Material Matters: A roundtable with five promising Toronto artists

x, y, z: Jennifer Rose Sciarrino: x, y, z (installation view, 2013). Courtesy Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto.Jennifer Rose Sciarrino: x, y, z (installation view, 2013). Courtesy Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto.

Interview by Lucas Soi

Over the past year, the Sterling Road studio building in Toronto’s West End has been a hotbed of art production by a group of buzz-worthy emerging artists. As a loosely affiliated yet very supportive group, these artists create paintings, sculptures, prints (and hybrids of these forms) that demonstrate a strong commitment to materiality while playing with the tenets of Process, Conceptual and Minimal art. In this roundtable discussion, independent curator and writer Lucas Soi talks with five of these artists — Georgia Dickie, Lili Huston-Herterich, Vanessa Maltese, Abby McGuane and Jennifer Rose Sciarrino — about the cross-currents that are running through their work.

The Architecture of the Panel

Georgia Dickie: Won’t Stick to My Guns (2013): Various found metal. Courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.Georgia Dickie: Won’t Stick to My Guns (2013): Various found metal. Courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.Lucas Soi (LS): Your pieces, Jen, with the cut concrete, the idea of making pieces out of concrete — the same material a sidewalk is made out of — is referring to the environment. Georgia’s work similarly uses the bits and pieces that make up the built environment, which is all man-made. Using the same material, like wood, nuts and bolts…

Vanessa Maltese (VM): I often think my practice is about how I relate to architecture.

Lili Huston-Herterich (LHH): I would say it’s not about architecture for me. It’s about how one uses pre-existing architecture and changes its function, or changes its direction. I think about how the architecture of a space is already considered; now let’s see what I can do with it, and modify it.

Jennifer Rose Sciarrino (JRS): I use architecture directly. From referring to architectural models, computer-rendering technology and support structures, and making those have a sense of movement and a sense of an occupation of space. I look at a lot of Brutalist architecture. The idea of teams of people working in this modeling software to plan and make something that they’ve decided to make on a huge scale. But, how you can also use those same programs to make nothing, to never make the thing. It can still exist in that way, in that space on a screen, and still sort of be.

Abby McGuane (AM): When I use white, I am directly referencing the architecture of the white cube. It’s a way of making an object exist in two places. In the neutral space, the surrounding space that you’re not supposed to see, and the thing that you’re supposed to look at. It’s about how any object can be made indeterminate. It becomes the thing you see second, but it’s so obviously articulated, and weird, and not of the architecture of the space.

Vanessa Maltese: Wire Rocker (2013): Electrical wire, wood, acrylic paint. Courtesy the artist and Erin Stump Projects, Toronto.Vanessa Maltese: Wire Rocker (2013): Electrical wire, wood, acrylic paint. Courtesy the artist and Erin Stump Projects, Toronto.LHH: It’s really about feeling the nature of a space and arranging ideas, or even just being able to arrange emotion in the space with objects, not the other way around, not arranging objects to accommodate the space…

Georgia Dickie (GD): So we’re talking about proximity. I think even between the five of us, this is something that we much acknowledge. It is something that I try and acknowledge in my own work, which is simply proximity: what is close to you, what is near to you and the logistics of that.

LHH: I think I’m a bit more internal in that sense. I’m more interested in the indoors than the outdoors.

LS: Which is another environment, right?

LHH: Yeah, an environment that is suited for leisure, or suited for life, like an environment that accommodates life rather than contests it. I think the industrial environment contests comfortable life.

LS: Well, industry is how wealth was created, which established those luxurious domestic environments.

LHH: Wealth facilitates your ability to ground where you live, and customize your surroundings and build around yourself and arrange your space autonomously and arrange your space consciously. Which effects how you position your furniture and how you host guests.

JRS: Whereas I will deal with the opposite, where it’s about those buildings, those spaces, what’s underneath them, what are they made out of, like steel and concrete.

VM: Our studio space is limited. You can only do so much in it. It’s big, for a studio in Toronto, but it’s still really small. And, it’s limiting and it determines the size of whatever it is you can make and how many things you can make at one time.

The Foundness of Objects

Vanessa Maltese: Stencil Painting No. 2 (2013): Oil on panel. Courtesy the artist and Erin Stump Projects, Toronto.Vanessa Maltese: Stencil Painting No. 2 (2013): Oil on panel. Courtesy the artist and Erin Stump Projects, Toronto.VM: I feel like there’s a lot of objects in my space that I necessarily didn’t determine their size or shape.

LS: Like the billiard balls at the ends of the legs of your table sculpture?

VM: Sure, and the work in my last show solo at Erin Stump Projects were kind of born from the excess of stick-like pieces of wood that are in my space. Like, you buy a piece of wood and it’s planed in a rectangle, or I pick up the trash from the wood shop downstairs and that determines the starting point for the sculpture.

JRS: And, even if we’re not necessarily picking them out of the garbage as they’re found, we’re still finding the right answer to a surface, like corrugated roofing or steel.

GD: But, it’s also problematic to directly associate the readymade with the found object. I mean, this is exactly what I meant before which is, what makes something found? I’d almost argue that every material is found, in some respects, and how do you measure that?

VM: Or, you go to the hardware store and you select based on how you respond to them.

JRS: Or, you go to bargain stores like Lili to buy J-Cloths!

VM: You can find something there that you selected, but it’s still the form that it came in and then you work with it from there.

JRS: And, you work with the dimensions that things come in, too.

VM: And, you maybe manipulate it to a point that you can’t even realize it’s original form, but I wouldn’t really consider that a found object or a readymade.

JRS: No, it’s not a readymade, in our situation. 

GD: Well, it might be, I just don’t think there’s a direct correlation.

Lili Huston-Herterich: 3 Cyanotype J-Cloths (For Everyday Use), 2012.: Courtesy the artist and Art Metropole, Toronto.Lili Huston-Herterich: 3 Cyanotype J-Cloths (For Everyday Use), 2012.: Courtesy the artist and Art Metropole, Toronto.The Hierarchy of the Image

AM: The idea of finish is always kind of … with the sculpture that I make… it generally has component parts and so, in that, there is a practicality to it, you know, A - B - C, these parts that go together. Tthe implication is that they come apart, and could be repurposed. And, each sculpture generally has these components. But, the way I use images, they’re iconic and they’re found, and they’re always sort of partial, very provisional, and the way they appear, that “unfinished” aesthetic, or paucity. It’s not quite enough, it’s this really thin membrane.

GD: But, that’s what’s interesting to me about your work because, for me, there’s an element of interchangeability. Between works within themselves and in a grander scheme. I can imagine how one part of one sculpture would enter another work. It’s not to say they’re self-referential; there’s just sort of a consistency there with the forms.

LHH: They hold each other up. You’re making these really intricate, custom, sculptural mounts, that are then holding another piece. And, you also mount your work on your studio walls as much as possible, so they’re always being rearranged and being re-sequenced.

VM: But also, being privy to your studio practice, it’s interesting to see the sculptural mounts, before they ever have that plane on them, to see them as objects in themselves. And, there’s also these membranes that you spoke about, the sheets with the image on them; they’re being made separately so you never really know what fits with what. But, there’s also the opportunity for something else to fit into it.

LS: But, is that in the prefabrication or is that in the finished work?

LHH: At Abby’s last solo show at O’Born Contemporary, which I worked on in a curatorial capacity, there was a lot of back and forth with people who were seeing your work for the first time about which part to look at, feeling guilty if they were looking at the mount, or the image, or vice versa.

Abby McGuane: Untitled (2012): Tempered glass, silicone, homasote, toner and acrylic medium on silk, plastic fishing float. Courtesy the artist.Abby McGuane: Untitled (2012): Tempered glass, silicone, homasote, toner and acrylic medium on silk, plastic fishing float. Courtesy the artist.VM: Like, what came first? Is the mount only to serve the purpose of holding up the sheet or did you add the sheet after to alleviate, to lift, the mount up to a different level?

LHH: I mean, I’ve worked that way working with framed photographs, where the image in the frame is not what it’s about.

VM: What’s interesting about that is that everyone assumes that pictorial, that flat thing, which is the sheet in Abby’s work, or what’s in the frame in Lili’s, is the starting point, justifying why the other part exists.

GD: So, there’s a hierarchy that exists where image is above the object.

VM: Oh, of course. For sure.

LS: And, isn’t that an intrinsic part of sculpture, which is surrounded by imagery, its environment? Like Georgia’s hoop, when you look through that hoop it acts as a frame, and the picture is inside it.

JRS: And, the negative space that a sculpture creates by just being there. The shadow becomes part of the sculpture.

LS: Which you’re always considering.

JRS: Yes, always.

Moving Beyond the Static Viewer

LHH: But, Abby’s work uses space in a really seductive way because you can’t look at one of Abby’s works just from one perspective, you have to look behind it, or look around it, and above it and below it.

AM: And, I’m using movement a little more now.

Abby McGuane: Cave (2012): Transfer on canvas, wood, house paint, homasote. Courtesy the artist.Abby McGuane: Cave (2012): Transfer on canvas, wood, house paint, homasote. Courtesy the artist.LS: Movement of the viewer.

JRS: We use movement a lot.

LHH: I feel like I want to make work that makes people really slow down to the point where they’re not moving at all.

GD: I guess, I don’t think about movement as something you utilize. I don’t see how you could capture movement and then use movement. I’m more interested in how you imply movement as something optimistic. I’m interested in the optimism associated with movement and through that desegregation, like how you…

JRS: I was thinking about your circular piece.

GD: Well sure, it’s more so for me, the thing that’s troublesome is the temporal nature of objects, and it’s why I would adhere something together. I’m more and more hesitant to use things like glue; I’m much more drawn to things like screws, where things can be taken apart and reassembled, put back together, almost as though the idea is that they would be returned to the same place they were gathered from. But, to me, movement is about optimism. And, so much of it is about hesitation, and hesitation in terms of how do you move forward. I’m so not focused on end result because I want to find ways to keep myself moving forward.

LHH: Like, I finish something but only for the means to have someone else start it again. I’m not interested in having it stand still. I’m interested in getting rid of it.

VM: Once you’re done with it, you mean?

LHH: I feel like once I’m done with it — like I’m only done when it is ready to be used by someone else. When the piece is friendly enough to be approached.

Lili Huston-Herterich opens a solo exhibition of new works at Xpace in Toronto on October 18, 2013. Jennifer Rose Sciarrino's work appears in the group exhibition Volumes: Works in Paper at the Burnaby Art Gallery in Burnaby, B.C., which opens on November 29, 2013.

Lucas headshot: Lucas headshotLucas Soi is Director/Curator of Soi Fischer, which produces contemporary art projects in Toronto and Vancouver. He is currently Curator-in-Residence at Cooper Cole Gallery’s satellite location where he will be overseeing exhibitions by Toronto artists Jeremy Jansen, Andrea Pinheiro, Brad Tinmouth and Georgia Dickie through to September.