Saturday, January 10, 2009

Blurring the Boundaries: Beverly Ress

About the Artist
Beverly Ress lives and works in Silver Spring, MD.

Sketch Pages talks to Beverly about seeing through drawing.

In your statement, you write, "I believe in the power of representational drawing. To draw is to see." Can you expand on how how drawing clarifies and/or directs seeing?
Well, representational drawing requires that you look at whatever it is that you're drawing, in a sustained way. You have to do that in order to see how it's put together, how it exists as a form. And the longer I look at something, as I'm drawing it, the more I realize how slippery it is: if I shift my position slightly, or if the object falls and is re-placed, or if the light changes in any way, then many of the relationships within the object change. And I'm very slow at drawing, so I end up spending hours and hours looking at whatever object it is that I'm working on. I find that when someone talks to me about a bird, for example, I have a sort of mental visual rolodex - I can refer back to how the wing folds, or how much the legs and feet look like the feet of lizards, or whatever. I know it much more specifically for having looked at and drawn it.For someone like me, who is clearly not a nature girl, these encounters are eye opening. Understanding another being in that way is a way of honoring it.

What does the act of drawing reveal about subjects that are near death for you?
Everything I've drawn, with the exception of one or two flowers, has already died. It's become an object. That's a very mysterious transformation - to go from a being to a thing. And often I encounter them kind of in reverse. I'll have just finished drawing a stick, say, and then find myself looking at some tree branches - at their shape, bark texture, the way they connect into the tree - and think back to all the details I learned through drawing the dead stick. So, to answer the question, the time of transition - near death - is not something I feel like I know anything about, or understand anything about. I'm the before-and-after person.

Can you talk about how, in the process of seeing/drawing you end up creating another object (the act of drawing). How is does the object function as a new subject?
Several times I've had the experience of people confusing my drawing with the actual object - as if I'd laid the object on a piece of paper, and that's what they're looking at. And I've also had the experience of showing the objects with the drawings, and found that some people are unable to look at the objects, but easily able to look at the drawings. So, that got me thinking about what happens when someone makes a kind of trompe l'oeil drawing: what are people seeing when they look at that drawing? They are clearly not looking at an object, yet they may feel they are having the experience of looking at an object. So what's the difference, then, between looking at an object, and looking at the simulation of an object? Is there a difference? Does something different happen in our brains? For me, the place to play with that is to make a drawing that's as representational, as much a simulation of reality, as I possibly can, and then break that trompe l'oeil contract by making it clear, visually, that the drawing is a simulation.

In your drawings, how does introducing actual objects, or a third dimension change how you see and experience?
We separate the study of 2D work from the study of 3D work. We separate art & science, too. This makes logical sense, because the concepts associated with these things are processed in different parts of the brain. But the world isn't really separated, i.e., we live in a world that is both 2D & 3D, and we are constantly interacting with both art and science. There are several pockets of the art world where people are actively working on the intersection between art and science. Just over a year ago, I was invited to speak at a conference entitled "Confronting Mortality with Art and Science", in Antwerp, Belgium. (

They brought together artists, illustrators, scientists, and museum people to discuss the history and current practice of ways in which artists and scientists interact. And I showed some work in New York, at the Organization of Independent Artists, during a city-wide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA. For that project I spent some time talking with scientists at NIH. So, I really like that boundary-crossing, bringing together ideas that we don't normally think about together, at least not consciously.And I like thinking about the boundary between 2D and 3D work. What's real? Is an object more real than a drawing? If I put a drawing on a wall, and there's a 3D object connected to the drawing that is moving into the space of the room, and the drawing has cut-outs in it, so that you can see through to the wall.

What's real in that situation? What's the origination point? Where do we stand?

What happens to the original subject that begins your whole drawing process, after you draw it, cut it, reassemble it? How do you differently.Is it important anymore as a subject/object or is it considered a springboard into a piece?
A couple of times I have used the original objects with the drawings in creating installations. I'm having a little bird cast in bronze right now, and I'll use it - somehow - with drawings later. I save all the objects I've drawn. I preserve them before I draw them, by soaking them in alcohol, and then I save them until they go completely decrepit - and sometimes I even hang onto them after they've disintegrated quite a bit.When I first preserve an animal, I feel pretty emotional about it - it's hard. Most recently, a friend gave me a pileated woodpecker that had hit her glass door and died. She had kept it in her freezer for quite a while before she had a chance to give it to me. Clearly it was dead as a doornail. Yet, when I went to submerge it in the alcohol bath, I felt scared - like I was killing something. It had a certain weight, and I could see the eyes so clearly I had a similarly strong reaction to a dead rat I found. I was afraid to look at it - I had a real gross-out reaction. So, with the rat, I had to wait a few months, and gradually de-sensitize myself, before I could look at it intensively enough to draw it. But once I've spent hours drawing it, it does completely become an object to me.

Can you discuss how working on paper is important to you process?
Well, I majored in sculpture at a liberal arts college - Earlham College - and got an MFA in sculpture at MICA, and during that time didn't do much drawing at all. I wasn't terribly interested in drawing, and I was focused on making stuff from my imagination. But after I'd been out of grad school for quite a while, I occasionally found myself drawing things that I could see - and that just really began to interest me more and more. I have always liked paper as a material - I've made sculptural paper pieces - and I love the meditative quality of drawing on a sheet of paper. It's a real challenge, and also a real pleasure.What is new in the studio these days?Currently I'm working on finishing up a permanent outdoor public installation - my first. I'm excited about it. It's got bronze and stoneware and aluminum, and the work all has a trompe l'oeil quality, so I'm hoping that it will engage people as they walk down the street.I received a Pollock-Krasner grant in 2008, so I'm using some of that money to make a new print. I've got the drawing done. Now I just have to figure out how I want to manipulate it to come up with some kind of double image.And I've been thinking a lot about using laser-cutting with my drawings. So far, I've been cutting everything by hand, but I've just started thinking about the precision I could get with laser cutting, and wondering how far I could push that to make interesting juxtapositions in my work. And, oh yeah, I'm drawing.

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