in a ritualistic process to melt over 440 pounds of beeswax (at an even temperature to ensure a consistent color) and apply the layers to the walls and ceiling, using a spatula, spackle knife, electric heat gun, and warm iron. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Yet the Wax Room inspires hope. You can practically taste sweet honey through the beeswax emanating from every surface of the room. Laib’s meditative installation process, combined with the intimate size of the space (6 x 7 x 10 ft.), allows us to enter into another world upon stepping into the Wax Room.

Just as bees are interconnected to human survival, we are all interconnected through our collective goal to survive this pandemic (of both disease and systemic racism). Art can provide a moment of solace, distraction, and hope during difficult times. Although I continue to dream of the days when I can walk by a physical work of art, allowing my senses to be engulfed, I have found other ways to savor those memories. Now is the time to tap into our imagination and bring to life the Wax Room from home: stir honey into a glass of steaming hot tea, eat a bowl of Honeycomb cereal, smell a beeswax candle, grab a spoonful of sticky and gooey fresh honeycomb, sit and meditate underneath a single lightbulb, go for a walk outside and look for a bee pollinating a flower.