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Experimentation and Play: An Interview with Claire Ashley

Last week I caught up with Claire Ashley at her Oak Park studio for an interview to discuss her inflatable sculptures. Claire Ashley’s seductively energetic objects consist of a delightful mixture of painting, sculpture, and performance. Memories of her Scottish heritage, architectural interests, motherhood, dance, and joie de vie  fuel Ashley’s desire to experiment with objects that engage in intellectual play as well as test the boundaries of painting.  We had quite a thorough conversation about her artistic practice largely focusing on the evolution of her current style. The conversation below is edited for clarity and length.

Danielle Jackson [DJ]: In your artist statement you note that you have “explored many approaches to art making to get at your desire for this conglomeration of painting and sculpture.” Can you talk about some of the explorations?

Claire Ashley [CA]: I’ve tried a shit load of stuff. When I got out of graduate school, I had what I consider my first epiphany.  I chopped up all of my old paintings and stitched sleeping bags and fuzzy toilet covers like thrift store crap into them and hung them back up as paintings. They were shaped, floppy, colorful, and patterned. I was excited by that realization and I don’t know why it took me so long to figure it out! I’m just dumb [Laughter.] It opened this whole world of crossing over into sculpture. From there, I moved into thinking more sculpturally and less painterly for a considerable amount of time. I was still thinking about color, but I had kids and I was sort of thinking, maybe a little too much about my interest in architecture and the grid as having a connection to this idea of being a mother. In some ways it still makes complete sense to me, but it was limiting. I was always trying to fit things into this idea of protection, which I still think my current works deal with. They’re these fluffy pillow-like things, but I’m allowing them to also be other things.

I tried four hundred cardboard boxes stacked on a big wooden hoop skirt that I made and held for three hours for the Cultural Center. I really liked that in terms of getting back to painting. I painted colors on the boxes, which were all paints I used in my house for my kids room so it made sense in terms of the relationship to my domestic life.

Claire Ashley. SHOOGLE/Jagger. 2011 (Image Courtesy of Claire Ashley)

DJ: Why has the inflatable form been the most satisfying?

CA:  I think it’s because it’s so bodily and I never imagined that I would be making figurative work, which really scares me in some ways [Laughter.] The inflatable form does this doubling thing. It’s really functional because I can make giant scale work and fold it up and store it. It’s not rectangular it’s sculptural. It holds the paint in a really interesting way. The wrinkles become folds of skin and fat. The silhouettes come from drawings that I made from a photographic study that I did of my house.  These architectural fragments of looking at my house become ways that I use to cut silhouettes out of the plastic and then I stitch them together. When they get filled they become more figurative. I’m happy I’m linking it to my domestic life and architecture, which is this ongoing important aspect of how I understand my life in the world. It’s weird because I said no to architecture years ago, but it always comes back in the use of the grid or this idea of a dwelling or a house or protection.

DJ: Perhaps what is most interesting to me is how the canvas changes when the dancers are in them. What led you to do that?

CA:   Yea who knew I would end up doing that shit [Laughter.] For a long time and ever since I had kids I’ve had this image of legs sticking out of an architectural object. I don’t quite know why, but it may have a relationship to watching the Highland games and seeing the total transformed bodies of guys in kilts or guys holding bagpipes. There is this extension that happens with the body that changes how we understand or how we relate to or how we recognize the body.

I’ve been interested in that a long time. Rebecca Horn is a huge influence on me in relationship to this idea of the sculptural prop object in relationship to the body. So it started as kid toy soldiers sticking out of toothpick forms to the viewer creating the image of the legs. It basically moved  from small models to large scale models that weren’t inflatable to this form that I’ve somehow been thinking about for a long time. I think it’s so much about absurdity or playfulness and the ridiculousness of this activity that interests me and keeps me developing different ways to figure out how the air enters, how the performers enter, and what activities can happen when people enter the object.

I’ve remembered I used to love to dance. It’s this realization that you have to include in your work this energy, playfulness, humor, and speed. Speed is an important aspect of my work. With my students we do these projects called fast slow high low in order to understand what type of person you are. I’m very much at the fast and low because I’m very much into popular culture and abstract painting. The things that I love to do essentially that are not necessarily a part of my life, but can be a playful aspect of my work are ways for me to continue this energetic relationship.

Claire Ashley. “Static Key Lime Stretch.” 2011 (Image Courtesy of Claire Ashley)

DJ: What do you enjoy about collaborating? What are some challenges?

That’s a very good question! I love it! Collaboration for me has been this really beautiful challenge and beautiful moment to problem solve and invent in a way that I would have never done myself. I started working with Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey first and then Andy Hall who I co-teach with.  Now I’m working with Joseph Ravens and Victoria Bradford. It just becomes a much more challenging dialogue and a different activity. I’m really energized by actually being alone, even though I love fast stuff and studio time. I go nuts if I don’t get in the studio by myself a couple times a week.  So I couldn’t give up that component of my practice, but the collaborative part becomes this beautiful way I can get out of my own head and problem solve in ways that feed back into my studio work. There is this great cyclical conversation that happens so I wouldn’t quit it for anything.

DJ: If you could collaborate with any artists who would it be? Why?

CA: I’m really enamored by Katharina Grosse’s crazy giant beautiful spray paint installations. I can totally see some kind of crazy dancing object entering her landscape, but maybe that’s too similar. Recently, I put in a proposal to Hype Park Art Center to work with a community of graffiti artists. I am really excited about making a large scale form that then gets painted on that maybe I have a hand in, but I’m not totally directing.  I’m excited about the idea of an entire house as this architectural volume. There’s huge potential for scale and the possibility for the language of graffiti to interact with the object.

DJ: I understand you got a write-up in Art Papers.

CA:  [In agreement] Yes, I’m lumped in with all the formalists.

DJ: Yea there was a great deal about Greenberg. I’m not a fan of Greenberg.

CA: Yea I know it’s so uncool right now to be associated with Greenberg, but what goes around comes around. Formalism is coming back into play a little bit. Seemingly she thinks I made Greenberg happy.

DJ:  I think her conclusion was that he would like aspects of your work.

CA: I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m sure that I would have horrified Greenberg if he was to see me dancing in them and that they’re not purely art abstracts. I think that I would be messing with his head a little bit.

DJ: [Laughter] How do your objects reference paintings past? Do you think about that much?

CA: I think about that a lot. I love painting! Even though I’ve had this twenty year struggle with painting because I’ve never been happy with some of its structural qualities, the actual visual and making of it I’m always really happy with it.  I love chromatic scale-shifts and I love how colors work next to one another.

I grew up being in love with abstract expressionism and color field paintings. I’ve been totally in love with Phillip Guston’s later work. He’s an important figure for me, I really love how he was willing to push the envelope and do this really brave thing. I feel like I understand where he was coming from. It’s so important for me to allow myself to make these crazy forms and paint on them in a way that’s not sellable. I’ve never been interested in selling my work or a commercial component of art making. It’s always been a much more romantic kind of intellectual pursuit. It’s kind of like “I have to make this or I’ll go nuts,” which is crazy, but it’s kind of true for me.

DJ: What do you want people to get out of your work?

CA:  I want them to fall in love with the palette, the absurdity of the form, the shape, and the references that are implied by what these things look like or how they’re joyfully painted. I’d like them to smile or laugh or find things amusing, especially with the activity that happens. I really appreciate when people are laughing their heads off. Humor, pleasure, and seductive energy are extremely important. I think of all of these things as self-portraits. I hope people get a sense of a particular energy and a particular love of life.

Upcoming Site Specific Installation

“Limes and Bricks Suck Pink You Tasteless Hunk”

Terrain Exhibitions

704 Highland Ave

Oak Park, IL

April 15, 2012 from  Noon-4

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