Alyson Provax and Serrah Russell collaborated to curate and generate the work in What happens in a dark place. We wanted to know more.
THE VESTIBULE: When you collage, do you take and print all the photos yourself or do you ever use found materials? If you do find them, where do you find them?
RUSSELL: For the most part, yes, all my collages come from found materials. I have made a few collages with my own photos, but I find that they act much differently because I can’t respond to the overall image as intuitively. It is more difficult to cut and reframe an image when I had a hand in framing the original shot. I source my material in magazines, mostly in advertisements from lifestyle, design and fashion magazines. More recently I have been pulling material from vintage magazines like National Geographic, Life and Time, this has begun to bring a text element as well as more of a politically driven vibe to the work because the images are more tied to a particular person or place, where as with the images from advertisements I work to take away the original subject of the ad (dress, perfume, car, etc.) and try to find an emotion or a fragment of memory in the surrounding environment of the image.
THE VESTIBULE: When you collage how or how much do you let chance play a roll? Do you test out different fragments of already completed images or begin with the intention to photograph a particular image with the end collage in mind?
RUSSELL: I do try to incorporate chance within my collages, however the final work is always very precise and specific. The chance plays a part in where I find fragments from various magazines (I often end up being gifted magazines to use for collage so I end up encountering source material that I normally wouldn’t seek out myself) and then after cutting out fragments of interest, I merge them together, rather than sorting them by type and allow for chance happenings where I might stumble upon a hand next to a river where something just adds up and they fit.
THE VESTIBULE: Some of the blue prints on sintra with velvet laminate look like pinhole camera images. Did you capture any of the eclipse with the pinhole camera and then print with this method?
RUSSELL: They are works created on the roof of my house during the time of the eclipse upon sunprint paper, which is kinda like a inexpensive cyanotype. Those original sunprints were then scanned and reproduced and printed to give the final version you see in the gallery.
THE VESTIBULE: For the dark images on the beach Before (The mother), During (The sea), After (The father), can you describe your process? The images have an antique feel – both the clothing of the woman and the posture of the man walking suggest the past– and yet presumably, these are pictures of your living mother and father. Did you take these photos on the day of the eclipse or were these older negatives which you developed around that time?
RUSSELL: Those photos come from a collection of old slides I acquired from my grandfather and my mother. I reproduce the slides into Polaroids using a machine that I was gifted that has the unique purpose of taking slides and turning them into printed Polaroids. I then take the negative of that Polaroid and scan and reprint it into what you see in the gallery. So it ends up being a very layered process where the image goes through a few transformations and becomes further abstracted. I liked that abstraction because the images themselves are of family members but from a time period before I was born. I was interested in looking back on these people and places that are somewhat familiar and are part of my history but are not part of my actual memory. Similar to the photos themselves, there is a haze and a distance that keeps me from fully seeing or experiencing what was happening or who those people were before I knew them, before they knew me. I like the abstraction and mirroring that the reproduced negative gives as it makes the viewer have to work a bit to find information and decipher what’s going on, just as I am doing as an artist and as a family member looking back into the history of my family’s past. .
THE VESTIBULE: When did you shift your practice to focus on collage? And what’s next? Did 100 days and more of collage exhaust this medium or do you intend to continue that practice?
RUSSELL: I begin working in collage while studying in Rome in the senior year of my studies in photography at the University of Washington. I was taking lots of photos while there but because it was a beautiful new city, I just couldn’t decipher between what I was taking that had artistic merit and what was simply a tourist in love with a new land. I came upon a collection of vintage Italian Vogue magazines and began to cut and paste, transforming and manipulating the images to more accurately express what I was interested in at the time. I realized I could use photography that wasn’t my own to, in some ways, speak more fully to my own intention and ideas. Collage is a great medium for me - I come from a photography background so I love that I can work with photographs and play with their malleability. I approach making collage in a similar way that I approach taking photos, still following similar instincts for composition, color, line and subject matter. I enjoy the search for meaning, especially amongst discarded images or overlooked advertisements. Collage also feels so accessible - I can take it with me, do it in bed, on the train, on the floor, in front of the tv, in my studio - it travels well and continues to refine my way of seeing more clearly and more openly.
I loved the 100 days of collage, so much so that just a few months after completing the first 100 days, I embarked on another challenge, which I had intended to do for a year, but ended up stopping after 100 days. I’m on a break from collage right now as I don’t want it to become redundant or tiresome and I needed to take a break from producing in order to begin to breathe in, to fill myself back up by reading, looking at other people’s art, taking longer walks - but I know, in time, I will be back to collage. It is a constant in my creative practice for sure.
THE VESTIBULE: According to the price list, each of these is a one of a kind letter pieces. Do you generally make only one in order to underscore the theme of ephemerality? Or does it just work out that only one image is presented on board?
PROVAX: I am interested in editioning as a practice that contains its own meanings and purposes. There is a tradition of generally always editioning within printmaking, but after breaking with that tradition I now consider whether or not to edition as another part of the work itself. If it will support a specific project, I will edition as a conceptual tactic (oftentimes to enhance ideas of community and sharing). In this show, there is only one letterpress piece that is editioned (and a second that is one in a variable edition). The majority of the work was not editioned - as you so thoughtfully put it - to underscore the theme of ephemerality. For this body of work particularly, it was important to me that the individual pieces generally feel singular and fleeting as that echos my personal experience with this year’s eclipse. For that editioned outlier, I installed three identical prints to create a chorus.
THE VESTIBULE: Your work, such as the secret piece, can playful – there is something to “get” or to discover. Yet much of the work focuses on what could be construed as a dark topic: the passage of time, the ephemerality of existence. Do you personally find the idea of things disappearing and time passing to be a negative or sad experience? Or do you find it joyful or comforting or merely interesting or… ? I think of the way people can sit under the stars and either feel tiny and alone in the universe, or alternatively, amazed and comforted by the scale of the universe.
PROVAX: Oh, I love this question. I think that the ephemeral quality of this world and the passage of time is both sad and joyful. We exist in constant state of change, and this allows for so much new excitement and growth. It can also feel terrible. In the midst of both feelings, a fact that I find oddly comforting is that time passes at a constant rate. (This was made visible during the eclipse, when we were able to watch our steady movement through space.) I believe that the ephemerality of our existence is also what gives it its power - our choices are made meaningful by the very fact that they cannot be undone, and time can only move forward. Nothing will be the same forever, but this allows us to remake ourselves, our relationships, and our world by doing what we feel is right in the moment.
And, to briefly address that secret piece specifically, I liked the idea of frustrating the viewer a bit by giving them a sort of puzzle. The text is placed deliberately, and it can only be read with effort (echoing the nearby animation piece). This composition also functions to put at its center the space between things (really quite literally).
THE VESTIBULE: You mentioned that you wanted to expand on the Kindle pieces. Can you describe your plans for the digital pieces?
PROVAX: I am in the early stages of bringing these ideas about constant change into my methods of presentation by creating an android tablet app that will allow me to remotely control the animations displayed on my collectors’ walls. My plan is to use this app to change what animation is displayed, suddenly and without warning. I love the idea that a display could show the same animation for weeks on end and then one day suddenly display something totally new. This changes the preciousness of the work away from the stable beloved object to refer to the preciousness of spending time with what you love. I love the idea of deliberately including art that will change over time within a collection of static works, and intend on displaying this piece with works on paper. While the app idea isn’t specific to this body of work, it certainly comes from the same root ideas inspired by the eclipse - essentially to not postpone pleasure.
THE VESTIBULE: In your note to the guests, you said you read some of the same books while developing the show. Which books?
PROVAX: Initially Serrah recommended to me Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. That book and Rilke’s approach to his world had such an affect on my work in this show and my studio practice. Later we both read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. Early on I sent Serrah selections from Impro by Keith Johnstone and a poem from Rilke’s Book of Hours.
THE VESTIBULE: When you collaborated to bring the show together did you share ideas or just the theme? Did you show each other particular pieces?
PROVAX: We shared ideas in a conversational sense, and just tried to generally keep an eye on each other’s work and practice over those months that we were working on this show. I don’t think that either of us singled out specific pieces of our own work so much as just tried to share everything that we completed. Seeing what Serrah was working on often made me want to run to the studio. It centered me to look at her work, and helped me to bring a fresh perspective to my own practice. Serrah lives in Seattle and I live in Portland, and I like to think that we tried to bridge the distance between us with attention and focus.
THE VESTIBULE: Why did you choose the eclipse as the focus? Were you both already working directly or indirectly on these themes?
PROVAX: I had spent some time thinking about the eclipse prior, just because I was excited that it would be visible so close to home. It contains within it many sub-themes that I see in both Serrah’s and my work: the idea of occultation or removal being a driving force of meaning-making, syzygy or alignment as a form of relationship (to borrow Carl Jung’s definition: “conjunction of two organisms without the loss of identity”), and the idea that where you exist within space and time will have an affect on your view and your experience.
RUSSELL: I have always admired Alyson and her work so when I had the opportunity to collaborate on a show together, I jumped at the chance. We began sharing where we were at, what we were up to, and she shared her current investigation into the eclipse and I also saw the themes of absence and presence, of tension, of forced difficulty to fully see, in both of our works and was excited to follow along that path together. - SR
THE VESTIBULE: Anything else that we should know about the work that we didn’t ask?
PROVAX: The installation of the show felt like an extension of our conversations - one of us would hang something, then the other would respond, and so on. The whole process was collaborative in the truest sense of the word, and I believe that we created a cohesive collection. We both left out pieces in this installation of the show, which has its own eclipse metaphor: I believe that the work that was made but is not visible is as important as the visible work, and its exclusion imbues the work in the show with a greater power.
RUSSELL: That’s really beautifully put, Alyson! I agree that it was important that we saw each other’s unseen work, the works that don’t make the cut in the final show but that both of us knew were part of the process, that were building blocks to the final exhibition. And in that, learning that the exhibition installation is not necessarily final but one instance that happened because of the circumstances surrounding it. The exhibition may have been hung completely differently had it been on a different day, or had we begun with a different piece. Having each other’s eyes on each other’s work was so important to what we chose to reveal to the public.