THR Web Features   /   April 11, 2016

Release and Attack, Speed and Drag

An Interview with Rosamond Casey

Mandelbrodt’s Nights, 1995, acrylic on glass, collage, from "Regions of the Will"

Rosamond Casey's painting, Tabula Sacra, appeared in our spring issue accompanying the article "Vocation in the Valley."  A painter, calligrapher, and teacher based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Casey recently spoke to THR about this painting and her other work.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): In describing your work, you have said “I excavate recognized systems—a man’s suit, the alphabet, cultural personas—fracturing them under examination so they can be set free, made transparent, or rendered slack.” What do you mean by the idea of “slackness”? Can you describe a project in which this was revealed? Did this elicit any particular response (sadness, disappointment, or dread)?

Initiation, from “Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill,” 2008; photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Rosamond Casey (RC): “Slack” is the condition of an object lying spread out to be examined. In order to grasp the meaning of a thing it has to be taken apart visually, and emptied of its regular blood flow, its habit of being, the way it’s used to being seen. As the observer of the thing, I have to come to the project in a similar condition, a little bit empty and dumb. To understand the weight, proportions, and contours of a thing like a man’s suit (an object that held my interest because it was both ordinary and engorged with meaning and has survived centuries of fine-tuning with no fundamental breakdown of its form and function), I have to turn it around in my hands, consider the scope of its cultural reach, recall my own primal sensory reactions to the look, smell, and feel of it, dissect its interior lining, understand its high structure and flaccid motion as it moves down the street in a wind. Many small art projects accompany this stage of getting to know the object and they all inevitably get thrown out. I never doubt that the object will eventually be recharged and give itself up to a deeper interpretation by the time the work is presented in a gallery. The project was ultimately called Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill (above).

THR: Can you describe how you came to focus on kinetics in art, that is, the impulses of fixing/stabilizing and liberating/releasing?

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

RC: I came to art early through an interest in the kinetics of shaping letters and designing text. I continued my commission work as a calligrapher, but in my painting I shed the text and focused just on the kinetic, rhythmic messaging of lines in space. The possibilities of pure expressive line led me to invent new hand tools that would allow those gestures of paint to take on the illusion of three-dimensional form. The speed and pressure under which the wet painted strokes were made created undulating surfaces on glass panels that looked like natural deposits formed by wind, water, and slow growth. The character of the kinetic energy of the stroke determined the form. All this information came from studying calligraphic forms and understanding principles of touch—release and attack, speed and drag.

THR: Your interest in the art and craft of bookmaking—whether in your calligraphy, papermaking, or book art—emphasizes the physical object and the artist’s hand. Your work in acrylics on glass (below) calls for a special kind of engagement with paint and surface. Through your installations, you encourage viewers to take part in the art. You are in effect drawing attention to the “thingness” of art. What role does the material aspect of art and artistic creation represent for you?

Remind Me, 1994; acrylic on glass.

RC: It was really when I became interested in the craft of making handmade books, which I saw as substrates and containers for words and other visual material, that the idea of three-dimensional form and “thingness” took hold. The mechanics of building, measuring, cutting, and gluing drew me to that “thingness.” A clamshell box that closes perfectly on itself with an expulsion of air presents multiple surfaces and hidden spaces on which and in which to present information. Suddenly, I saw a box or book as a meeting place, like a room, where my ideas could mingle with those of others. My first exhibitions of book art were quasi-collaborations with a living poet [George Bradley], a dead nineteenth-century singer and collector of birdsong [Simeon Pease Cheney, 1818–1890], and an imaginary high-school boy. By this time, my work had taken a narrative turn. And this thing you call “thingness” helped bring it about by allowing for the sequencing of information using the element of surprise: a crook of the neck to peer inside, for example, or a page turn.

THR: Looking over the body of your work, it seems like certain themes recur: memory, loss, joy, chance. How do these ideas—and others—inform the creative act for you? Is any one medium better than another to capture certain themes?

The 53rd Street Subway Tablets, from “Mapping The Dark, A Museum of Ambient Disorders,” 2003;
metal box, copper, rubber, glass, collage, colored marker pen.

RC: It’s always good to ask oneself what medium is the right one to capture a specific theme or mood. When I embarked on a years-long project to create the installation Mapping the Dark, A Museum of Ambient Disorders, that was precisely this exercise. The project was to create ten personas defined solely by the things they made under the strains of longing, loss of memory or hearing, fear, self-loathing, or other ambient disorders. Their various pathologies and personalities, the tools and materials they would have likely had at hand would determine each one’s visual mark. This was a perfect exercise in matching form with function, or medium to message.

For example, in The 53rd Street Subway Tablets (right), we read inside the lid of an open box a news story about a subway breakdown in New York from which all were led to safety without incident. A casual reference is made to one man who created a disturbance while experiencing an attack of claustrophobia. The interior of the box contains an accordion-bound series of tablets, each containing a section of the New York Times that this man marked up with a pen in an orderly repetition of geometric marks across the rows and columns as he rocked back and forth in the dark subway car, attempting to hold off a world closing in. I started with a particular emotion (claustrophobia), housed it in a character, imagined the particulars of the incident, and then determined what materials he would have available to him to steady these emotions and bring the world into balance. This exhibition helped me locate urgency at the seat of art-making.

THR: Given your affinity for the connection between word and image, the book art medium would seem particularly congenial. In Chance and the Shuffle of Things with its Scrabble tiles and microscope slides, I see the influence of Joseph Cornell or the Dadaists. Is this accurate? Are there artists whose work you especially admire?

RC: If Joseph Cornell did not exist, I would have liked to have invented him for my museum. How can you resist that sad, poignant beauty contained in his boxes? To me, they are all about longing, memory, and unmitigated joy.

If Dada art was about the separation of image and text from their intended purposes, my own exploration has also been about destroying and reforming that relationship. To the extent that Dada tried to demote the importance of aesthetics in art though, I part ways, because I think even the most obscure visual expressions should seek beauty, even while advancing those definitions beyond what is comfortable. Other artists I admire include the Siennese Gothic painters, most of the abstract expressionists, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Milton Avery, Giorgio Morandi, Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, Anselm Kiefer. I honestly could not tell you how any of them have worked their way into my work. Maybe others can tell me.

THR: In 53rd Street Subway Tablets, a series of metal “pages” are hinged together, accordion-style, and the piece fits inside a casket or box. It would seem that you are grounded in the idea of a book as a repository of knowledge, but you are not necessarily committed to conveying this knowledge through conventional means. How do you approach this alternative form of “knowledge transfer” in your book art?

RC: The pieces in Mapping the Dark are all books in the broad definition, in that they convey information sequentially, as ordered by the presentation of the material. The structure determines the means by which the knowledge is transferred to the viewer. There is a photograph I have always liked of a small boy standing in profile to the camera and holding something cupped in his hands. A small girl stands opposite him, leaning forward, her neck extended forward as far as it will go to get a look inside his hands. But her elbows are retracted backwards as if pulling back. That is the tension of looking that I aspire to engender in an audience: the transfer of information, as a slow unfolding, with the slight threat of a shock of understanding at an unexpected juncture.

THR: For the Men in Suits series, you took a point-and-shoot camera to Capitol Hill and captured images of people and places in Washington, DC. The result was a mixed media painting series that depicts in your words “influence and predicament.” In fact, Washington seems like a perfect place to dissect themes such as authority without assurance, duplicitousness (or hypocrisy), and appearance versus reality. What sorts of “predicaments” did you discover during this project—either in its early phases or later, when you began to distill the images into artworks?

After Thought from “Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill,” 2008; photograph, handmade paper, roofing rubber.

RC: The male suit was the example I used earlier as a starting point for a circuitous thought process. The surprise ending for me was the decision to choose photography as the medium for this project and discovering a message in the sequencing of those images. The plan would be to drive to Capitol Hill and wander around the Rayburn Building and the Capitol assuming the casual but wary stance of a wildlife photographer capturing these “black glyphs” moving back and forth like birds and beasts. These snapshots became the basis for ten large panels that ultimately became a kind of “Mirrors for Princes” allegory about the perils of action and inaction by the suits that walk these halls. After months of turning this suit image over and over in my head and hands, it offered itself up to me as a symbol of unassailable, structured authority that occasionally collapses on itself in a flutter of folds.

The predicaments represented in the series? The predicament of having an intention you are forced to abandon, the predicament of doubt after finalizing an action with a vote or a signature, the temptation of sex and power, navigating the imposition of religious passion and money.

THR: Continuing to look at the Men in Suits series, I felt these paintings concentrated the formalities inherent in the corridors of powers, the traditional men’s suit, the neo-classical architecture, and the material exigencies of marble and stone. What evidence did you find of more subversive elements (informality or technology, for example)? Were you able to sense how people were attempting to assert themselves as individuals in an environment that values conformity? Any surprises during this shoot?

RC: What’s odd is that, once inside these buildings, everything is a sign of the order broken: a man bent over a knapsack looking for his papers, his suit jacket flapping open, a tangle of wires behind a podium, a scattering of chairs after a meeting, two empty cups left on a table. Or a woman carrying a camera being ushered out of the building.

Early in the process I was taken with the similarities between the male suit and the roman alphabet. The roman majuscules have been mercilessly tweaked over the years, but this set of symbols is so well designed it can survive the scrawl of a four-year-old, as well as a history of overbearing technologies superimposed on its skeleton, and still remain legible. The same can be said about the male suit, and, as you suggest, about the neo-classical government architecture where the suit is so peaceably at home.

THR: The painting that appears in our spring issue, Tabula Sacra, perfectly captures the quasi-religious devotion that the technology industry seems to inspire in its workers. What gave rise to this series, Tablet & Cloud, one that seems very different from your other works?

Tabula Sacra, from “Tablet & Cloud,” 2016; oil on canvas.

RC: Starting several months ago, I could not have been more surprised to find myself painting figures. It started with the area under our desks hiding all the computer wires, a place of interest to me because it will probably all be gone soon, and it stages a comic interplay of tangled calligraphic lines. Eventually, the interaction I was more interested in was the one between the wires and the people who have to twist themselves into odd positions to manage these wires. The new work is called Tablet & Cloud. The title alludes not only to our Internet age, but also to deep time and a mysterious future. Some of the pieces are horizontally trisected into three universes: the primeval understory of the desk, the earthbound affairs of the desk’s surface, and that other high place of the imagination that we sometimes call the Cloud, sometimes the rising tip of the Singularity. Or that place of mystery we cannot fathom.

THR: In this series, you depict technology workers as traditional painters would have depicted the Christian mystics. Your figures are bathed in the glow of computer screens, transfixed by their work, wearing clothing or headgear that is vaguely monk-like. Some figures even have a nimbus around their heads. Referring back to your description of your work as seeking to “disrupt formal structures to release an animated interior,” it would seem that you are positing two formal structures here: the visual vocabulary of religious iconography and the culture of technology work. Can you elaborate more on the “interior” you wish to release and reveal with these works?

RC: It seems odd to juxtapose a religious theme with a technological one, but since one seems to be racing past the other with lunatic haste, you have to ask: To whom is this technological wizardry being offered up? Is there an inevitability to it that suggests we are moving quickly toward intersecting with an intelligence greater than our own? Is there a darker outcome? Describing the lit, expectant, blank faces of these monk-like figures staring into bright screens is a way for me to pose those questions. The nose-to-canvas slowness of painting is just the right medium to embalm this techno-miracle that has flown by us. The world just flipped itself over with hardly any recognition of the tentacles it would sprout. The start of a new century, at least in the modern era, ushers in a brand-new industry or technology that incites public unease. The American WPA artists, Mexican muralists, and social realism painters made a very good record of speeding trains and grinding engines and of the men and women trying to tame them. I suppose this new work is insisting that we look at ourselves in this new computer age, and not turn away from awe and fear.

THR: These paintings also appear to contain hints of humor. In Ace Goes Digital, figures appear to be baffled by a kitchen whisk. In others from Tablet & Cloud, individuals in sinuous poses are entangled in computer cables, perhaps genuflecting or engaging in unnatural poses as evidence of their devotion. Everywhere, their faces exhibit the slack affect often seen in computer programmers or hackers. Even your color palette in these works is whimsical. Is it OK to laugh?

Ace Goes Digital, from “Tablet & Cloud,” 2016; oil on canvas.

RC: Oh, please laugh! Isn’t it pretty funny that we must reconcile a utility we cannot relinquish with an uneasy grasp of its inner workings? The figures you refer to are contorting themselves under their desks in a jungle of snakewires. And this is not in contradiction to the gesture of genuflection and devotion. The whisk painting (Ace Goes Digital, right) depicts a moment in the 1990s. I want us to remember that day  the hardware store clerk first had to redirect his gaze  from the woman across the counter and into the maw of the computer so he could convert the object she held out for purchase into a mind-numbing, number-punching exercise. I want to notice that face, both the one left suspended and the one now fastened to the screen.

See more of Rosamond Casey's work at