Clay has arrived. Painting’s dead. White is the new tan.
Artist Linda Casbon didn’t have time to heed these silly pronouncements. She was too busy working in the studio and getting ready for her exhibition at the Arts Gallery at New Jersey City University. The show, “Translations,” runs until Dec. 15.
I recently caught up with Linda to discuss the show, her studio practice, and how she continues to work while navigating the turbulent waters of the economy.
Hi Linda. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and where is your studio?
Hi Brendan. Hmmm, who am I is such a big question. I am an artist and teacher. I have lived in Brooklyn for over 10 years, and it is where I have a studio. An important part of my identity is my years as an army brat who moved from place to place. It was exciting and challenging and created a sense of restlessness and impermanence that is still with me.
Do you think your experience as an army brat influences your work in the studio today? If so, how, and in what way?
Not in particular although there is one piece in the show that is somewhat inspired by Yap currency. I have a memory of seeing Yap currency as a small child when we were stationed on an island in the South Pacific. It always struck me as such a strange idea because the currency is a big stone wheel and the bigger it is the more it is worth. It seems like an absurd notion of value.
Ceramics is your primary medium. Why did you choose ceramics, and what place does it have in contemporary art?
I took a ceramics course in high school and loved the medium. It is an approachable material in terms of its humble origins. I love the fact that it can be used to create anything from a cup and saucer, to a sculpture. There is something subversive about its status as what is sometimes seen as a lowly, or lesser art, that I respond to.
A few years ago there was a large exhibition of ceramic work created by artists whose primary medium isn’t clay. “Clay has arrived” was the declaration. This was amusing to me. There is, and has been a lot of great ceramic work out there, some of which is exhibited in major galleries. I see ceramics as a medium that can and has been used for a variety of means of expression including cutting edge design and conceptual work. Its place in contemporary art is the place of any other medium.
As an artist, I think it’s important to learn how to identify between legitimate and illegitimate criticism. How do you stay in the game when your medium is not the soup du jour?
It is important to acknowledge criticism and think it over before dismissing it. Usually there is a grain of truth to it. One can’t afford to be blown around by prevailing winds of what’s current and what’s not. In the end it comes down to focusing on your own ideas.
Your approach to the medium strikes me as unconventional. As I looked at your work, I could not stop thinking of painting. I envisioned the work of Milton Avery, Brice Marden, and early Terry Winters canvases. What role–if any–does painting play in your work?
Your question is on target. Painting is a primary source of inspiration for me, whether it is Giotto, Thomas Nozkowski, or Terry Winters. It is not that I want to make paintings, but I want my work to capture the illusory quality of the paintings that I respond to. I am very interested in the differences between two-and three dimensions. I see two-dimensional images as being fleeting and illusory, whereas three-dimensional objects are concrete and real – like the difference between the shadow cast by a tree (illusory) and the tree itself (real). It is interesting to merge these two worlds.
You received a Bachelor of Environmental Design from University of Colorado. Has environmental design played a part in your development as an artist? If so, how?
I majored in Environmental Design because it seemed like a practical way to pursue my interest in art. It was a pre-architecture major, and I think it has influenced me in a variety of ways. Certainly in my thinking about the importance of the placement of objects relative to one another and how this can create meaning.
You quote Paul Valery in your artist statement. Who is he, and what does he have to do with the objects that you make?
Paul Valery was a French poet and philosopher from the early twentieth century. I read his often quoted aphorism, “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees” in a book about Robert Irwin’s work, and it seemed to capture what I was thinking. I am more interested in things sensed and felt rather than identified and named.
Let’s discuss your exhibition Translations in the Visual Arts Gallery at NJCU. How did the exhibition come about?
A colleague suggested that I submit images to Midori Yoshimoto, the gallery director at NJCU and the exhibition proposal was accepted.
What work will be on view, and why should people come see it?
The show will feature primarily new work – ceramic sculpture – with a recent interest in the materiality of clay. The work is abstract and loosely based on the idea of a Zen garden; not in a literal sense, but in the notion of a variety of different elements that work together to form a complete idea. I don’t see the work as an installation, but as a group of objects that work together as a whole.
I think that people should come see it to gain a different perspective on what ceramics is.
I was a museum educator in a previous life. When I gave tours of exhibitions, I noticed that contemporary art had the occasional tendency to confound people. What type of advice would you give to a person engaging your work for the first time in the gallery?
People are often uncomfortable with the unfamiliar – there is an adjustment period. I don’t think that one needs to understand work to appreciate it, but if they can look for elements that they relate to it is a good beginning.
In addition to being a studio artist, you are also a professor. When I was in art school, I was self-absorbed, dim, and reactionary. I had such a narrow opinion of ceramics. I took one pottery class in my freshman year, and dropped it. I continued to hold my narrow viewpoint until I took a class senior year in hand building with artist Lizbeth Stewart. She opened my eyes to the possibilities of the medium, and what I could actually create in clay. Have you ever encountered a student like me? If so, how did you open the student’s eyes to the limitless possibilities of the medium?
Ah yes! I think I’ve met your likes before … On one hand, ceramics is a great introduction for non-art majors. It affords a kind of soft entry into self-expression, perhaps less daunting than a painting class because of its ties to function. But sometimes art majors view it as a lesser art form. In some ways your question holds the answer. Clay offers limitless possibilities. As a teacher encountering a student such as yourself my goal is to get you to think about how the medium can be used in a personally relevant way for your own expression. Too often, ceramics is put into a box of preconceived notions. I want you to think about how you can push the material to your own ends.
This question is a departure from the other ones. The economy is in the dumps. Unemployment is hovering around 10 percent. Across the country, art museums, cultural centers, and commercial galleries are shuttering their doors. Has the economy affected your practice as an artist? If so, how has it, and what steps have you taken to neutralize the economic downturn?
For better or worse my artwork has never been a large part of my income. Here is how I have been affected by the downturn: During the economic boom developers went wild, and I had to leave my inexpensive studio when it was turned it into a condo. Rents have continued to rise, even in today’s economic climate, and it is very daunting. I don’t know how to deal with the situation. For now, I’m hanging on like everyone else.
What is up next for you?
It is very motivating to put work together for a show and it feels like a beginning rather than an end. I feel like I’m just getting going in the studio. I have thoughts of incorporating moving images as part of the work. I imagine fuzzy images taken from a moving car: trees and the shadows they cast.
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