3-d

Interview with Lisa Sanditz

By ASHLEY GARRETT, NOV. 2014

Lisa Sanditz spray painting outside her studio in Tivoli, NY. Photo by Tim Davis, courtesy the artist.

Lisa Sanditz spray painting outside her studio in Tivoli, NY. Photo by Tim Davis, courtesy the artist.

AG: When we were scheduling this interview you said you were back and forth between the city and upstate, and that you have your studio there. What do you like about working upstate?

LS: My studio is behind my house in Tivoli, NY. I like walking outside and going right to the studio. When I’m at work in the city, there are so many things that might be happening between my apartment and getting to the studio, I’m always kind of rattled by the time I get there, which I know is a very normal New York experience – passing through many different people and situations. So this is more focused. The studio is not that big actually, but here I get to look at leaves and chipmunks.

AG: In some of your other interviews you’ve told stories behind each painting – if there’s a legend or myth that inspired the work, like the one with the broken heart in the creek, and also with the black balls in the lake – what role does storytelling play in your work? Do you feel that it enriches the paintings when you tell the stories? Do you think the paintings need the stories? 

LS: I don’t have any control over how people read them. So whatever a person’s response to it is their response to it. And anybody’s response to any art is informed by that person’s experience, so if I’m making a painting about a place and that painting is shown in that location, then those people are inclined to know what it is. The painting with the black balls in it, which is the Silverlake Reservoir in LA, I showed it in my studio in upstate NY and people had no idea what it was, they just thought it was this intense, overwhelming strange disruption in the landscape, which is what I’m thinking about a lot in terms of sites that I’m painting. But when I showed it in LA, 75% of the people I talked to said they knew exactly what it was when they walked in. So those viewers bring something totally different to it and it means something different for them. I like both the general and specific reaction. I’m always kind of excited if someone can put together the specific narrative, because I think about that a lot. Also, that’s such a weird location, there’s nothing like it, so why would anyone necessarily know that it’s a reservoir that’s filled with 400,000 black balls - it’s not something as iconic as a Christmas tree farm, for example. But I think a lot about narrative and the input, too. Clearly I like to paint, and draw, so why not just make anything? Whenever I try to do something that’s abstract or a still life, I don’t know what to jump off from. I need a narrative to give me an idea of how to visually enter something or even just keep my interest in it piqued. So the narrative functions both in the backend - my end - and in the output too.

Silverlake Reservoir, 2010, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 70 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Silverlake Reservoir, 2010, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 70 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

AG: That’s interesting because I feel like there’s a push against narrative in painting. Sometimes people look at work and instantly want to be told the story behind each painting in order for them to even be interested, and that’s always a weird dynamic. I just wonder if it disallows people from having their own experience with the work that’s separate and autonomous, where someone can attach their own story to it. I just never quite know – where is the line, when do you tell? If someone asks, that’s fine, that’s straightforward, but if it’s on the edge or not clear, do you step in and maybe mediate someone’s experience?

LS:  Are you ruining or enhancing the person’s experience? I always assume enhancing, because the more information I get about anything, the more I’m just kind of intrigued about it. I remember in grad school at Pratt hearing Thomas Nozkowski coming to talk about his work. He was showing his work and then telling us these specific narratives, or more like experiences rather than narratives, that inspired a painting, and he was showing us a painting of blue and white squares, and he’s giving this detailed story. And it just kind of blew my mind, it didn’t ruin or enhance my experience with the work, I just found it perplexing. It didn’t sway me either way. I wouldn’t have gone there with that painting. That work is much more obtuse, there aren’t the visual indicators of specific things that I put in my paintings. I think people are really interested now too in just the narrative of painting itself. I think that is also more difficult to talk about – it’s easier for me to talk about visiting a cactus farm and what I experienced there than something like: I gessoed the canvas, and then I splashed some acrylic on the background to give like a feel of the atmosphere and tried to pull more representational elements out, trying to relate to the more formal elements in what I see. And I don’t know what artist can talk really well about the narrative process of painting. Obviously narrative is bound to language in a way that painting is not. I don’t know if that’s the limitation or if it’s just the painting magic that’s hard to talk about, or we don’t want to reveal it because we’re magicians, in the same way magicians don’t reveal their tricks.

Power line tree drawings in Lisa Sanditz’s studio in Tivoli, NY. Courtesy the artist.

Power line tree drawings in Lisa Sanditz’s studio in Tivoli, NY. Courtesy the artist.

AG: I think talking about your process is different from talking about the art historical justification for some kind of abstraction. Not that you necessarily have to tell me a story, but let me have the opportunity to tell myself a story with this imagery if I want to. I don’t think we need to hold back from narrative. I don’t think it’s a bad word. I was talking with two other artists this week about narrative and they were both adamant about it not being in their work! I feel like with your work, I could go there if I want to but I also don’t have to necessarily. I feel like I’m given the choice, that you’re interested in that yourself but you’re not forcing me down a particular road.

LS: I think so. More recently I’ve been working on some work that’s still representational but the narrative is broader, maybe less specific and seeing what that means to me or to the viewer too. So I’ve been working on these works on paper of trees that are cut to make room for power lines. They make these weird shapes, sad shapes, over-arching shapes, funny shapes, and it’s one solid narrative throughout. So it’s less about going to a place and then a story or experience happened. As a matter of fact I'm having a show of these tree drawings that are half of trees cut from power lines up here where I live now and the other half are trees cut for power lines around where my parents live in Missouri.  In the installation the trees will meet, they’ll be installed in the corner in the middle and they’ll descend like a vanishing point, they'll get smaller and smaller towards the middle and bigger and bigger as they go out.

It certainly has been interesting for me to play around with materials and a narrative that’s a little more specific and doing it over and over again. I tend to work on a painting of a place and a totally different painting simultaneously. So for example a compost pile in upstate New York and then the next painting I work on will be farms I visited in Arizona. So I jump to totally different subjects and formal explorations, so this new work is a more unified narrative from piece to piece. I don’t know if it’s good or not but I’m having fun, so we’ll see. For now, anyway. I’ll let you know how people respond!

Pearl City Study, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Pearl City Study, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

AG: Do you travel in particular to look for these weird transitional moments that you’re working with in the landscapes or do you just happen to come across them when you’re traveling personally?

LS: Definitely both. And some are researched in advance and then I’ll go. For example the work in my last show was stimulated by my interest in circular farms that are in the west, in Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado, especially because I was doing a series on farming and how to get around just having giant green rectangles everywhere. So I went to Colorado and hired a plane to fly low over those circular farms, so that was something really specific that I went out there and planned. On the other hand the drawings I’m doing now of trees started around the tree in front of my house – it’s the most half-tree ever, and the half-tree that remains is leaning towards our house. It’s a huge Maple tree that’s half of a Maple tree – at what point does this tree decide that it can’t keep going without it’s other half, and it’s going to fall on the house? So that literally couldn’t be more outside my front door and I’m also noticing that in other locations. And it could also be something I’ve read in the news, the painting of black balls in Los Angeles I read about first in the Times, and I was going out to LA a week later and I knew I was having a show there in a year, so it all fell into place. But I think I definitely get a lot from going places that I wouldn’t otherwise, so that seems to be part of the whole process too. Happenstance, you know.

AG: Do you make the smaller studies and the work on paper alongside the paintings or do they come first? Where do they figure in to your process?

LS:  Sometimes I make them on location, so again, that LA painting I painted for like three or four days – the landscape was flat, it was hard to get a good vantage point, so I painted just with watercolor and paper. And then I also sometimes work on the studies when I’m trying to figure out how to resolve something, like in the last show I had at CRG I had this painting Crop Duster, which had the red, white and blue spray paint on it, and it took a while to figure out how to resolve the painting knowing that the spray paint would be the last thing on the painting and all in one shot. I was trying to figure that out on a more modest scale before I did it at 4 x 6 feet. Small failure to prevent big failure, big failure happens anyway.  So I work on them in advance, in tandem, and on the go.

AG: The way you’re handling watercolor and the acrylic on paper looks very different, the touch is sensitive and fluid, and the finished acrylic and/or acrylic with oil painting has a very different look to it - there’s a quality of a kind of “grossness” in the handling of the paint in the bigger work, in the big heavy drips and some of the clunky shapes, the dirty colors, heavy textures – does the mark-making match the subject of the industrial and commercial landscape that you’re depicting?

Spray Tree, 2014, spray paint, colored pencil, marker and gouache on paper, 38 x 50 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Spray Tree, 2014, spray paint, colored pencil, marker and gouache on paper, 38 x 50 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

LS: I think both, I think it’s part of the work and then part of the material limitation and generosity. I’ve been working on paper mostly for the last few months, and the way that it absorbs the wet material and the dry material feels so rich and present, while working on canvas is like painting on the surface of the moon! I’m not someone who gessoes the canvas 20 times, but I do it six or eight times, and the paint still gets sucked in and it doesn’t record marks in the way some of the other mediums do.  Watercolor shows every single drop of the pigment. So I like both for what they can and cannot give you. And sometimes it’s a little bit of an attack and the painting gets kind of fucked up and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it goes overboard. But I definitely think about finding some of the glory and the grossness of these sites, and then I definitely want to get that into the paintings.

 AG: In looking at the work online, I really thought your paintings were all oil but it looks like you work primarily with acrylic and occasionally use oil, and then I was watching your interview that you did a little while back with Gorky’s Granddaughter and you were talking about doing more work with oil, so are you working with oil now, and what’s the relationship between the two for you?

LS:  I definitely work more with acrylic. It’s funny that earlier you said working with acrylic is hard  – I think working with oil is hard! It’s just whatever you do or don’t do – like, I can drive a car but I’m sure racing one is really hard (that’s definitely not something I want to do). And I just think it’s what you want out of your paintings or your temperament. You know how some people say they have a fear of commitment? I think I have a fear of non-commitment, so when I started working in oil again recently, just the ability to change your mind and go over it – I have so many bad, terrible, mushy oil paintings. And with the acrylic I’m locked in and it has it’s own problems, but I think it can be exciting, you just have to work with what you’ve got, building your own situation that’s working well, and that’s it. So the speed and the inability to change has been good. And then I also like that I’m painting landscapes that have a natural topographical element to them but are also definitely being compromised by or changed by the built environment, and so using a plastic or artificial paint material seems good for that. Either one is harder depending on what you do. I’ve worked now solidly for ten years, so I’m pretty knowledgeable about acrylic and how to make it ooky-gooky like oil, but even in the last show there were a couple moments where I just couldn’t get the lushness, and so I did do some delicious oil gum drops on top, which I’m always a little leery of doing, because you can see when people do that.  I don’t know why that’s a problem or not, I guess as a painter you are tempted to pick it apart and see how it’s put together, and it stops being a painting and you just want to find which is which. You probably do that, I do that! And then stop thinking about the painting as a whole. But I had a painting that had corn in it, so I guess if I could do that, I could do anything with oil and acrylic too.

 
Rotting Jack-O, 2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Rotting Jack-O, 2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

AG: What is your interest in working with imagery from post-industrial American landscapes and towns? It looks like you’ve been working with that for a long time, American industrial and commercial things in the landscape, a push-pull between the two in the short history of this country, I think it’s really interesting territory. I’m curious about your relationship to it and why are you interested in depicting it.

LS: I don’t know that it’s the industrial landscape, I think it’s more the commercial landscape. I think of industrial as factories, which I’ve done and some office parks, but my interest in and headway into that was when I did paintings of the industrial landscape in China for a couple years and how that related to our industrial landscape and our consumer society here. So I think the emphasis has been more of the commercialized landscape, the built environment. My interest came from growing up in the suburbs and seeing and feeling the emptiness and problems with the way that the landscape is structured through highways and streets and cars and big box stores. The first paintings I did outside of grad school were dealing with that and I've been dealing with that more or less over the last few years. And I think those spaces reflect a lot about how we organize ourselves and how we move around and how we value or don't value the landscape itself.  And also exploring different ways to use landscapes as entry points to make paintings, whether that's the desert or oceanside or expansive Midwest. Not as much urban landscape, maybe because it's harder for me to paint buildings that don't look totally weird, or maybe being from the Midwest and being used to more open spaces, not urban spaces.

AG: You were talking about working from observation on site, but I thought I also read somewhere that you were working from some images from the internet, so do you work from a combination of observation, found images, photographs, imaginative stuff, and what role does memory have in that? Does experiencing something and then having your own experience in the studio add something to it?

LS: Obviously memory and imagination are both a part of it – there are no faithful photographic renderings in the paintings, not that photographs are faithful either, but there's obviously a lot of interpretation and exaggeration in the work.  So for example the drawings that I'm doing right now, the ones that are from here are done on location. I did them on location or I drew them in the studio right when I got back that day, so even if it was from memory it was very close to the experience. Then the drawings of the trees in St Louis are from photographs that my parents took with an iPhone, plus memory and kind of making it up even more than I do in other circumstances. So it's definitely kind of a big soup of all of those things. I’ll find images on the internet if it’s something that I can't really remember and I need to look up something again, but it's not just working from a picture online and then making a painting. Plenty of people do that, it's fine, but for me it's just a part of the process I guess. Lots of input, lots of output.

AG: You were talking about working with ceramics – I saw in your show last year at CRG, you showed sculpture and ceramic work along with the paintings. Is that the first time you were working with the medium? What made you want to do that and how do you see them in relation to your paintings?

LS:  Sculpture – that's what they are. I have other ideas of things to do in ceramics but I haven't done anything else except that. It just seemed like it had to be that way, so I had to make it in ceramics. And I didn't even know what they were in relation to the paintings until I saw them in the gallery, because in the studio there's so much dissonant 2-D and 3-D information. They became so much more figurative in the gallery. They became these characters. But I liked that, and I was able to take some of the figurative information out of the paintings and put them into the ceramics sort of subconsciously. So I think some of those paintings were a little more open than other paintings of mine – open space-wise and fewer details, which I liked. You were asking about oil before. I kind of got a little dead-ended with acrylic, so I started using oil. And then that was also not working out, so then I tried something else. I just started working with ceramics and I didn’t really know if it was going to go anywhere. It took a year and a half to get that work together for the show. This is a good example of a reason to visit a location and what can happen. It was in response to cactus farms that I visited in Arizona – the night that we got there was a once in five-year cold snap. The growth in the cacti is in the tips, so in all of the nurseries the farmers everywhere were running around all night long putting Styrofoam cups on all of the tips of the cacti. You can’t wrap a cactus in a sweater obviously, but the cups can save them. So we got to this farm and I was wondering why every cactus, thousands and thousands of cactus in every direction, had Styrofoam cups on the tips. And that was only because the once in five-year temperature drop happened when we were there. I tried to make it into a painting and it just wasn’t working, and then I realized that each of these is like a sculptural object with the Styrofoam cup on them and that could be an interesting way to go about it. So I built a cactus garden based on that. That needed to happen and it was a very clear reason. I’ve thought of other things to be made out of ceramics. I like some of the ideas but nothing has clicked in the way that did.

 
Slumped Cactus, 2014, glazed ceramic, plywood, sand, agate spikes, 41 x 16 x 14 in. Courtesy the artist.

Slumped Cactus, 2014, glazed ceramic, plywood, sand, agate spikes, 41 x 16 x 14 in. Courtesy the artist.

 

AG: It's interesting when the subject itself drives the decision-making, and you just come to that realization that it doesn't want to be two-dimensional, it wants to be three-dimensional. And it only needs to be one or maybe a few instead of a whole farm or group of repeated images. It's not always your decision – this thing itself knows it would be articulated better in another form, that's interesting.

LS: It was fun. I recommend it. The modular aspect I liked, I'd make a top and bottom, and I wouldn't like how they worked, so I would switch them with other ones, and in painting...

AG: You can't do that as well in painting!

LS: You can, but I'm not cutting my canvas in half and attaching it to another canvas.  And it was so great to be able to move things around physically. And to be able to change the color, it needed to be pink stripes instead of green dots and then re-glazing it.

 
Cacti Display, 2014, ceramic, found materials, porcupine quills and semi-precious stones, 57 x 46 x 58 in (detail). Courtesy the artist.

Cacti Display, 2014, ceramic, found materials, porcupine quills and semi-precious stones, 57 x 46 x 58 in (detail). Courtesy the artist.

 

AG: I wonder how that would then inform the paintings, having had that physical and spatial ability to move stuff around, you might have a different kind of sensibility. You might be able to see the limitations of painting in a different way.

LS: Yeah, since that show I did a couple small paintings that I liked, but I've basically been working in paper where I have been able to cut the paper or just scrap it and not feel devastated in the way that painting can really hurt your feelings. So I hadn't even thought of that, although painting has been feeling kind of heavy lately, I haven't quite gotten back into it, for whatever reasons. In some ways you would think paper would be the least like sculpture.

AG: I could see that though, it's so much more immediate and you can change things around, even if it's a large-scale drawing, it's more changeable. Painting is so permanent, it's such an investment, it's a heavily loaded object, it's historical, and you're investing so much time and material. And with work on paper it is just a piece of paper, you can always throw it away or turn it into something else. Crumble it up and then it's an object, even.

When you were working on the Sock City series, you were focusing on the Chinese industrial landscape. I’m wondering how you resolved the issue of being a Western person going to do that work in an Eastern country – how did you deal with the history of colonialism when you're taking your impressions away and bringing it back to this country, and then dealing with that in a painting context? How do you resolve the history of going to the strange foreign lands and making images of their things and Americanizing them?

 
Crop Dusters, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 70 x 54 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Crop Dusters, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 70 x 54 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

LS: When I work on bodies of work I get very clear about what I want to do and I have to do it. I was very curious about the post-industrial landscape here in this country and then seeing where the industrial landscape is and of course practically everything you touch and own is made in China, or at least some aspect of it. So of course, I was like this is maybe a really bad idea, but I'm going to go anyway, I'm going to go and just see what happens, and I'll make work or not. And then I made the work, and I thought about a lot of that – orientalism and colonialism. And then even to make the paintings, how to make them or not make them anthropological, another aspect of how Western and other cultures interact. And I didn't really know and I just did it, and I felt like I took it seriously, and then put the work out in the world and I felt like it was received in a respectful and intriguing way too. All of those things that you brought up I didn't ignore. I was totally aware of them. I thought through them. I felt that this is such a big part of our world –this exchange of commodities. So it's not like it's reverse colonialism. But again it's like this completely absurd exchange of objects between China and the entire world. There's this very historically significant exchange happening, and I felt like it couldn't be overlooked, no matter where I was coming from and how I was looking at it. I'm sure some people are critical of that – even taking that on. I would say that the paintings are of single-industry cities in China from my perspective. I'm not a journalist, so it's obviously very subjective. But I was curious enough to go there twice and think about it and make work about it.

AG: Because you're working with very traditional forms in the paintings –landscape and architecture –what do you think are the possibilities today for that kind of figurative painting?

LS: I'm thinking about that a lot. I mean on some level the landscape is perpetually changing and so is architecture and so is human movement. At the time that I was working on those paintings in China, it was the world's largest migration from rural to urban in human history. I don't know what the statistic is on that now, because in the last few years between the times I went, the migration was reversing because of the economic crash. So it will happen again in some other form. No matter what happens with technology and styles, people are going to keep moving around and keep building things and it's going to reflect our values. That always changes and what does it mean in painting? And also if you've got to paint, you've got to find something to paint, I think. Those things are all good subjects for books and movies too and people do it well, but I don't know how I would approach it that way.

 
Sad Tomatoes, 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Sad Tomatoes, 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

AG: I've had the pleasure of interviewing several established female artists such as yourself. A peer of mine, another young woman artist/painter, mentioned to me that I haven't addressed or asked the question of an established female painter who has been able to manage a family at the same time as their career and a continuing studio practice.  So I'd like to ask you about that – how do you manage it all? Do you feel like it's enriched your life, do you feel like it takes away from your practice?

LS: I'm happy you're asking this question, even though it's the question you're not supposed to ask!  It's almost this anti-feminist question – no one would ask a male artist that. But it's kind of all I think about, because I have one kid and I teach, and I'm an artist, and I'm married, and I have a social life. So it's like five enormous bubbles of energy that I float in. I think also in terms of feminism we're in this kind of complicated super-mom world, you're supposed to do it all –cook your own food, make the amazing playhouse, and have a job and a great career, and toned thighs. But then we can't talk about it. So I do feel like it's hard to do it all. And I feel like I can't do it all at the same time but I just might pop one or two of those bubbles. So our kid is two, and yes it's enhanced my life amazingly and he's amazing. And I did have a show when he was a year and a half old, and I did it, but it was really hard. And basically six months after that I had no energy to do anything creative. So you've got to figure it out. He's two and I’ve already had a big show, so I don't know what that means for the whole career trajectory yet, but I also think someone shouldn't tell you to have a kid or not, you should do what you want. I think both children and careers are fickle. And if you want to do it, have a kid or a career or both, you've just got to do it, but they both take a lot of time and energy. That is no joke! It's hard but not like in a pushing a rock up a mountain kind of way, although maybe pushing a small rock up a mountain, but it's a lot to manage.

AG: In a way I feel like it's not fair for your privacy to ask that kind of question, but I think if you look historically ,for example big deal male painters like Guston, they had kids and then didn’t worry about it because the wife is understood to be the primary caretaker and does everything and [she] isn't an artist and it's not his problem anymore. It's not like that for most women. Especially if both parents are artists, it's not easy. You don't have the straightforward caretaker type who's just going to do all the work, and you can do your own thing. And I think even now, the female role is that that is expected. It's great to have these examples of someone like you who's making it work and I think younger women starting out need to see this being talked about and hear what you have to say. And because it's amazing that you can handle it, and if you can do it, maybe we can too.

LS: Thanks, that's nice to hear. It doesn't work everyday, but without kids doesn't work everyday either. I mean, I think I had more unhappy days before him where I spent a certain amount of time dragging my feet. And now it's just more running around than that.  And not that I have to be a big advocate for men's rights either, but I think that the expectation of fathers is different today too. I think a Philip Guston parenting approach  right now as a dude would be disdained. That would not be pretty either! I mean, he could still be a famous artist, but I think it's hard for men to not take an active role with their kids and just smoke and hang out with Philip Roth and make paintings either. You can't get away with that anymore. That's not to say that women don’t have to carry a lot of what having a kid is in many regards too. We don't have a nanny but we do have family and babysitters. It's a lot easier to manage it upstate than the city family scenario. There is that difference, but I have lots of incredible artist friends in the city who have kids too, so it can be done.

AG: What advice would you give a young painter just starting out today?

LS: Because I teach, one big difference is this phenomenal debt that students leave school with, and I have a hard time with that as a teacher. This college debt is a new thing that needs to be managed in a bigger way. So that requires much more monthly income to pay back. I tried to always get as high of a paying job as I could with as few hours, so my first year out of college was working at an insurance company, where like twenty years ago I made like twenty dollars an hour –which was pretty good– and I worked twenty hours a week so I could work in my studio. Other friends worked at hipster coffee shops and that was cool too, but then they had to do that for fifty hours a week. I think essential elements outside of the economic part are having a studio and making work and to keep cultivating a group of artists around you to stay in dialogue with. So if that's graduating in the city and keeping up with those pals to have crit groups, or moving to other cities and making a new team. I think that wherever you are, that is essential and you've got to keep working. You've got to keep your mind in it and be excited about what you're doing. 

AG: When I read your Art21 interview you said you wanted to be asked what you're reading, so what are you reading?

LS: Well, I'm slowly reading “Stuffed and Starved,” a book by Raj Patel about food scarcity and abundance in America and India and internationally. But I can only read nonfiction for so long and then I start to wander, so the book I want to read next is the new book by David Mitchell, the author of “Cloud Atlas”. So that's what I'm going to buy at the bookstore this week –I'm resisting purchasing it on Amazon!

Lisa Sanditz lives and works in Tivoli, NY. Her new tree drawings will be on view in a two-person show opening December 5th and on view through February 21st at Duet in St Louis, Missouri.

Published in Painting is Dead Nov. 20th, 2014.

Interview with choreographer Molissa Fenley

By ASHLEY GARRETT, OCTOBER 2013

Choreographer and performer Molissa Fenley has created more than 75 dance works in her ongoing career.  Her work has been presented throughout the United States, South America, Europe, Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Born in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1954, she earned her BA in 1975 at Mills College in Oakland, California, and in 1977 she formed the Molissa Fenley Company in New York City.

Molissa Fenley performing 9 4 Feathers , 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Molissa Fenley performing 94 Feathers, 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Fenley has collaborated with many visual artists throughout her career, including Kiki Smith, Richard Long, Francesco Clemente, Merrill Wagner, Keith Haring, and Roy Fowler; and she has also incorporated the musical compositions of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and John Cage. Her work has been commissioned by the American Dance Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, the Joyce Theater, DIA Art Foundation, Jacob’s Pillow, Lincoln Center, the New National Theater of Tokyo, the National Institute of Performing Arts in Seoul, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop and many others.

She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and a Master Artist of the Atlantic Center of the Arts. Recent awards include the NEA American Masterpieces Initiative for the reconstruction of Regions. Fenley received a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for Choreography for Cenotaph (1985) and State of Darkness (1988).  She is Professor of Dance at Mills College, in residence each spring semester, and often teaches choreography at the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University and repertory workshops at other universities, most recently at Bennington College.

Recent works include The Vessel Stories, with music by Philip Glass, Credo in US, with music by John Cage and Cross Bridge: a collaboration with Holley Farmer, John Jesurun, David Moodey and Rosemary Quinn. I sat down with Molissa at her loft in Tribeca, New York on October 8th.

I’d like to start by responding to your recent performance for New York Live Arts. Program B began with a re-staging of Witches’ Float, the collaboration you did with sculptures by Kiki Smith, which originally debuted in 1993.  There was a reddish-brown body paint on the torso, arms, neck and face of the dancer. The contrast between the texture of the skin of the dancer and the sculptures was really interesting—the sculptures had a desaturated quality or lack of color.  As the dancer sweated the body paint texture changed and it melted off, it seemed to be an expression of bleeding. I’m really interested to hear about your thinking and decision making that went into that piece.

Body paint is really its own sort of business.  It’s really hard to know what it’s going to do on a body. When I danced Witches’ Float years ago, the body paint that we used was either another type or my skin is of a very different texture than Holley’s and also I’m not a big sweater, so it pretty much stayed intact through the duration of the dance, which is about an 18 minute-long piece. Holley sweats a lot more, and I think this is also a very different type of body paint - we actually sprayed it with a fixative.  For the performance on Friday night we did the fixative first which was not how you’re supposed to do it—haha!  We learned over the night. The fixative first on her skin made it actually hard to apply the body paint, so we figured out that it’s the other way around. And of course the instructions are tiny and we didn’t have a magnifying glass and we just said, well, it must go on first!  So it turns out for this particular brand you spray it on after you have the body paint intact and then it acts as a seal. The night you were there, it was running, and one point in time it probably looked like blood—so she actually looked bloody…

 
Holley Farmer in Fenley’s  Witches’ Float , 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Holley Farmer in Fenley’s Witches’ Float, 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

 

Yeah, that’s what we were thinking!

The idea of that piece was really interesting. Kiki and I were talking about how everyone’s outer skin is of a particular color, whatever their race or heritage, but if you were to flay that, the inside of everybody is bright red.  It was a means of getting to an idea of the “every body.” This shamanic figure could really be anybody—male, female, and the idea of the costume suggests that too.  The dancer is bare-breasted but covered in body paint, which is kind of like a costume in and of itself. And on the bottom she was wearing pants that look both masculine and feminine, the top is feminine and the bottom is masculine—the pants are a kind of dhoti, designed by Gabriel Berry. It’s like a human form of both female and male being presented. And it’s of any race, because it’s flayed, a very raw idea.

Where does the ‘witch’ element come into that?

Kiki and I had been discussing the women (witches) tried during the Salem Witch Trials. Women were tied to chairs and thrown into the river—if they floated they were a witch, and if they sank they were not a witch, but they were dead.  Well of course everyone dies! If you notice in the title, ‘witches’ is possessive, so it’s like the float of the witch—well now, what would that be? We started thinking about a kind of shamanic transformation that might take place during a possession, being immersed in something in a very deep way. The practitioner starts underneath the floating witch, whom is a sort of overseer; this is where it all begins.  And then once some kind of transference has taken place, the practitioner travels into the middle of the space to where two halves of a sculpture lay side by side—one upside up, the other upside down. It’s as if two halves of the same person, but it also a kind of mold.  And in essence, it is: it’s the mold that the floater came out of.  The dancer then continues to stand in front of the sculpture as a standing witness, which is actually a plaster cast of me.  Kiki and I made the original work in ’93.

It has a slight angle forward, right?

Yes, she’s really staring in and watching.

It has an aggressive feeling to it.

There’s a confrontational feeling to it, yeah. There’s sort of like a “you’re being watched” feeling, and then at one point the practitioner comes very close and puts her arm around the witness, leans in and listens to what the witness is “saying”, a very intense moment, I love that moment!

I loved the way it was lit, the viewer’s frame of reference was so molded around it, shaping the way we see the sculptures and the dancer.

My lighting designer David Moodey has been working with me since 1986. He has a really uncannily completely clear idea of how to light my work. And I explained that this dance is really in three parts—around the floater zone, then it’s around the cocoon zone, and then it’s around the witness. The witness is ultimately sort of ‘all-seeing,’ perhaps, and then at the end of the dance the floater sculpture lowers to just hovering above the stage floor. I’m not sure what the significance of that is for me but certainly the practitioner takes on the authority of the space. There’s nothing over her anymore.

I’m really interested in the way you’re describing the dancer as a practitioner. Can you explain your choice of language?

For that piece in particular, when you think of shamanic rites, you think of a subject that goes through the practice. And so the practitioner is the person who is undergoing this journey, this rite of passage, or this rite of entrance into another world. So practitioner makes sense to me in terms of that piece. I wouldn’t use that term for the other dances.

Witches’ Float, 1993, Molissa Fenley. Music by Alvin Lucier, “Music on a Long Thin Wire.” Sculpture by Kiki Smith. Commissioned by the Krannert Art Center, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

I can see what you’re saying about the transformation in the movements in Witches’ Float, the movements start out really slow and intense and they build up to these rapid, jagged movements—

It’s interesting, I made that piece right after I’d been in India for two weeks and in India everyone’s going around like this—and I’m shaking my head in the way that the practitioner does in Witches’ Float.  Everyone’s doing it all the time! And if you ask someone a question, it’s just like—well, are you saying yes or no, or—what are you saying! I can’t understand what it is exactly, but it’s an Indian trait that I noticed when I was there and so I wanted to use that because I found it to be so reverberate.  And the music is very beautiful, by Alvin Lucier, “Music On a Long Thin Wire,” and it’s built on the idea of vibration. And so this idea of a vibration inside the body really manifesting in the neck and head, I thought was just fascinating.  And that whole thing of the stirring hands, again very kind of spell-like. Not necessarily casting a spell because I don’t think of the dancer as a ‘witch’ as such, but she is inside of some other kind of worldly presence or other worldly state of being. And then her movements—you called them jagged, that’s right. There are a lot of very staccato actions, meaning very abrupt and percussive. There are two very different actions that are going on, two different types of movements. The legato versus a very tight gesture.

It seems to come out of nowhere, it breaks the space in this really gestural way even though it doesn’t feel gestural. It’s sort of severe, and very intense.

A lot of that is taken from my idea of a kind of Hindu dance. I’ve also really been interested in Asian art for a very long time, and in Indian art the dancers are always like “this,” they call it tribanga, it’s three bends—there’s a bend at the hip, a bend at the torso and a bend at the neck, so I really like that idea that the body is seen almost like a river—as a serpentine form. In Hindu dance the positions of the hands are called ‘mudras.’ If you think of Hawaiian dance, the hands are saying some kind of communicative message or telling a story and I wanted to really abstract that but to have an other-worldly thing going on in the hands and the upper body that is eluding to something coming from a whole other ethnography.

In Found Object which debuted at New York Live Arts, you were responding to other artists’ instructions while also responding to dance notes of your own as a kind of instruction?

It started with a piece I did in 2012 called Cross Bridge which started from looking back at one of my choreographic journals in my archive at Mills College. I found a series of phrases that had been written out in language but had never been made into a dance. I’ll show you some of the language—not necessarily of those pieces but just in general:

Arabesque out to the right and tilt back.

Place, reach left arm, end in plie, extend legs and torso,

Arm twist, lunge forward on the right and elbow forearm twisting.

This is the language I use to write down my phrases. That’s how I memorize them—I sit on the subway and read, almost like memorizing lines. And once the piece is performed a video is made, and that’s how the piece is documented, between the notes and the video. For those particular phrases that formed the source of Cross Bridge there was no video made to actually show exactly what the language meant. The phrases were written around the year 2000, and I was looking at them in 2012, so it’s twelve years later and I have no idea exactly what it means.  I found that very interesting because it was like finding some instructions that I knew had been made by me at some point but their meaning was not clear anymore. I made a new translation interpreting what the language described to me.  I thought that was really interesting following instructions, and so enjoying that, I decided that for this new piece I would ask for instructions from others and I wanted to work with writers for this found object. I wrote to each writer, Joy Harjo, John Guare and Rudy Wurlitzer and asked if they would send instructions that my working on or solving would come up to about five minutes of stage time. Also in asking for instructions, I made the stipulation to myself that whatever they give me I accept, so that it really becomes in essence a found object. If you find these instructions buried somewhere and just use them, then you don’t really have a judgment about them. I really like that.

I like the idea of the piece’s title. That it’s a found object, but it’s not an object at all. It’s abstract instructions that can be interpreted and even though they’re specific, it’s still completely up to you how you do it—that’s sort of the opposite of a real object.

Right. And in John Guare’s found object instruction, there were the two instructions—one about drying flowers, and one about your rights as a POW under the Geneva Convention. In part of the language of drying flowers, when he says what you need—you need scissors, you need string, you need a ruler, you need newspaper, and you need two small vases. I was memorizing my lines one day and I just thought it would be hilarious if all of a sudden two GIGANTIC vases arrive on stage! So I asked painter Roy Fowler to paint a backdrop of some vases and he almost immediately got into that idea of the Rubin vases which is the trompe l’oeil thing–if you look at it one way, it’s a profile, if you look at it another way, it’s a vase. So there are two of them, one is Rosemary’s profile, the actress I was working with, and one is mine. And then at the end, the last statement is “place arrangements in small vases, display or give as a gift,” and we place ourselves in front of the canvases. I love that!

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

In the fourth part—those two things, flowers and POWs are objects, they’re things to be acted upon, they don’t have their own wills, really. So that’s sort of another interesting interpretation of it.

Yeah. And in the very beginning of the dance were the hand props made by Jene Highstein who made them for me for a piece in 2010, called Pieces of Land, which was one of five of the Prop Dances, and the idea was that when you look down from an airplane, and see the topography of the land – there’s a square there of farmland, there’s a diamond over here of forest, you see things in geometric forms. That was the idea—that these were pieces of land that we’re carrying on our bodies. And they’ve just been sitting in my closet, so they were another found object for me. I just found them in my closet and Jene had just recently died of an illness and so it was a nice remembrance of him to wear them.

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

I loved Energizer. I loved the repetition in the piece, the music was fabulous, and I read that it was recovered from your archive and the sound recording had to be baked in the oven in order to recover the quality.  Can you talk a little about that?

Yes, the tape is one of those big reel-to-reels, and when Maggi Payne, who is a professor out at Mills—she’s a wonderful conservator of music as well as a music professor and composer—she put it on to listen to it and there was nothing there. The music was composed in 1980 and this is 2013, over the years what had happened was that the music cells embedded themselves inside the tape, into the inner workings of the tape, the cells get “lost.” It’s hard to explain but they are not apparent anymore, they’re not at the surface so you can’t record them anymore.  She baked them at 110 degrees for twelve hours.  The heat coaxes the cells of the music up to the surface of the tape so that you can re-record it. She did such an incredible job and the music sounds like it was made yesterday. That was the really fun thing about bringing a piece back like Energizer, choreographed in 1980, not danced since 1982, so 33 years old. And not having been even thought about for 31 years. That’s just like one of my pieces that’s just been sitting in the video can all these many years and so to bring it out I wanted to do a pure reconstruction of it—the costumes, the movement, the music, all but the lighting was new—the lighting was by David Moodey. The original lighting had been by Phil Standstrom. It was just amazing to do.

I was wondering that—what is it like for you to see your work from when you were first beginning and now restaged?

Well it’s just fascinating! And I wanted to do it so that it was a true translation, I didn’t monkey with it, make it so-called “better” or come at it with a more mature choreographic eye or anything.  I thought that the mathematical construction of it was really interesting and there are these different variations of things—I mean, it’s a very dense piece. Very complex—there’s a lot of vocabulary in there that’s minutely different each time it’s danced and then phrases were cut up so that sometimes you get part of phrase A and ended it with phrase B and then sometimes you’d get one measure of phrase C on top of that.  I mean, it was really complex!

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing  Energizer , reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing Energizer, reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Really ambitious, just so packed.

Yeah, and I was just 25.

The layeringthe movement and the energy, it kept unfolding and coming and coming, I really enjoyed it.

The thing that was funny was that when it was made Anna Kisselgoff really loved it and gave it a big boom, but everybody else just derided it. Saying it was like marathon dance, and a flash in the pan, and all this stuff, it was just so confrontational.

The new lighting was really interesting, the projection in the back had a landscape quality, almost twig-like but at the same time abstract, and it had a strange visual interference to it. It wasn’t a straight projection, it had sort of a weird pixelated feel to it.

Yeah, that was on a scrim. And then the pattern on the floor was really interesting. We all worked on that dance really hard all summer. Peiling and Becky and I started working on it last March when I was at Mills. Peiling got her MFA at Mills in 2010 and she lives in Oakland, and Becky is at Stanford working on her doctorate in performance studies. And so we would get together once or twice a week and just pour over the video and put it on slo-mo and try to figure out what the steps were. Then I got back here in the summer and I started with Cassy and then Chris came in about halfway through the summer, and it’s just painstaking to reconstruct it. It was so much fun, it was so rewarding when we finally found a phrase and then we’d do it and then we’d look at the video one more time and correct ourselves and then figuring out who went where, it was just really great.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of  Energizer  in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of Energizer in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

That’s what I was wondering, as a visual artist myself, wondering about the differences between that and what you do. How do you make work? What’s your working process? How do you self-edit?

Well it’s really different for each piece. It’s hard to know exactly what the working process for that piece was because it was so many years ago.  But I doubt it would be too much different from now. The way I work now and have for as long as I’ve been aware of how I’m working is that I start making phrases of movement, and they get written down. And they get memorized and uncannily enough I almost always work chronologically, it starts at the beginning and just goes. I rarely start with music, music comes often quite a bit later. I start with my own forms of rhythmic structuring. In Energizer, it’s just a real solid base of 4/4 all the way through. Dances made after that would be rhythmically all over the place, you know, a measure of 5, a measure of 7, like the piece I did in 1983 called Hemispheres with Anthony Davis was really polymetric, so that formatting changed. I’m pretty sure at that time, in 1980, I would have dancers come in probably maybe an hour or two after I’d been working by myself and then I’d teach them what I’d made, and then I would set it spatially. For Energizer I was really interested in a circle, and then within that there’s the square of the axis, so there’s this sort of pie thing going on—there’s the top axis, the horizontal axis, the vertical axis and then the diagonal axes, and there’s a sense that a rotational idea is going on, and then there’s also a big square around the whole thing, so there’s an outer perimeter square and then an inner circle. It gets cut up and re-seen over and over—a dancer will do something and then another dancer comes immediately and does the same pathway but then maybe has a different ending and goes off and does something else, and then that might be echoed by another dancer. So it’s very intricate, moment by moment. And then as I said, I work very intuitively. I’m sure that in Energizer, once I would get something done—and we didn’t have video back then! —you just did stuff, and you either remembered it or you didn’t. Of course the piece was video taped, because that’s how I was able to reconstruct it. The piece that was playing out in the lobby (at New York Live Arts on October 2nd-5th) was the original, that’s the tape that we reconstructed from, so you could see it was really fuzzy, but we managed. As far as daily doings or daily remembering of what we’ve made, it’s all just memorization. It’s writing it down and memorizing, and then the dancers will do the same thing, come in day after day, and you just drill over and over and over and over until it gets completely intact and completely known.

What is it like to work with other dancers? Do you see their bodies and their energies as yours? How do you form other people to make the spatial expressions that you want?

Well I work with people who are really well trained; they have a lot of physical ability. I don’t want them to look exactly like me necessarily, I don’t teach my dancers class every day or something like that. People come to me already warmed up, and either they’re from a ballet background or a Cunningham background—whatever their dance background is, what I take into consideration is the means of how they will translate. And everybody tries very hard to do exactly what I’m doing—I’ll put my hands like that and they do it. But it looks different on everybody because it’s a different body. I really love that. I’m not interested in having everyone look the same, I’m interested in there being a vocabulary that’s translated from person to person in their own idiosyncratic way. In terms of a commonality, we’re all working towards this very particular vocabulary and how to present it in its most clear form from person to person.

What was your first memory of wanting to move through space to express yourself?

Well when I was a little girl I used to make dances for my dog and me. I had a dog named Shadow and I used to dance around the living room with Shadow all the time. I grew up in Nigeria and was always outside, and I saw a lot of Nigerian dance. I just felt really at home in moving my body.

The Energizer piece seemed to really express some of that rawness, that sort of grounded excitement about learning how to work as a dancer. Is that right?

Yes, that’s exactly right. There’s a total exhilaration there. And also you have to understand, I graduated from Mills College in 1975. I was 20, I got on a bus and came  here to New York, and my first major piece was in ’77, and then in ’79 The Kitchen commissioned a work. So it was very quick, I just jumped in and started being a choreographer right away. I came from a training that was modern dance—we studied Graham technique, Cunningham technique, and Limon technique. I had one semester of ballet, from a woman named Paulette Sears, who was one of the MFA graduate students. I’m not from a ballet background whatsoever. The movement is coming from my interest in the upper body being a very translational mechanism of communication. I guess you could say it started off referencing Egyptian hieroglyphics that I then I twisted into three dimensions. I started forging this vocabulary on my own.

Can you talk more about growing up in Nigeria and attending high school in Spain? What was that like and what made you decide to come back to the states to go to college?

Well I went to high school in Spain because I wanted to go to an American college and the high schools in Nigeria were not accredited. All the American embassy kids—my Dad worked with USAID— kids from North and West Africa went to high schools in Spain at American air force bases. The first year I was there I was in Sevilla, which is in the south and the second year which was my senior year I was in Zaragosa in the north. On an air force base, which is so-called “American soil” in Spain, we would take weekend trips into the city. I saw a lot of flamenco dance, which I was very influenced by, and although I didn’t study it, I really loved the whole extension of the back and the hands behind the head. There’s a lot of that in my work, particularly in my early work. I really loved the extreme verticality with really flamboyant arms. You know when you’re a kid, you just grow up where you grow up, and you don’t really have an opinion about it. When I got older I realized how lucky I was to have grown up in Nigeria. We were in Ibadan, which is about 90 miles inland of Lagos when we first got there, and then later we moved to Lagos on the coast. Our house in Ibadan was right up next to the bush; my brother and I were always on the bush paths. It was a really magical life, and I think about that now, I just think I was so lucky to have had that kind of nature around me, that deep, dark rainforest. Deep and complex and thick rainforest, beautiful—it was absolutely beautiful.

The earlier work that was restaged for the performance felt like that—it felt really grounded in real stuff, the landscape.

The landscape, there’s also a lot of social dance, dancers coming together a lot in these circles.

You’ve done a lot with props and projections and live feeds, and that’s all in addition to working with other creative people. What was the first inanimate object you put into one of your pieces and why did you decide to go in that direction?

I guess the first one—well you saw in the lobby the video of the piece I made with Keith Haring, that was my first piece. That was 1979, I think. The first object though was by the artist Steve Keister for a piece called Boca Raton at The Kitchen for an event called Dance Day. The piece was a small sculpture attached to the ceiling, that was probably the first object. I didn’t relate to it, except that we were underneath it.

He was a substitute for one of my sculpture classes at SVA, he’s really nice and an interesting artist.

Yeah, I actually know him now; he’s a very good friend of Roy’s. But as far as an object that I dealt with—in 1983 there was a project called Hemispheres and it had a series of drawings by Francesco Clemente. The drawings came in packages of ten and when the audience came in they were handed a package of ten —there were four different sets, so the idea was that you got package A and your friend got B, then the next person got C, and D and so on. So the person sitting next to you if you came in as a pair would get another set. Francesco liked this idea of possible commerce; it was the idea of the set design being actually in your hand rather than on the stage. That was very interesting.

Molissa performing a re-staging of  Hemispheres  in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

Molissa performing a re-staging of Hemispheres in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

And an audience participation which doesn’t overshadow the performance.

Yeah. So the drawings were there for that kind of intimate feel of looking at something that’s small. And actually I unfortunately don’t even have one package left. Somebody walked off with my last one. Francesco probably has a package somewhere.

I read that you’re referred to as a “postmodern” dancer. What does that term mean as it relates to dance?

Yes, it’s a very unclear term. Modern dance would be the so-called pioneers. Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Anna Sokolow, Pauline Koner, Doris Humphrey—Isadora Duncan is the mother of them and Balanchine is sort of in there, but he’s in the ballet world. It’s an era. And you would think of that era as spanning the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and then the era of the Judson Church people started—Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Valda Setterfield and Steve Paxton. They were called postmodern because they were after modern. Then you have people like me who aren’t really postmodern because I am not of that group. The original postmoderns were dealing with the idea of a much more ‘pedestrian’ movement, less trained movement. They’re dealing with task-oriented things, coming out of Happenings a little bit, they would have these events and experiments—so that’s a particular type of investigation. And my investigation was once again going back to a more virtuosic physical technically trained expression, but not modern dance, so not coming out of Taylor, not coming out of Graham. I’ve always found it to be a very confusing term and prefer to use the term ‘contemporary,’ but then that’s gotten commandeered. That now can mean hip hop, “So You Think You Can Dance,” all this stuff is now floating around with categories, it’s really hard to say. So when I’m called a postmodernist it doesn’t make sense to me either.2-d,

It’s very interesting in the art world for that word; it becomes so open that it means everything, so it then has no meaning at all.

Yeah, I think it’s the same in dance. Now it’s sort of like a catch-all, not sure what to call it—it’s not modern, it’s not ballet, those are two distinct forms. So then uh, what is it?

What drew you to work with visual artists—in dealing with a static two-dimensional or three-dimensional work, paintings or sculptures, what attracted you to that in your work?

Well I just I really love the idea of the stage space being a volume, I’m talking about the ‘true stage’ in the sense that the theater stage space is there and the audience is out here. Not site-specific work, rather thinking about the volume of the stage area itself as a thing to be filled—you can fill it with light, you can fill it with movement, you can fill it with sound. And I really like the idea of objects or other ideas coming in—like for instance the Richard Long setting for the circle of stones, of where the actual space itself is completely shifted. And that I as a choreographer then not only deal with whatever choreographic concepts I have going on in my own experiments in phrasing or movement vocabulary, to being placed inside this space that’s changed, it’s not empty space anymore. I love empty space, but I also really like the idea of being challenged by either responding or not responding or working in tandem with a thing, of having another flavor in the space. How that space is now different because of this thing that’s inside it. What I do I as a choreographer to make either a larger picture or a smaller picture. It moves me along choreographically, it’s a challenge, it’s like using a piece of music—it has a flavor, it has a sense of structure. It asks: do you use that structure, do you make something in parallel to that structure? It’s like that. I find it as a great soundboard that I can hit off of and get ideas from.

Before I came over I was watching some clips of 94 Feathers, and I was wondering about the props used in that piece. It’s so beautifully integrated and the objects don’t seem to have any natural weight.

I love that piece. 94 Feathers was part of the Prop Dances, which also had the Jene Highstein objects with feathered props made by Merrill Wagner. For the Prop Dances I asked five visual artists to give me something I could either carry or wear. And whatever they gave me, again, I said okay to. Merrill has a huge table in her living room with a big bowl with glass top, in the bowl are all these feathers of birds she’s had over the years—parakeets, turkeys, hawks—feathers she’s either found or they’re from pets. She was interested in using those feathers and she had these metal trays that she had found in a steel foundry near where she lives in Pennsylvania that had holes in them, they were some kind of leftovers. She put the feathers into the holes and made these beautiful forms, they were just extraordinary. I was dancing at that time with Cassie Mey and Katie McGreevy, two dancers that I’d worked with for quite a while and they’re not in the company anymore. ?They moved on in their lives—that’s the other thing, dancers come and go—Cassie worked with me for ten years, and Katie for two or three, so you know it’s a solid group—and we made these pieces. When 94 Feathers was made, it was probably my first instruction piece. Where I made a dance and wrote it down, I was at Mills teaching and they were here in New York. The premiere was going to be here in New York in March during Mills’ spring break. And so I sent them the language of the phrases and asked them to make up what they thought the language was. It was really wonderful. That was the first idea of the method of following instructions and I have just continued further along with that.

Yeah, I really liked that piece—when you were lying down with the feathered object on top of you–

Oh I know, beautiful.

Part 2 of the Prop Dances Joyce Soho, New York city November 14, 2010 Choreography by Molissa Fenley Music by Cenk Ergün Set by Merrill Wagner Performed by Molissa Fenley, Katie McGreevy, Cassie Mey Commissioned by the 92nd Street Y Video by Mark Robision

When you’re co-choreographing with other dancers how is it different for you?

Well for instance, in the third part of Found Object is the poem by Joy Harjo. The poem had instructions written within it, and those instructions I gave to Peiling and Becky and myself to interpret. We each came up with movement for those instructions and then we put it all together. They showed me what their phrases were, what they’d come up with, I’d asked them to make something that’s within the stylistic body of what I might do. Not that I wanted them to make what I would make, but to make something that’s within-the-family-of—

Right, stay in the language.

Right. So they both did and then I thought okay, as one more unifying thing, there were two phrases that I taught of mine that they could do at any time during their rendition of what they were doing. We set it, they dance their phrases, and they insert my phrase 1 somewhere, and then later on insert phrase 2. Then I wanted to add the instruction of where you could replace somebody, or might echo someone for a second. There’s a part where Peiling is standing like this, and I come up and put my hand under hers, I replace her hand and she goes off and I stay there for a second. I really enjoy this method of working, which started with 94 Feathers—to trust. These dancers are all so lovely and they all work so hard and they make really good decisions. They’re very responsible. I can trust the art in them is what I’m saying. I can trust that they will carry the art feeling—my art feeling through their bodies, and that they will make the right choreographic decisions. I found that really interesting to allow that, to have another way of working.

Do you plan on continuing to work with other artists in different mediums in the future?

Oh yeah, always!

So what’s next for you?

I’m going on a really nice residency at the Bogliasco Center in Genoa. I’ll be there from November 18th through December 20th. As a sort of clearing zone, I always find when I’m starting to make a new work I have no idea what it will be, but I know that I will almost always start with a vocabulary. One big source of vocabulary for me is Greek and Roman sculpture of the body. I’ll get a bunch of books and mimic whatever the sculptures are doing, and I’ll find that suddenly I’ve got some phrases—that’s always been a big source material.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

How long does it typically take you to start something, finish something, work with it, or is just all completely different from piece to piece?

It’s different. For instance I was at the American Academy in Rome in 2008 for six months and I made a pretty major work there called Cosmati Variations. It premiered there in June. I made four parts there but only performed three, towards the end of July I made another part. I worked with Italian dancers, I had an audition and people came in. So it varies. I know that in Bogliasco being there a month I will not necessarily come back with a completed pice but certainly with material.

Thanks Molissa!

I think we cooked it!

Published in Figure/Ground December 6th, 2013.