Look, Don’t Touch: A Conversation with Joshua Reiman, Interview by Lewis Colburn

Look, Don’t Touch: A Conversation with Joshua Reiman

Interview by Lewis Colburn

Joshua Reiman is an artist working in sculpture, film, video and photography. He has exhibited widely in the US as well as in Germany and Estonia. Reiman holds an MFA in sculpture from Syracuse University and a BFA in sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute. He is currently based in Pittsburgh, PA, where he teaches at Carnegie Mellon University.

Glass Houses, Reiman’s solo show at NAPOLEON, consists of five sculptural works, each contained in a vitrine made by the artist. The vitrines house objects ranging from a Kaiser roll carved in Carrara marble, to a cast-iron bust of Henry Clay Frick, to a miniature version of Brancusi’s Endless Column and a gold-plated cast-bronze matzo cracker. Using visual puns and juxtapositions, the works deal with weighty issues through the lens of humor.

In conjunction with Glass Houses, NAPOLEON will present a screening of four films by Reiman at AUX Performance Space on Saturday, November 7th at 7pm.

The following is excerpted from a conversation between Joshua Reiman and NAPOLEON member Lewis Colburn. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Lewis Colburn: We’ve looked at all five works for the exhibition, but I want to hear about some overall connections between the five. What ties them all together and makes you want to show them as one body of work?

Joshua Reiman: I’m interested in discrete ideas presented in these vitrines. I think what makes them coalesce is the term glass houses, and the idea of what a vitrine represents. I’ve been curious to see if I could present my work in a format where disparate ideas are tied together through visual tactics that are often used in museums. I’m thinking about natural history museums, or scientific museums, where you see a display of items you’re not allowed to touch. The objects become important because they are displayed in this manner.

LC: Earlier you were talking about the duality of the pun. I’ve seen you use puns before, but knowing your work, you also have a sense of the absurd. Could you talk in broad strokes about the role of humor in your work?

JR: Well, I love to laugh. I think that humor is a great entry point for any of these pieces. A lot of my work relies on laughing first, and then the more you think about it, the more you realize it could take you to an opposite emotion, similar to the way a pun operates. Puns invite and repel at the same time.

One of the films I’m going to show at AUX, The People, comes from stereotypes of Native Americans in sports imagery. A lot of people laugh at that work when they first see it, and then by the end they are disgusted, or crying, or unhappy with what this character goes through, or how Native Americans are portrayed as the ‘Hollywood Indian’ in sports stereotypes. I see a lot of these pieces riding that wave between humor and seriousness, maybe even back to the absurd. Along the way they reveal themselves through linked relationships that make sense. It’s a beginning to a conversation that we wouldn’t have had without these dualities.

LC: These works are pulling from so many different references- we have Henry Clay Frick, we’ve got Billy Joel, and we’ve got Brancusi. This seems like a really heterogeneous set of ideas. How do you arrive at these references? What’s that process for you?

JR: Well, I think they’re all different ideas. I never really work on a body of sculptural work. The Brancusi piece called The Bones is referencing Modernism. The piece has a simple title, but for me it refers to the bones of modern ideas, the bones of Brancusi, and the body as a base for modern form.

All of these pieces have transformed over time. With Cheese and Crackers, I was going to have everything cast in bronze. Then I realized, through talking with my wife Addy, that the Israel- Palestine conflict is a very real problem, and to have the real Palestinian cheese in the work, and to have the cast matzo plated in gold suggests that the country of Israel is precious facade, that made a lot of sense to me. If it was cast bronze cheese, then everything would be in the same relational value, and it’s not, because everything has different values, from the political to the actual land that’s in question by each side.

At the same time, I was really struck by Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin’s Palestinian version of their project Conflict Kitchen. They were addressing this very complicated subject through food. The project attracted death threats, hate mail, and social fallout, and when I stopped to think about it, really affected me. I was reading the New York Times every day, and hearing what has been going on in Palestine and Israel for so long, I wanted to say something about it. I thought that these two things could really go well together, these two countries, these two ideas, and that’s how I came to Cheese and Crackers, because cheese and crackers go together well. It seems like a lighthearted combination, but to have this real piece of Nabulsi (Palestinian) cheese rotting on this gold plated matzo on earth from Jerusalem is kind of fucked up. It allows us to see a conflict in a different way and discuss it again. It begs us to make these connections in other ways. People are dying daily in this struggle. It is not simple. This work asks us to consider the facades and the realities.

LC: There’s another thing that surprised me when you showed me the work today. There are a lot more things that are physically in flux than I anticipated. Henry Clay Frick’s mouth is going to rust away, the cheese is going to rot, and the block of cherry wood may be rotting. I think that’s an interesting tension with the vitrines. A vitrine is supposed to control something, lock it down and make it static. I didn’t know that was going on in the work so it’s a nice thing to discover.

JR: I’m interested in seeing something transform over time, actually mold or rot and fade away- I think it makes a lot of sense. Why does everything have to be static?

LC: Well it’s an interesting thing to think about, because historically sculpture is very much a static thing. You’re letting these things change. That actually ties into another question. One of the things that I think about with your work, and that made me excited to show it in the context of NAPOLEON, is that you’re also engaged with this very permanent set of traditional materials in sculpture- the bronze matzo, the bust of Frick in iron, the iron Brancusi bones, the roll, which is marble. To invert our conversation about flux, what draws you to those materials? You seem to return to these materials a lot, but they’re punishing materials- they demand a lot to work with.

JR: Between steel, marble, iron, and bronze, I find joy in working with traditional materials. There’s a deep history embedded in these materials. This is probably the third or fourth time I’ve worked with marble, and there’s a certain quality to it. You can see why sculptors historically used this material. It really does have a quality of translucence, like skin, where you can see multiple layers through the crystalline structure.

The idea of plating is also interesting to me- gold plating, 24-karat gold on bronze, it brings a certain sense of value to the work. What it takes to cast iron is very primal, but I also think of casting this bust of Frick on the site of an old US Steel plant, right across the river from where the Homestead Riots happened. These were the first major labor riots, where Frick called in the Pinkertons and killed a bunch of the labor rioters. So to actually create the sculpture of this hated guy on this site was really meaningful for me. I’m curious about how that will translate. If I include a list of materials, or have some sort of background; I cast this at this site, this is sand from Jerusalem or this is my mom’s Billy Joel record; these things have deep meaning for me as the maker. I wonder how far in front of the work these narratives will stand.

LC: You talk about the Frick bust like it’s sort of a conjuring- you’re doing this thing on a site that’s connected to him, and creating a form of the person. One thing that I think about is the recent Robert Gober show at MoMA. There’s a bit in the catalog [i]where it says he doesn’t use titles much, but he lists his materials, and that almost titles the work in a certain sense. I think that’s appropriate here. It’s not just any Billy Joel album that you went out and got at the thrift store. It’s your mom’s. Maybe the connection is a bit more laborious with casting Frick on the site of the US Steel plant, but I’m inclined to want to see these things, especially the sand. I think the sand is important for the matzo piece; that we know where this comes from.

JR: Yes, the sand comes from Jerusalem, from the Western Wall. This strip of land is often referred to as the “holy land”, and to have this plated surface to this cast bronze matzo is very important to my point. There are all these real materials- plated like fine cuisine, but Nabulsi (Palestinian) cheese is left to rot on this golden cracker sitting on earth from where this struggle really takes place.

LC: One other thing I wanted to ask about is place. You’ve been living in a lot of different places for the last few years, and you travel a lot to make your work. Seeing that you’re working with Frick, do you have a bigger sense about how the place where you are affects your work?

JR: That’s a great question and a really sensitive question to ask, because I’ve not really thought too much about that until moving to Pittsburgh and in making this work. A lot of the other work I’ve done comes from a sense of wonder and exploration, going to the edges of the earth to make something as opposed to seeing what’s right in front of your face. I often feel like, be here now, see what’s in front of you, and this show embodies that. A lot of ideas that come from being in Pittsburgh, especially Frick and Frack, and Cheese and Crackers.

Frick and Frack were Swiss ice skaters who did a comedy routine. People say ‘Here comes Frick and Frack’ meaning two incompetent or lazy people working together to get nothing accomplished. They just keep going back and forth, and that is what keeps you entertained, similar to Laurel and Hardy. So the ideas of Henry Clay Frick and fracking are brought together because of Pennsylvania and its politics. Two incompetent histories come together in this fountain, with a robber baron whose face is rusting away from throwing up fracking fluid. Fracking in my opinion is the worst possible thing we can be doing right now. The water in this region will be ruined. I’ve seen it first hand and it is beyond tragic.

Frick and Frack, 2015. Cast iron, coke, water, chemical bin, pump, steel, acrylic, and silicone. Photo by Tom Little.

Frick and Frack, 2015. Cast iron, coke, water, chemical bin, pump, steel, acrylic, and silicone.
Photo by Tom Little.

LC: I was excited about showing your sculptural works at NAPOLEON, and we’ll also be showing your films. I know they’re connected in many conceptual ways, but I want to hear you talk about the relationship between your parallel ways of working, film and sculpture.

JR: I used to make a lot of kinetic sculpture, especially right when I graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute. I was interested in creating narratives through moving parts, and then I realized I wanted to actually be in these sculptures, to become a character. There’s something about the cinematic experience that describes our relationship to a site and to objects in a different way. I think that experience can also happen, in this type of work, where you’re separated from these objects by the vitrine. It changes your perspective, similar to how a lens in a film can change your perspective. Hopefully the work aligns that way…changing perspectives.

[i] Temkin, Ann. “Robert Gober: An Invitation.” Robert Gober: The Heart is Not a Metaphor. Ed. Ann Temkin. New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2014. p.13. Print.

About the Author:

Lewis Colburn is an artist, and teaches sculpture at Drexel University, where he is an Assistant Professor. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a BA from St. Olaf College. Recent exhibitions include the Wind Challenge at Fleisher Art Memorial, and Other Selections at the Center for Art in Wood.

To read a PDF version of this essay, click Reiman_Colburn_Nov_2015

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