Sunday, July 18, 2010


Mel Kendrick: Object Negatives now on view at the Drawing Room through August 1. (See interview below)

The title "Object Negatives" relates both to his sculpture as well as the large format photographs shown here. Striking in both subject and execution, the photographs are drawn from Polaroid negatives created in the process of documenting his own work. Like the methodology he employs in making sculpture, here Kendrick effects a resurrection of sorts, finding substance and drama in material that might otherwise be trivialized -- the negatives that are pulled from instant film. The images, stark and suggestive, evoke the broad functionalism of Russian Constructivism along with its powerful graphic iconography. But they are also mysterious -- unknowable -- images that conjure, as the press release notes, the iconic Modernist film still. 

In his sculpture, Kendrick slices into blocks of wood and plaster, culling from the dense interior both positive and negative shapes that are reassembled to make a new whole. The sculptures are defined by a rigorous  sense of presence/absence, as forms empty out into new boundaries and reconfigured space. 

Late last year, Kendrick's monumental works titled, Markers, received wide praise when they were installed at New York's Madison Square Park Conservancy

Yesterday, Mel Kendrick sat down with me at the gallery to talk about his work, exchange a few ideas and walk through his show. The conversation begins as we are looking at a catalog depicting his "Markers" installation at Madison Square Park:

Janet Goleas:  The stripes seem to create an optical illusion that mixes frontal, mid-ground, background space – the planar information bounces between 2 and 3 dimensions.
Mel Kendrick:  The black and white elements function on a couple of levels – especially in the city. When there are no leaves on the trees you relate them to the surrounding architecture, the crosswalks, the white lines in the road. And then in the spring when the trees are green there’s really nothing black and white near them – then they’re just set against color.
The group is called “Markers” because it’s such a basic marking system of black and white stripes. The stripes act almost like camouflage -- where what’s going on inside them becomes a little harder to see. The imagery is still retrievable, but it’s harder to discern. Here, in the red sculptures which are mahogany, the surface of the block and the interior of the wood define the sculpture.
Each material has its own peculiarities. For instance, for the wooden sculptures I laminate multiple layers of wood and form them into a block. I sort of make a sculpture for the sculpture – it’s a minimal block of wood. Then I paint the exterior with Japan color. After that, the cutting begins.
JG: Is the color significant to you?
MK: It’s significant in the sense that it’s really red. It’s the same red as a Milwaukee tool box.  Japan colors are heavily pigmented and the paint seems to sit on the surface, which is something I really like. It’s almost like the color is another material – somehow it’s also like a marker. With the red sculptures, which are mahogany, as I cut and reposition, the red turns up in unexpected locations.
JG:  It becomes a record of your actions.
MK: Exactly. Back to your original question, each material has its own peculiarities. The black and white plaster pieces with the wood grain on the outside were plaster cast in molds of interlocking layers of black and white. Then they’re cut the same way the wood sculptures are.
JG: It’s not so easy to cut plaster.
MK: No, it’s not. But there are ways to do everything.
JG: I understand that cement is a new medium for you.
MK: Yes -- technically it’s called pre-cast concrete. The one at Longhouse Reserve, for instance, is cut before the mold is made because I can’t cut the concrete. So it’s a stack of a positive mold on top of a negative mold. The top is created from the bottom and the bottom is created from the top. Again, it’s poured in layers of black and white concrete. People seem to love trying to figure out which parts are related to one another.
JG: I would love to see the process – it is so complex. The molds themselves must be like works of art.
MK:  Oh, yeah – they are in some ways. They’re made of foam – a very lightweight material. They look the same, but they’re the opposite. The molds are so lightweight they could blow away. The sculptures, on the other hand, weigh about 16,000 lbs. This one (he motions to the sculpture outside, in the gallery garden), two people couldn’t really lift the top portion – it’s that heavy.
JG: Where do you make them?
MK: In upstate New York. They’re too big for my studio. The people I work with are masters at making structures from this super dense concrete. But the pigmenting is the hard thing. I don’t think anyone has achieved this black of a black in concrete. And the white is difficult – the white cement comes from Denmark and the white sand is important. One of the things I like about the concrete is that it changes with the elements – it gets darker when it rains, for instance. It gets streaks as if it was quarried stone. 
JG: What was surprising about doing things on this scale for you?
Kendrick's Markers, Madison Square Park, NYC; James Ewing, photographer 
MK:  The way people reacted to them. There are different reactions to public sculpture – generally, I think if it’s not representational people tend to keep away from it. But with this – I don’t know if it’s the playfulness of how they look or the fact that there were five of them – a family of them – but these works didn’t seem to suffer the fate of many abstract works. People climbed on them.  I saw adults scratching their heads, wondering if /how the pieces fit -- or didn’t fit – together.  
JG: They do seem to shape shift in front of your eyes. Did doing work in this scale affect you in some way? Did they take on characteristics you didn’t expect?
MK:  I’ve always felt there’s a sort of “scalelessness” to my work – that they can easily be seen at almost any scale. You can easily project them into another scale. At least I did. In that sense it wasn’t surprising. I guess I’ve always felt that because of that – the architectural elements or something -- the making of a large work does not contradict anything about the interior relationships of my work.  To me it was all positive.
JG:  Jessica Stockholder talked about how different people’s reactions were to her installation (also at Madison Park) than she expected. Perhaps it sort of gives the art a second – or third – identity.
MK: Well, yes – you think people are going to stand here, and align their sight-line there and they don’t necessarily do any of that.
JG:  The circles are very evocative. Brancusi’s heads – they seem to have bodily connotations.
MK: It’s impossible not to know about Brancusi. I don’t think about Brancusi in my work, but that’s such a big part of the vocabulary of non-representational sculpture. It’s never absent.  His work was incredibly radical, and when you think of what preceded it – we can’t even know how radical it was. He would look out his studio window onto decorative balustrades and ornate architectural elements.  But it’s not about the material. I use wood because of the irreversibility of the process. You make a cut, and you can’t unmake it. If you make a mistake, you change it, incorporate it. It’s the opposite of Michelangelo’s David – honing in to David, getting closer and closer – where everything else falls to the ground. I use everything. It all gets reincorporated into the work. I call those decisions my “drawings.”  I don’t draw on paper, but the evidence of that kind of thinking is in my work.  There’s been such an emphasis on drawing in the last 50 years – usually as a preparatory stage for something.  It’s the immediacy of the thing – it allows people to witness what the artist’s decision making is. I felt, coming out of Minimalism, that I wanted to hold on to the mistakes as much as the good ideas.
JG: Well, in some ways your drawing tool is your saw.
MK: Yes, sometimes it’s like that. Because I work in 3-dimensions, it’s always a surprise -- you make a mark on one side and something happens on the opposite side that’s completely unexpected.
JG: I was surprised that numerous critics made a connection between annihilation and reclamation in your work. It had such associations to carnage – it wouldn’t occur to me.
MK: I think it had to do with earlier works I did which revolved around dismantling natural shapes and then reconstructing – reordering – them. Like in the Core Samples – I would rebuild the inside next to the outside so that there’s a constant back and forth.  And even earlier than that, because I work in sculpture I very much thought about how it stands on the ground, on the floor of the gallery, or in relationship to people, and sometimes I would place a pipe leg or some sort of prosthetic device on it. There was often this sense that the work had survived something. Now it’s less anthropomorphic -- perhaps more intellectual.
JG: There’s a kind of pragmatism in your approach now.
MK:  Yes. The point, too, is often to go to something you think you know and find something new.  Doing these photographs now, it’s something completely different. 
JG: How does this aspect of your sculpture relate to the photographs? Are these photographs of actual works – not fragments -- but actual sculptures?
MK: Yes, prints of Polaroid negatives of actual works. Isn’t that funny that they’re negatives – that I find more information in the negative than in the positive?  The positive in the photograph is known so it need not be shown.  Nowadays, a negative is an archaic object -- the information it holds has become...unusual.
JG: The conversation they have with your sculpture is interesting.
MK: Yes, I wasn’t sure how it would work – especially with the red pieces, but the conversation seems to isolate certain aspects of the work -- and it creates a dialogue.
JG: Where is your studio?
MK: It’s on the lower East Side.  I have a studio here, too. You know -- I work where I work. A sculptor’s studio has to be sort of like a hardware store. When I was at the American Academy in Rome I had a wonderful time meeting people, looking at art, architecture. It was great, but I didn’t do any work. Since I don’t sketch or draw, if I’m not in my studio I’m likely not going to get any work done. New York is like my factory – I guess I’m sort of stuck on it.                                                                         JMG

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