Saturday, July 19, 2008

Virginia Maksymowicz "Structure and Metaphor" Interview

It's too late to go see the show down at DCCA, but maybe if you ask Virginia really nicely, she'll share some photos of it. The installation was a combination of photomontages taken on her trip to Italy, cast sculptures of corinthian capitals and various bread forms, and large drawings of different caryatids (columns in the form of female figures). I sent her these questions while she was away in China, and here are her responses now that she's back:

The elements of your installation "Structure and Metaphor", including sculpture, drawings, and photographs, are quite different from past installations. Can you talk about your choices and any difficulties or serendipities you encountered?
I'll be absolutely honest about this: my ideas for the installation changed dramatically due to an unexpected health problem I encountered last fall, which made it impossible for me to handle the life-size casts I had envisioned. So instead I decided to display what could be called "a work in progress" including preparatory drawings, photographs and a series of small sculptures that could easily be moved.
The most difficult aspect of the creative process lay in letting go of my original vision. Since the exhibit had been scheduled two years in advance, I had carefully measured the gallery and had planned an installation that would have been designed specifically for the space. Once I finally admitted defeat in the face of the unsurmountable medical obstacle, it became easier.
The most serendipitous event was that in the casting of the various breads, I was able to bring my moldmaking skills to a higher level. Plus, I think they turned out beautifully.

Although you are known as a sculptor, your drawings in this installation are truly exquisite. Have you always created such detailed drawings as preparation for sculptures, or is this a newer working method for you? When do the drawings cross the boundary between working sketch and works of art in their own right?
I've always loved drawing and, most of the time, I consider it an end in itself. I do not usually do detailed preparatory drawings for my sculptures; simple sketches usually suffice. However, awhile back I received a commission for 14 Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster. Because I was working with a committee, and because the sculptural Stations would take several years to complete, I had to do detailed, to-scale drawings for the group to understand how the finished pieces would look. I liked the result. So the eight-foot drawing in the DCCA show was, in a way, produced both as a preparatory one for an eventual sculptural series and as a work in itself (I did it last spring at the Vermont Studio Center). The smaller drawings in the show was what could be called "think drawings." Although they are reasonably detailed they were intended neither as finished pieces nor as plans for sculptures; rather they were produced so that I could make visual sense out of the similarities among the various female figures.
Where is the boundary? Good question. I'm not sure there are hard and fast boundaries. I'm always surprised when I go to historical restrospectives in large museum, for example, the recent Seurat show at MoMA. Even some of his little scribbles were framed and spotlit. I wonder if poor Georges would have been mortified to see such throw-away works on display!

The cast "bread" sculptures bring to mind fecundity and sustenance. At what point were these symbols included in your plan for the installation?
The idea of bread, as a symbol of life (or as you say, "fecundity and sustenance") had been part of the plan from the beginning—but not in the form that it took. The whole concept of the show (and why it was called "Structure and Metaphor") was based on images that I gathered while at the American Academy in Rome in the fall of 2006. There are bodies (sculptures of them) everywhere in Italy. The majority of them are female and many are structurally integrated into architecture: caryatids, canephorae, madonna shrines, etc. As I photographed and drew, I saw more and more visual connections between these figures: the basket atop the head of a terracotta in a folk art museum became the canephora at the Vatican Museums became the caryatid with a corinthian capital. A church in Siracusa, Sicily, built after a mass-produced madonna statue began shedding tears in the 1950s. is built on top of the site of an ancient "factory" where mass-produced votive figures of Demeter (the goddess of grain) were cast and fired. A figure of Isis at Ostia Antica could be mistaken for the Virgin Mary.
Some scholars believe that Vitruvius's story about the creation of the Corinthian capital—that it was based upon a basket with a flat stone atop placed on the grave of a young maiden—is related to the myth of Demeter. The "young maiden" in question might have been Persephone and the "grave" was the portal through which she was transported to the underworld. The acanthus that grew up around this basket is another symbol of fecundity. It grows as aggressively as kudzu does here in the U.S.
Artists have always stolen from each other, but I suspect there is more going on here. The idea of women, structure, bread, grain and growth, coupled with the structure of architecture, all point toward the foundation of life on this planet. I believe the imagery is an attempt on the part of us humans to grapple with that mystery.

When creating your installations, how do you consider the viewer? Do you want them to have an immediate reaction or understanding? Do you prefer to make them search for meaning? Do you try to direct their movement through space? There are so many aspects to installation art, and I wonder if any particular element has more importance for you.
Normally I view the type of installation I do as a sort of diorama, or perhaps stage-set. They've almost always had a wall as a backdrop; more recently, the wall, or other architectural elements of the room, are actually incorporated into the work. Through this form, I hope that the viewer can take in the visual information from different angles, literally and conceptually. Many times, I have directed their movement through space, although I was somewhat limited at the DCCA because of gallery's two off-center columns and two entryways.
In terms of meaning, I usually try to direct the viewers' attention to a topic and pose a question. Although I don't give easy answers, I do always try to set the terms of the conversation. In that it turned out to be displayed as a work in progress, "Structure and Metaphor" wound up being more open-ended than my work normally is.
I always want the viewer to have an immediate visual reaction, i.e. I try to make work that is visually arresting. However, I'm not interested in "one-liners" (okay, maybe once in a while I can't resist!), so I hope that the understanding part of it will arrive more slowly. I try to walk the line between being too obvious and being too obscure. Sometimes I've felt I've been successful. Sometimes I've felt I haven't.
Why do I like installation? I think because it's a genre that enables me to adapt the form to the content every time I am offered a new opportunity.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Virginia!
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