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Thursday, October 28, 2004

Discussion with Robert Lazzarini: Part 1 of 5

Last Saturday I sat down over bagels and coffee with sculptor Robert Lazzarini. Lazzarini’s work appeared in the groundbreaking Whitney exhibition BitStreams in 2001, after which the Whitney acquired a set of four skulls for the museum’s permanent collection. His work was also included in the Whitney's 2002 Biennial. Lazzarini had his first solo museum show last year at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He’s currently working on a solo exhibition for Deitch Projects in New York and on two solo museum shows.

Let’s start by talking about how your unique visual language developed. Your work reminds me of Warhol’s sculpture on acid. It’s very much the common object—it is what it is—but it’s melted or twisted or distorted. How did that approach develop?
Like many artists, the work developed over a long period of time from a lot of ideas, both formal and conceptual. To answer that question, I would really have to go back to where my first mature sculpture, violin, came from.

I started working on it in 1995-96 and completed it in 1997. At that time I was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On my breaks and after work hours, I was going into the galleries and really trying to study the collection. For example I would spend six months in the medieval section or six months in the Rodin and nineteenth-century sculpture section, as well as other galleries. I was really trying to study the collection in depth.

One of the ways I was doing that was by bringing clay with me into the galleries and actually sculpting objects from the permanent collection. At the end of my lunch break I would have a handful of sculptures. It was a way for me to synthesize a lot of historical styles. At that point in my work I was developing this free-form distortion, and back in the studio, working back and forth between drawing and sculpture, I started to develop more of a mathematical distortion.

But where did the idea of distortion come from? How did you go from sculpting objects in the Met’s collection to distorting them?
There are two places where that came from—one formal, the other conceptual. Formally, I was bringing the things I had sculpted back to the studio, and it felt like I needed to transform them in some way. So I was making molds of them. Then I would tie up the molds in ways that would constrict them and then cast them. I was getting free-form distortions in the casts, and I would make variations based on the same mold. It was a way for me to develop a specific vocabulary.

Conceptually, and maybe this is a stretch, it was a way for me to synthesize all these historical styles. If you go along with the notion that all art is artifice, then it follows that all art movements are a type of distortion. Impressionism, for example, is a type of distortion. Mannerism is a more overt distortion, as is medieval art with its distended figures. Distortion was how I was working through all these different periods of art and seeing each style as a variation on the way that things actually are.

You’ve just started talking about process. Let’s go with that. Take us down the path. Where does the idea for a new work come from, and what happens between that point and the point at which you have a finished product?
The idea can come from different places. I’ll give you an example. One of the subjects I work with is the genre of still life. When I did the series that I call studio objects—a chair, a rotary phone, and a set of hammers, all from my studio—I was approaching the idea of the studio thematically. I was interested in representing the studio as this place of prolonged isolation, where the objects become a projection of that isolation.

Once I choose the specific object, I begin the process which tends to vary from piece to piece.

I think of my work as a dense process. It involves a digital aspect, an industrial aspect, and a handmade aspect. In very abbreviated terms, there’s an initial design stage that starts off 2-D where I work in Photoshop and try to really exhaust the possibilities, at least at that stage, of what I’m trying to do with the object. If I’m working in a series such as the skulls, where I’m making variations on a specific object in a group of four, I’m thinking about a lot of different things: object as mark making, the expansion and contraction of the object, whether this is a representation of the object in the round. I try to exhaust those ideas two-dimensionally. I’m thinking about how the sculpture is going to function as an image before it gets to its plastic form.

Once I complete the 2-D design stage, I then need to get the virtual geometry of the object onto the computer. In the case of a complex organic form like the skull, it makes the most sense to laser scan the piece. A laser reads across the surface of the skull to capture its geometry. In the case of the guns, which I’m working with now, those parts were modeled based on measurements of the original gun: chamber, gun grip, and trigger. Those are two ways of bringing that information onto the computer as normative 3-D geometry.

Then there’s the 3-D design stage where I need the information of the object on my computer so that I can manipulate it and try to approximate where I’ve gone with the 2-D design. I may run through a hundred designs before I finalize one design and commit to that. In between that is a lot of model making, which (at the 3-D design stage) is completely necessary. Because I’m dealing with issues of spatial paradox, it is imperative that I have a physical model in my hand to fully understand the capacity of its geometry before I can finalize the design.

Once I finalize the design, a whole host of issues come up that are relative to the materials of the final piece.

Tomorrow, we go into more detail on the specifics of Lazzarini’s process.

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