Oona Stern

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meander, grass and gravel; 12’ x 50’; Huntington NY (Long Island), 2012

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stone curtain wall (BZ); cast gypsum, steel cable, hardware; 8’6” X 8’6” X 2”; 1999.
Galerie Reinhard Hauff, Stuttgart, Germany.

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the sound of grass growing; carpet, sound; 14’ x 76’; 2005. 
Sound designed in collaboration with Sara Stern. 
Long-term installation, commissioned by Art in General for Bloomberg, LP, NYC.

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brick; neon; 29.5” x 33.5”. 2009.

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deDomination (baroque); digital print on adhesive vinyl; 20 ‘one-sheets’, 29 7/8” x 45 7/8” ea; 2008-9.

Antarctic Drawings: 

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rubbings; crayon on paper; 2011

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skua egg; mixed media on paper; 4.675” x 7”; 2009

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glacier plaid; mixed media on paper; 11” x 14”; 2009

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op glacier with gull; mixed media on paper; 10.75” x 16.25”; 2009

A: Your work has always had a strong sense of solitude and and contemplative humor; however, I feel like your recent drawings encompass those feelings even more so than before.  Can you talk about some of the experiences that are inspiring you lately? 

O: Many of my recent drawings come out of the trip I made to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. This was part of a collaborative project with the composer and sound artist Cheryl Leonard. We sailed on a schooler for two weeks as part of the Arctic Circle residency, and we also explored the region on our own, winding up with an audio-video installation at the Insomnia Future Music and Techno Festival in Tromso, Norway. 

A:  Do you consider time, weather and space to be part of your mediums?

O: Well, I think time is different in the Arctic.  I don’t know if it’s a medium but it must be a part of the narrative.  I haven’t figured out how to bring that more to the foreground in my work yet, but I think at some point I’ll address it more.  My audio-video collaborations with Cheryl are making me  pay attention to time,  but I feel like I am just beginning to understand how time can play a role in my work.  I’m also paying more attention to the relativity of time.  Glacial time, for instance, is vastly different than human time. When things take eons to occur, it’s not something we palpably comprehend. I want to make some translation of this phenomena into the vocabulary and medium of the art project..  

I think of weather as time and materials together.  As for space, I think in terms of structure.  Space is definitely part of my tool box – whether as a function of the materials I choose, or as part of the site, or in the experience of the viewer. And now that I think of it, time is a function of space as well: how a physical space is experienced or revealed is a function of time.  

A:  I see your installations as drawings in space.  Can you talk about how drawing on a rectangular flat surface like paper is different from drawing in a three dimensional space?

O:  It’s the same.  It’s just using a different material.  Maybe it’s a bit more like a relief but the thinking is the same.  

A:  Do you find the restrictions in working on paper limiting?

O:  I don’t think so, because I still think of it spatially.  It’s not a limit, it’s a door or an ocean.  There are two ways of thinking about it; just like you can imagine the coast as either a dead end or as an expansive gateway.  When I’m drawing I think of it as a sample.  Like an exploration of a little piece that talks about a bigger story.  I draw and draw to think about things over and over again.  Its a process, not a final state. And really rarely does a drawing become a finished piece.  

A:  I like the way you phrased that - very much on the opposite of abstract expressionists who proclaimed the flatness of the page.  I like thinking of it as a deep, living space.  

O:  It’s also sculptural. It’s rare that I render something realistically but none the less, the imagery relates to  space and form which is three dimensional.  It’s still representation but in an abstracted space.  

A:  Can you talk about what it was like working alongside scientists? What were some of the differences and similarities between artists and scientists? 

O:    Well, here’s an example: A couple of years ago I received a residency from the National Science Foundation to go to Antarctica. It costs them a lot of money to send people down there.  While they could be putting that money towards hard edged scientific pursuits, they believe that bringing artists in, and allowing them to observe and think about whats going on in the natural world, and to observe what scientists do is worth the investment. Two things happen.  One is that  artists make their own observations, and create work as a kind of parallel to scientific research and findings. The other is that the projects created by artists have an audience which goes beyond the scientific community. And so it becomes a kind of outreach program.  Maybe it’s not hard science but it’s a bridge between scientists and other people.  Or maybe it is another valid way of processing the world.  It’s more  like poetry or meditation. Maybe it directs scientists  to answers they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to come to.  The NSF has supported artists’ projects for years, and no matter how dire their financial situation is, they never just axe the program.  They firmly believe that science should be intertwined with culture.  

But to answer your question more directly, Artists’ practice is similar to scientists’ in many ways. We artists observe the world around us. I really see that as a kind of data collection. And then this information is translated into different mediums of communication. For scientists its papers, talks, hypotheses, predictions. For artists, its poetry, narrative, objects, imagery, theater….

A:  What do you think the role of an artist is in culture?  Or your role, anyway? 

O:  I have no idea.  Honestly.  Do you know the story of Frederick the mouse? It’s a childrens’ book by Leo Leoni, illustrated by Eric Carle. It’s fall and all the mice are collecting food for the winter and this mouse, Frederick, just sits in the sun and the others are calling him lazy and telling him he’s going to die if he doesn’t collect food.  He replies that he is collecting sunny thoughts. When the winter comes they all share their food with him and say “ well, what are you going to share with us?” and he tells them stories about the sun and the colors and he enriches their lives during the bleak season.  This may be an overly simplified parable, but I think we need art. 

A:  Life would be too boring if all we did was survive.  I think the best things artists can do is go forth without knowing if there is even a step in front of them.  It’s a demonstration in faith.  

O: I completely agree that faith plays a major role in it.

A:  On a slightly different note, I have a quote that I wanted to share with you.  It’s from a book I read recently by Georges Perec called Species of Spaces and other Places:  “What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?”

I think part of your work is questioning the things we take for granted.  You invert the grass between slabs of concrete but (by?) putting concrete between planes of grass.  Or you zoom in on patterns on rocks, eggs, driftwood.  Is there a process of training your eyes to seeing, really seeing and experiencingthe oddness in the way we live but fail to take notice of?

O:  Maybe not the oddness; rather, the ordinariness.  It’s easy to see something special and unusual in something weird.  You know, there  are reasons why there is brick and then mortar and than another layer of brick on top of that .Most people pay no attention to that.  The mortar is what gives a wall structure.  If you just had loose bricks you wouldn’t have a structurally sound wall.  There are conventions learned over time that we’ve stopped thinking about because our generation is privileged enough to have these problems solved for us.  I like looking at ordinary stuff because it’s overlooked, but there is plenty to think about.  Its just my habit to see the world that way. I think we should feel a little humility in the face of all the beauty which lies within the mundane.

A:  I want to talk to you a little bit about making public art.  It’s a tricky arena.  There are plenty of public artists who dumb the work down to grant the viewer an easy reading.  There are other artists who decide that they don’t care at all what the public thinks - i’ve read some interviews of public artists who are downright disrespectful of their audience and dub the public ‘idiots’ - all the while using the community’s tax dollars to fund their work.  When I worked with you I noticed that you are very down to earth.  You don’t dumb your work down but you welcome the many different readings from viewers with different backgrounds.  

O:  Well, they are the ones who will experience the piece, and what’s important is for that experience to be meaningful.  Even if they don’t get exactly what I’m trying to say, hopefully I can think about what’s interesting to someone else, and create work where there is something for everybody.  When we worked on that installation in Ellwood Park in Huntington, one of my favorite moments was when we saw a kid was playing at something like hopscotch. We had just returned from lunch, and the kids had discovered the piece, and were hopping and skipping all over it.  It was so incidental, and not what I was thinking of when I was making the project, but nevertheless wonderful to see somebody experience the work with such joy.  Now, in fact, I design similar garden installations with that “use” in mind. I’ve learned from the genuine experience of the passersby, and absorbed it into how I design the work.

A:  I think one of the pleasures of art is opening it up to the public and not just talking to other artists - it can become very incestuous.  

Does it change the way that you see your work when it’s made in a gallery or in a non traditional art space like a park? 

O:  I’m not sure if there is really a difference.  The gallery is a public space after all.  I’ve done pieces for people inside their own homes as well - even though it’s a private home it’s still a space that’s experienced and has to relate to the architecture and the people inside.  The logistical details are different but the process is the same.  

A:  Have you been drawing all your life? 

O:  I think so. It’s telling that when my studio shrank down all that’s left at the moment is my drawing table -  that’s the most important part.  

A:  And you’re versatile.  There are immediate process here like directly putting material on a surface, and there are more process oriented methods where you’re scanning an image, reworking it, doing a rubbing - scanning that, using one color as opposed to two, using texture or just line. 

O:  I’m familiarizing myself with the vocabulary.  When I draw and redraw patterns or structures, and when I work over a print from a rubbing I am thinking about  the imagery in two ways. From the source: What does this edge on the rock mean? What does it say about material, structure, history, geology, physics…? And from my mark-making: How do I want to draw it? Hard lines, gestural, representative, what color, what value…? I’ve figured out how to draw ice after maybe probably a hundred drawings.  When I draw over a print of a rubbing I’m forced to confront the same marks over and over, and I have to think about what they really look like, what effect on the image, what impression on a viewer.  The rock’s edge is always there and I have to deal with it every time I rework the print.  I know the marks each of my  materials make, and it’s a matter of choosing which to use.  

A:  It’s almost like having a prompt.  

O:  Yeah, and I have to respond to that prompt every time.  I can choose to ignore it but that’s still a conscious decision.  

A:  It seems to me that there is a difference between your object oriented work as opposed to the drawings.  The drawings are more explorative; whereas, the objects/installations you make seem to have already been determined before you made them.

O:  The drawings exemplify a state of learning and the objects are decision making based on what I’ve learned from drawing.  I do something over and over again  in  drawings to become familiar with, and understand the subject; if and when I decide to translate that to something other than a drawing I’m no longer learning, I’m acting purposefully and putting it out in a more determined fashion.  Sometimes what happens is that after a series of drawings, and idea for a sculpture will present itself to me. A kind of “Aha!” moment that arises out of a somewhat meditative process. The forms and materials will often seem obvious. Maybe that’s what you were touching on when you described the objects and installations as decisive or determined.

A:  Do you identify with performance art?  When people interact with your work does it become a performative object or a catalyst for performance?  

O:  I guess it does, but I’m not involved in that aspect of the piece.  Maybe that interaction becomes performance, but who is the audience if the viewers are the performers?  I made a piece in the New York City subway.  I rented advertising space to put up my own posters. The idea was to ‘erase’ the advertising which is usually present, and to return the space to more neutral architectural functions. The ads in the subways are installed in public spaces, and you have to experience it whether you want to or not. Its actually a kind of theft of public space for use in private commerce…Anyway, I created an installation which was basically wallpaper. I chose to draw wallpaper because that’s a form of imagery and material which is associated with walls - It’s not what I think is pretty or some ‘decorative’ imagery -  that would just be me advertising.  I didn’t want to announce it as artwork by putting my name on it or anything.    The work would be there for the passerby to notice - or not. Perhaps taking note of the quiet image that normally serves as ad space - or not. This piece requires and audience – it had no meaning otherwise. Does that make it performance, albeit one which may well be unconscious to the participant? 

A:  I’m fascinated by that idea.  As an object maker myself I sometimes imagine myself drowning in my home from all the junk i’ve made and situated around me; so I like the act of making art by subtracting as opposed to adding.  

On a different note, I notice now you’ve been making things that are fairly untouched by man; however in your earlier work you were making things that dealt more with the representation of nature as opposed to the reality of it.  Can you talk about this a little bit? 

O:  I’m interested in how we apply faux wood finishes to  plastic and other man-made materials - it seems so pointless.  Design has changed recently, but before people were comfortable with plastics and steel we wanted those materials to look like something else, something natural and more familiar. Really, why make siding which looks like wood clapboards, or brick and mortar? Why not decorative patterns like the Greeks developed – abstracted foliage or even geometrical patterns…? The faux finishes are funny and theatrical too - like a stage set.  There’s some cultural coding which goes on that just fascinates me.

The residencies I’ve done in the Antarctic and Arctic have influenced me to shift my work away from man-made structures and cultural artifacts, towards nature in its more pure state of being.  Many of the drawings that I’ve been doing lately are related to pattern and geometry.  But instead of architectural patterns, they are drawn from nature. I was looking at the structure of ice in an almost architectural way - how its held together.  We sometimes think of nature as a wild place but it is actually highly ordered.  The waves in the sand or stripes on zebras are formed by organizing, scientific forces.  Nature isn’t just pretty, it’s structured in the same way that a building is.  

As these ice drawings developed, I had an idea of rendering glaciers as a kind of “ plaid.”  It’s not really plaid, but the familiar pattern helps me see  how the forms and planes and spaces of the material all come together.  You asked before how I see artists’ practice as similar, or dissimilar to that of scientists. Early explorers learned a lot by simply drawing ,and that’s what I’m doing too.  

A:  Is this the first time travel has been a part of your work? 

O:  Travel isn’t so much content as it is an opportunity.  Because Antarctica is so far away and so special it becomes a different kind of experience.  There are so few people and the space is so huge and meditative.  The remoteness allows access to things I don’t get to experience in my daily life.  Many people think of that climate as being harsh and unfriendly; for me it was incredibly relaxing to just sit in this monstrous, white, icy place and just be there.

*For those interested (and I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be) here are some links to learn more about Oona Stern and Cheryl Leonard’s ongoing projects: 

http://vimeo.com/user5988935

http://atlengthmag.com/art/ice-notes/