Q and A with 2013 Open Studio Fellowship Artist Sanford Mirling

2013 Open Studio Artist Sanford Mirling first came to Franconia Sculpture Park in 2003 as an Intern Artist, returning soon after as a Site Manager for several years. He received a BA from Bennington College and an MFA from SUNY Albany. He is the co-founder/ Director of Collar Works: art space in Troy, NY, and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Studio Art at Middlebury College.

When he arrived at Franconia this summer, Sanford had plans to make a sculpture resembling a giant skateboard bowl, an above ground pool, and remarkably, a breast. It couldn’t be skated, swam, but as most visitors can attest, it is impossible not to ogle the nipple, or even jump up and poke it. In the end he titled his sculpture Oobie boobie double loobie, ollies are hard, shred the gnar.

In fact, much of Sanford’s work is based in contradiction, sexuality, and the desire for the unattainable or inaccessible. He crafts forms that reference an intimate moment, heightening tension through the recreation of male longing from a quickly deteriorating image or memory.

This is exemplified in his sculpture “Brandi, won’t you?” a work that won him an Outstanding Achievement in Sculpture Award, given by the International Sculpture Center. In “Brandi…,” supple, red vinyl and a contorted chair suggest the flesh and curvature of a woman’s body. The piece confronts the viewer unabashedly, forcing us to measure the material Sanford uses against form he creates, and interrogate our reaction to the piece as a whole. This often means going back in time, tracing our own memories and experiences, and recreating them as we attempt to understand them.

This tension found in the process of remembering is made plain in an artist statement Sanford wrote for a 2012 exhibition at Saratoga Arts:

Functioning on multiple levels simultaneously, an artwork may be about a particular memory, while addressing the act of remembering; the need for that memory; a critique of the memory; and how that memory evolved through time. Purposely conflicted, the work is the physical manifestation of a psychological process trying to make sense of itself: fraught with anxiety, exotic and yet familiar, present while ephemeral.

In his sculptural installation “Don’t let go for the world”, a chain link fence curves in front of a projection of a dusky cityscape just after sunset. The video is shot from a “make-out” spot overlooking Troy, NY. A lace silhouette is cast from above, intermingling the scene with a hint of seduction. The cooly lit installation evokes the sense of an ending and loneliness. The title sharpens the scene- it’s borrowed from a song titled Chain Link Fence,” which tells the story of a summer flirtation cut short.

Like so many other songs that recall fleeting, summer love, the scene is set in parks, cars, and fast food restaurants, and told from the perspective of an older narrator, one who looks back with longing: “Well she’s sitting right there on the chain link fence/ She’s down at the park with the rest of her friends/ And she looks so pretty but she’s only sixteen/ Didn’t know that when she smiled at me”. In the end, the song seems to be less about the particular girl, but rather about the cool desolation that descends once the flirtation and the warm weather are gone.

I had the chance to catch up with Sanford in the last week, and ask him some questions about “Oobie boobie…,” and his artistic practice.

When you’re making sculpture, what is your creative process like? What path does your work take between the inkling of an idea and finished project?

The process always starts with the form, usually as a sketch, a doodle really. From there I typical choose a material; steel, wood, foam, etc. and turn that original sketch into 3-dimensions. I am not much of a draftsman but I do understand how my hastily made two-dimensional lines should translate into form. I will often photograph the object in process and draw on the printout to realize the object in the round. I use the technical process of creating the form as an opportunity to allow my mind to question and answer, “why is this form worthy of being created?” and “what’s it about?” these question don’t always get answered directly, but more often provide clues as to what materials the piece is asking for. Sometimes, at this point, there are no answers and that is when I know it’s time to start over. But, when the form and materials start to jive there is usually a moment- the kind of moment you live for as an artist- where it all comes together and I’m like, “Oh, shit! Of course it was always going to be…”

What inspired your project at Franconia this summer? How does it relate to your past work?

An unexpected pregnancy of a recent ex-girlfriend. You can’t make art without having the powerful emotional events of everyday life seeping their way in. I struggled with the contradictory feelings of both wanting something and the realization that those desire were ridiculous. I think most of my work directly relates to contradiction, sex, and humor. Oobie boobie double loobie, ollies are hard shred the gnar is no exception, a skateboard bowl you can’t skate, an above-ground-pool you can’t swim in, and a giant boob with no sex appeal, but possessing a nipple that can’t go untouched. All of which being fictitious versions of themselves.

Why did you propose your project to Franconia and what did the experience of working here offer you?

Space, freedom and support. By support I mean access to equipment, but also money and expertise in acquiring materials or resolving some of the complex logistical issues that arise with the creation and display of large-scale public art. The chance to create an ambitious piece of art and have it displayed for the public is a tremendous gift. Not only that but, it is essential for any artist to leave the solitude of their studio from time to time and interact with fellow artists. It is these interactions and discussions that help work to evolve.

Where did you study and whom did you study with? How have those experiences influenced your own work?

I’ve had the great fortune of having some amazing mentors. At SUNY Albany, I worked with Ed Mayer and Adam Frelin, who provided me with an incredible balance of formal consideration and conceptualization that I try to continue to hold true to. The late Sir Anthony Caro, taught me the invaluable lesson of objectivity, particular pertaining to critically viewing my own work in process without the logistical concerns of production. But without question, my experiences at Bennington College with Jon Isherwood have been my greatest influence. Jon taught me how to see with my hands, be uninhibited, and work like a dog to make things that are meaningful to me as the first viewer of my work.

Who (or what) are your greatest inspirations as an artist?

Stupid question (make sure you say I thought this is a dumb question). Everything. Rodin, reality TV, Braque, Urs Fischer, Duchamp, Al Green, Nikola Tesla, neuroscience, porn, Radio Lab, Dub Step. Any new ways of seeing, thinking, questioning, anything that sucks you in and won’t let go.

Bonus Question: What do you consider the most important work of art in the world?

Another terrible question, who am I to judge. Clearly Duchamp’s urinal opened a door never to be closed by providing artist with permission to remove their hand. Cezanne, Picasso, and Braque offer new ways of understanding how we see. As corny as it sounds, and I am not one for corny, I think the most important work of art in the world right now is probably one I haven’t seen yet. One still in someone’s studio. Because I believe it’s an ever rising bar and one that, as artist, we are always aspiring to. Otherwise what’s the point? Right?

Thanks for your candidness, Sanford, and congratulations!


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