Constructions & Photograms by Arthur Bruso
June 22 – August 10, 2008
In conversation with Arthur Bruso by Raymond E. Mingst
REM: The collection of work in your new show ÆTHER is comprised of photograms as well as small box constructions with titles such as Pulsar, Dark Matter and Wormhole. Would you tell me about the science of the exhibit?
AB: A pulsar is a star that sends out bursts of energy at regular intervals. In my box, I use white beads to show this. Dark matter is a theoretical idea used to explain missing matter in the universe that shows up in mathematical calculations, but doesn’t seem present in the universe we observe. I’ve used a tangle of wire to stand in for this missing element. Wormhole is another theoretical phenomenon used in discussions related to time in the universe. It is supposed to be a connection between one part of space and another or one universe and another. My wormhole is a tube that connects a blue universe with a black universe. The tube ends in a ball on each side to offer a visual termination. The boxes are my interpretation of phenomenons that occur in space. The workings of space and the universe have fascinated me for ages. All this stuff is going on a scale that I find almost unimaginable, on a time scale that is incomprehensible to me. In my photographic series, Into the Magic Space, I touched on many of the same ideas of space and the universe in a more conceptual way. With the boxes I am being slightly more descriptive.
REM: You mentioned some of the materials you use, beads, tangled wire. You’ve also used spent tape spools, old rubber balls–can you tell me about your approach to materials?
AB: Starting as a child, and continuing, I have been fascinated with odd bits of stuff. I would collect this stuff in jars for some future use (I was always making things.) For awhile, I thought that the jars would be the works of art, but some convergence of the gods and the stars has had me looking at the jars of stuff this year and putting them together in boxes. Basically, I look at the stuff I have, usually a jar at a time; I may lay the contents out or peer through the glass sides of the jar, and associations come to mind. (I like to say the objects speak to me.) A spool of black electrician’s tape reminds me of a black hole, a graduated string of beads looks like an increasing or lessening signal. Then I see what I have that may enlarge on an idea and make it communicate better. Some objects are insistent, while others are silent; some need to be in the presence of others to have a voice. Once I have the subject of the box, I select a container or build it and figure out how to engineer the objects so that they will stay in place. I have to design backgrounds and consider the outside in keeping with my original idea.
REM: What are some of the things you made as a child?
AB: As a child I drew a lot. I was fond of drawing monsters. I would create elaborate stories of interplanetary space travel with my brother, and we would illustrate each story. Often the planet itself would turn out to be a giant monster. My brother and I had these toys that enabled you to make rubber things: dragons, shrunken heads, flowers or insects. We also cast things in wax, like soldiers or animals and later we began embedding things in acrylic plastic. I would often nail some bit of wire or metal to a piece of wood and call it an abstract sculpture. I pressed flowers, made plaster casts, mounted butterflies and created rock and fossil collections. I was also making utilitarian things out of wood. I don’t think any of those things exist any more, since the recipient (my mother) didn’t really appreciate my less than skilled results.
REM: Your rubber toys appear in your photograms, like the boxes they suggest a fantastical science and put in mind the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins. Are there particular artists you had in mind when you were creating these works?
AB: I was first made aware of the photogram process at a summer science program my mother had enrolled my brother and I in. I don’t remember how old we were, but I wasn’t in junior high school yet. We made blueprint (cyanotype) images of leaves. The instructor didn’t use the term photogram or cyanotype, so I didn’t connect the process with the terminology until college. In my photography 101 class I learned the term photogram, but I hadn’t yet learned about the artists associated with it. Although I believe my instructor had Man Ray in mind. So in actuality, I can’t say a particular artist influenced my photograms. I really became enamored with the process and used objects that reflected my interests. Besides the rubber toys, I explored broken glass, spilled water, waxed paper and all sorts of transparent objects.
REM: This brings up something I find intriguing–you are constantly revisiting and reconsidering your work. Into The Magic Space is comprised of photos you took that go back to your boyhood. Those images became the basis of that series. For ÆTHER, in your box constructions, you’re using toys and objects you’ve collected over many years and you’re also revisiting photograms you created in–was it your first photography class? Can you talk to me about mining your past work, what motivates you to revisit a body of work?
AB: Lillian Hellman talks about pentimento in relation to a person’s past. Pentimento is an art conservation term that describes the effect of oil paint becoming more transparent over time, allowing the changes the artist made to show through. Hellman uses the term to explain her way of looking back over a life and reconsidering it with the knowledge and wisdom of the present (“to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”) For me, my art exists in a continuum. The Into The Magic Space film may have been exposed when I was a teenager, but revisiting them after having been through BS and MFA programs and having worked as an artist for those years, as well as looking at art for all that time too, changed my approach to the images. What I thought were failures then, look new and interesting now. There was also a point in my art career when I would never have considered combining images, but new ideas are informed by new knowledge. Albert Pinkham Ryder was always repainting has paintings.
It is often not an art question that sets off my reexamination of past work. For Into the Magic Space, it was a need for my work to become smaller and more portable because of a change in my living conditions. For the photograms, it was a desire to preserve work that was deteriorating. Whatever the reason, it gets me to look at things that have been put away and thinking about them again. That’s when new ideas happen.
REM: Did the photograms inspire the box works?
AB: They were as independent from each other as one artist’s work can be. The boxes came about because of a retrospective I saw on Rauschenberg’s work. In it were exhibited some wooden boxes he constructed in the 1950’s which I was taken by. They made sense to me and I wanted to do something with the box form too. So I began thinking in earnest about how I could do boxes. I’ve been vaguely drawn to this concept for years. I had also seen a retrospective of Robert Morris a little earlier. Morris’ wiseacre conceptual pieces resonated with me so much, that I went and saw the show a second time. In my first box, I decided to combine the two artists in my idea. The result was Dictionary Box. In it I made a shrine out of an early 20th century pocket dictionary and the inscription written inside of it. I even included artificial flowers, which are often an element in old Catholic shrines of saints. I was venerating the dictionary as a relic, much the way Morris enshrined keys or documents.
REM: Honoring relics and enshrining objects is a recurring theme.
AB: I suppose it comes from my Catholic background and my interest in the cabinet of curiosities and Asian treasure boxes. I also have a love of museums. They take things out of the context of life and the world and present them in a way that focuses attention on the object. But this all goes back to church. The church was the first place I saw things set apart for veneration.
REM: Is environment important to your work, are you thinking about where the piece will be shown when you’re working?
AB: Actually no. I think of my work as being displayed outside of place. It belongs separated from the world; to be enjoyed for it’s visual pleasure and ideas.