Interviews

Artists Pick Artists: Carol Szymanski

by Rob Colvin on March 26, 2014

Daddy, Pencil on Paper, by Willa Schwabsky (courtesy her mother, whose shadow is seen on the lower corner)

Daddy, Pencil on Paper, by Willa Schwabsky (courtesy her mother casting the shadow) (all images courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven question about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.

The art of Carol Szymanski is based in language, bound up in the syntax of human communication, without being reduced to it. And the work is certainly conceptual. Aspects of it derive from Leibniz’s belief that reasoning could be formulated into calculations, a precursor to symbolic logic. Yet her pieces are not illustrations of ideas. They don’t teach you things, or tell you what’s what. In some ways the art doesn’t represent anything at all, but instead makes lateral moves and jumps across various types of description. And, still, it’s not abstract art.

This makes the work inherently hard to get ahold of. Its elusiveness comes not from a lack of conceptual clarity, which could otherwise be sorted out, but from its materiality. We expect artwork to be a visual starting point or conclusion of an artist’s intentions, but Szymanski’s sculptures aren’t either one – neither here nor there – yet there they are.

What is there is material, in two fundamental ways: the first is an understanding of communication’s physical properties and an awareness of the possibilities found in their rearrangements, and the second is the ability to make rightly-designed instruments to perform such maneuvers. The art is not so much in what it is, but in what it does, and what it does is stretch the limits of what we can say, think, and feel, or perhaps showing that the limits aren’t there.

Photographer Rhona Bitner picked Carol Szymanski to participate in this project, explaining, “her skill at reinterpreting the essence of speech and language and making them visual and tactile is unique and always intriguing.”

*    *    *

Rob Colvin: Why did you become an artist?

Carol Szymanski: I became an artist out of necessity, an unavoidable choice. Sort of like how the dice throw themselves. In my case, the dice landed on the question of how and in what ways reality reflects on itself. Since reality is constructed or realized through language and thought through its categorization, language became the subject of my art.  I began to see myself as a peculiar kind of translator.

RC: How would you describe your development and what you’re doing now?

CS: My development has been quite logical although it could appear inconsistent due to some degree of “tripping up” over the years stemming from a general discontent with civilization. I don’t stick to one medium and that always raises the eyebrow.

My first art works were videos. I would audiotape everyday conversation between  people for example in a living room over cocktails or playing Monopoly, transcribe the tape, edit it lightly, set it up as a script and give it back to the same people (who were not actors) and have them act out what they had previously said. There was a friction between the whether they were acting or just themselves on video. I was fascinated with what fell out of the tension between fiction and reality. After a year long stint at the Whitney Museum Studio Program in New York under the dictatorship of Ron Clark, I emerged soaked in Semiotics and began a more direct study of language and art by, for instance, designing my own font and making abstract sculpture from it that I called “broken phonemes.”

Variable No. 2, 1988, steel, 22.5 x 93 x 53 inches

Carol Szymanski, “Variable No. 2″ (1988), steel, 22.5 x 93 x 53 inches

These sculptures eventually became natural trumpets that could play music which reflected for me both a deep attraction to Roman Jacobson’s idea of transmutation (the act or process of interpreting linguistic signs through non-linguistic systems) and language as shaped breath (which is after all what speech is anyway, materially). The particular shape of the brass trumpets came from my font that spelled words but were abstracted out of their normal linear reading. It was a form of play on words in an objective concrete sense. In this process a new way of reading and listening emerges. By now I have a horn alphabet band with which I can translate texts into music, most recently the poems of Aram Saroyan in a collaboration with Ben Neil on trumpet.

th, 1991, silver plated brass, 12 x 7 x 5 inches

Carol Szymanski, “th” (1991), silver plated brass, 12 x 7 x 5 inches

Finances eventually became a problem, having a family to support, so I got a day job working in investment banking. It was at least a 60 hour a week job, and this led me to set up a way to keep working on my art stealthily within the work day, since there was no studio time left. The “cockshut dummy” emerged: an ongoing daily email project using the tools I used in the office (i.e., the computer and the mobile phone). I wrote a poetic or diaristic text and shot a corresponding image with my cell phone following a formal structure I set for myself based on the categories of the thesaurus. I am still continuing that project, even though I no longer work at the bank and am happily back in the studio, and I am almost about to finish the project as I have completed ‘no. 954 Illegality’ with 36 to go to the end, ‘990 Temple.’ The day job paid well and taught me how to write or use language for its own sake, forgetting for a while the manipulation of its shapes as I’d done earlier.

Now, back in my studio, as I said, I have returned to the play on how language represents itself again, using my earlier font alongside my handwriting. I’m working with the Solfège, a method of sight singing that assigns notes of a scale to particular syllables that was devised in the eleventh century by an Italian music theorist, Guido of Arezzo.

I came to it like this: My original idea was to formalize a structure poetically from two letter words and then translate these texts in different mediums. So I Googled two letter words and among them I discovered the solfège words Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti. I decided to used the letter shapes of these two letter words to make inflatable sculptures — balloons — that would float around a space. I enjoyed the notion of a non-static, variable sculpture moving randomly in space or jostled by the passersby. The particular shapes of each sculpture were worked out first through a series of paintings. When I noticed the paintings reflected in the inflatables in my studio I photographed their colors reflected in the balloons and made large photos of these abstract images. Lastly, to complete this project, I am painting hands which are also the signs of the solfège to make hand songs.

Studio view

Studio view 1

Studio view

Studio view 2

Studio view

Studio view 3

RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular? 

CS: I have been heavily influenced by Roget’s Thesaurus, Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations,” George Lakoff’s “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things,” and writing itself.

Some of the most influential people were my teachers from art school. The main contributions being (in no particular order) from Howard Fried, for never having to finish according to anyone else’s timeframe and maintaining the skill set for nonchalance; Paul Kos, for tenderness of material; David Ross, for keeping fresh in my memory always that the dialectic is there and for showing me the early work of Lawrence Weiner, particularly the films.

Lovers and friends and passing acquaintances have contributed a lot to my understanding of art. Frank Gillette for introducing me to Gregory Bateson and the double bind as well as Kenneth Burke, specifically his book Grammar of Motives. And of course my husband Barry Schwabsky for his gentle, respectful, and subtle consideration of art and also for reminding me not to over-think, among other things. Kathy Acker for the knowledge of the derivative, more importantly my own derivativeness. And my dearest friend Joan Jonas for knowing that the doubt and yet the magic are always present.

RC: What challenges are unique to your process?

CS: The challenge unique to my process is that although my work is based on text it needs to be seen and not just read.

RC: If you could own any work of art, what would it be?

CS: If I could own a work of art it would be Alberto Giacometti’s “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932).

(via Poryorick's Flickstream)

A version of Alberto Giacometti’s “Woman with Her Throat Cut,” bronze (via Poryorick’s Flickstream)

RC: So what is art anyway?

CS: (1) I guess categorization could be art hiding as translation. Or (2) The power chords — a series of translations based on categorization that allow us to re-consider our assumptions of experience. If one assumes that what we call “reality,” as Burke stated, is actually a “clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present … a construct of our symbol systems.” Then such is art and more.

RC: Who should be interviewed next?

CS: I recommend Apostolos Georgiou as the next artist to be interviewed. I love the straightforward intelligence, grand finesse, and humor in his paintings — that is very rare.

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