interview with Patterson sims

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October 2013

The following interview derives from a series of conversations and email exchanges between the artist Alicia Ehni and the curator Patterson Sims, in the weeks before the opening of “Mapping Stones” exhibition at Frederico Seve Gallery in New York.

Patterson Sims is the President of the Board of ICI. He has worked in the arts since 1969, and was Director at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey from 2001-2009. His distinguished career as a museum professional includes serving as Deputy Director for Education and Research Support at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Prior to this, he was Associate Director for Art and Exhibitions and Curator of Modern Art at the Seattle Art Museum between 1987 and 1996, and was the first curator designated to oversee the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he worked from 1976 to 1987. He began his career as Assistant Director of O.K. Harris Works of Art, in the then newly-developing arts district of Soho, in 1969. Sims has organized one-artist exhibitions of numerous artists including Ellsworth Kelly, John Storrs, Jan Matulka, Viola Frey, Fred Wilson, Claire Zeisler, Willie Cole, and Hedda Sterne. He was a co-curator of four Whitney Biennial exhibitions.

PATTERSON: When did you know you would be an artist and, I assume later, a sculptor?

EHNI: Since I was very young I was always painting and drawing. When I was five years old, I remember being delighted when my pediatrician framed a group of my drawings and put them up in his office. When I was growing up, my mother designed jewelry and worked in ceramics and other media. I particularly recall a hanging macramé piece with ropes and a big whalebone that she found on the beach. She would take me to the magical two floor ceramic studio of Consuelo Aninat, a small circular room with a skylight at the top of the stairs. The room was filled with jars of her glazes, different paints, enamels, and pigments. I wandered around an adjacent big dark room filled with ceramic pieces that had been fired too long and left there, a vibrant cemetery of her many students’ art. It was years later when I was in my late teens, studying with Margarita Checa at the Cristina Galvez Atelier in Lima, that I became seriously committed to sculpture.

PATTERSON: To what degree has being a woman influenced your art and what you have made?

EHNI: Being a woman has not had any major influence on my art.

PATTERSON: Was your family supportive?   

EHNI: My parents have been extremely supportive and still are. For six years I was able to study art at the university in Peru that was heaven for me. Then my parents made it possible for me to come to NYC to continue my studies.

PATTERSON: Who were your teachers in Peru and how did they influence you?

EHNI: The first important teacher was Adolfo Winternitz, the dean and founder of the School of Plastic Arts of Peru’s Pontificia Universidad Católica. He shared his philosophy of spirituality in art, emphasizing the need to be humble and patient when making sculptures and painting. Ana Maccagno, an Italian sculptor, shared with us her admiration for the timelessness of the  design and craftsmanship of the ancient Peruvian stonework at Machu Picchu and other archeological sites. Another of my professors, Sonia Prager, had a different approach to the material. Her priority was reverence for the stones’ texture and natural attributes. For a year I took painting as a major. I’m very thankful to my teachers Julia Navarrete and Alejandro Alayza for helping me to appreciate color. One day it “clicks” and you suddenly start seeing the colors around you. But it was sculpture and, for me, the purity of its color and forms that captured me and the four other fellow artists who were sculpture majors at the University.

PATTERSON: What motivated you to come to the US and NYC?  Who were your favorite teachers at Pratt and how did they influence you?

EHNI: I’ve been in NYC four times before I came here to study in 1998. I have lived here ever since. I always loved the city’s art museums and galleries and its energy. It felt more comfortable than London, which was my other option at the time. I felt that New York was more advanced in relation to technology and would give me more opportunities to learn new techniques to fabricate my sculptures. At Pratt a teacher called Haresh Lalvany taught a class called “Morphology”. It was offered by the architecture department. He made me think about form and its evolution in a different way.  My works that came of my first study of sculpture were very experimental – mostly small studies about relationships between shapes, systems, and their interconnection. This class influenced my thinking about making every element justify its existence when creating a form, and, if it does not, one must further simplify the form. I have always wanted my sculptures to have a sense of unity that makes the viewer believe that these forms could actually exist, yet are, at the same time, new and unrecognizable objects. I am, for now, focused on the investigation of small-scale models and systems, but I am looking forward to working on bigger private and public sculptural projects.

PATTERSON: What attracted you to carving stone? What are the different types of stone you have worked with and what is the appeal of each?

EHNI: At the sculpture department at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú as part of a set curriculum we learned about all kinds of sculpture techniques and materials. We started with clay, mold making, and casting and moved on to wood and stone carving and welding. I enjoyed the scents of working with wood and the clicking of chipping stone became from then on a form of music to me. Artists always talk about listening to the voice of the stone, that’s in part because each stone has its own widely varying physical structure and materiality, If you don’t respect that, you can end up with the wrong piece cut out. I believe that if you get it right, stones radiate energy and light. Creativity in carving stone requires one to eliminate. Adding is not an option. It is a careful, meditative process that demands patience. I also like the weight and mass of the stones and have been empowered by Peru’s extraordinary heritage of stone carving and construction. My preferred materials are Italian marble and alabaster, particularly a Peruvian alabaster called Piedra de Huamanga,  and black Peruvian granite. American Limestone and differently colored travertine are other stones I’ve used. Each block of stone is unique. Sometimes I have a piece of marble in my studio for years before I know how it should be shaped. I connect my feelings about carving stone with a wonderful Russian movie called “The Stone Flower” based on a myth about a stone carver who becomes obsessed with a stone he finds in an enchanted mountain cave. He dedicates his life to creating the perfect sculpture with it. Working in recent years with resin, which is a hydrocarbon secretion of many plants, particularly coniferous trees, I can have more freedom. The aqua -resin fiberglass resin is more resilient and affordable. It allows me to work at a much larger scale. For experimenting with new and larger shapes, the lightness, balance, and malleability of resin has been very liberating.

PATTERSON: What are your formal influences? I assume Cubism, Geometric Abstraction, and Minimalism — is  that true and, if so, to what extent?

EHNI: There are so many influences. At the beginning it was Isamu Noguchi and his approach to stone, the Spaniard Eduardo Chillida and pre-Columbian sculpture and architecture. Sol LeWitt, Brazilian artists like Helio Oiticica and Ligia Clark and the architect Mies van der Rohe were highly influential for my work.

PATTERSON: Do you think that there is a predilection for geometric abstraction in South American modern art?

EHNI: That aspect of Latin American art has been emphasized among art historians, critics and the art market. In the case of Peru, geometric abstraction is a crucial component of pre-Columbian textiles, ceramics, jewelry, wall paintings and architecture. It formalized systems and codes of instruction and information about the basic human, natural, and existential polarities in abstracted artistic and architectural terms that were carried forth in the modern art made by Peruvians.

PATTERSON: How have the city and nature, specifically the Andes Mountains of your native Peru, impacted  your art? What influence has architecture had?

EHNI: The places we’ve been influence who we are. In my case the natural places that have had the most impact are the deserts of Paracas  (260 kilometers south of Lima) and the altiplanos, high plateaus, of the Andes. The vast desert areas surrounding Paracas look like a lunar landscape. The dryness of the land, the high temperatures and the relentless wind create a hard skin on the sand that is pitted with small craters. By contrast the Andes Mountains are imposing, when one stands there at 12,000 feet one feels and is closer to the sky. Their power emanates with a powerful shift in one’s perception of space in relation to individual physicality. Rock formations and earthquakes constantly remind me of the forces of nature. Dealing with volume and forms, playing with tension and forces, are all parts of a process of doing sculpture. Architecture always had a great influence on me, even more since I moved to New York City. The rigor of the city grid and the flexibility and variety of architectural form within that apparent rigidity always surprises me. Several of my closest friends are architects, and I am married to an architect, so that has certainly made me conscious of the built environment.

PATTERSON: Who are the artists you most admire from South America, North America, Europe and elsewhere?

EHNI: From South America Gego, Ligia Clark and the atmospheric photographs of Peruvian Martin Chambi. I have been fascinated by the North American artists James Turrell and Robert Irwin for their perception of space and light and Olafur Eliasson for his massive orchestrations of light and other elements. The collaborations of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass have taught me a lot. Just as have the use of darkness and light in the films, theater, and performances of William Kentridge have powerfully affected me. From Europe the architecture and objects of Santiago Calatraba, Mies van der Rohe and Eileen Gray have guided me formally.

PATTERSON: What role does drawing play in your work? Do you draw all the forms you will sculpt?

EHNI: Drawing is the first thing I do at the studio as part of my daily routine. Drawing makes me think visually, make ideas flow, and releases a freedom to play with form. Through drawing I am able to break the rules. My drawings are games of perspective. What is in the front or in the back is defined by a simple line or shade, and it does not necessarily need to make sense. In drawing I can create unexpected forms where conscious and unconscious meet. I can set and re-set the “rules”, for example – if my initial idea is to close an object, with drawing I can open it up, if it is to create a long line I can make it shorter. I’m constantly pushing the form and looking for an element of surprise. Paper and pencil can accept everything, in carving it is set in “stone” and you have to negotiate with given physical materials and live with the decisions you have made. I also draw directly on the stone to visualize what should be removed or go back in the composition. Two marble pieces in the show, Untitled TS7 and Untitled TS9 (from the series of Turning Stones works) retain their drawn lines.

PATTERSON: Your titles also refer to kilometer road numbers? Why is that?

EHNI: The km #series started around 14 years ago when I moved to NYC. I had recurring dreams of different parts of the Pan-American Highway, which is the longest motorway in the world. I used to travel very often, in a three-hour journey from Lima to a beach called Paracas. The landscape changes dramatically as one passes by deserts, valleys, and cliffs. I stopped having those dreams but kept it as a calming, meditative ritual to do one stone sculpture for that series each year. This practice forces me to slow down as I mentally re-position myself in a particular km of this journey that I know so well. The specific kms designations I pick are chosen more for the surrounding landscape than the km number in the map. As years pass, the kilometer numbers have not followed any system or pattern. The same location can appear very different from day to day, year to year, and from left to right. When I was growing up there were stones on the side of the road with the kilometer numbers painted on the stones. I liked the combination of specific importation and the varying, random rocks.
series of sculptures “Turning Stone” and “Mapping Stone” — what is the difference between them?  

EHNI: This exhibition is titled “Mapping Stones” because it has to do with stones and places in the map. Small stones don’t make it to the map, only mountains. In Peru people go to visit certain stones, which are believed to have special energy. These stones are used as landmarks and to indicate locations of special importance. Begun in 2011, the Turning Stones’ series of Italian marble sculptures all share the form of a circle or partial circle motif. They are often dialogues of flatness and depth. The circles are not perfect, yet they can read as complete. I consider them all part of a cycle or system, like in the phases of the moon — seeing only part of the moon does not mean it’s not whole.

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