Interview with ‘Media Lux’ Artist Monroe Isenberg

This is the first installment of the Media Lux artist interview series. Media Lux features work by Clay Dunklin, Mason Hurley, Irene Pantelis, Monroe Isenberg, and Gina Takaoka.

Monroe Isenberg | Graduate Student and Artist | Exhibiting in Media Lux from April 2nd through May 19th, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Erin Allen

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The Space Between, mixed media, 2018

Before we begin talking about these particular works, let’s start with some background. What’s your artistic background, and what brought you to study at UMD?

I’m from Minneapolis, I lived in Portland for seven years, and then I came here for graduate school. I was working in fabrication for awhile in Portland, felt terrible about it eventually and thought “what’s missing in my life?” So I remembered that I loved making art in college, and went “oh yeah, I think I’m an artist.” That’s the whole reason I got into fabrication, because I wanted to learn how to make things so that I could make better sculptures, and I had forgotten that after I graduated. I applied for an intern residency at Franconia Sculpture Park, which is in Minnesota. It’s on the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota in Shafer. It’s this 80 acre sculpture park in the middle of nowhere, you’re driving along and then all of a sudden you see this giant circle and these colors, and these sculptures jetting up into the sky, and you’re like “what is this doing here?” I was working there and I met Foon [Sham] and Dane [Winkler]. Dane is an alumni here and Foon is a professor, and they told me about the program, told me about funding, and it peaked my interest. I had loved my time at Franconia and I felt revitalized. I hadn’t felt that type of energy from a community and from within myself for years, aside from being in college and being surrounded by that art community. So Foon and Dane and Hugh, Hugh is a sculpture park manager over there, they told me about [the program here at Maryland], and I was like yeah, I think I wanna go back to school.

 

Did something in particular, like your background in psychology or a specific movement, draw you to work in a Minimalist style? Have any particular artists or concepts inspired your art practice?

I think I accidentally started working in a minimalist style. I think that comes from my parents; my dad is an architect, my mom is a designer, an artist, and a professor of design, she has an MFA in design, so I think the simple and minimal, less is more idea has always just been in me. I think psychology, I hadn’t actually really thought about that too much before, but I think psychology helped me to realize how people make judgments and decisions, and how they are affected by small, seemingly insignificant, minimal things in their environment, and that actually makes them view the world in a completely different way. Whether or not we shake hands, and I have a warm hand versus a cold hand, it’s going to be a subliminal message, it’s going to go into your subconscious and make you think that if I have a cold hand, I might have a cold character and a cold personality, and I might say the exact same thing to you, but your interpretation of me is totally changed by that minute feeling. Same with taste, same with hot coffee and cold coffee. So understanding environments and little environmental changes, I think actually has played a role. But the artists that I’ve loved are all minimal. Like Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Anish Kapoor, Anne Truitt, those people are amazing. When I see that work and I’m with it, it justs hits me in a specific way, it’s not contrived. For me, I think minimalism can aid contemplation of work and reduce the static noise of everything around us and help us focus. I’m thinking about that, I’m thinking about the viewer experience, but now I’ve started calling them the participants because I’m looking into relationships in my work. Instead of an experience, I want people to be in the present moment with my work, at least I am when I’m looking at it, and I think the work calls for that, for you to understand it intuitively. But I use participant, as opposed to viewer, because participant implies that you’re participating in the work, you’re relating to the work, whereas experience implies objectifying the work, making it an experience that is to be held for the self instead of meeting the work in between.

 

Wood, concrete, and steel seem to be the main mediums in a great deal of your work, what got you interested in using these materials?

Lately, I think I was using wood a lot because I was most comfortable with it, and it’s just something when you love a material you have to use it. With metal, I use it for its structural purposes, and it has a specific beauty in its’ functionality and its’ strength. Cement, this is actually my first ever cement sculpture. It was fun to work with cement, I don’t know when I’ll use it again, but I use materials according to the idea, so if the relationship I’m trying to call upon involves air, maybe I’ll use some kind of air, if it involves earth, I’ll use cement. It’s basically like whatever the idea calls for, I want to use the material that most represents and works with that idea. At least that’s what I’m trying to push for. Instead of only using wood or only using steel, I’d like to use plexi maybe or possibly glass in the future.

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Earth, cement, 2018, from the series The Space Between

It seems like the works currently in the gallery both incorporate movement in some way, either on the part of the viewer (in the case of the sculptures that make up The Space Between), or on the part of the performer (in the case of Habitus). Is this a theme you explore in other works as well?

I think everything that’s alive, and even things that aren’t alive, move. It’s just a part of us, it’s a part of being. It’s also interesting to see stuff move, whether it’s mechanical or organic, it’s just nice to look at movement. Whether it’s the participant moving around the sculpture, I think that’s where my psychology background comes into play too because I’m always thinking about how does a person move around the sculpture or the space, and what are they going to get from moving over here versus moving over there. Then specifically with Habitus, I think I was most interested in the movement when you don’t know that there’s a person in there. But I think it’s really important that the person’s in there, as opposed to a mechanical robot. Ultimately Habitus is about the way that movement describes specific beings. Whether it’s the way the wind pushes prairie grass around, sea anemones, all of those things, just the way they move describes what they are. So getting even more abstracted, I think I’m going to make a blanket, where maybe two people can be underneath, and I think that allows for even more abstraction because they can lay down, and they can be on their stomachs, they can be on their backs, they can roll around, they can push up their arm. It eventually becomes this landscape, which is interesting because everything in this gallery is about landscape, which is totally accidental, that we’re all kind of connected in that way.

 

Going off of what you were describing with the importance of a person being inside of Habitus or underneath the blanket that you discussed, do you think it would ever be an option to allow a viewer to be the person controlling the movement of the piece?

Absolutely, yeah, I really want to get into that too because not only does it provide more participation in the art, but I actually think the art really happens only for the person that’s in the suit. Otherwise, you’re experiencing the suit. You’re outside of the suit, you’re not living in it. When you’re in it, you can hear sound from up here, here, here, everywhere around you, and it sounds like raindrops and it’s peaceful, but it’s also so heavy that it’s uncomfortable, and you get so many different feelings because you’re getting sweaty and gross, but it’s also so beautiful because you’re in this nice dark space, and it’s comforting, and you just lose sense of time. Shawn [Stone], the MFA dancer who did the performance, when we were filming for the video, he didn’t know when to stop, he lost sense of time completely, and when I’ve been in there I lose sense of time too. Losing sense of time and being in the present moment, hearing those sounds really immerses you, so I really think that another kind of work would be somehow elevating a half-suit or something so that you could duck down in there and play, and understand what it’s like to be in a space like that and hear the sound, because that’s where the art happens for me. Otherwise, again, you’re outside of it, which is equally as valid because experiencing something, documenting things, and not always being in the present moment gave us science, it gave us technology, it gave us all the comforts of life. Otherwise we’d still be outside, poking fire. We wouldn’t even know how to make fire, so it’s equally as valid, equally as important, I just think there needs to be a balance.

 

The sculptures that make up The Space Between juxtapose Earth and space in relation to consciousness. How did you become interested in the concept of changing consciousness between different realms, and how do the materials you chose to work with each represent these different domains?

I think the present moment calls for a relationship, and the relationship happens in the space between. The relationship is where we experience the mystical nature of our world, and it’s what makes the world a special place, when we’re in the present moment, not when we’re in the past, not when we’re in the future. And I think as we grow as a society, we’re getting farther and farther away from the present moment, especially with social media and always being on our phone. We’re not being with each other and we’re not being with the things around us. We lose those hints and glimpses or those moments of insight, we don’t see those poetic encounters that we might have with a specific person, with an animal, with a wall, with an artwork, with a leaf falling down from a tree and blowing in the wind. We lose those things. And those are the things that make the world beautiful. So, The Space Between is that infinitesimal space that we can exist in, but it only happens every once in awhile. We only get very small, minute glimpses of it. It might only happen for a second, it could happen for an hour if you’re meditating, if you’re in that space, if you reach that space. It takes practice. So The Space Between is kind of that idea. I did another piece titled Light House (x), and that piece let me finally understand why I’ve been making that shape. That shape, it references platonic ideas, ancient Greece, pyramids, things like that, but that’s not really why I’m making it. I made it because I like the shape, it grounds me, it makes me feel solid, it’s a physical form, and it has this presence to it. That’s why I like making it, and it feels good to make it. I can’t stop making it for some reason, it’s just one of those things. But I realized, when I did Light House, the top of it emanated this light that created these ripple effects around it to make an environment, and you would walk into the environment and you saw this almost ominous black form hovering above the ground, above it is a square of light, and you’d get sucked into the space around you. People described it as an aurora borealis, ripples, water reflections, but then you’d always be pulled back to the center of this space, which is where the big obelisk was. So you’d be constantly jumping back and forth from being with the present moment, but then realizing where the present moment comes from, and therefore losing the present moment. So the obelisk, I finally realized, allows us to be in the present moment, but at the same time we need it because we jump back and forth, it’s like an ebb and flow between physicality and the spiritual or abstract space around us. It’s a weird paradox. I’m still wrapping my head around it, I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out, and I actually hope not to because I always want to be asking questions, instead of only providing answers.

 

The sound produced by the wooden spikes in Habitus is an integral part of the piece. Do you work with sound and other sensory aspects in your work often, or is this something new?

I want to engage as many senses as possible because that’s how we experience and relate to the world. I think the sound element is usually a surprise , but I find it happening in my work a lot. I’m not consciously trying to create sound work, it just happens with the work that I’m making. I think it’s more on an intuitive level. I love music, I love sound, I think I was first introduced to the power of sound when I was doing meditation in college. We would do chanting, and the vibrations that you create in the back of your nose and the center of your brain when everybody else is doing it, and the harmonies that happen, if there’s a group of ten people, these complex things happen around you and you’re just immersed in that present moment, and it vibrates your head, and you’re just lost, in a good way. So I think ever since then I’ve understood the power of sound, and actually the hyperbolic object, if you put your ear up to it, it hums. So I’ve also been playing with sculptural forms that are hollow that transform the ambient air energy into a specific frequency. It’s fun, and it’s always a surprise. And I’ll always check to see if it makes a sound . It’s also fun because you can drum on the ends, and it’s like a doumbek drum. Specifically with Habitus, I knew that the suit was going to make that sound because I had started making just the spikes as part of another sculpture, and I was playing with them. I had maybe twenty of them in my hand and I was ruffling them up and dropping them, and they were so warm, the tone. So I decided that that was something I really wanted to explore. Habitus maybe is the thing that I knew was going to be visual, I knew was going to be auditory, but with the other sculptures that produce that hum, it’s always a surprise.

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Still from Habitus, mixed media, 2018

The video piece that is associated with Habitus acts as a way to document the movement and sound of the wearable sculpture. Is video art something you’d like to delve more into in the future, or is it solely a way to record your installations and performances?

I’m interested in it. I think I’d want to, instead of getting into video, get into projection, and figure out how to make projection more than just a flat thing that you watch. Maybe creating a dimensionality to the projected image. Maybe projecting it onto layers of plexiglass. Let’s say we have five layers of plexiglass, and I haven’t done this so I don’t know if it would work, but the image might get bounced back and forth between the sheets of plexiglass, and then you might have a higher quality dimensionality. Yeah, which would make the thing more than just an image. That’s kind of my tiff with video and projection right now. It’s just an image. I mean it’s with sound but you’re still just watching a flat wall that’s creating this illusion. It’s still not real. There’s nothing wrong with that, but how do you push it? Film is totally good at that, you go to the movies and you’re totally immersed. So it’s not like it can’t happen, but what’s the next step? How do you keep pushing that idea?

 

You’ve already touched on this a bit, but how do you see your works in relation to the other pieces in this exhibition?

I see an interest in the land, and in diving deep into intuition, and just creating and making from that. With Irene’s work, she’s referencing her Columbian history and she’s making these beautiful gestural drawings, but she’s also creating these landscapes coming from those ideas. Mason is interested, at least in how I view it, in how different layers of visual stimuli can mess with your mind. I think it plays with the fallibility of our eyes. Gina is all about landscape, abandoned coal mines, constellations, mapping. Clay’s work is the landscape of the human body, and I think we’re all interested in natural phenomenon, and the beauty that happens from that.

 

Would you like to add anything else about the exhibition or these works? Any future plans for your work, or any upcoming exhibitions or other information you’d like to include?

Well, it was fabulous working with all of you, it was great. I think for all of our work, a lot of people are like “how do I experience this, what am I supposed to think?” All of those questions. You’re not supposed to think anything, just go to the work, relate with it, be with it, contemplate it, and you’ll get your own thing from it. All of us are creating from a specific place, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the answer. Because there’re obviously so many interpretations of all this work. They all have so many layers, and I would say just be with it. And then future plans, I might be going to Switzerland as a part of the International Student award, I don’t know about that yet. The only thing I have solidly planned is I have a show at the Greater Reston Arts Center in late December, where I’ll be showing with four other artists. Other things are in the works, but nothing solid yet.

 

Monroe Isenberg’s work is included in Media Lux at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from April 2nd through May 19th, 2018.

For more information on Monroe Isenberg, visit https://monroeisenberg.com/.

For more information on Media Lux and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.

 

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