On entering Pamela Wallace’s studio in Rock City (just outside Red Hook), you first notice a congenial sense of order. Not fussy, obsessive-compulsive order, but rather substantial collections of various tools and occasional stacks of material, all standing at the ready. Various hand tools are collected in old coffee cans or in wall-mounted brackets along the workbenches, each implement carrying the unique, darkened patina derived from a light coating of machine oil, long use, and age that verifies the fact that they’ve fulfilled their intended purposes. While these well-used tools are not perceived in the least as aesthetic objects, their gravity grounds something of the whole experience of the artist’s studio, putting the “work” back in “workshop”.
Wallace’s sculpture emphasizes repetitions of fairly simple forms, and both in their mode of production and in their finished forms, they rely on something of a serial, industrial aesthetic. Jutting into the center of the room is a stack of rough-hewn, squared-off wooden beams of varying lengths, arranged to make a series of three ascending “steps” that rise about waist high. The exposed tops of each beam now bristle with closely spaced, rusting metal spikes (actually, decapitated nails) driven into the wood along barely visible penciled gridlines. The natural presence of the materials is given form through the application of this abstract grid; however, you get the feeling that anything that orderly can only ever be a momentary intrusion—a deep crack in one of the beams sucks in some of the nails, throwing them off-kilter from the pattern for a moment, with the implication that eventually the whole thing will shift, crack, and decay, ultimately rendering moot the whole “giving form to matter” argument.
Throughout the work, she reiterates a series of very basic, elemental shapes—circles, spheres, grids, and so on—yet in a way that engages (and plays up) the materiality of wood, plaster, metal, or what-have-you. Like an old school Russian Constructivist, she seeks to make us intimately familiar with the inherent qualities of these materials, but instead of infusing them with boundless utopian potential, she lets us see them through the veil of wear and deterioration, taking the edge off a fresh white plaster sphere by giving it a coat of scuffed beeswax, for example.
“Imagery” seems like such a lightweight term for the combination of visual, textural, and physical presence of these works, but Wallace uses it to describe what she’s after. “I use found imagery,” she says, referring to the overtly intentional (rational, abstract) yet ultimately purposeless arrangements evident in her constructions, “but never found objects. They have a history that’s out of my control, so there’s no room to insert my own imagery.”
So she literally creates just about every component of her work from scratch in one way or another. Thinking originally about pouring plaster in between the spikes on the railroad-tie piece, she decided she liked the appearance of the small funnels that she constructed to take care of the task—they are nestled into the spikes like so many industrial flowers sprouting in an unlikely place. So she’s now producing a series of funnels in cast iron, its hefty weight and dark, textured patina contrasting beautifully with the rough-grained wood and the airy visual texture of the ranks of spikes.
The conflation of the natural and the industrial in this piece is a frequent focus for Wallace, who seeks out places where nature and industry intersect—“especially when industry is falling apart,” she notes. Not too surprisingly, one of her favorite artists is the Post-Minimalist sculptor Eva Hesse, who pioneered the use of cast latex and plastic resins to create abstract sculpture with an evocatively organic presence. Last year, a major traveling exhibition of Hesse’s work narrowly missed being exhibited in New York (the Whitney decided it didn’t have enough money to take the show, and canceled at the last minute), which is a shame because it will likely be the last time the work will travel—the latex pieces, in particular, are drying out, crinkling, and cracking and becoming so fragile that in just a few more decades, the only way to access the work will be through photographs. Hesse’s sculpture is also often called “process art,” meaning work that overtly displays the process of its own making, and that also opens itself to the continual process of its own decay and eventual dissolution.
When a work self-destructs, does it continue to mean anything? Historically, we’re accustomed to thinking of great “art” in terms of transcendent meaning and everlasting significance. Hippocrates is said to have first uttered a phrase sometime in the early 4th century bce, now remembered best in Latin: ars longa, vita brevis, or “art is long, life is short,” a sentiment which has been reiterated by writers ever since, from Chaucer to Goethe to Longfellow.
But in our day and age, what can lay claim to anything like ars longa? Fame is even more fleeting than life, and yet it has become the most prominent form of social currency that we have. How are artists to create deeply satisfying, meaningful work in a contemporary cultural milieu that seems to make the very notion seem quaint and old-fashioned?
Wallace may have found the ideal, if difficult, solution to this quandary. Cobbling together a living from a combination of adjunct teaching (which provides health insurance, if not much money), occasional visiting-artist gigs, and a string of carpentry jobs, she has quietly, resolutely found the means to pursue her art. Her studio was initially just a shell of a two-car garage: now it’s insulated and electrified, with built-in workbenches and shelves, all constructed by Wallace herself, bit by bit over the years. She shows her work when she gets the opportunity, but her emphasis is really on the deep satisfaction found in the process of making the work. “I just want to make art for the rest of my life,” she asserts, “and everything else in my life is organized to allow that to happen.”
There is something in this quiet, practical, and insistent approach that insinuates itself throughout the work; an expression of measured thought, carefully crafted, it unerringly seeks a sense of balance that is Wallace’s ultimate gift.
The gods should be greatly pleased.