inhabitable forest: an interview with Barbara Andrus

19Nov11

Barbara Andrus, who is based in both New York and Maine, makes installations from found natural materials — particularly forest-foraged wood — that erupt into space like thickets of dream shapes.  These shapes are both familiar — spheres formed by branches, teepees and huts made of found wood — and alien at the same time, the autochthonic twisting of natural form calling into question our relationship with shapes that might otherwise appear in the register of geometric purity or safe domesticity.  These are shapes that want to be inhabited, but that also resist this impulse with a textural wildness and replete excessiveness that is its own sort of mind, almost as if a set of perfect platonic forms were to be injected with the ceaseless wriggling of a beautiful school of eels.

I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with Barbara since I started staying on Swan’s Island, where she comes to harvest materials and collect ideas.  I don’t know much about Barbara’s working processes, but I imagine her walking through the forest with the two smartest dogs in the world while carrying a Japanese handsaw and watching for those shapes and textures that stand out in their necessary and unique beauty.

Barbara Andrus’s work is currently featured as part of the Sticks and Stones exhibit at the Lehman College Art Gallery, which runs until January 6, 2012.

Trane: I was wondering if you might spend a little bit of time discussing the process involved in making your work.  To what extent do you start with an idea and then seek out the material realize that idea, and to what extent do you let the materials themselves inform the projects?

Barbara: My process is fairly in my head, a lot of looking at the space on offer and building various pieces in my mind. Usually I need to see the space a couple of times and even so there is some chemistry of understanding the space that only happens when I’ve actually unloaded  materials  and started to be in the space. While I like your idea of always walking with a Japanese saw, usually the two activities are separate. While collecting, having located the trees to cut, I do edit the branches I choose to use and the choice of a tree is based on branch quality and interest. At different times, I’ve been interested in different kinds of trees. Now I work with maples, beeches, basket willow, striped maple and holly.

For the past few years I worked on this big cycle of ongoing characters in search of the next sculpture. The first iteration was a group of branch disks covered with gauzy fabric, heavily sewn over and around the twigs and branches. They were suspended from branch frames and formed a walking pathway. Next the sewing encompassed the frames as well. This next piece, with sewn side out, referred to an igloo. As I finished this work, I started to think about inverting the piece. An exhibit opportunity about turning nature inside out provided the venue. Briefly I excerpted and illuminated elements of the piece and installed it for artfair at Hotel 30/30. The last act of this series involved turning the sculpture into a carousel book. The book didn’t turn but the viewer walked through the pages of the book.

In the last three large installations, the form of the work is a spiral, derived from the form of a whelk shell; the shape alludes to a pilgrimage walk, and the viewer is invited into large spiraling spaces.

Trane: Paul Klee kept a notebook in which he recorded natural forms and textures in order to use them as basic components in his artwork later on.  Recently you showed me a jar of milkweed ‘wishes’ (the light, flowery puffs that float milkweed seeds through the air) that you’ve been collecting, and they were just about the softest thing that I’ve ever felt.  What are some of your favorite natural textures/materials, and what draws you to these particularly?

In the jars you saw were three kinds of seed-mobilizing fluffs: milkweed, scotch thistle and coltsfoot. Each fall for the last five or six years, I’ve collected milkweed silk. I am drawn to side eddies of how the world doesn’t work. The world (built) is so based on straight lines and right angles, so perpendicular. So the line qualities in trees and their twigs and branches made me so happy. Very little straightness. Next I thought about softness. Much of the modern world is not soft. Not lusciously natural: it’s fake, it’s rubber, shiny, plastic, new, hard and maybe even nasty. So when I started investigating milkweed — it was aaahhhh, this is wonderful stuff. And the dismantling of the seed pods (well I should be tired and done with this) but it’s still mesmerizing. The pods are gorgeous when closed, and then as they dry they arch around and open.

The sculptures contain the silk and allow it to move internally. I’ve started to make milkweed agitators.

Trane: A lot of your pieces take the form of houses or dwellings of some sort, and yet the prickly nature of the branches that you use to construct them pushes against the kind of complaisant domestic feeling that might usually be associated with such shapes.  In a way, it reminds me of a show that I saw at the Itami City Museum of Art that featured the work of Atsuhiko Misawa, who sculpts  life-sized animals from wood.  For this particular show he constructed a very typical-looking house from scrap wood that was painted white as a container for a rearing polar bear statue.  There was something wonderfully comedic in this juxtaposition of domestic and wild, but your work as well seems to work with this contrast, though to entirely different effect.  Could you say something about the role that the notions of ‘dwelling’ and domus — or other shapes that figure prominently, such as spheres — play in your work?

Inhabiting Sculpture. Inhabitable Space. I think a lot about this. I have lived in and around my installations and they are prickly — I think of the spaces as creating a temporary, unusual kind of space that visitors can inhabit briefly and hopefully carry out of the exhibit inside their memories.

Trane: Anything else you’d like to add?  Do you have any favorite stories regarding any of your previous exhibits?  Scandalous tidbits?  Humorous anecdotes?

Living in Manhattan has meant a life partially spent on the subway. This frustrated me so I decided to make work that I could make on the subway. This created some interesting situations. There was a period of time after 9/11 when people were excruciatingly polite to each other. If I was working on something, someone was apt to say “Excuse me please, but what are you making?” I think also when you are making something in a situation wherein most everyone isn’t making something, people like to watch and again one gets the very careful “What are you doing?” I had a project crocheting pink and green monofilament. I was making webs. Many subway questions. My favorite time was when I had made a knitting nancy out of a small cedar log and I was knitting a large wool tube. As I worked I saw an elegant tourist man watching from the end of the car.  As he exited the train he whipped around one last time for a last look. I realized the tool did have a kind of weapons-grade look to it but I was just knitting.

There was a whole series of funny adventures when I had a studio in an elevator building. I made this one really big thing that just would not fit into the elevator. When it was included in an exhibit, naturally I didn’t figure this out until the last possible minute. So three or four of us were staggering down six flights of stairs carrying the piece — palanquin style — on two-by-fours. We encountered a very drunk man coming up the stairs. He could not be dissuaded from adjuncting himself to the process. Fortunately after a flight or so he fell and attrited himself from the process.

Lastly there was an unseasonably warm spring day when we had an entire rental truck full of 16’ branch bundles to unload on upper Newbury street in Boston and we had to dive in and thru this river of oblivious pedestrian traffic all day long.

The last memory was of burning the aforementioned huge wood piece one phenomenally cold New Year’s Eve. It had been doused with accelerant and these huge firemen handled me a shovel and I ran back and forth shoveling coals into the piece until it caught and burned spectacularly.



One Response to “inhabitable forest: an interview with Barbara Andrus”

  1. Phenomenal, thought-provoking, curving work and article! Jan


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