Creating Glaciers One Piece of Wood at a Time
UCLA’s Hammer Museum presents the epic concoction of artist Phoebe Washburn
While New York-based installation artist Phoebe Washburn’s work has at times drawn comparisons to that of other scavenger artists like Thomas Hirschhorn, Sarah Sze and Dieter Roth, it’s the simplistic philosophy behind her work that has set her apart. Using her patchwork of found materials, she assembles epic pieces that serve aesthetic applications birthed directly from her own building system. “I like playing with this idea that function and structure is all revealed, a seeing behind the curtain kind of deal,” she says.
For the Poughkeepsie-born artist, the road to her current sprawling Hammer installation began with an enormous pile of debris. “I was in graduate school and was in a kind of awkward space. I was really confused and struggling as an artist,” says the youthful Washburn, standing in sneakers and a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I spent my whole first semester at the School of Visual Arts making a pile of debris. I poured plaster on sheets of plastic and then just broke it up and spent an entire semester raking it and putting it into different buckets and bags and dying them. It was sort of a disastrous semester, but I real- ize now that I was searching for activity.”
And standing in the Hammer Museum’s entrance hall amidst her latest epic installation, It Has No Secret Surprise—a virus-like structure composed of thousands upon thousand of nails, stickers, and bits of wood—it seems a safe bet that the New York artist has, in fact, found her activity.
After undergrad work at Tulane and the plaster debacle at SVA, the self- proclaimed pack rat began ardently collecting newspaper, cardboard and scraps of wood. A year and a half later, the culmination of such meticulous collecting and gathering resulted in an installation of epic proportions at Rice University. “It turned out to be quite a startling jump in scale from what I had been used to doing,” says Washburn. “It was a 21-day installation and I had 11 people helping me, and around the eighth day into the project I realized how enormous it was going to be.” She likens the process to that of the evolution of a glacier, beginning small but slowly growing and expanding several feet each day until you can nearly hear it cracking and popping, wanting to break free of its flimsy confines.
Now, with two more years of glacial expansion behind her, she brings her most recent grand opus to UCLA’s Hammer Museum. While previous works have been likened to expansive topographic maps of a metropolis existing somewhere between Rio, Vegas, Cancun and maybe Kuala Lumpur, this marathon effort seems more playful, less urban sprawl, more tree fort. The quilt-like cacophony of faceless, scavenged bits of wood conjures up notions of some backyard fantasy. It seems possible that if you listen closely you might even be able to hear the youthful irreverence echoing against its pulpy walls.
Though Washburn thinks Dieter Roth is “just crazy and really cool,” she draws just as much inspiration from the local Chinatown butcher in creating her organic works. She confesses that at times she’s not sure where her art will take her when she begins, and that she often tells those who assist her in the installation process that they might find themselves feeling embarrassed for her, but that that’s okay. “I think it’s a really amazing thing to be working on something and have no idea what it is, because it’s so organic and frightening, because you just don’t know where it’s going. But then there’s also times where you need to be able to explain what’s going on. You have to have balance. But I think oftentimes artists only focus on their most polished work, their most polished moments and they forget that when you’re struggling and kind of lost you can really be learning a lot. So I think it’s really important to re-visit those moments of vulnerability.”
The artist takes a moment to thoughtfully survey the room. “I have a tendency to ramble,” she says. Her small frame is dwarfed by her creation, creeping along the walls and stairs like ivy. It’s difficult to discern if this comment is in reference to her impassioned answers or her work. But as she opens her mouth to speak again, it becomes clear that this trend in her speech and her work definitely proves engaging— certainly more so than a mere pile of debris.
Photos by Steven Bartson