For the last several years, I have been making sculpture and installations engaging the peculiarities of the judeo/christian legacy. The religious images which were once an assumed vocabulary of western visual culture have become strange and a bit archaic, but are still potent. Using everything from levers to artificial hearts, I find mechanical metaphors particularly suited to thinking about the functions of religion and faith. For the most part, the devices I use are passive, requiring the viewer to actually or mentally complete the system. It is a sort of do-it-yourself approach involving the labor of cranking, pumping, grinding, or simply turning on the gas.
Lauren Grossman interview with Glasschord editor Daniel James McCabe:
Daniel James McCabe: For several years your work has addressed imagery drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Did you receive religious instruction as a child? If so, how does your experience inform your work today?
Lauren Grossman: My personal background is one of mixed religion (literally Judeo-Christian), but does it really matter? This is the assumed (or applied) cultural heritage of all Caucasians living in the west. The allusions and imagery from the Bible or Tanakh are so interwoven into our art, literature, and social structure that many of these references have lost their connection to the source material, picking up alternative secular uses. Wrestling with this contradictory, messy, and sometimes risky subject matter keeps me interested trying to figure out what my legacy looks like in terms of contemporary sculpture.
DJM: Your work features a range of elements, from potentially dangerous components such as the spiked “Holy Mountain” and the nails facing the viewer on the “Valley of Decision”, to the unmistakably docile images of the lamb in pieces like “Whithersoever”. How does this contrast speak to your vision?
LG: Certainly the imagery in the source material varies dramatically from the threatening to the consoling — the apocalyptic to the treacly. Sometimes in books like Isaiah the switch in tone can happen within a few lines. Each of my pieces has its own logic for how it might be finished. In “My Holy Mountain”, the chrome studs and fur serve to add a fetish quality to the idea of a personal relationship with God. Each viewer can reach out and adjust the mountain within the structure to his/her own liking. Although it may be hard to see in a photo, the spines in “Valley of Decision” are actually hundreds of tiny needles embedded into the bronze text, the meaning of which seems clear enough. “Whithersoever” employs a casting of a kitschy lamb on fake grass mounted on multidirectional wheels and is all about literalizing the idea of “following”. Frankly, I find docile to be more dangerous than spiky.
DJM: The use of salvaged or reclaimed material is also prominent in your work, which is interesting in regards to your subject matter. Considering that you may not always know which substances you will be working with as you approach your process, how often does the material you salvage impact on your plan?
LG: I confess to being a bit of a packrat, gathering interesting parts and materials which kick around my studio until they find their way (or not) into particular pieces. Sometimes I draw a piece knowing that I have a certain pulley or flywheel or whatever, but just as often I go out searching for something that I can reuse to serve my idea. Who doesn’t need a cheap excuse for going to thrift stores and junkyards to sort through cultural detritus? I take a similar approach to scavenging my texts and images.
DJM: There is a strong element of mechanical movement in your work, as in pieces such as “O Wheel”, “Rocker” and “Wife”. Does this reflect a deeper theme in your work?
LG: Usually the mechanisms in the pieces are an invitation for direct interaction with the objects. I like to complicate the relationship the viewer has with the work, forcing a decision of whether or not to participate as well as the evaluation of the experience. For me, this participatory element touches on the voluntary nature of faith. Some of the smaller pieces function as a sort of a Victorian tabletop demonstration of certain stories, a vision of Ezekiel in “O Wheel”, for example. The movement of “Wife”, like the story of Lot’s nameless wife, is all about the turning. The red knobs and little instructional arrows ask viewer to grab one of the handles and circumambulate the piece which rotates the torso and grinds salt. The powdered salt falls from the seam and very slowly deposits onto a mound on the floor. In theory, this would eventually build up into a “pillar”, but there’s almost always someone who can’t resist the chance to mess with the hours of grinding done by others.
Of course, there is a rich history of sculpture being directly handled in both religious ritual and storytelling. The base physicality of these objects used to discuss ephemeral or holy notions intrigues me. In baroque churches, I am the one peeking behind the dazzling gold altarpieces at the big steel brackets holding the whole heavy affair overhead. The structures interest me as much as the imagery–sometimes more.
DJM: Balance is a key element in much of your work. How does this speak to your notions of the ideologies from which you draw?
LG: So many of the concepts of the Bible can be reduced to basic dualities — dark/light, good/evil, heaven/hell, harlot/virgin. Balancing structures seem like a direct method for addressing the precarious space between the extremes where we all live and make choices.
DJM: “Drunkard” is a complex and multi-faceted piece. Could you elaborate on the elements at work here and the ideas they are meant to reflect?
LG: The imagery comes from the “Little Apocalypse” of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 24:20-23. It describes how the earth shall “reel to and fro like a drunkard…” and goes on to mention the weight of its transgressions, etc. Later in the melee it says, “Then the moon shall be confounded…” What I am interested in is the anthropomorphic imagery used to picture the cosmic destruction — almost a personal relationship between a drunk and someone/thing held in orbit.
It is quite hard to get much sense of this installation from photos, but standing below the big teetering orb gives quite a nervous sensation, like being in the company of a drunk person. The strain on the steel uprights is visible and the movement of the pulley on the cable is inconsistent due to how high the orb is mounted. It takes a lot of iron castings to keep the earth and the mountain at its summit aloft. Every so often, the orbiter/moon device on the floor will activate and travel for a few seconds along its path then stop. I wanted to impart a sense of impending disaster combined with the hopefulness of the little orbiter–you know it’s that balance thing again.
DJM: What can you tell us about your current projects?
LG: After a recent teaching gig in Rome, I have become even more interested in scaffolding and improvisational structures. I’m still continuing work with the mountain and river imagery from Isaiah. I’m also nosing about in the book of Job and investigating our cultural taste for monsters, specifically Leviathan. I’d like to build a walk-in Leviathan structure, but haven’t found the time, money or venue for that one just yet. This weekend, I’ll be pouring molten iron text over porcelain to see if it shatters in an aesthetically useful way.
DJM: Will your work be in any forthcoming shows?
LG: I am currently working toward a solo of new work for next March in Seattle.