One of the most enduring examples of urban poverty from the early twentieth century is the clothesline, a section of rope slung between tenement buildings on which wet linens may be hung out to dry.
Artist Babs Reingold has firsthand knowledge of poverty, and the clothesline is a reoccurring motif in her work. As an adolescent living in public a housing complex in Cleveland, Ohio, she endured grinding poverty, and the indignities foisted upon the underprivileged – high crime rate, inadequate housing, lack of access to basic social services.
Reingold escaped the cycle of poverty to become a successful artist. In her work, she draws on her early experiences of hardship to create elaborate installations using domestic objects and natural materials like clotheslines, hair, animal skins, silk organza, and tea.
I recently caught up with Reingold as she made some final preparations for a new exhibition she’s participating in at the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery and Visual Arts Gallery, which is part of NJCU. The show, called Flesh Art, explores the role of flesh-human skin-in contemporary art; it opens next Thursday, Jan. 27, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
You were born in Caracas, Venezuela. What brought you to the United States, and how did you wind up in Bayonne?
From Caracas we moved to Barbados. My father was in the industrial sewing machine business with his brother. They had a falling out and my father took a job in Dallas, TX, where my father went to work for Union Special. I was six years of age at the move. My father was a photographer too; though he never made a living from photography he sold some of his photos to National Geographic.
After my MFA from SUNY Buffalo, I wanted to be in NYC. In 1991, we bought a brownstone on Hamilton Park in Jersey City, near enough. While in JC, my studio was in Hoboken, where I ran the co-op artist group that occupied the 6th floor of the Neumann Leather building. The group is still going.
Ten years later we sold our brownstone and were able to buy two properties. One was a home in Tybee Island, GA., where I was near all the art activity generated by SCAD in Savannah; the second was a small building in Bayonne. I always look for a live-work situation. I had a large split-level space in the Tybee house for my studio, while I took a storefront in the Bayonne building for the studio.
The painter Mike Longo generously shared his studio with me at Neumann Leather building – we were across the hall from Tim Daly. I loved being in the space, going to work, hanging out with the other artists. What was it like for you to have a studio in Neumann Leather?
I loved my studio. I had a large space on the 6th floor, 900 sq feet. I ran the co-op, was on the lease and collected the rents. There was a good group of artists. I missed it a little after I left but I really love having my studio where I live. It is important to be able to work at any time of day or night. I would not go back to a group rental situation.
How long have you been an artist? When did you first begin to make things with your hands?
BR: Ever since I can remember, I was constructing objects and drawing. I used to watch my father in the darkroom; I loved seeing the images appear. I remember when I was eleven, I constructed a large colored pencil drawing for Halloween and filled an 8-foot-wide picture window by pasting together on 8.5×11″ sheets of paper. I love to work with my hands.
In high school, I began to realize what an artist was. I was fortunate to have a mentor in my art teacher, Moses Pearl, who motivated me and who helped me to understand what art is really about. As a senior, I won a couple of Gold Key awards. From high school, I earned a 5-year scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art. Although I began in the painting and ceramics department, I changed to graphics and photography. One must understand my family situation dictated job prospects, not the tough life of a starving artist. Actually, I helped support my mother for the next twenty years.
After seven years in the advertising business, however, having attained a senior art director position, I was unhappy. I had gone through a rough patch, having lost my first love, my husband, to a sudden illness while living in Cleveland. After an art director’s job in Denver, I returned to Cleveland to care for my mother. I met my second husband there, and together, we decided I should return to school and obtain my master’s in fine art. I selected the University of Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo) for several reasons. I received a full teaching assistantship. It has an excellent master’s program in art, staffed by well-known artists. Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo had immigrated to NYC after attending college in Buffalo. While there, they and several friends founded Hallwalls, a contemporary art space, which is still going strong. (I had a solo in annex there in 1988.) Also, the Albright-Knox Museum has a fine contemporary collection with its Abstract Expressionists work ranking among the top collections in the world. Finally, my soon-to-be husband was from Buffalo, and had family there.
One of my favorite paintings, Willem de Kooning’s Gotham News, is in the permanent collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery. I licked it-security asked to leave the premises.
Gotham News is one of my favorites as well. Ha, you licked the painting! I love it. Why did you lick it?
For the same reason every one licks their favorite painting – I am glad you addressed the financial challenges artists face in life. As a painter major at University of the Arts, I felt completely ill equipped to function in the real world after college. However, I dug my own hole. I refused to take classes – graphics and design – that would have possibly enabled me to work in a professional field, and not in a bakery for minimum wage. What advice would you give to graduating artists just starting out a career?
Be prepared to have a day job. Investigate options in art related fields while still in school. Only one percent of artists are self sufficient with their personal art. Others make money doing portrait commissions, stage sets, photographer backdrops, murals, and so on. In the end view, one has to be dedicated, motivated, driven in most cases, to make art regardless of monetary rewards or recognition. Time will tell if one is serious about being an artist.
You are an important role model for a lot of artists, having cultivated a life around your artwork. Morean Art Center, Jersey City Museum, Savannah College of Art and Design, have featured your work in solo exhibitions. Newark Museum, Paul Robeson Gallery, and City Without Walls have included your work in several group exhibitions. In addition, numerous galleries around the world-from Berlin to Slovakia to Mexico to Japan-have shown your work in numerous exhibits. I am interested in the day-to-day realities of this stuff. I want to concentrate on your exhibition experiences. When did museums and institutions begin to recognize your work? What was your role in getting your work shown? Also, what does exhibiting your work mean to you, and how does it help sustain and nurture your career?
I had my first significant show at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo New York in 1989, being one of twelve artists selected for the Western New York Artists Invitational. The curator was Michael Auping who became the chief curator at the Fort Worth Museum of Art after sponsoring Jenny Holtzer for the 1990 Venice Biennale.
This was the first step in museum and gallery curators recognizing my work. The “why” of it? I really do not know. I make my art, and place it out in the world. This is not to say I hide in my studio (like Joseph Cornell) and wait for curators to beat a path to my door.
Being an artist involves much more than constructing installations or creating wall pieces. The question becomes: Where in the hell am I going to show this art? For many artists, including myself, that’s where the real work begins. Making art is intrinsic to an artist. We really have no other choice. Getting out of the studio is a whole other ballgame. It’s an ongoing process to finally achieve that estimated one percent of artists who no longer have to merchandise themselves. For myself, I’m at the point where I’m knocking on the door, even though I am subjected to the Dorothy Parker comment, who when asked how she was doing in Hollywood, replied: “My dears, I’m getting such encouraging rejections.”
Rejection is part of the game. I’d say I am rejected 95 percent of the time. As I have gotten older, I have found that rejection is easier to handle. In what ways do you think rejection can help an artist?
BR: Rejection is a given in any creative endeavor. Rejection is a test of will, of staying power. I try to view it as constructive rather than destructive, but most often I use rejections feed my determination. Essentially “I’ll show them, ” often stated in less flattering words.
BC: How did you become involved in the exhibition Flesh Art at NJCU, and what work will be on view?
BR: I met Dr. Midori Yoshimoto, the gallery director of NJCU about two years ago at a Rutgers event, and discovered she lived in Bayonne. Midori made a studio visit sometime later and still later, she passed along my work to Dr. Jose Roderio, the curator of the show, about a year ago, and Jose accepted several pieces. I will be showing Hung Out to Dry No. 4, Inside Out, Skin No.15 and Skin No. 17 (the visuals of which I sent you recently).
BC: The clothesline is a re-occurring motif in your work. What do you associate with it?
BR: The clotheslines are a symbol of poverty. Though my personal experience is the impetus for the pieces, the focus remains about poverty today and how it endures.
BC: Your newer work brings to mind a house of horrors. Explain the concept behind your new installation.
BR: Poverty is horrific, especially for children as they attain a level of understanding of what poverty really is, and what it conveys to the world at large. I want my narrative to visually impact the viewer, though I would not convey it as a house of horrors, but more a house of shame, not only to individuals but to our nation. As you know, I understand poverty at a personal level.
One final thought, and this is important. I am first an artist, and to use an old term, I am not a Marxist, although my current work certainly has social content, I want the viewer to be first attracted, then repulsed, almost in the same instant. Hair, which abounds in my work, is a perfect example. A beautiful head of hair on a woman. A wad of hair in the shower drain. The attraction-repulsion dynamic is always present in my work, and should not be ignored.
BC: And how do these relate to your earlier work?
BR: Concealment. Protection of the inner self. A growing understanding of how experiences shape oneself. A growing ability to handle the craft of art, including ten years of handling silk organza in stain baths.
BC: What is the relationship between your installations, sculptural pieces, and drawings?
BR: All are related and interact with each other. For example, I draw many variations of each installation and sculptural piece. Once in the constructive stage, the installation or sculpture may change. I then go back and rework the drawing closest to the actual work, transferring the experience of actual construction back to a drawing. Additionally, if the medium suits my concept, I do large stand-alone drawings. I’ve included examples of both.
The distinction between the installations and sculptural pieces actually, is one of focus. An installation that fills a room is: “WHAM! I got something to say and you’d better look!” I want the viewer to be surrounded and affected from all sides. A sculptural piece is more subtle, more nuanced, and intimate. The sculptures, in some instances, could be parts of the installation.
BC: The richest one percent of Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Poverty is a reoccurring theme in your work. Please discuss your installation, Hung Out in the Projects, at the Morean Arts Center. I want to concentrate on your choice of materials – encaustic, human hair, animal skins, silk organza, stockings, rust, tea, clothesline, and clothespins. What made you choose these materials, and why?
BR: Organza, which is the most prevalent medium in my work, began as a simulation for skin. Encaustic imparts a visceral waxy feeling of skin, as well as a medium to conceal or reveal the transparency of organza. Hair is used to poke through the organza, and even the encaustic, to again further the appearance of a skin-like object. I like the alchemy of rust and tea. I use it in a unique staining process I’ve developed over fifteen years.
BC: After I saw examples of Hung Out in the Projects, I thought of Saint Bartholomew holding his flayed skin in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. For me, an undercurrent of violence murmurs beneath your installation. Do you often think about who your audience is? How do you expect viewers to respond to your work?
BR: Thanks for comparison to Michelangelo. Unfortunately, I did not visit Rome when I was in Italy, and had only a vague recollection of the entire work. Hence, Goggle saved me. Yes, the flayed skin does resemble my organza pieces. I have to think about whether the organza pieces represent my own sacrifice. At this point, I don’t think so.
Violence? No, not really although certainly violence goes hand in hand with poverty. My thought is more sad than violent. Poverty is a sad existence, punctuated with a sad humor, which I also incorporate into the work, although subtle and underplayed.
BC: What is the process behind the installations?
BR: I begin with a concept and make drawings. The process influences the concept too and influences the drawings. There is a back and forth process. Prior to this way of working I was making large oil paintings. I have my masters in painting.
BC: Your work has gotten under my skin. As I walked through the city tonight, I began to picture drive-by memorials, home altars, and makeshift shrines on the sidewalk. What role, if any, does ritual, commemoration, and memory play in your work?
BR: All play a role to varying degrees. Memory is, by far, the most significant. One example is hair, it is a prominent medium in my work and it contains memories literally and figuratively. Hair contains our DNA, our genetic memory and it is a keepsake, before and after death.
BC: What is up next for you?
BR: I’m having talks with the director of the Tampa Museum for a new installation aimed at environmental change, titled “The Last Tree.” The concept is based upon Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I have an installation up now at the ART LOT in Brooklyn, N.Y., “Hung Out to Dry No. 3.” (The ART LOT is located at 206 Columbia St., at the corner of Sackett Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. )
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