View of “Liz Deschenes,” 2016. Photo: John Kennard.

Since the early 1990s, Liz Deschenes has made photographs stripped bare, focusing on elements of light, material, and space to expose the aesthetic and conceptual boundaries of the medium. Here, Deschenes discusses her current midcareer retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, as well as her fascination with the histories and challenges of photography. The show is on view through October 18, 2016.

PHOTOGRAPHY IS still being historicized and I’m happy about that, but I’m no historian. What I am most interested in is how long it took for certain discoveries to be worked out. For example, it was discovered in the early 1700s that silver halides are light sensitive, but it was not until the early 1800s that people—the inventors of photography—learned how to arrest the action of the light on silver, and not until 1839 that this research was formally presented. I make work, and do research for the classes that I teach, that responds directly to these histories of photography and art.

Just like other disciplines, photography needs to be reinterpreted constantly. I’ve become fascinated by an economy of means: to make the most out of the least amount of materials, and to not put more work forward in an exhibition than absolutely necessary. With that, I’m often surprised by what occurs in both making and exhibiting. Just as camera translates into “room” in Latin, many of my photograms take on the rooms they’re exhibited in as a viewing device, where the viewers can actually see themselves seeing and can have a clearer understanding of the object’s construction—as well as of their own perception. I’d like people to have agency with the work and their experiences, to develop a deeper sense of their relationships to space, light, color, and, of course, photography.

For my current retrospective at the ICA, I worked closely with chief curator Eva Respini to collect pieces that are critical to the trajectory of the work and could be brought into new spaces and conversations. Over the course of a year we developed a scale model for the exhibition, while simultaneously editing a book that would not copy the show at all. Through the pieces and the curatorial choices—from the placement to the walls themselves, and the light within the galleries—we’ve presented an opportunity for people who have never seen the work to view twenty years of it, in absolute ideal conditions.

The eleven new works for the series “Timelines” came from a prompt from Eva last summer to respond to the building, specifically the founder’s gallery, which connects the east and the west galleries with one of the most tremendous views of Boston. Over time and many site visits, I arrived at a proposal to make and install works on the windows—specifically, photograms that I made a few months ago, which are all curved in their artist frames, and descend or ascend in height depending on which way the viewer moves. They produce an illusion that the works will continue beyond the building. I installed them on every other window panel, and the works can look like part of the building or reveal themselves as artworks, while simultaneously drawing attention to the panes of glass and the weather that is held at bay. As a New Englander, I am acutely aware of the ever-changing weather patterns in Boston and all of New England. It’s also important to note that through the model and 3-D sketch-ups, we constructed the walls and decided on the “anchor” works for the exhibition. I only wanted to exhibit works that would reveal my current concerns as a maker. I hope there is a through line through the twenty years worth of work.

Like many other artists, I really do not remember a time when I did not have the desire to make images. At the Rhode Island School of Design, students have to choose their major during their freshman year. I chose photography because I knew very little about the medium but at the same time was constantly surrounded by it. Until this decision, I had only had experience with cameras on family outings and at school events. I did not know how to load a 35 mm camera or use a reflex or range finder. Through that experience I was presented with challenges, technically and otherwise, and I made a tremendous number of mistakes. Today, I’m still fascinated by photography’s complexities, uncertainties, and potential to captivate. Curiosity drew me to it, and I continue to be enthralled by the discipline and history of photography.

— As told to Gabriel H. Sanchez

Robert Irwin


Robert Irwin with a construction crew at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, 2015.

In 1970, Robert Irwin abandoned his studio. Rejecting conventions, he developed what he now calls site-conditional work—art created spontaneously in response to the myriad and minute details of an environment. His latest piece recently debuted within the curved walls of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, where “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” his first major US survey outside of his native California since 1977, is on view through September 5, 2016. He also has a permanent installation, untitled, (dawn to dusk), 2016, opening at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, on July 23, which focuses on the town’s singular weather patterns.

THE CLOUDS IN MARFA, instead of coming way up in the air like they do everywhere else, they come at a treetop level and just run across the sky. I wanted to do something outside, but Chinati wanted me to do something in this empty building. I gave it fifty windows on each side, and I made them a little high, so that when you look out there’s landscape, but the land is just a thin line and everything else is sky. When the lights come in, that’s pretty fucking powerful. Basically, I’m courting that light.

The walls are curved in the Hirshhorn. That’s kind of hard on art. So in the last room, I stretched a scrim between the curves. The scrim is a great material; it both is there and it’s not. It’s pretty magical. There’s nothing on the curved walls in that room, so basically I’m squaring it, which I think is a very powerful gesture. It’s a critique of the architecture. That’s the punch line.

Humans are perceiving beings, and that is essentially one of our great strengths. Part of my shtick is to make you aware of how fucking beautiful the world is. If there’s a role for art, then it’s somewhere in that realm, because we have no other real reason for it. What we’re charged with as artists is to examine and develop that ability to enrich our lives, to enrich what we do. You have to do your homework and find what fits with what you feel the emotional tension of a place is. At one point, I took my whole practice apart, piece by piece, and it genuinely became just straight lines—with a straight line, there’s no pictorial connotation at all. I spent I don’t know how many hours just putting a line up and down in relationship to another one. I would sit there and try to figure out why one was better than the other, why one was more correct, looking at it critically and trying to understand why and how it works.

Right now, art is an economic model. The proof of that is how almost essential art fairs have become. One of the assumptions there is that everything the artist does can be hung on a temporary wall with temporary patching and in temporary lighting, which is bizarre. And the more and more influential this becomes, the less it has anything to do with art. I don’t fit inside that model.

What is the nature of the game we’re in? Malevich said, No, it’s not “I think, therefore I am”—I feel, and therefore I think, and therefore, I am. And that is the name of the game. The brain is not in a bell jar, it’s in a body. All feelings count. Instead of being an artist playing to the concept of art being in a bubble, I left the studio, and I said I’d go anywhere for anyone. That’s essentially what a conditional art is. You don’t make anything until there’s some place or some situation or some thing that you’re going to examine. You start out where you don’t have a plan or an activity, then you go from there. You find that emotional tension. That’s a whole process of actually exercising the other side of what human beings are. We’re an incredible machine.

For more on Robert Irwin, see his portfolio for the January 2011 issue of Artforum.

— As told to Janelle Zara

Wangechi Mutu, Throw (detail), 2016, paper, ink, dimensions variable.

Wangechi Mutu is a Kenyan-born, New York–based multimedia artist. Her work is currently featured in the group exhibition “Blackness in Abstraction,” which is curated by Adrienne Edwards and will be on view at Pace Gallery in New York through August 19, 2016. Here, Mutu discusses Throw, 2016, the site-specific action painting, made of black ink and pulp from magazine pages, that she produced for the show.

I’VE COLLECTED paper materials for my collage paintings for many years, and I realized recently that I had way too much in my studio. So I began to purge by shredding a lot of it and ended up with bags and bags of shredded magazines and junk mail. And then one day I experimented, turning it into a porridge—a mushed-up pulp—and at that point something new and simple happened. I mixed it with some ink and found I’d opened up something. I knew how I was going to work with this material that was now sculptural. I thought: I need to animate this material; I need to do to it what I often feel about it—which is that it’s vile, it’s alive, it’s dead, and its deadness is meaningful. As I threw it onto the wall at Pace, it was wet and heavy and very organic—it had tea and food dyes as well and since I have it sit around in bins, eventually it ferments and smells. I think disassociating ourselves from live matter or from nature is is one mishap in the development of human knowledge.

I tend to read more news than I read about art. I have the radio on a lot. I’ve always been fascinated with how women protest, especially in my home country, where in many ways, women are seen as secondary to men in terms of their voice and their power publicly. Often it’s dangerous to be a woman protesting, so women have to come up with specific ways of drawing attention to themselves.

From Pussy Riot to the disrobing Kenyan Mothers to the Arab Spring, there have been so many women who have been so creative and at the same time courageous in unexpected ways in order to protest abuse of their rights and mistreatment, especially for the particular places that they come from and the severity of the politics that they’re up against. I certainly wanted to merge this gesture of demonstration with the placement of painting on this wall. A wall that is in many ways inert—quite passive, quiet, and inaccessible. Throw is supposed to embody all of that: the movement and the resulting chaos and beauty of protest and of paint that hasn’t had calculation in where it should be placed or forethought in how it is composed.

In the belly of this show there is a rumble about speaking up inside a space that is silent, and about certain things that blackness has to say. In my case, I wanted to do something that I have only so much control of, going back to the root of painting, the root of art, the root of the ritual of representing our humanity outside of ourselves. Of course, I am aware that my understanding of blackness, as an African, is quite different, coming from a country that has a black majority, rather than perhaps someone who has been raised in a country that has used the word black to demonize and to denigrate its people.

In Throw I’m looking to show the soul in blackness, the heart of blackness—taking and twisting around Joseph Conrad’s title, if you could think of it that way, to be generative and indeed positive. There is something that draws people to blackness. There is something inside of all of us that is mysterious and black—in our relationship to Africa through our DNA, and in the relationship to questions of the mind that have no color.

— As told to Ian Bourland

Shirley Tse


View of “Lift Me Up So I Can See Better,” 2016.

Soon after arriving from Hong Kong to study at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1990, Shirley Tse abandoned philosophy for visual art, and relocated to Southern California, receiving an MFA from ArtCenter College of Design in 1996. Almost immediately she embraced plastics as material and metaphor. Of late, she has expanded her palette to glass baubles, wire mesh, figurative CelluClay sculptures, and literary texts; this is all on view in Tse’s latest exhibition, “Lift Me Up So I Can See Better,” which is partly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s sad children’s tale “The Happy Prince.” The exhibition will be on view at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica from July 9 through September 3, 2016.

FOR A LONG TIME I worked with carved pale blue Styrofoam insulation sheets and plastics. I became known for it. But then I found myself burning out. I asked myself: Since I need energy, why not build an electrical power plant? The result was the Power Tower installation that I showed at Pomona College Museum of Art in 2004. Speaking English as a second language, I take language very literally, and here I turned it into these sculptures. Power Tower involved a lot of research into the history of energy production and insulation materials, but it was linked to a personal narrative. Molding and carving these concurrent narratives became the new “plasticity” for me.

In 2009, I launched the “Quantum Shirley” series, which entailed making a new body of work using maps, fabric, metal, crystals, and video. “Quantum” turned out to be a very generative conceptual framework. It allowed me to make ongoing work that addresses the multidimensionality of experience, and how we negotiate dissonant realities. The pieces in this series combine personal stories, quantum theory, the trade movement of colonial products like rubber and vanilla, and the Chinese diaspora. But for now, the “Quantum Shirley” series is on hiatus.

“Lift Me Up So I Can See Better” is a departure from my previous output. A convergence of multiple events animates the works in this show. In 2014 I came upon a trove of variously colored glass chunks from the estate of the artist Miriam Wosk. Around the same time, I read Oscar Wilde’s story “The Happy Prince.” The story goes like this: A town erected a statue of a prince who died young. Gilded with gold leaf, the statue had precious gems for his eyes and his sword. But standing and looking out over the poverty across the city broke his heart, and he asked a swallow to pluck out the jewels for the poor.

I built a CelluClay model of the prince, using Wosk’s gems for his eyes, and set him high up on a C-stand. The stands repeat across the show in the sculptures Optic Nerves, Jade Tongue, and One Left. The gallery mesh used in these sculptures reappears in the form of a prostrate dead man in Happy Prince and Swallow, Horizontal. Gems, stands, wire, and eyes are reconfigured across the sculptures in various ways—but the allegorical sadness of Wilde’s story repeats across the work, too. The crumpled and ripped paper sculpture Income Inequality is held together with slips of gold jewelry, a charm bracelet, and two chains, which was my “dowry” when I left Hong Kong. While I don’t work associatively in any deliberate way, I like forming connections between things and watching the way these connections can multiply across various levels.

I never liked figurative sculpture much, but since I’m pursuing heterogeneity on both a conceptual and material level, I decided to embrace my aversion and make a few figurative pieces to live alongside the more abstract sculptures. The exhibition as a whole, and some of the individual sculptures, are simultaneously figurative and abstract. For example, the wire mesh pieces in the “Vehicle” series look like heads with huge eyes as their only feature. These structures showcase some wonderful glassblowing remnants: They just happen to be formed like heads. Or, you could say that the head forms provide an excuse to examine these jagged glass chunks. In Hobo Eyeballs, the mesh and the glass chunks are draped over a blue stick that emerges from a bunch of large plastic grapes. It’s an exercise in balancing the weight of different materials; but then again, it can be seen as a pair of wandering eyeballs.

In this exhibition, I’m looking at form and plasticity and human experience in multiple ways. The pieces function together, but each stands alone. My recent work is decidedly sculptural. The challenge is to let different components negotiate with each other to form an integrated whole—an endeavor I think of as negotiated differences—which of course can extend beyond the gallery walls.

Rereading the Wilde story, I realize it’s a tale about seeing, and the position from which someone sees. The prince was oblivious to human suffering until he was given a different perspective. It’s a timely parable. We need a few happy princes and swallows who are willing to see and to take action now.

— As told to Chris Kraus