The New York artist Phoebe Washburn has quickly gained a reputation in the contemporary art world for room-filling installations made of cardboard boxes, old newspapers, odd lengths of lumber, used plastic cups and other marginal leftovers of social manufacture. She culls her materials from loading docks, alleyways and recycling bins, and organizes, stacks, binds and nails together these prosaic treasures into organic and architecturally obsessive structures. Washburns work combines the fortitude of an urban pack-rat with the dedication of a city manager tidying up New Yorks civic mess.
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts MFA program, Washburn had her first solo show at New Yorks LFL gallery in 2002. There, she built Between Sweet and Low, a 25-by-17-foot swirling vortex of cut cardboard screwed into form with 4-inch drywall tacks. At PS 1 this past summer, Washburn amassed daily newspapers and pasted them together in tight sushi-like rolls. Like an anthropologist cataloguing valuable data, she color-coded the papers with leftover house paint so that each hue identified the date when she salvaged the bundles of discarded news.
Now, Washburn has installed Nothings Cutie at the LFL Gallery on West 24th Street in Chelsea, Sept. 2- Oct. 2, 2004, a vast mini-city of sawed-off wood pieces painted in sugary pastels rising over valleys of sawdust.
Ana Finel Honigman: Do you intend your work as a criticism of cultural or personal wastefulness?
Phoebe Washburn: People frequently ask me about the political connotations of using recycled materials. While I recognize the environmentalist aspect of the work, my choice of materials is mostly guided by convenience. I tend to use materials that I can easily collect and carry to my studio. What I collect and use is determined by my desire to collapse the division between my time making art and my daily routine.
AFH: Do you scavenge and hoard your materials or collect in bulk?
PW: I rarely plan to pile everything together at once. I just incrementally build into my routine certain places to stop and collect stuff. I know I could rent a U-Haul and drive to a construction site to gather what I need in one trip, but I prefer to only collect armloads of objects at a time.
AFH: Why is that? Is it that taking mass quantities of materials is too similar to shopping?
PW: Not exactly, but the actual accumulation of my materials is part of the process. I consider the start of the piece to be when I start to develop my routine of gathering materials.
AFH: Do you set out to hunt down particular things, such as dozens of discarded #2 pencils, or do you just amass collections of random objects and use them once you feel you have a project in mind?
PW: I start when I see something that intrigues me. I accumulate materials slowly and prefer not to inundate my studio with a huge amount of materials gathered off the street.
AFH: What intrigues you about an object that other people ignore?
PW: I select objects that have already been used, already been worn, already been marked and already been discarded because then they are already in the state I want them to be in. They are what they are already. It cuts down on the decision-making process for me.
AFH: Do you have a pre-determined idea of how you want to arrange these objects or do you fit them together like pieces in a puzzle?
PW: Creating an installation where all aspects of the original space work with the inherent properties of the materials and my ideas for their use is a bit like puzzling the parts together. My sculptures depend a lot on the spaces were they are shown because they often are anchored into the wall but chance is definitely more of a factor in the final product than is any predetermined design. I just let the structures evolve by repeating the same action again and again. The process has a slightly neurotic element in that it involves adding little behavior habits. As silly as it sounds, I often feel as if my assistants and I are beavers building a dam. The shapes are less about form than they are about the activity involved in amassing and assembling the forms.
AFH: Because of the do-it-yourself aspect of your materials and the cheerful colors you often use, some of your pieces remind me of what would happen if kindergarteners were given unlimited time to work on their arts and crafts projects.
PW: It is a very playful process. I feel more comfortable describing what I do as a series of activities rather than notions about form or a process of problem solving, because defining the work through the action of making it expresses the playfulness more than if I were to just intellectualize the connotations of the finished product.
AFH: If the process is paramount, than why court potential political readings of your work by building structures that resemble organic shapes or cityscapes out of recycled materials?
PW: Often the layered surfaces appear to look topographical or like cities built into a cliff because when I am building, I am inspired by unusual architecture. I am particularly interested in the structure of buildings in shantytowns that are similarly constructed out of random materials put together in unconventional ways.
AFH: Can you really refer to buildings in shantytowns as a type of architecture, when those buildings are constructed as shelter only out of desperation?
PW: My goal is not to romanticize that use of materials or attach esthetic notions to the things people make out of need but I am drawn to these forms and there is a connection between those structures and my work. In both instances, something vital comes from of the use of materials that were previously discarded and ignored.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.