Fast forward five years and she’s at it again, only this time, the empty space she is defining with drawings is almost as big as the sky. “Suspended,” a newly commissioned wall drawing at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), wraps the four walls of the museum’s Lower Sculpture Garden. Pleasant executes a “cloudscape” using black exterior paint directly on the garden walls, creating an outdoor gallery space. Several sculptural works extend the cloudscape into three dimensions to the center of the outdoor gallery.
The human dramas depicted in the artwork depend on who shows up to see it. In what marks a departure from almost all of Pleasant’s previous work, there are no figurative images in “Suspended” — at least not until real, live people are walking within the walls of the garden, among her carefully created clouds.
This week, when the output of a few real clouds had compelled Pleasant to come inside, she talked to me about the process of creating “Suspended,” which is scheduled to open Dec. 17.
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: The last time we talked was in December 2004. Your part in the “BAMA” exhibition at Space One Eleven was titled “Constellation,” and in describing it to me, you called it “a map of space in reverse.” With this new work, you’re back in the sky, albeit in a different way. What got you interested in creating a “cloudscape”?
AMY PLEASANT: Flying home from a trip, I was looking out the window from a plane. I began wondering how many people have this exact same experience — looking out of the window this way, with the clouds all around you, you’re suspended in them, and there’s a sense of depth. There’s a certain euphoria in that moment of flying, at least for me. You’re elevated above life in what you think about and how you perceive and experience yourself in that space
I went home and made a drawing, and what I was trying to get at was that sense of deep space.
And how did that drawing become this museum project?
Ron Platt [the BMA curator of contemporary art] came to me two years ago and said he really wanted to do a wall-drawing project. He had seen my work, both in shows and in some things I had done for private collections. We discussed several possibilities, but nothing ever fit, at least not inside the museum. Eventually, he suggested the sculpture garden, and the first time I walked out there, it was a no-brainer.
You noted in the official description of the piece that it was your first wall drawing “with the absence of a figurative image.” I loved the language you used — as if one of the best ways to describe “Suspended” was by explaining what it didn’t have. Was it intentional? I mean, did you set out saying, “Now I’m going to do a piece without a figurative image,” or “Now I’m going to draw big instead of small.”
In my earlier work, people are very fluid and places are very fixed. I think it’s been that way because that’s how my memory works. I have very precise memories of rooms, of places — I can remember down to the smallest details and it’s fixed in my mind. But people are always changing. I can remember feelings or moments, but somehow my memories of the people themselves are very fluid.
What’s interesting, formally, is that my work has always been about “the mark” — the black mark, the black line, the kind of graphic element that is different from fluid. Working on “Suspended,” the shift of scale has made me question “the mark.” The little drawings are gestural. Once it becomes gigantic, I create it differently. When you examine the line at that size, you view it in a very different way.
Suspended also marks the first time that you’ve integrated a three-dimensional element into a wall drawing project, but since I haven’t yet seen the work in progress, I’m not sure which 3-D element you were referring to. Is it the gravel pit, the Sol Le Witt work, the actual sky or all three?
Actually, I was talking about a sculptural element of my own. I created clouds that you have to walk through, that you interact with in the space. But I don’t think of them as sculpture. I think of them as drawings in space. I wanted the drawings to be extracted from the wall, and I wanted to create an environment.
It’s like a rudimentary stage set. You have a sense that you’re in the clouds. For me, they’re cut, black metal lines. Not sculpture but lines.
Another thing you told me in 2004 was that you considered yourself a painter foremost. You said that drawing had always been an integral part of your art-making, but prior to the “BAMA” exhibition it had never been a part of the work you showed. You said, “I feel like I’m bringing my studio practice into the show… Drawing is really the guts. My paintings are all about drawing.” How is drawing a part of your larger body of work now?
I call myself a painter because it was my first true love. When I make a painting I love, there’s nothing else like that. You can make drawings all day long, but in a way it’s so limited compared to painting. At least for me. But all of my work is based in drawing.
Did you draw on the walls as a kid? Did it ever occur to you that you would do it for a living?
My parents let me do whatever I wanted in that respect. I decorated my windowsill. I painted a Picasso painting on my bedroom door. In 1986, my father went to a Picasso retrospective and he bought the big book and brought it home. I was just fascinated by that book. I started copying his work. I made drawings. I did paintings. It was all Picasso and I was just absorbing it.
I draw on the walls of my studio, too, even now.
When I make wall drawings, I love the temporary aspect of them. You have this experience and it’s temporary. You create this work, and it’s there for awhile, and once it’s gone, it can never be recreated.
Do you think the sky something you return to again and again in your work?
A man I loved dearly when I was growing up, I can remember him saying, that the problem with people is that we don’t sleep outside anymore. He would say, “All the rulers of the world need to sleep outside or have a house with no roof.” I think of that all the time. I think his idea was — or my idea is — that seeing the sky, the vastness of it, helps you to keep in mind your own insignificance. Ego gets away from us all. The things that happen in our lives are so incredibly important, but on the scale of everything that is happening to everybody everywhere, they’re insignificant and important, too.
You sound elated when you talk about this work. Maybe it’s cliché to suggest that you had a breakthrough –
I actually do think I had a breakthrough. I spent a couple of years making work that wasn’t challenging me, and I actually had a kind of breakdown in the studio. I had reached this point where I didn’t understand what I did anymore.
There’s a quote from Phillip Guston that’s really important to me: “I just wanted to know what it looked like.” He was talking about a painting he did called The Cellar, where he had drawn all of these people jumping into a hole. The painting is all these legs and feet and this hole, and when somebody asked him why he had done it, that’s what he said. I think maybe that’s what all artists do. They say, “I just wanted to know what it looks like,” and they make it.
I had no idea what this piece would do. I had this little drawing that I made after I’d been on a plane, and when I had the opportunity, I just wanted to see what it looked like.
Last year, when I began working on the piece, those clouds were heavy. It was somehow about rain and storms. But now, I’m grounded and the piece has elevated me at the same time. I think everything’s clearing.
“Amy Pleasant: Suspended” will be on display in the Birmingham Museum of Art’s lower sculpture garden through spring of 2010. The wall drawing will be open to the public starting Thursday, Dec. 17. Later that day, Walead Beshty, a rising star of contemporary art, will present the museum’s second annual Morton Photography Lecture. That free program begins at 6 p.m. For more information on these and other upcoming events at the museum, call (205) 254-2565 or visit www.artsbma.org.