The following dialogue was conducted in January and February 2012 between the North Carolina based artist Peter Glenn Oakley and the Denver based designer & artist Michael P. Toussaint.
SECTION ONE: MARBLE IS MODERN (new formless form and pure form)
MPT: Marble, as with all stone work, has a rich and extensive history. In the modern world, and the modern art word, it isn’t however the predominant medium of choice. Yet, your work seems extremely modern. You seem to accomplish this through the use of subject matter in relation to the material used. How did you come to work in marble, and what do you feel working in marble allows you to accomplish that other mediums do not?
PGO: I've always been drawn to marble sculptures, since I first saw them. (White) marble sculptures (especially) have this aura of having always been there. They look like they just happened somehow, or were simply found - no trace of the hand. People often observe that - no trace of the hand. But the entire shape of a statue is entirely the mark of the hand!
My natural tendency is toward 3D work. I like how 3D objects are out here, among us, rather than over there on the wall like 2D work. Also for me, drawing is very difficult and unsatisfying. I have difficulty making marks that look like shadows. I find it easier and more direct to simply make a shape, and let the shape cast real shadows.
Marble sculpture does have such an extensive history, and that history can carry a viewer beyond the two seconds they were originally willing to spend with a piece. Also, the carving process (although not terribly difficult) is far outside most people's realm of experience. So there is not a lot of I-could-have-done-that criticism flying around marble sculpture. Viewers are often slightly in awe of the medium, and thus they spend a bit longer with a marble sculpture, long enough for a concept to gain a foothold.
Conceptually, with marble, one has not only the rich conceptual implications of the stone to play with (i.e., its purity, it is of the earth, it is unfathomably ancient, etc.), but also the history can be endlessly mined and juxtaposed against new content. For example, since marble has been employed to such an extent portraying ideal forms, what exactly happens when a styro box is carved in marble? Does the heavy history tend to elevate the styro box, or does this new formless form in marble pull the old forms down a notch? Because they are now in the same family. And on the heels of this, we have the implications of rendering such a synthetic object in a natural material. Because the styro box represents for us our relentless consumption of and alienation from the resources of our planet.
MPT: This is intriguing. The history of marble and its portrayal of ideal forms, is a classical Greek portrayal: the “ideal form” is an idealized human form. One could argue, in a contemporary sense, that the styro box, as pure form, is equally an idealized form. After all, just look at how the edges taper smoothly in; how there aren’t any hard angles; the form is simple and elegant; and if anything, white marble ideally portrays this ideal better than styrofoam.
The key focus here, the essence of the concept, seems to be Duchampian. It is the elevation of the everyday object to that of a work of art. But you are approaching this differently. You aren’t just displaying styrofoam takeout boxes, or any other object. You are recontextualizing the everyday, imbuing it with further meaning and implication, arguably transgressing the established meaning, by portraying the idea of the everyday object in the greater context of marble.
Simultaneously, there is the elevation of design and the designer to that of art and the artist. Someone, or rather many designers, spent an enormous amount of time figuring out the extreme complexity of the takeout box, but also how to portray it in as simple a means possible, whereby the average person would not even stop to think about what they are carrying. Your marble work seems then to be an extension of seeing, how a person sees, and what this tells us about a greater sense of awareness.
PGO: The trompe l'oeil aspect of the styro pieces is very important. It matters because initially, the viewer sees the exact same styrobox form as always, not yet knowing that this version is marble. Then, learning that this is a marble object, it somehow becomes irrevocably different. The nature of this transformation is extremely interesting to me. The exact same shape, rendered unchanged in marble, gains some kind of formal credibility. As styrofoam (or even the marble object taken for styro!), the shape is formally bankrupt, but just the knowledge that this form is in marble qualifies the shape to be viewed and even admired. Carving these takeout boxes is simply a way to present the pre-existing form so that it can be looked at.
It is Duchampian in a way. Here, though, the form of the object is the found thing while materially it is a created object. Maybe it's more like Warhol, although I hate that parallel for some reason.
I think I like Baudrillard's take on the simulacrum. The copy without an original. Which I interpret to mean that the copy somehow has a life of its own, that it transcends what it was copied from, actually eclipses its original. I think he says that the copy annihilates its original.
SECTION TWO: ANNIHILATING THE ORIGINAL (the process of transcending)
MPT: The process of elevation of an object as a result of perception is intriguing, (this is very Baudrillard and we will get to that in a moment). Because an object, in this case the styro box, is marble rather than styrofoam, and because marble is an accepted idealized medium, in part or possibly wholly because of its history and that history in relation to society, the object can be raised to the level of art. Now, what do you think would happen if you displayed only the styro box in a gallery, in a very Duchampian manner. Arguably, the placement would, for some, force the viewer to think further and at greater depth about the object, its function, and its meaning. On one level this is what you are trying to accomplish through carving the box in marble and displaying the marble “statue.” But would it still be accepted and elevated to the level of art? Also, what would happen if you displayed both the marble and the stryo box in the same gallery, placed them under separate boxes of glass, and then switched their identifying tags so that the one that said marble was identifying the styro box and vice-versa? The guest would know, by being able to see the object before them, that they were looking at a styro box, but their mind, via having read the identification tag, would tell them that it was really marble. I think the affect would be something similar to a Zen Koan. The question is, would the guest raise the styro box to the level of art only because they think it is marble? This presents the question of medium, and to a degree context, in relation to form and art. Is a representation of something art, and the thing itself not art? This then brings us to Baudrillard . . .
Baudrillard and semiotics in some ways seem far more relevant to your work than “Art History,” and I am placing quotes to acknowledge the institutionalization of the history of art. I feel as though I could go on at length pointing out the many parallels between your work and Baudrillard’s theories, but I am only going to bring into play one element, and this plays off of what I’ve been discussing.
For Baudrillard, meaning is brought about through systems of signs working together. Meaning, and by this he means “value,” is created through difference, through what something is not. The question then is, does the marble representation of the styro box become meaningful, obtain its value, only because it is not styrofoam? or, because it is not styrofoam and is presented in a medium that society deems to possess value? Arguably, a styro box made of diamonds, or quarts, or even glass could be elevated, but one made of plastic would not be. Again, the form and shape is the same, but the medium, and therefore context, is different.
PGO: I think the medium is important, but not paramount. With its historical clout/baggage, the medium (marble) matters, but what really adds value or meaning to the styro box (what elevates it) is my looking. Are you familiar with a "painting" called 1000 Hours of Staring? No paint at all, blank canvas, but this artist, Tom Friedman, logged 1000 hours staring at it. My use of marble for these sculptures telegraphs to the viewer that the styro box didn't just catch my eye for a moment and on a whim I presented it for viewing, but rather I really really looked at it. The marble (because of the long process involved), proves that I spent some serious time looking at and thinking about the styro box formally, and maybe that makes it worth the while of the viewer to make the effort to appreciate this form for its beauty, which was somehow not there all along, even though the form is largely unchanged during this transformation from banal to beautiful. Does the act of looking create some kind of beauty, or is this beauty intrinsic and is just discovered through the look? Is this how objects eventually enter the realm of archetype?
It is the reverse of the flow Kant described. Here we have something phenomenal moving into the noumenal.
MPT: Without digressing into Kant, I want to ask you a few questions regarding process. How do you choose your subject matter? Why a takeout out box or a glock over, say, a drinking glass or a toothbrush, or anything else?
PGO: There are several criteria I look for when choosing a subject.
Something utterly ubiquitous. A man-made object. The thing has to have a strong visual presence, but not be very designey. Ideally the thing possesses some hidden anthropomorphism (see styro box 8 on Flanders website). The glock has this, the profile view shows a rather neanderthal sloping brow.
The subjects I choose have generally been things that either disappear as they are used (missile, soap), or their function so overpowers their appearance that they are virtually invisible, at least when in use (like the pistol or the styro box).
The subject needs to relate to something very important to humans. Styro box relates to food, and bread-winning. Gun and missile obviously relate to power and violence. Soap, cleanliness. Typewriter, information. Panties (and the missile, as phallus) relate to sex.
And also, for the trompe l'oeil aspect of the work, the subject needs to match, color and texture, some specific workable stone that is available to me.
We already talked about marble conceptually, but the jade gives a further example of how the stone must relate and be pertinent to the subject matter. Jade is considered a semi-precious stone, is quite valuable, and is much venerated for its beauty. Like marble, jade has a rich sculptural history. The jade panties will evince an ironic juxtaposition of certain conceptual elements, as well as conceptual harmony between subject matter and medium. That tight complex relationship is very important to me when choosing both subject and material.
MPT: Let’s talk for a moment about your sculpture “Typewriter.” This was, I think, the second work you did in marble, your first being a bar of soap, (correct me if I’m wrong). In many ways it is also one of your most complex, and certainly popular, works. What made you want to undertake this project? (The leap of complexity between the two works is considerable.) What lessons did you learn? And how does the piece work regarding the trompe l’oeil aspect? and by this I mean your other pieces, the styro box, the soap bars, the missile, etc, resemble with considerable accuracy the appearance of the original.
PGO: Michael Geary called the typewriter "a bad idea gone good."
I actually did four styro boxes before doing the typewriter and worked on the fifth concurrently with the typewriter. (My first marble sculpture was a figurative piece, which I later ruined.)
I intended to do a series on information technology, and I might still persue that, but I continued to develop momentum with the styro pieces and now I'm on to weaponry, etc.
The typewriter piece lacks the trompe l'oeil effect entirely. A typewriter would be very strong in black marble, which I may undertake at some point. I did the Corona Four in white marble, which was what I had on hand. But I thought at the time, and I still think now, that it is conceptually strong, even without being a trompe l'oeil piece.
It's complexity is engaging, and carries the piece as far initially as the trompe l'oeil effect carries the other pieces. The complexity of the subject also plays well off the absolute monolithic nature of the marble (no epoxy!).
Typewriters were valued for the documents they produced. The appearance of the machine itself, although admired, was definitely secondary to the function of the machine. So the typewriter, especially in the period when it was heavily used, was kind of an invisible object. So it fits conceptually with my other work.
Also there is an ancient relationship between writing and stone that is still going forward today. Important data has always been carved into stone. Even now we etch our zeros and ones into silicon. It is ironic then to record in stone an image of a complex lettering tool as a single data point.
As for what lessons I learned: I learned through this piece that I had to generalize some information. Typewriters can have thousands of components, and I do not have the technical ability to depict everything. Timothy Ford pointed out while I was working on the piece that my indecision about what to generalize and how to do that was the main thing holding me up.
MPT: Stemming from previous conversations, I had thought the typewriter was one of the first projects you had ventured to undertake. Regardless, moving from styro boxes to the typewriter, in relation to technical skill, is a considerable leap. Conceptually, the doubling and juxtaposition of the typewriter, one in white marble and one in black marble, is exceptional fertile ground, a project, in my consideration, worth exploring.
Since we’re discussing your first few works in marble, let’s stay in this period for a moment. What was your entry into using marble? I know you had, for many years, done “stone work” as it is often called in shorthand. That is, constructing such things as fireplaces, walkways, and I think there was an entry to a Buddhist temple of some sort as well. I imagine that this allowed you to become familiar with the materiality of stone, its feel and function, but what prompted the move to marble and sculpting, and what was that transition like for you?
PGO: I did stone masonry work through my twenties. I always had an interest in marble sculpture. I decided to buy a little block of marble and a few chisels after a trip to NYC in maybe 2004. I had seen Nydia the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii at the Met and I was inspired to try a figurative sculpture. It's the one I ruined after working on it on and off for four years.
I took a few inscription jobs at first, jobs I got through masonry jobs I was already doing. Address markers, signs, gravestones, and I paid for a studio space that way at first. Then I began selling sculptures.
Masonry chisels work the same way as sculpture chisels. A shallow angle pitches chips off the surface. A steep angle cracks the stone deeply and splits it. So all the stone work was great training, not just with the tools, but also learning how to read the stone, that is, where it is likely to crack, and when the chisel is beginning to cut too deep.
SECTION THREE: FORM AND SHAPE (the shape is formally bankrupt)
MPT: Let’s discuss for a moment the difference between form and shape. I’m interested in something you said earlier. “As styrofoam (or even the marble object taken for styro!), the shape is formally bankrupt, but just the knowledge that this form is in marble qualifies the shape to be viewed and even admired.” How are you differentiating between form and shape in this statement?
PGO: Interesting you would pick that up. I guess I am using form to denote that it is being looked at and valued somehow, whereas something just happens to be shaped the way it is. I am trying to find a way to make that distinction linguistically and having a bit of a hard time with it.
Maybe that act of looking transforms something into art. Again Duchamp went over all this a hundred years ago.
MPT: I see. For an object, form has implied value, and shape is the basic physicality of the object. This reminds me of something you mentioned in a previous conversation. “Vanishing forms, or non-formal objects that, placed in this new context, are suddenly recognized for their formal loveliness, which has lain hidden somehow.” Through portraying an object in marble, the form, as you imply form, becomes the focus of the work, making it apparent and elevating it from being only a shape. When you use shape then, shape and non-form are the same, they are the basic physicality of the object, as you indicated in this statement: “By non-form, I mean an object that is common among us, but is never looked at as a form; not appreciated. Just taken for granted.”
Let’s discuss one of your more recent works, Missile. How did you find yourself, after carving so many takeout boxes in various forms, using a missile as your subject?
PGO: I had already conceived of the guns in black marble, but the only material I had at the time was a long narrow block of white marble. I wanted to get started on some type of weaponry, and that block lent itself well to the shape of a missile.
A funny story there: I was researching pictures of missiles, trying to find the shape I wanted, and I ended up on some pretty radical websites, people with beards and strange headgear, with old weaponry from the eighties. As I was clicking through these websites, my computer burned out. It made a faint buzzing and died forever. The technician I took it to said he had never seen that type of failure in that type of computer.
Anyway, the missile was the first in my weaponry series, and will be followed by the Glock in black marble. The missile is the first thing I have done which is not to scale. It is only 36 inches long, whereas the type of weapon I modeled it on is generally 30 feet in length. I had a problem with that for a while, because I don't like the idea of miniatures. But the piece became more and more toylike, to the extent that the final polish even looks like plastic. This reinforces certain conceptual aspects for me, so in the end I was happy with the piece.
MPT: Having seen photos of the work in progress, and without us having spoken about it, I had thought the intention was to find a child’s toy of a missile made of styrofoam or plastic, and to recreate that as a work in marble. I was making associations between what you had done already and what the work appeared like to me. While the sculpture began with one intent - to be modeled upon a real missile - it has become something quite different, at least conceptually, even if the form is unaltered. This brings me to what I consider a very important question regarding process. A work in marble is very exacting and precise. It also doesn’t afford room for mistakes. How open are you to allowing mistakes and randomness to affect the direction of your work? Often, a piece of art will take on its own life from what the artist had initially intended. When a piece is finished, it can, at times, be rather different from how it was conceived. Some artists propagate and encourage this quality, others abhor it. What are your thoughts?
PGO: I think there are definitely times where a stray mark can carry an artwork in a fresh direction. But there is a limit to this kind of improvisation for me. I think part of the appeal of my work is that it is obvious to any viewer that the artist achieved what they originally intended to achieve.
For me the finished character of a piece will be ruled to some extent by chance marks. On a styro box for example, an incidental deep scratch on this plane might force me to hollow this plane a bit, make it convex. I have to get rid of the scratch somehow, and that concavity in that plane might be just the detail needed to give the piece a feeling of lightness and flexibility. But I can't hollow every plane and curve every line, so if there are lots of flaws (i.e. mistakes) to deal with, I might scrap the piece.
For me in the finishing stages, a piece definitely takes on a life of its own. In addition to the corrections I mentioned above, in the final detailing there is finally room for spontaneous mark-making, whereas during most of the development of a sculpture, I stick to a fairly rigid plan.
MPT: I want to return for a moment to the idea of form and the conceptual. Can a person see your work as pure form, unrelated to culture and its cultural reference? I’m going to argue that one cannot. It seems therefore that a person can see the work as form, and even as a ‘purer‘ form, but always with a reference to culture. In fact, I would argue that one isn’t intended to view the work devoid of cultural references, but that those references are as integral a conceptual element as the idea of form to the work. It is impossible not to fill the work with meaning that derives from the visual and cultural experience we have of the world around us. How then do you see culture, and cultural reference, functioning in your work?
PGO: I think I want to argue that someone can, for brief moments, experience my work independent from any cultural context. In fact, that is one of my goals. I want a viewer to look at a form that is already familiar, and to see it differently now that they realize it is executed in marble, and as they continue to look, they simply look. They look at the form: the lines, the curves, the repetition. That is one reason I appropriate as I do, using forms that I find, because I already look at them this way. I see line and shadow, and I admire the beauty, and in those moments, all the cultural connections fade out. Those cultural references do eventually drift back into a viewer's awareness, but now all notions are influenced by this experience of beauty. I think that experience softens what would normally be a harsh critique of these cultural traits (fast-food culture for example). It's just how we are. Not good, not bad, just how we are, and there is beauty everywhere.
MPT: This brings us back to presentation, materiality, and perception. Here you are exhibiting the work in a gallery and executing the subject in marble, both of which are intended to influence how a person sees and understands the work. I agree with you, for brief moments, it is possible the work can be viewed independent from cultural context. This will happen to me from time to time, not only when viewing art, but also the world around me. On rare occasions, and I cherish these, I might catch sight of something and be completely unable to understand what it is that I am viewing. I am left with only color, line, shape, and form. This reminds me of the time when Kandinsky entered his studio one night and saw one of his paintings on its side. Because of the lighting, he was unable to grasp the subject matter, and saw instead only an abstraction. Excited, he wondered who the painting belonged to.
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