Art Talks/ Steven Montgomery : Sculpting Time

By Pravin Sathe
NY Arts Magazine, July / August 2004

Steven Montgomery’s work has been described not only as shattering the myth of technological progress but the myth of realism as well.  He has produced his corroding and eroding sculptures out of clay with an eye on the effects of time.  He has most recently shown at the OK Harris Gallery here in New York, in Korea and Taiwan.  Welcome Steven.

SM: Thank you, Pravin.

PS: Let me being by asking you to provide a brief biographical background.

SM: Born and bred in Detroit! There was no support for the visual arts for me growing up but more importantly there was no discouragement either. Cultural exposure was pretty much limited to a thriving music scene or the omnipresence of the auto industry. Aesthetic stimuli was sadly limited to one high school visit to the Detroit Institute of Art where I first saw Diego Rivera’s “Industry” murals and the excessive bombardment of symmetry and sentiment attending a Catholic church. In place of a cultural environment there was though a sense of unlimited possibilities and the option to develop creatively without historical restriction.

PS: You mentioned besides your visit to the Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit was not a haven for the visual arts, rather, it was more concentrated on music and manufacturing.  Where then did you acquire your visual aesthetic?

SM: I don’t know really. There might be a theory somewhere to support genetic predisposition for visualization but for me drawing and painting were a private activity. Music, drama or even creative writing seem to require an audience and thus was subjected to the scrutiny of menacing siblings or some other unwanted audience.

PS: How did your high school serve your artistic needs and desires, we know today with the eroding funding for the arts in America, high schools provide very little, if anything for the aspiring artist in terms of exposure to various forms of creative expression.

SM: I attended a Detroit public school that had all the predictable pitfalls but on those occasions that I managed to crawl out of them there was an “Art Room” to go to. I have no memory of actual instruction there but it had a limited array of materials; it was safe, relatively drug free and seemed to attract an eclectic crowd. I made really contrived tempera paintings based on Tolkien’s “Trilogy” and watched hippie girls work on the potter’s wheel. I had never seen clay before.

PS: Moving from high school to college, what were the mediums or subject matter that you decided to delve into and how did you arrive at those having attended a school in the “middle of nowhere” (Grand Valley State) Michigan?

SM: Hey, you callin’ Detroit nowhere!  I went to an alternative education college that allowed me to work in any discipline, at my own pace, and evaluate myself at the end of each semester. I was attracted to clay immediately and also spent a lot of time with intaglio printmaking. Working a zinc or copper plate was an experience in low-relief and the physicality of both ceramics and printmaking satisfied a need in me. I also took all the perfunctory courses like life drawing and art history but I avoided the sculpture program which seemed mired in some really indulgent performance art and smelled like arc-welding.

PS: You mentioned your attraction to the medium of clay, are there specific limitations or freedoms that clay allows that another medium may not for limitations or freedoms that clay allows that another medium may not for your work?

SM: My relationship to clay has undergone many permutations over the years and could currently be described as “love-hate”.  I enjoy the fact that I can invent my own fictitious vocabulary of technological and mechanized devices and there is certainly a wealth of source material in almost any urban environment. Because I’m constantly asking the material to do things it is not naturally inclined to do, a cantilever for instance, I’ve developed a variety of non ceramic systems of wood or metal re-enforcing as well as some oil paint surfaces that make a piece look as though it just emerged out of the East River after a few decades or was newly extracted from ground zero. I can use clay to project myself toward various technologies with little or no practical experience in any of them. The obvious question would be: Does it have to be clay? Why not work with found objects or develop a working understanding of say, mechanical or electrical engineering or computer science? For me, the literal interpretation of this question seems like asking a landscape painter to be proficient in botany or horticulture. On the practical side, my work can be notoriously painstaking to create and ship given both its scale and seeming fragility and requires a real commitment from a lot of people to ensure their exposure.  

PS: When I speak to most people about your work, they, like I, am fascinated with the process with which you make sculpture.  I am always surprised by the trompe l’oeil you create by painstakingly painting by hand the sculpture to achieve your eroding effect. Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York held an exhibition showcasing the processes utilized by Chuck Close.  Yet you are not concerned with the process but rather the product.

SM: I’m not interested in the idea of process as subject but I would not want to deny my audience the option to experience my work as something that somebody made. I fully understand that the idea of “made by hand”, antiquated though it might be, personalizes the experience of viewing art. antiquated though it might be, personalizes the experience of viewing art. Didn’t the modernist tenet of “honesty in materials” get upended some time ago?

PS: I want to shift focus for the latter part of this talk and broaden our perspective a bit.  A mutual friend of ours, Tony Oursler, delves primarily in a medium – video – that 10-15 years ago was not an established member of the art world.  Recently Bruce Nauman’s works have been fetching sums thought unlikely for a video artist.  You work with clay, and ceramics also suffers from a craft stigma.  Is there a certain bias to mediums throughout the art world?

SM: I think photography is a better example of a medium rising from stigmatization but both have been absolved by their proximity to technology.  Ceramics has no such benefactor and artists working in clay have not done enough to interrupt the stigmatization. A lot of these issues could also be ascribed to market concerns that attempt to define “ high and low” art.

PS: Recently Art News published a list of the 10 most expensive living artists, a list that included Lucian Freud, Jeff Koons, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter among others. They are all Caucasian, white males.

SM: Damn! Another list I didn’t make! It is stunning considering the diversity of work even among that group that it’s not a bit more inclusive.  Investment values and art as commodity are sufficiently fickle to assume that any trend will shift. But true diversification in the primary art market is likely to be very slow.

PS: While we are on the topic of the business of art; if artists ultimately wish to sell their art – and while the romance of the starving artist is great in the short term – how important is marketing in making work?  That is, are artists targeting their work for audiences and primarily to prospective are artists targeting their work for audiences and primarily to prospective buyers before making their work?

SM: Financial reward as criteria for personal and professional validation seems to be on the rise. MFA students now diligently send out press releases, write articulate statements of intent and inconspicuously post price lists in their thesis exhibitions.  And why not, as long as those concerns are kept in perspective and are not the prime determinate in their pursuits. If Theo had sold a painting or two once in while for his dear nephew would Vincent have abstained from the absinthe? Probably not, nor would it have hampered his output. I don’t know if things have changed all that much.

PS: Is there a particular movement you see on the horizon in art that you think will push boundaries or break down walls?

SM: Technology both as medium and subject will continue to flourish. Environmental concerns, politics and issues of cultural inclusion will enjoy resurgence. Painting will still look good over the sofa.

PS: To try and tie this up in a neat bow, what’s next for Steven Montgomery?

SM: When the aesthetics of damage, fragility and the passage of time are no longer relevant I would like to evolve into public art or possibly collaborate with an architect on works suitable for an architectural setting. I’ve made several models for building facades that are less disconcerting than my current direction but equally viable.

PS: Steven Montgomery, I thank you.

SM: Pravin, the honor is mine, thank you!