Reduced to Fragments - Two Shelves, 2015
Alison Sinkewitz talks with Serrah Russell about collage, poetry, and the development of her upcoming show at Two Shelves. Alison Sinkewitz is a curator, writer, and director of Initial Gallery in Vancouver, BC.
Alison Sinkewicz: Could you briefly explain your process, what kind of print materials did you use in exploration for this exhibition?
Serrah Russell: My process tends to be very intuitive. I don’t often have an exact vision of how I want the work to look but rather how I want it to feel.
My process begins with collecting sheets of source imagery, mostly from National Geographic, fashion/lifestyle magazines or photo books and vintage magazines from Goodwill. I look for sources with compelling imagery of interesting subject matter that is not so recognizable that it can’t be altered or converted to a new context. After collecting these sheets, I cut them down to smaller fragments, editing out the subject and the main focus or intention of the image, keeping the background environment, the non-spaces, and the moments within the image that are behind the scene. I usually do this type of editing at my drafting table while listening to podcasts or folk or singer/songwriter music and drinking lots of tea. Then after I have a good collection of fragments and edited images, I begin layering, arranging, and matching up to build connections and tell a story. I’m trying to see the image fragments for what they are now, not for what they used to be when part of a larger context. I see image fragments as clues or symbols so when forming pairings, what the images symbolize or reference is as important as the tone, colors, and lines within the physical structure of the image.
When gathering materials for this exhibition, I found some older TIME and LIFE magazines for cheap at Goodwill. While flipping through them, I was struck by how similar some of the issues years ago were to what is happening right now, including issues of racial injustice, police violence and violence against police, gun rights and restrictions, wealth disparity, women’s inequality and unfortunately, the list goes on. Seeing those articles and images from decades ago really brought up a lot of feelings and thoughts. Things felt futile and hopeless. Will it ever get better? When and how? This imagery motivated, and also became part of, many of the works in ‘reduced to fragments.’
AS: Your work formally is a blend of your photographic practice and collage. How is your photographic approach guided by the end product of collage?
SR: Photography and collage don’t feel all that different for me. Both involve selecting, focusing in, editing out, creating a frame or window to view what is before you. Before I started working in collage, my photography was almost always created with a particular focus and intention, involving set-ups, constructed elements and intentional pairings. So it felt very natural to begin merging, pairing, and constructing photographic imagery through the medium of collage.
Whether making photos or collage, I ask myself the same questions. What am I including in, what am I editing out, and why? Do the edges or border of the photographic image or collage allude to something other, to something beyond? In both photography and collage, I strive for there to be an edge that alludes to something bigger than itself, to address the fact that these come from another context, encouraging the viewer to imagine what is now absent by looking at what is presented.
AS: How did you approach the challenge of the limited space provided at the Two Shelves gallery? How do you think this limit affected your process?
SR: I always prefer to have some sort of constraint or restriction, whether it be a theme, a challenge, or a physical limitation within the space. I think it gives the work focus and context. I didn’t think of the Two Shelves space as only two shelves but rather as one wall containing two shelves. I thought of the wall itself and the corners of the wall as a frame to work within, so my work in the show expands off the shelves and spills onto the wall. The works become pieces in a larger collage.
The work is focused on just one wall, which doesn’t allow for movement of the viewer to travel from one piece to the next, so I wanted to find a way to compel contemplation of the work as a whole and to draw the viewer in to see the details up close. I wanted for there to be a strain to see more clearly, so that people desire to walk up closer to the work and to experience the difference between seeing from afar and making the effort to see more, to understand more fully. Within the works I created elements of tension where there was a struggle to see. I wanted the frustration of not being able to fully see, fully comprehend to be felt. For example, one of the pieces is a collection of overlapping Polaroids that have been sealed in resin. It is now impossible to see what is hidden beneath the layers of images. I’ve been feeling the desire to understand another’s story, to share in it, but realizing that it’s just not possible to experience it fully. I wanted to express that tension of desiring to see and the frustration in being unable to.
AS: In your statement you write that your new works are created “in response to recent events of injustice and brokenness” could you speak more specifically to these themes you reference?
SR: My work has always been a way to problem solve, to sort through ideas and to investigate emotions and experiences, so many of the works just came naturally out of the emotional place that I was/am in, based on the events happening in our country and here in our city. Things need to change. And like I spoke to earlier, I came across those magazines that made me feel like nothing had changed or that change wasn’t possible. I don’t truly believe that, but I can’t imagine how people who are directly disadvantaged and repeatedly experiencing hate, violence and injustice, how they must feel, especially in the midst of loss and heartbreak.
Many of these works are coming from the emotions associated with all that is going on, as an attempt towards empathy, towards truly seeing the unknown and unfamiliar on the other side. The works are my attempt, in a small way, to support and stand together with narratives and experiences that are not my own. It is an ode to and an acknowledgement of pain, brokenness, anger, loss, futility, frustration. I don’t have any answer, but I just felt I needed to say something and my way of speaking is through image and through art.
AS: Your work, in its fragmentation and briefness, draws strong connections to written poetry, could you elaborate on this connection between poetry and your visual language? Perhaps specifically your homage to Dylan Thomas in a piece included in this exhibition.
SR: I am very influenced by poetry. Honestly, I wish I were a poet, that or a singer/songwriter or a comic. And I guess the link between all of those is that I desire and completely admire those who have a mastery of language that can evoke emotion. For me, my fragments of images, act as a language. They are words, symbols, and clues. I find that much of the terminology within poetry is actually really relevant in describing my work, only in my case it involves fragments of image, rather than language fragments. Recently, my friend and brilliant poet Rich Smith introduced me to the idea of Negative Capability, which is essentially a theory by John Keats regarding the idea that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I love that. The questions, the mysteries, the doubts, you can have it all. You can remain in that space of unknown. I relate to that openness, to believing that are things that are beyond explanation or that are more important than objective fact. To me, it is a reassuring thought, to be ok with the futility of it all.
As for the Dylan Thomas reference, well, I was reminded of that poem recently, while watching Interstellar. It’s quoted a few times throughout the movie and it just felt like so many things to me. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful and angry and hopeful. I couldn’t get the line out of my head and when I was seeking a title for that piece, it felt right. That’s what I love about poetry, it evokes rather than instructs or tells. I want my art to feel that way, that it can lead you into multiple directions, depending on who is looking.
It’s pretty common for me to include lines from poetry or songs or movies within my work as I think that the text element is very important to giving the work a context and evoking a memory or an emotional viewing from the viewer. As you would probably imagine, I have no problems with borrowing and appropriating material, to put it into a new context.
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