Wednesday, September 16, 2009

ArtWord: Don Lambert

This year the Cincinnati Art Museum selected Don Lambert for The 4th Floor Award biennial competition. Don Lambert received his BFA from the University of Cincinnati and his MFA with an emphasis in sculpture and new genres from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lambert says of his work,

"I am fascinated with the production of image, knowledge, and the building of institutions. My central research interests lie within the domains of social identity and cognition. I am specifically interested in motivational aspects of social identification and how social identities may be used to satisfy individuals’ needs for assimilation and differentiation- belonging and remaining distinct. The thread that runs through the whole of my work is an interest in understanding the importance of relationship in the lives of individuals."

With the opening of his solo show, Don Lambert: Supernova Terra Firma, I had an opportunity to meet with the artist during which we talked about Edwin Abbott's Flatland, social perceptions and identities, and border crossings.

1. While often conceptual art seems too inaccessible to the average museum visitor, the works that make up Supernova Terra Firma are at once inviting. Unlike much of the art in the Cincinnati Art Museum, your work encourages, and even relies on the viewer’s physical interaction. Not only do the spinning discs of "Flatland: VL Array" attract the eyes of anyone who might happen to walk by the gallery, but the tactile nature of "Lawn Jobs" encourage the viewer’s touch and the moving pieces that make up "Changing Landscape" instantly recall childhood puzzles. In some respects your work has turned this gallery into a fun house. For this exhibition did you aim to recall not only the changing geographic and social boundaries, but also to challenge the social borders and rules that make up art museum culture specifically?

The work in Supernova Terra Firma does encourage interaction on a variety of levels. The theme that connects all the work in this particular show is perception; I'm interested in processes of perception as they relate to the formation of both our judgments and our ideologies- how we understand the world. I use interaction to create an awareness of these processes. You mentioned the fun house, but to me fun house implies an abandoning of the mind for a purely sensory experience. I'm seeking to do the opposite, to use the senses to free up the mind, not to abandon it. I intentionally use interaction to facilitate this paradigm shift, albeit subtle, and at times subconscious. As for challenging museum culture in particular, let me first say that my work always starts with questions and ideas, which are worked out through experimentation in both the studio and throughout everyday life. It's the process where things start to unfold for me. The process is a place for experimentation, and for me, experimentation is play. I've always been interested in letting the process flow out of the studio, first onto the streets, and then into the space of the gallery through interaction. It's an extension of the play that happens throughout my process, and a way of inviting the viewer to become a participant in the work. On differing levels the works do require the viewer's interaction, but they are not limited to a purely sensory experience. Back to the culture... In the gallery, and especially the museum, we still tend to view art with our hands behind our back, tip toeing around the space. It's a strange reverence for inanimate objects. By introducing the element of play into the gallery, I reach the viewer on a different plane, accessing a different set of social rules. So yes, in this way I am circumventing the rules of the museum, but it's not my goal, it's simply a way to open things up. A way of freeing the viewer.


2. My recent re-reading of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland drew me to a repeated motif about the assumptions of a correct way of looking at the world. That our culture imposes certain rules of representation in which we must abide. This intent by the viewer seems to play out in entertaining ways in the gallery. After visiting the show a couple of times, I found myself drawn to watching how other visitors interacted with your work. Particularly intriguing is watching those absolutely intent on making sure the map of the world is presented correctly; that all of the pieces on the floor are in place and the wall pieces line up correctly. What do you make of what seems to be our need to set this straight? Is it simply an invitation to work the puzzle? What happens when viewers walk into the gallery and let’s say the wall puzzles are solved? Are we then discouraged from interacting? Do the rules of the museum (don’t touch) step in? If so, how do we then gain from your work the notion of fluidity of borders?

Perception, cognition, representation, philosophies and cosmoligies... I resonated with the questions Abbott raised regarding these. His book may read as too simple for our tastes today, but if we are honest in our critique of (post) post modern society, then although the details may be different, the questions he raises are as relevant and revolutionary as they were when he wrote them over 100 years ago. Rules are so much a part of our lives, and our societies, that they often become invisible and immune to our criticism and critique. The work in Supernova Terra Firma puts some of these processes, these rules, back under the light of scrutiny. In "Lawn Jobs," it's as simple as challenging the dominance and spread of the suburban landscape and the industrial lawn. Why do we spend billions of dollars a year, not to mention countless amounts of water and energies, to sustain a crop that yields nothing more than eye candy, a false sense of nature, and our supposed dominion over it? I'm interested in the ideologies that bring us to accept these notions as the norm. When you ask about people abiding by the rules of representation, you hit the nail on the head. From childhood, we are taught to do things a certain way, that the world looks a certain way, and that there are certain ways to act. My theory is that the reason we, as humans, often move on in life without questioning these things has a lot to do with insecurity and expedience. Routine and habit can be very comforting, which I've seen raising my own children. And continual testing is not only impractical, but counter productive. That being said, I do feel there is plenty of room in our society for more honest constructive critique and that we would be better off for it. Getting back to the show... I have noticed that people, in general, are more interested in "correcting" the map than in exploring other possibilities. But this is a generalization. I have also experienced both individuals and groups do some amazing and unexpected things with the puzzle shapes and land masses. Personally, I'm all about mixing it up. If I visit the gallery and find that all the puzzles have been solved, my first order of business is to jumble them up again. Maybe people are interested in the general challenge of solving a puzzle, maybe they want to prove they can do it, or maybe they just feel more secure with things back to normal. I don't know, but regardless, I do hope it gets them thinking. In answering the last part of your question, I agree that the welcomed physical interaction adds to the overall experience of the work, and usually affords interesting dialogue and relations that would not happen otherwise. However, the ideas driving the work are still accessible through a traditional object/viewer relationship. In "Changing Landscape," for instance, the form of the piece (a large sliding block puzzle) suggests movement and fluidity, while the choice of materials (pencil lines on white fields) suggest temporality or the idea of something being unfinished. Similarly, we can visually identify the texture of the artificial lawn drawings because of past experiences with lawn. And in Flatland, we can see, with little effort, that a simple black and white disc is somehow producing a complex array of colors. So in this way, the work is not so different from many other artworks. It all relies, to some extent, on the viewer's participation; the only question is how far they are willing or able to go.

3. Much of your work, here in this show and elsewhere explore how perspective defines notions of our racial and cultural identities. " Flatland: VL Array" deals quite effectively with racial divisions, "Lawn Jobs" invites questions about roles in domestic settings, and "Changing Landscapes" encourages us to engage the subject of emigration and the changing global lines that define. We often hear claims of becoming more global. What does this mean? Are our identities shifting towards something that is more global? Or are we finding new ways to define ourselves and simply redrawing the lines of cultural separation?

Global-speak has been a hot topic for some time now, but I think it means different things to different people. Either way, people feel strongly about the subject. This becomes obvious the more you read, watch the news, or converse with people on the topic. Personally, I would like to think humanity is coming closer, that we are nearing a global community, but I don't think reality supports that. Instead, I'm inclined to think more inline with what you've suggested in your question- that we are simply finding new ways to define and separate ourselves. One thing is for sure, we are becoming interconnected on a level and with a complexity that is unprecedented. And just as plant and animal species are effected by the physical movement of goods across the globe, we cannot help but be effected by the movement and exchange of ideas and philosophies. But this does not suggest that we are moving toward some absolute cultural homogeneity, or even that the divisions that separate us are narrowing. On the contrary, we probably exercise the same divisiveness as a species as all our preceding generations. Of course, this is all conjecture and only time will bring forth the answer to your question.

Lawn Jobs: Concentric Squares

4. Similarly, identity themes with which you deal in Supernova Terra Firma are well-known to American viewers. We engage and hopefully welcome this discussion. In fact, it is part of being American. How does your work translate internationally, globally if you will? I am very curious as to how you deal with these ideas outside the US, when you as an artist or an individual cross borders. Are the themes relevant?

Some of the work does come out of a specifically American experience, "Lawn Jobs" in-particular. But at it's essence all the work can be understood on a very human level, because it's about just that- being human. Dealing with perception and identity is universal. My approach to these subjects is specific to my experiences, and as with any other art form (albeit music or literature) they may resonate more with people who have some understanding of those experiences. But this is not to say that a work of art can only be appreciated, or understood, from a full understanding of the context in which it was created. Enhanced, yes, but all is not lost in the exportation process. That's where dialogue comes in. We experience each other's work, we ask questions, we talk, and we learn. It's a process. Like any artist, my work is reliant on the viewer's participation and how deep are they willing to dig. Lately, I've been thinking of these pieces as a collection of conceptual pyramids. On the surface you have the finished objects, easily accessible without too much effort. However, if you are inclined to dig, you will be rewarded with a widening base of research and tangential ideas related to and trenched within the actual art object. My hope is that most people will get the overall gist without too much effort, and that some will be inclined to go deeper. As you can see, I like conversation, and my art is quite simply an extension of several ongoing conversations.

You can see Don Lambert: Supernova Terra Firma at The Cincinnati Art Museum, where it will be on view through November 29th. The artist is scheduled to give a talk this Saturday, September 19th at 1pm. Both the exhibition and the talk are free and open to the public.

You can also read Jane Durrell's review of this exhibition here.


Lori Askeland said...

great interview! Thanks!

VisuaLingual said...

Amazing work, and a very interesting interview. I can't wait to see the exhibit in person!