Seton Smith with Eve Aschheim
On the occasion of the artist’s current exhibit at Winston Wächter Fine Art (January 31–March 4, 2008), Seton Smith welcomed painter Eve Aschheim to her Lower East Side studio to talk about her life and work.
Eve Aschheim (Rail): You grew up in South Orange, New Jersey, and in the 1970s went to Boston University, where you studied painting and art history and later photography at the Museum School and Massachusetts College of Art. We met in Paris in the late ’90s. A few years ago, you moved to New York after living there for 20 years. What brought you to Paris, and why did you stay?
Seton Smith: In 1984 I had been invited to participate in an exposition entitled Paravents curated by Paul Andres and Jule Werner in her Schloss outside Köln, through an article that included my work in the Dutch magazine Metropolis M about Collaborative Projects (Colab), of which I was a member. I had been living in the Lower East Side at the time and painting was the dominant medium. I had seen some German artists’ installations related to architecture, Hermann Pitz, Thomas Schutte, and Raimund Kummer, among others and decided that was the direction that interested me. I returned to Paris in 1985 with a friend, not really meaning to stay but realized I needed to take the opportunity to learn more about other cultures.
Rail: Your subject matter has included antiquities, archeological sites, museum objects in vitrines, museums in general, furniture and interiors, architectural details and features including stairs, windows, doors, mirrors, as well as scenes from nature, trees, flowers, etc. It all relates to the idea of architecture/environment. How did this interest evolve?
Smith: When I was studying in Boston, I started photographing low walls in the countryside, with the idea of documenting delineated spaces in the landscape; the influence of earthworks was current at the time. I started photographing construction site foundations and painting on them to obscure extraneous information. I concentrated on the idea of there being chosen sites, like one sees on the mesas in the Southwest where Native Americans selected a particular spot to build a settlement.
I started reading about architecture: Learning from Las Vegas, Architecture Without Architects, and about the architecture of war. When I moved to New York in 1979, I started making paintings of architectural facades on canvas screens 6 feet by 9 feet. The idea was that you could install different architecture scenes within your own environment, of various building types and historical styles.
I initially went to France to photograph parks and buildings to apply on screens, so that they could be produced and made inexpensive and available. I started looking at architecture as a language. After a year of being in Paris and taking photos, I made paper models of collapsible portable rooms. Then, I added wall sections and models of stairs, pools, doors, and other simple architectural elements. I photographed them with the idea of making installations on a life-size scale. I realized the installations in wood, marble, and copper. Later, I added black and white 6 by 9 foot photographs and combined them to suggest different metaphorical associations. It was as if they were all in flux because the photos were leaning and not fixed. One could slide in and out of history and consider how we make choices to create our environment.
Rail: Since your 1998-99 show at the Whitney Museum, Pale Guide to Transparent Things, curated by Adam D. Weinberg, your work has haunted me. It’s because of a mysterious and hallucinatory quality that your images sustain. A feeling like maybe this really isn’t here; this is something that we’re just imagining.
I’ve seen mirages in the desert in Africa where one sees bright blue water in the middle of the desert where there is no water and these images are hazy like your images and also are surrounded by a brightness of light.
Smith: It’s interesting that you see it in that way. In the Whitney’s projects room I made a series of 12 light boxes. They were very painterly in a sense, hazy black and blue forms that you would not imagine were taken in an auditorium. So they were quite abstract looking. There were also some pictures of Chinese chairs in the installation. In my work, I am often juxtaposing different kinds of spaces as if they are presenting different realities that we are living in simultaneously. Another element of the project was a 20 foot square scrim on the windows of a forest from Wales that was semi-transparent in the day and spotlit at night to seem opaque.
My making things out of focus is saying that I am not trying to give a literal interpretation since we expect certain kinds of real information from photography. I want to make it obvious from the beginning that the viewer is invited into a psychological space.
Rail: Your unconventional installation of large photographs—large framed photographs, light boxes, some leaning on the wall, some attached, photographs on scrim, etc., creates a virtual museum out of a myriad of different objects from different cultures and time periods. Your show at the Whitney had images of Attic vases, chairs, tables, and windows, which transformed the space into another environment that transgresses time but also transcends it, is outside of time, and echoes memory.
Smith: I look at objects and furniture in museums as proposing a continuity of time and place. Taken from their original time and location the objects are dispersed and migrate around to different museums, out of context, implying they are vehicles for the recreation of various cultures. My photographs are meant in a sense to redirect that illusion and bring them back to the level of individual presences.
Rail: The blurriness may make the object unnameable, like an apparition. Sometimes you lose the surface detail, which means you dissolve the plane, and then the volume. You build the space and empty it out, a virtual form. In the case of these new photographs, there’s a tension between a suggestion of three-dimensional space, and also a flattening of that space. It’s as if you’re responding to architecture by flattening it or dissolving its materiality.
Smith: The photographs are propositions of spaces that may provoke our memories or connect to the inventory of spaces we have encountered. They invite you without telling you. I think there is also a relationship to the body, they are hung low and due to their size, 6’ x 4’, they relate to real architectural scale; you feel like you can actually walk into the space. My images are representational but can give the optical impression of abstract fragments of color.
Rail: You render unnameable objects and spaces that would otherwise be familiar. House museums are personal spaces turned public, which you then defamiliarize.
Smith: The spaces are not completely random, not heroic or anecdotal. By that I mean that I am not trying to represent a story that has occurred in a given location. Places that can hold one’s attention like a pause. Looking and seeing where the corners reside. A certain temperature or atmosphere taken out of context and reexamined in its own light, like an object. In the second monograph about my work, Without Warning, Doris von Drathen quotes Max Raphael in speaking of different artist's paintings as embodying types of spaces; Vermeer the “space of unconsciousness”, in Tintoretto the “space of transition between life and the hereafter”, in Egypt “the space of the infinite void”, in India the “space of plenitude and contemplation” and so on. She goes onto say that I am blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, between the real and the unreal, between what is recognizable and what is not.
Rail: Yes. Further, the space in your photographs is expandable and becomes immense. As the viewer approaches the form it seems to feel infinitely far away. The space of pure terror. In movies often the part that is most disturbing comes after a moment that is quiet with no music and little action. What exposure do you use to get these effects?
Smith: I’m using a very slow speed because of the low light in museums and the camera being hand held and without a flash, that’s why the color is very saturated looking.
Rail: You’ve done many things with windows: You’ve turned them into different things, dissolved the plane itself, rendered them opaque, used them for reflections or as a reflection. In the current work, you take a shop window and door, which are normally clear, and make them opaque. And in one photograph the glass door shows the reflection of a car, so you’re showing us another reality within this reality that’s also opaque. There’s a bouncing back where you can’t enter—you don’t know where you are: You’re in between these two hard, reflective surfaces that keep you out.
Smith: A lot of my work has to do with interiors and exteriors, and that’s also related to the metaphor of the inner body and its membrane separating the exterior world. A few years ago I shot some work in Japan where that’s so present. There is an abstract quality to the traditional white screens that gives an austerity to the interior spaces, but you know they open onto a garden that is very lush and rich in color. In the new work there is also the same kind of minimal information that then explodes into the frenzy of trees. The facades keep you on the exterior, and there is no distance between them and the trees, or room to enter.
Rail: But yet in the piece “Car in Door” you see a reflection from the real world, which is maybe what you’re interested in.
Smith: This is a different kind of reflection than I normally have in my work. There is a confrontation between the temporal and the immediate with the glass door as a screen where the information is always changing. It’s citing a different kind of photography that captures an instant by chance.
Rail: What about the idea of mirrors? They have connotations of possibility, meditation, reflection, mediated experience, voyeurism, surveillance, entrapment, and escape. You did a show in 1993 with the intriguing title Distracted Mirror. How do you think about mirrors?
Smith: Well, I think you could say a mirror is also a witness, so it’s aware of everything going on in the space around you. What is reflected in mirrors isn’t what you would see normally looking at something directly. You are also seeing what is behind you. I think I started photographing things in mirrors as if they’re slices of reality from different perspectives, which also relates to the installations. Mirrors can also seem like passages to other spaces. In the installations I would indicate that the objects and photographs are portable objects, because they would be leaning. Some were doors, blank doors, trap doors, or a symbolic door to a garden. There’s this sense of flux and images and objects could be moved around to create new environments.
Rail: That’s like exploded Cubism, but instead of a still life it is life-size rooms and spaces that are juxtaposed and intersect.
Smith: like Schwitters’s Merzbau.
Rail: You’ve also made a lot of diptychs in which different kinds of relationships happen between the pairs. In some cases, the pairing of two slightly different foci implies the movement of a viewer, like frames in a movie, a disjunctive panorama. In “The Snow Trees” diptych, something I have never seen before happens. The two panels almost seem to form a continuous picture that simultaneously separates into two almost identical panels. What appears to be repetition is not. Perception is challenged.
Smith: Yes. I started working on that maybe in ’94 or so; they’re two versions of the same thing. I entitled the series “Deux Aspects.” It is about how there are many different perspectives from which to see the same story and how that changes as you move through space, which also relates to mirrors.
Rail: The snow trees are very flat—there’s a sheerness, like a slicing through the picture plane, and, at the same time, they are very sensual and there’s a beautiful rhythm. They have the kind of suddenness that I see in Japanese prints, or Chinese paintings, things pressed against the surface, confrontational. This gestural line or network, fluid but broken, as the snow breaks the continuity of the branches into line fragments while it presses the branches into a plane; frozen in ecstatic limbo. Each panel vacillating between autonomy and submersion into a larger picture that almost forms.
Smith: In the installation of the four diptychs comprising “Snow Trees”, I want it to be like a surround-sound of the snow-covered branches, a sort of flattened panorama. I think you are also talking about orientation in space, and how you are feeling in relation to a space. A main theme of my work is to ask people to look at how their environment—whether built or natural—is effecting them, because architecture seems so overpowering, in a literal sense. The photographs invite people to be more aware of their surroundings, what it’s telling us and where we place ourselves within it, psychologically and emotionally.
Rail: In writing about your work, Jan Avgikos spoke of your pointing to objects with the camera, as if you are indicating objects as parts of language, the difference between the visual image of an object and how we decipher its meaning. John Yau wrote about the objects in your photographs in relationship to longing but said that naming is not enough and communication has other sources.
Smith: Sometimes I write texts that exist somewhere between automatic writing and poetry. Sometimes I am making an inventory of objects, building types and categories, systems on paper. That could be a legacy of my father, Tony Smith, and his work with modular elements. Although I think he also taught me about materials, making models and imagining scale, which is how he worked as a sculptor.
Rail: What kind of light attracts you?
Smith: In one of the series that I showed at the Whitney, “Windows from a Clear,” I think it’s really about the silence of the space of the photographs. They were taken in a house where Washington—as in George—and part of his army were stationed in the winter. The windows and the white campaign beds resonate with the silence of the snow outside. I think some of my work has to do with silence.
Rail: Silence in a kind of timeless state. Perhaps a sense of durational time, that it’s been here for a long time, and it’s somehow permanent in its form.
Smith: Well I think that maybe I’m attracted to things that could symbolize that in a way. I think it is something you feel when you are there; an experience not necessarily attached to words.
Rail: Emptiness? the spaces in between things being emphasized.
Smith: I think that is where your eyes can rest at a space—looking at something and you are not necessarily conscious of it. You could become a person in the interior image, in a sense, superimposed or transplanted. I like the nearly empty institutional spaces in Ilya Kabakov’s work, where there is just a line of molding on the wall. I made lots of little paintings when I was in my twenties, of rooms with just a table, some chairs and a door. When we think of empty spaces, in our minds we can see prisons cells, entry halls, stages, arenas, places where an action will occur, influenced by life, film, and literature. Real emptiness can be very loaded.
Rail: What initially attracts you to a particular place that you photograph?
Smith: When I photograph interiors, I really don’t want to know what’s inside the space before I get there. For various reasons, I just suspect there might be something interesting in it. I really like to go in cold and just function in an intuitive way. In Europe I was photographing in public spaces, which are either in museums or chateaux, house museums, and decorative arts museums. Now that I am back in the U.S., I feel like going back to photographing the vernacular American architecture and landscape.
I almost always photograph when I travel, so I’m discovering something at the same time while I’m shooting it. When I was in France, I used to say that I was in the 18th century. But I’m not there anymore.
Rail: So now that are you living in New York, are you in the 21st or just the 19th?
Smith: No, no, the 21st.
Rail: Your work has many historical references, period furniture, antiquities, architectural details that date it.
Smith: That can be relative too. Since I was living in Europe, those things are common. Some French people would say I’m using “la vie quotidienne,” but of course it is not the same quotidian for an American person.
Rail: So when you came back to the United States, your subject matter naturally shifted?
Smith: Yes, I think so. I mean, it’s a process and I’m discovering it now. I went cross-country around ’82, and made lots of black-and-white photographs of desolate houses and the countryside. What does it mean now with the history of photographs like those by Lewis Baltz and Dan Graham and others? The ubiquitous suburbs and developments. How are we looking at the landscape and what does it mean in our time? In the city we only see nature in a car commercial. Can we just add a palm tree to a shopping mall or do we really need something else? I think our attitudes vis-a-vis nature are very complex. We stand in awe of its majesty, and we are willing it to remain intact, untouched in our imagination. We reserve the idyllic illusion even though peril is advancing. It is very difficult to photograph nature without having the generic look we cling to. Simultaneously we see the devastation in the photos of Robert Adams.
Rail: These new works are less aestheticized, tougher, in a way, less romantic.
Smith: That may be true.
Rail: You’re almost like a foreigner now, coming back to see this with fresh eyes.
Smith: A little bit. That’s true. Being out of one’s culture helps to look at it in a more critical manner. I think it’s interesting living in a different culture, after some years you’re not in your culture and you’re not in their culture. So you exist mentally in a hybrid kind of space, it makes one a better Flanneuse.
Rail: Have you read The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard? Barthes, Foucault, Luce Irigaray or other philosophers or writers?
Smith: Some, but now I enjoy reading the work of Beatriz Colomina, Giuliana Bruno, Michael Sorkin etc. I take classes on American history, sociology and history related to urbanism, the history of the suburbs, modernity, the middle class/globalism, and currently environmental history. I’m interested in reading about the development of cities, how people in our time are creating public spaces, the forum of the internet, the space of fear, of the walking city, points of contact and spaces of desolation, ethnic and class based enclaves.
Rail: Can you discuss a few of your art historical influences?
Smith: I always say I like Giotto, Persian miniatures, and minimalist abstract painting, partly because I grew up with it. And it seems to be some kind of answer. I am also interested in sculptures that could be considered funereal architecture like Egyptian sarcophagi, the low marble tombs of St. Denis, the Chinese Spirit road, mastabas and stupas.
Rail: That’s interesting. Giotto and Persian miniatures both flatten perspective and use these little hexagonal forms, just like you have in this new body of work.
Smith: Pavilions. I’ve had a pavilion focus for a long time.
Rail: What’s a “Pavilion focus” ?
Smith: I have liked them from Islamic paintings and miniatures, the “Annunciation” space of early Renaissance paintings, the primitive hut, garden follies, Chinese pavilions, ski platforms, underpasses, igloos, beehives, bath houses, and so on. I started collecting boxes when I was young, in retrospect they are all related. Drawing lines in space, delineating, defining, separating one space from another in relationship to positives and negatives. Some open-air pavilions in gardens were designed as an idealized place for contemplation, literature and music in the landscape symbolic of a harmonious human coexistence in the universe.
Rail: Yes, and as with Giotto and Persian miniatures, some of your work has cues for flatness and three-dimensionality at the same time, and also has a stage-set format.
Smith: In general, there are no shadows.
Rail: Who are some other painters you like?
Smith: I like Imi Knoebel, your work, Mary Heilmann, and many other contemporary artists as well as Medieval and Renaissance works, Indian and Chinese works, not to mention the Abstract Expressionists, and so on.
Rail: You have photographed nature extensively.
Smith: I started photographing nature and trees in 1990, and I just became completely fixated on trees and their presence as witnesses to history. It goes back to how, in general, we perceive the landscape. I attended many conferences on landscape and garden history, how they were rendered in Dutch naturalist vision of the 17th century and other European painting to their early appearance in photography for a European and American audience of exotic places around the world, how these images helped form how we perceive nature, the sublime, Manifest Destiny, the Hudson River School and political boundaries.
Rail: You have also done a dozen temporary site-specific public projects in France. Your project on highway signs sounds ingenious.
Smith: In 1991, I photographed a local landscape in Brittany, and then adhered the transparent photographs onto regular road signs; you could see the image of a tree for example in 5 kilometers. So it was an advertisement of the local landscape for the residents as well as for tourists.
Rail: So you replaced the sign with the photograph of the real thing?
Smith: Yes, I have made several projects of installing photographs of nature in nature, for a variety of reasons. The most recent project I made, in 2006, was in a water garden and I added a 10’ x 30’ scrim onto a triangular support of an image of the stairs that led up to the chateau, an imaginary staircase.
Rail: Who are the photographers you look at?
Smith: Some of the German photographers documenting architecture, like Candida Höfer, Thomas Demand and others. We have a connection with the same subject matter, but we are working with it in a very different ways. The artwork that most interests me at this time is, oddly enough, post-Minimalism. I recently saw Steven Parrino’s retrospective in Paris and was enthusiastic about how he combines minimalism with Rock and Roll and motorcycles. Culturally it makes sense. I like many different artists’ work: Kara Walker, Sarah Lucas, Andrea Blum, Tony Feher, the car hoods of Richard Prince, and many others, and some of the younger artists in the ”Unmonumental” show at the New Museum. I look at a lot of work.
I have a new interpretation of how post-Minimalism has now been reconfigured. I just bought a book of Christopher Wool photographs taken from the street, in black and white. And for me that’s post-Minimalism. They are found objects in a sense, or situations that have no privilege of privacy, like ready-mades in the environment around us.
Rail: In your new show, how do you hope the installation of photographs of storefront windows and those of nature work will relate?
Smith: I think the photos of storefronts set up a context of flat planes and a monochrome palette. On one hand, we are reassured that we recognize what they are and also see there is something they are not telling. The trees propose a completely unexpected reality, a near chaos. They have been described as psychedelic.