Art-Rated’s Jonathan Beer and Lily Koto Olive had the chance to visit the studio of Brooklyn-based artist Saul Melman.
Saul creates immersive environments, performances, and sculptures that integrate tactile and conceptual manifestations of the body. He holds an MFA from Bard College and is a practicing emergency room doctor. Saul’s work has been included in exhibitions at many cultural institutions including MoMAPS1, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art and Socrates Sculpture Park, as well as in numerous galleries. Saul has also created two large-scale projects in the Nevada Desert at Burning Man, funded by grants from the Burning Man Organization. He is currently a resident artist at Dieu Donné in New York City.
Art-Rated: Let’s begin with a project of yours that’s still in process – you completed a residency last year at BoxoHouse in Joshua Tree, California, where you turned an entire garage into a walk-in pinhole camera. Are these images from that?
Saul Melman: Yes, these are the negative exposures I made from the project.
AR: They are beautiful, very haunting. Almost like an ink or charcoal drawing. I’m curious about the round objects that seem to be floating in space – are those pie tins?
SM: [Laughs] Yes. The use of the pie tins just came out of function. I used a small piece of a pie tin to create the aperture of the pinhole and then later introduced the pie tins into the picture because they were reflective. The rectangular lines are from a sliding glass door and a shiny aluminum ladder I found in the garage. I discovered that because I was wearing a non-reflective blue jumpsuit, I could use my body to stand in front of the reflective objects and almost erase them, preventing them from being exposed without being exposed myself.
AR: Almost like a blue screen effect.
SM: I also made a stop-motion video based on the arrangements of the pie tins. I started to think of them as a heliogram. Like someone signaling with mirrors in the sunlight from far away.
AR: They remind me of early computer punch cards used for input and output, like the ones that were used with the Turing machine. I’m viewing these exposures as individual slides, where the pie tins are in different configurations as if an unknown machine could read them and that in a sequence they would be a code. Or the stop-motion video could be the code. It reminds me of genetic sequences also, the vertical structures and striations.
SM: I really enjoyed the formal structure of the doors. As the sun would rise, beams of light would reflect off the doors and come right into the garage through the pinhole. I needed to work from 6 am to 12:30 because at that time the rays were the most parallel to the pinhole, and made a bright image with a surprising amount of detail. These are 19-minute exposures, which enabled me to be outside of the camera, go into the picture frame and physically interact with the doors and introduce other objects. Also, using the silver gelatin was totally new for me. When you buy it, it comes in a bottle, and it’s the consistency of Jell-O. You heat the bottle in hot water and then you just brush it onto the paper.
AR: And then you can just expose it like that?
SM: Yeah, and you can put it on anything. Although one thing that happened was during the day, the temperature in the garage would go above 100 degrees and, unbeknownst to me, the heat itself was activating and exposing the gelatin. I noticed this towards the end of the residency when I developed the negatives and wasn’t seeing my whitest whites and darkest darks in the exposures.
AR: I was wondering about that, if it was intentional or a result of the process. There is something nice about the murkiness of the shadows, and the qualities in the over and under exposure. They look like Sally Mann photographs, or cyanotypes, or like early photography of something from the future. And of course then the idea of a code takes on a whole new meaning. It makes you wonder where were these photos found? Who took them? Who put the pie tins up? What were they trying to warn us about?
SM: Pie tins from the future?
AR: The future of baking? [Laughs]
SM: [Laughs]. The process of making the images was physical; it was very different than digital photography. And because of the 19-minute exposure time, and performing in the image, it felt like I was shooting a video that was being compressed into a singular image.
AR: It’s funny to think of this versus digital photography. Our definition for a photograph is so quick now – we perceive it to be an instantaneous medium. A 19-minute exposure time feels so foreign, like it’s this weird form of printmaking. The degradation of the image is so unclear and not crisp and macro and soft focus unlike the cultural definition of photography today. They look a lot like ink drawings, it’s interesting that you can’t tell what they are. I know you’re going back to Joshua Tree this spring. Do you have any ideas of what you’ll do in continuing the project?
SM: I was thinking about heliograms last time, and wondering if the pie tins were too recognizable in that regard. So I’m glad you noticed it right away, and ruined it! [Laughs] I was thinking of hanging a non-reflective sheet, making a stage and attaching reflective objects to my body.
AR: I’m seeing the sliding glass doors as this surface to enlist silhouettes…possibly laying something on the glass like an animation frame and creating a kind of proto cinematic moment over the 19-minute exposure.
SM: I know from reading your interviews that one question you ask a lot is where do your ideas come from, and aside from process, I like to go to the Met, especially the Central American and Asian wings. There was an image I saw there recently, a religious painting, where several men were about to be killed. The men had golden haloes around their heads that represent light and divinity. I was thinking about making headgear to photograph with the pinhole camera that would be partially blocked out by my head. Re-imagining the light of those paintings through the pinhole camera, except that the light will be dark in the final negative exposures. In the painting the light around their heads is represented by gold leaf, which struck me because two years prior I had done the PS1 project and worked with a lot of gold leaf. Natural light was an essential component to the way I was thinking about the installation at PS1. My interest in working with light at PS1 fueled the next project at Socrates [Sculpture Park], which were the translucent doors. When I went out to Joshua Tree, having worked in the desert before, I knew that the light is special in the desert so I wanted to make light a central material.
AR: To talk about the nature of the window, or putting a window within a window, one thinks of David Salle, but you brought up Central American and Asian art. Those Pre Modern periods stretching back to Mesopotamia, all used windows within windows to describe stories within stories, way before someone like David Salle. I can’t help but think of the cylinder seals from the Morgan Library here in NY. They’re all broken into registers, a very formal device where stories physically sit on top of other stories and can be read all at once. I can’t help but think of them when I look at these exposures.
SM: I love those…that’s really interesting – why?
AR: I think about the cylinder seals a lot, and the images that they print. Because your images are broken into the rectangular panes of glass in the door, I can’t help but see them as rectangles floating in space, even though I know they make up an image. It’s almost as if you rolled a giant cylinder across the paper and deposited the image right on there.
SM: That’s kind of incredible that you’re saying that, because my initial idea for the residency was to go out there and build a giant cylinder seal!
AR: So where did the cylinder seal idea come from?
SM: Again, going to the Met. I love how they’re embedded with a narrative that reveals itself when rolled into another material. I’m interested in their original use as administrative tools or as magical amulets.
AR: What were your thoughts about the actual image? Or had it gotten that far?
SM: I started thinking about how I would make the seal but not really what the image would be. I would need to know more about the site first, as the site would inform the narrative.
AR: So you’ve been doing a lot of site-specific projects in the past few years, can you talk about your background a little bit? How you got here?
SM: Well, my mother was a nursery school teacher who advocated play, and my father is an inventor, scientist and a Urologic surgeon. So both a playful and an analytical way of thinking about the world influenced me at an early age. In college, I started out as a theater major and Pre-Med. But I took a drawing class in my first semester with the painter Peter Charlap. He supported breaking the rules of how art “should” be made and pushed us to think about our process in a compelling way. That was exciting to me, and so, half-way through my first year I switched from theater to studio art, while continuing to study science and architecture.
After college, I interned at an architectural firm in NYC and drove a cab. I thought about becoming an artist, but I didn’t have a model or know how a person became a professional artist. In retrospect it seems rather obvious but at the time it wasn’t. The pathway for becoming a doctor was a lot clearer and was something that interested me, so I decided to go to medical school and become an ER doctor, with the plan in mind to ultimately go back to making art.
After medical school, I completed a residency in Emergency Medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and during the five years I lived there, I took drawing classes twice a week. I returned to New York in 2001 knowing that making art had to be a central part of my life.
That year, an artist friend took me to Burning Man, which kind of blew my mind. I went back to the festival in 2002, and then decided I wanted to make a project in the desert. So, I applied for a grant and I got funded to build my rendition of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. It took 10 months to design and fabricate here in Brooklyn and then it got packed into a truck like a kit and was driven out to the desert where a crew of 12 helped me assemble it. I wanted to invert Duchamp’s idea of a readymade placed in a gallery, so I enlarged and abstracted his Fountain piece to the size of a house so that the readymade became the gallery.
I combined elements of religious architecture with human anatomy. For example, the proportions of the sculpture were based on the golden ratio and the arches were shaped like ribs. Under the dome of arches was a functioning water fountain, the form of which was based on the deodorant cakes found in a men’s urinal. It emitted a tranquil tinkling sound. Zen, but also kind of tongue in cheek. Inside, the white walls were eight feet high so the sky was framed above you. You could sit in relative silence protected by the sculpture, even in 60 mile an hour dust storms.
I learned a lot from that piece about scale, and making site-specific outdoor work. From very far away the sculpture looked large in relationship to the mountains behind it. As you approached the sculpture it appeared smaller, and then once you were inside it felt very intimate. More than 40,000 people saw the sculpture in the week it was exhibited. Performances occurred inside it all the time. I remember two opera singers finding the acoustic center and singing an aria. That was great! Towards the end of the week, people were putting desert dust in the water fountain and drawing all over the white walls. On the final day of the festival I burned the sculpture down, not because it’s “burning” man but because I wanted to underscore its ephemerality. About 15,000 people came to see it burn. I had a pyrotechnics specialist on my crew and he lit it up, and it went down and went down fast.
AR: How did that feel?
SM: It was such an immense effort to realize that project. And considering my trajectory to get there, the project was pivotal in terms of my understanding that I could create my own path. I was grateful for the opportunity and to all of the volunteers who helped to build it. Burning it down was a cathartic moment. Someone made a movie about the project.
So that sculpture lead to my next project at Burning Man in 2004. The rules I set for myself were to consider the elements of the desert, mostly the sunlight, and not to use any heavy equipment as the urinal project required three cherry pickers to install. I decided that I would make an inflatable sculpture. Around that time, I came across the image of the Mandelbrot set, an image produced from fractal theory mathematics. So I had the idea to reimagine the Mandelbrot set as something very large and to show the math of the structural elements that comprised it. But first I needed to figure out how to make an inflatable, because I had never done that before.
I began with lightweight plastic that I welded with a small heat sealer. I made a two-inch by two-inch inflated pouch, put it on the floor and stood on it. And it didn’t pop! At that moment, I knew ‘This is it.’ The next 8 months were spent experimenting in the studio, and on the roof, with various kinds of plastic sheeting, industrial heat sealers and a shop vac.
That’s usually how my process begins. I start to translate an idea through an experimental process of working with a material. It’s similar to how I made “Best Of All Possible Worlds,” which began as a translation of a photograph and evolved through experimenting with the process of vacuum forming.
Videography: Richard Huntington Swanson
In the process of playing with materials in my studio I came up with an unexpected new material for “How You Hold Something Inside Matters.” The bricks are made of skin dust and water.
My original experimentation with plastic for Jadu Beta, and the 2-inch by 2-inch pouch I made, evolved into 485 inflatable units that were each 9 feet wide and 4 1/2 feet high. The sculpture was 450 feet long and 120 feet wide, so you couldn’t appreciate its Mandelbrot form except from an airplane. But you could see its mathematical interconnectivity.
AR: Just like cells.
SM: Cellular architecture of biologic membranes played a large role in how they were arranged. The inflated units were connected with thousands of plastic automotive rivets. It took a crew of 12 to put it together and we constructed it from the top down without any heavy equipment. Building it with the crew was an incredible experience.
Several couples got married inside, and in the urinal piece too. Over the course of 8 days, the sculpture slowly started to shift and decay, which was really beautiful. It was another important step in thinking about my sculptures being time based.
AR: It’s interesting to think that that particular sculpture is already in a biological framework: it’s constructed of cells, it appears like tissue, but then there’s this added component of giving it a lifespan. It seems to be an interesting contrast to a lot of your other work, including the performance at the Robeson Gallery at Rutgers where you sutured the pig’s foot that was already removed from a dead animal, to photography, to the casting of objects from shed skin and hide. There’s a lot of connection to something past life, with the exception of this piece, which feels like you created an organism and gave it life, instead of working post-life.
Videography: Craig Callison
SM: I want my sculptures to feel alive, to imbue them with their own independent energy. I consider my sculptures to be stories, or fragments of stories that suggest time in flux. One of the things that I was interested in with the inflatable was that the units would expand and contract with the change in temperature as they were hermetically sealed, allowing the sculpture to ‘breath.’ I knew that the plastic would appear more organic, more animate, as it was affected by the heat and sunlight.
With the PS1 project, the first gesture was to sandblast everything in the boiler room and to clean the windows, removing the decades of dirt and exposing the windows so the light would pour in and reanimate the discarded boiler.
AR: Didn’t you refer to that as ‘re-skinning?’
SM: Yeah – skin as metaphor, if you think of it as the information found on the surface of things, it is quite profound, which you two, as painters would know. I cleaned the furnace to its bare iron skin, made it nude, and then re-skinned it with gold leaf. I trained in the traditional gilding process with a master gilder from Italy who now lives in Red Hook.
AR: The minute you said you made the iron nude, Duchamp instantly popped back into my head – his famous piece, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors.’ And I started to think about the surface as the Bride – maybe this piece is one step past Duchamp. Maybe this moves the Canon beyond the vulnerability of the Bride?
SM: I never thought about it like that – you’re the first one to bring it up. The project at PS1 definitely related to both projects in the desert, because all three were closed immersive environments where light was an integral component. I like to think that my PS1 installation is in conversation with the James Turrell, on the top floor of the museum. The work definitely also related to Duchamp because I selected a readymade but instead of bringing the object to the gallery like Duchamp, I was interested in transforming an object already inside the museum.
A few things brought the idea together for the installation at PS1: walking around the Met and seeing the gold Aztec ornaments, and reading the book The Shape of Time by George Kubler. In the book, Kubler conflates the ideas of art objects and tools as a means to think about the relationship and value of objects throughout history. One day I was walking near my studio and I saw a crushed can on the ground, just garbage, and I wondered what would happen if I covered it in gold leaf and ascribed value to it. The can sat in my studio for six months or so, and then when I had the opportunity to create work in the boiler room at PS1, I decided to work with the boiler itself. The boiler is an imposing, massive structure that had been unused for over 60 years and was encrusted with dirt and rust. I wanted to perform a gesture that would reanimate it. So this related back to the can in my studio. I was also interested in the fact that the boiler room is subterranean and that you have to enter through a narrow door, similar to the portals through which viewers had to enter both of the desert projects. I like that this forces a physical engagement with the work. The idea for the gold also came from seeing a 50-foot high Buddha in Thailand, where people would come to put gold leaf on the hand of the Buddha. So I was also thinking of the boiler as a sacred icon. At the same time there was a Tutankhamen show in NY, so mummies and embalming were in my thoughts as well.
Gold-leafing the boiler was done as a performance over six months. The installation also included 5000 pounds of salt blocks that were stacked in the room. The salt and gold alluded to their alchemical properties, the salt representing wisdom and learned knowledge, while the gold was pure consciousness.
AR: You’ve talked a lot about reanimation with this work, and we’ve talked about your work being post-life, and you brought up that as a material gold has been used in a ceremonial sense to adorn objects and ascribe value to them throughout various cultures and that the act of applying gold to something ascribes value to it. But in an interesting turn the act of applying gold to an object also places it in the realm of the divine, and hand in hand with that comes an idea of immortalization. So then we move from reanimation, to post-life, to immortalization. It’s a way to affix something, whether it’s a pharaoh in a sarcophagus or a can you gold leaf in your studio, and suddenly this object is simultaneously reanimated and this new essence is sealed within the gold. It’s the same with the boiler: initially this object that was intimidating is cleaned, and the cleaning process is a recasting of the impression it makes and this new impression is preserved in gold. Almost like sealing it in wax or amber.
SM: I was definitely referring to ideas of preservation; salt used in the embalming process of making mummies and gold as both re-animator and as an allusion to the eternal divine.
AR: The reification is interesting too, bringing these things to a divine place. And I was reminded of the haloes in the pinhole photos you mentioned, and the way that the gilded haloes apply a religious or divine significance.
SM: I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily important for people to know my original intent for a work, just that they feel there is intention in the work. So to take the majesty of the boiler and ascribe or reify it, as you’re saying, through the specific material of gold leaf, brings in a whole history. Because the materials evoke cultural history I think people can sense intention behind the decisions to use these materials.
AR: How do you respond to other artists who work in similar ways like Anselm Kiefer or Rachel Whiteread? Or are there any artists in particular you look towards?
SM: I think there are certain themes in my work that overlap with Rachel Whiteread, like directing the viewer’s attention to what is absent. I’m drawn to artists who create their own cosmos and develop narratives from that world. Joseph Beuys, Matthew Ritchie, Matthew Barney, David Altmejd and Geoffrey Farmer are artists whose work interests me. I often research artists when I’m working with a material that’s new to me. For instance, when I was planning to gold leaf the boiler I tracked down Giovanni Bucchi, the master gilder. He taught me how to apply the gold leaf so that the gilding would be seamless. So when I first began gilding the boiler, the gold leaf was flawless, except for a few imperfections where the edges of the gold leaf stuck off the surface of the boiler. But then I noticed that the light coming in from the windows was highlighting these imperfections in a way that was more interesting to me, so I followed the pattern of light and created imperfections in the gold along the surface of the boiler, like a register or index for the timeline of the project. At that time I had recently seen a show at Pace Gallery that included Robert Ryman’s work, which was influential in thinking about the materiality of the gold leaf and the light. Applying the gold leaf became much more painterly than the craft I had originally learned. That’s important in regards to my process. I have faith that materials will guide me and help to generate the work’s meaning. As the boiler exists now, you can see the hand that put each piece of gold leaf there. So the performative aspect of the work persists through time because of the information on the surface.
AR: When you were describing the light breaking across the gold leaf, illuminating the jagged edges, and as a result illuminating the moment when you laid the leaf down, I started to think of all the themes we mentioned before: animation, re-animation, and reification. But I think that act adds one more: suspended animation. One that is between animation and death. Between a reified and immortalized surface and a degraded, original surface, post application but pre-immortalization. There’s a lot of thought that has been generated about painting being dead, because the act of painting it is one generation removed from the thought behind the work, and the thought is the only living part of it. I don’t think painting is inert, but suspended.
SM: That makes me think of de Kooning.
AR: Have you done any more painting?
SM: No, not recently. I like how sculpture creates a place and enables the viewer to have a physical relationship to it.
AR: Have you ever worked with ice?
SM: No, but its strange that you asked that. Have you ever worked with ice?
AR: No, but I was thinking about your use of light, and using light in a structural sense, which led me to think of ice hotels and the fact that ice being a medium that picks up and translate light as well.
SM: There’s a poet, Joanna Klink, whose work is very physical and feels like it has a sensibility that relates with my work. She wrote a beautiful poem about a herd of antelope that tried to cross a frozen lake in northern Montana on an annual migration like they’ve done for millennia. But because of global warming the ice broke and they fell into the water and died. I’ve been thinking about making a translation of Joanna’s poem out of ice with water from that lake.
AR: So what else is in the future for you?
SM:I just started a residency at Dieu Donné, a studio that’s dedicated to handmade paper-making. I’ve never made paper before and I was amazed at how much water is involved in the process. The water is the most animate part and then it gets pressed out, leaving behind the desiccated paper. I’m interested in making interventions while the paper is still liquid.
A couple of days ago, I had a project approved in Evansville, Indiana. The sculpture I installed there last year, the third iteration of ‘Best of All Possible Worlds,’ was vandalized and destroyed, so I proposed to create a new work on the same site that’s a continuation of the story of the previous sculpture. It will involve the community where the vandalism took place, and specifically points to local politics. There will be an article coming out about the vandalized sculpture by Mark Lane in The Believer.
Lastly, this past December, I was involved with a project by artists Andrea Galvani and Tim Hyde at the Untitled fair in Miami. Their project, The Skull Sessions, included a book they made focusing on my work, which is going to be exhibited at the Armory Show.
You can view more of Saul’s work at: http://www.saulmelman.com
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s in New York. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, ArtWrit and for Art Observed.
Lily Koto Olive is a New York-based artist, writer and musician. She began to write critically about art in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for her MFA in Painting. She has exhibited her paintings at the Dumbo Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY, HERE Arts Center, Sloan Fine Arts and ISE Cultural Foundation in NYC and Marketplace Gallery in Albany, NY. Lily is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail.