There is a volume of orange light filling my studio on 11th Street in Brooklyn, the major part of it is not visible.
This is the title, and consequently, the content, of a conceptual construction by Fred Sandback from 1969. Like much of Sandback’s work, consisting mainly of minimal sculptures and prints, the text addresses the unseen perimeter of an idea or space, encouraging the viewer to translate a subtle gesture into a complete form.
I came across this text, a transcription from the original typewritten piece, scrawled on a white sheet of paper tacked loosely to the wall of Victoria Haven’s South Lake Union studio in Seattle. Haven had come across it while installing work for a show at The Lumber Room in Portland, a memory that was recalled after a brief lamentation of the sickeningly sweet smell of pastry waft- ing in from the Hostess factory adjacent to her studio. The text was brought up during a discussion about the impact of space and proximity on artistic practice.
“Sometimes I wonder, is it psychologically affecting me? Is it making me angry? Is it making me anxious? Sometimes you don’t realize it until you see it in your work, then you think about it more intentionally.” Below Sandback’s text, on the same page, she wrote:
I arrived at the Studio today to find a notice of Proposed Land Use Action posted on the north corner of our building where the alley meets Harrison Street.
At the time, Haven explained, “I was thinking a lot about how the different spaces I have occupied seep into my work. How we relate to the way a light comes into a building or how the aspects of a city that we see everyday become embedded into our consciousness.”
Haven has transitioned through 11 studio spaces in the past 24 years, shedding and accumulating materials accordingly. This pattern of migration, exposure to new environments and use of available materials has become broadly evident in her work. Her most recent show, Proposed Land Use Action, includes a number of site-specific works that echo the words of Fred Sandback in their ability to discreetly articulate total forms and trajectories, mapping the narrative landscape of Haven’s studio practice.
Over the last few years in the Northwest, ideas of place, relocation and intentionality have been part of a broader regional conversation including many of the topics discussed in this issue of ARCADE. A while back, I created a short survey to draw together information from artists, makers and thinkers about their neighborhoods and work environments in an effort to create a dialogue around cultural ecologies and commercial vernacular, motivations for choosing a location for a home or studio space and the perceived impact of thinkers and makers upon their neighborhoods and cities.
The responses I received seemed commensurate with the classic tropes of gentrification and peripheral characteristics of what has become known as the SoHo effect. What stuck out most while reading these responses was not so much the perceived impact of artists on their neighborhoods or cities but the influence of these spaces and circumstances on the artists’ practices. In addition to the effects of these subtleties of space – qualities of light, scent or landscape – on the artist’s work, many of these conversations addressed the issue of space as a commodity.
Economic concerns have long dictated the live/work situations of artists, and for many, have influenced their practice in various ways. “The apartment I live in is small, so the work I do has to be small,” remarked Rebecca Severn, a Brooklyn-based artist and educator. Severn moved to Bushwick a number of years ago and was lucky to find an affordable one-bedroom apartment for herself, her husband and Grr, their standard poodle. Meanwhile, on the left coast, this scenario is echoed by many artists living in metropolitan areas, including Seattle. Jamie Braden mentioned how similar spatial restrictions have affected both the scale and overall feel of her work: “I had to stop collecting as many materials because I cannot afford a place to store them ... It’s probably cleaned up my aesthetic a little bit.”
These restrictions and influences of place highlight the physical gesture of artistic practice as something almost performative, with the artist working in concert with his or her environment. Like the volume of unseen light in Sandback’s studio, these gestures are uniquely tethered to those spaces.
In his words: “More and more, working seems to be like performance; not in the sense of presenting a process, but in the conditions required to complete a piece. Some things are done and complete in my studio, but others are ambiguous until done in a particular place. A studio is necessarily vague and hypothetical for pieces like that. I like the connectedness of that kind of piece — you can’t stick it under your arm and carry it home. It has its own place and lifespan.”