natural/supernatural — an interview with Laurel Roth


(Laurel Roth and friends at the Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco.)

I’m infinitely delighted to have had a chance to interview sculptor and assemblage artist Laurel Roth in anticipation of her first solo show in Japan, entitled “Supernatural,” which opens on July 12th at the Megumi Ogita Gallery in Tokyo.

Trane: Could you tell me something about how you got started making art, specifically the sculpture and assemblage work you’ve been doing recently? What do you consider to be the high points of your career so far, and what’s coming up next?

Laurel Roth: My first sculptures tended to be a mix of carving and assemblage and were little vignettes about adaptation. I’d grown up a bit feral in the countryside and had a strong love of being immersed in nature. It’s where I felt at home. That’s how I ended up doing natural resource conservation and, eventually, working as a park ranger. When I moved to the more urban environment of San Francisco, I found myself feeling lost and rootless. There IS nature in the city though, in the form of plants and animals that have adapted themselves to urban life, so I started building little animals from urban detritus to inspire me to adapt myself to my new surroundings. I’d make a bird from a packing peanut, a cigarette butt, and burned out matches to act as a role model for me to learn to make use of the nutrients and systems of my new surroundings. It was playing, really, but it opened up a whole world of thinking and making for me that I really just dove into. I’d always stifled creative impulses in favor of practicality, but sculpture quickly became a way for me to learn, think about, and make peace with the world. Each piece has led fairly naturally to the next – partially because they take so long that I have plenty of time to think about where I’m trying to go with them and develop the next idea.

The night I read an email from the curator of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Art Museum asking me to take part in their Craft Futures; 40 Under 40 show was pretty great, but I feel like I’ve been really lucky to work with supportive galleries and institutions from very early in my career.  I’m currently working on new pieces for a solo/collaborative show with Andy Diaz Hope titled “2011” at Schroeder Romero and Shredder Gallery in New York, opening November 17th. In 2012, in addition to the Smithsonian show, I’m also working towards shows with Frey Norris Contemporary and Modern of San Francisco and Bergarde Galleries in the Netherlands.

Trane:A lot of your work centers around the replication of biological forms — often animal skulls — in almost photorealistic detail, but in materials that emphasize the artificiality of the production. I’m curious about what you find so fascinating about these forms and what — conceptually — it means to replicate these forms in terms of the practice of sculpting. Also, is there any particular significance at work for you in terms of the different materials that you choose to work with? The acrylic that you use for example, the acrylic skulls in the Man’s Best Friend series remind me so much of the famous “Crystal Skull” phenomenon, while the Swarovski crystal that you use with Food #5, Pig almost seems like it could be a commentary on Damian Hirst’s For the Love of God (though probably not related at all).

Laurel: I want the time and care that go into each piece to show in its finished appearance, but to look natural – I’m inspired by design evolved by nature, which results in things that look effortless but took eons to achieve. Skulls, to me, don’t represent death so much as they represent life outside of time – almost the spirit or soul, for lack of a better term, because they remain when the flesh disappears. They can also be more symbolic of a species than a sculpture of a specific living animal would be. For me, that allows a broader examination of that animal’s life and how it fits into the world. It quite literally removes its face and turns it into a symbol. The crystal around the teeth in some sculptures tempers that a bit – it’s intended as a sort of bio-accumulation that gives a hint about the life and biological experiences of that particular animal. In a way, my intention is to create a reaction or a relationship to an animal that can involve respect without falling prey to anthropomorphism. The crystal and gold also give a kind of unsettling value to things that might, as skulls, have the sense of being discarded or left behind.

Material use really depends on the series. I used acrylic for the Man’s Best Friend series to emphasis the artificial aspect of designer pets, where selective breeding has twisted evolution away from a species’ health and towards human fancy.

(Photo by Lance Shows Photography.  Used with permission of the artist.)

Trane: Your assemblage work is totally stunning — I’m thinking especially of the Birds of Paradise series. In some ways it reminds me of the playfulness of Joe Brainard’s work (especially his Prell altar), but also it has the kind of medieval intensity that some of David Best’s assemblage work does. Are there any particular artists who you feel have inspired your work? What drives you to choose the forms and materials that you do, and is there any particular philosophy behind your assemblage work?

Laurel: Thanks! The Birds of Paradise use beauty products as a reference to mating plumage. Since peacocks tend to be associated with vanity and beauty – having one of the most commonly recognizable displays of mating plumage – they seemed like a natural choice of models for a series relating to physical display, sexual competition, plumage, and beauty. I’m very interested in the choices humans make in regards to biology – we seem to have more choice than other animals as to when/if/what/who we choose to eat/mate with/etc., but those choices are still inexorably linked to the rest of the world.

I admire and have been inspired by the playful thought and constantly questioning mind behind Tim Hawkinson’s work. I’ve only recently seen the work of Gerda Steiner and Jörge Lenzlinger, but I think it’s fantastic, and I can’t wait to see more. I have admired David Altmejd’s work since it first caught my eye at the 2007 Venice Biennale. His combinations of sculpture and installation create fantastically realistic dream-narrative worlds. And, of course, Andy Diaz Hope, my partner and sometimes collaborator, has inspired me, introduced me to new possibilities, and kept me questioning and refining my own work since we first met.

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