While we at the Artstroller have been busy indoctrinating a certain little one with endless rounds of Jingle Bells and a barrage of images of a chubby old man in a red suit, the art world has continued in its own frenetic, merry way, punctuated by boozy holiday parties and a few very interesting new exhibitions. Our favorite is Troy Stanley’s Concrete Spring at Barbara Davis Gallery, which represents a thoughtful (although aesthetically rich) counterpoint to all of this excess. Stanley’s work reveals itself in layers; it’s as though he allows us to keep turning up the resolution on a microscope. The artist was kind enough to grant us this interview, offering some intriguing information about his background, methods, and interests.
AS: When viewing the work, it struck me that you often mimic processes that occur in nature (breathing, growing, etc) by manufacturing very complex systems. Can you speak to how these ideas figure into your work?
TS: There are lots of ideas that float in my head, much too many to touch on all of them. I think the easiest explanation, although long winded, would be to look at who I am and where i’m coming from. In high school I was 99% sure I was going to pursue engineering. I looked at the world and machines as simple systems in complex ways. Everything becomes science, math, physics, mechanics, and solutions to problems. I got to college and took a few engineering classes and decided that it wasn’t for me. Too many rules and too many numbers. So I made the most illogical switch I could and went into to Pre-medicine. Now everything was biology, chemistry, micro-biology, anatomy, physiology, bio-chemistry, genetics. Now everything is complex systems being reduced down to simple analogy and metaphors. Skeletal systems being described as levers and pulleys (its way more complicated than that) and complex cellular processes like ATP synthesis and glycogen production (don’t worry I wont get into that) being described like how a factory operates as an assembly line. Engineering was bottom up increasing complexity, bioscience is something so incredibly complex that top down is the only way to kinda understand it. I stuck with that for a while but then I switched my major again to nursing so throw in about 12 courses of psychology and sociology into the mix. Long story short got into a really good nursing school one day and the next I was calling my parents to tell them I was going to be an artist. When I started really trying to make work I was carving spines/bones out of wood, playing with test tubes and petri dishes, and concurrently I was exploring geometry and using string to explain mathematical problems. Eventually these two polar things kind of merged to something in the middle. I think maybe it arose out of a confusion and an increasing inability to tell life apart from objects. If you really start to look at the world around us, particularly Houston, and if you really try and understand and try to define whats happening in say plants hedges along a sidewalk acting as a bollard for pedestrians, or a tree in the middle of a parking lot acting as some pseudo shade spot you can start to see a shift. These living things are used as 90% functionallity to some end so they become reduced to something akin to an object. At the same time dropping your cell phone on the ground and wiping the memory doesn’t really fit the requisites for saying its just broken. Photos erased, call history gone, notes to yourself lost forever and its not as simple as replacing the broken gear. More often then not people say their phone “died.” Death is a pretty big word for something technological, but thats kind or where we are at. Genes patented as intellectual property and refrigerators ordering groceries while printing out recipes. Somehow life and objects switched places. I try to make work (at least the mechanical objects I pursue) that is about as close as I can get to in between a living thing and an object without fully tipping in either direction. Im always looking for a shift in the way the viewer sees something. For example Ill try and and take the action of paper shredder cutting recycled paper and present it in a way that would change a viewers way of looking. Maybe for an instant the viewer may notice the space is filling up so its kinda growing, but in fact its deconstructing and cutting paper. So Its not enough to have a paper shredder cut a piece of paper and call it a plant so ill try to find forms that will bring it closer to the shift. Change the paper color to green and turn the electrical cord into a macrame plant hanger and It starts to fullfil the pre concieved notions the viewer has.. When I get it to that in-between zone then it becomes interesting and the object becomes a neutral entity that can help define what a plant is and what a paper shredder can be. In a way its like approaching the uncanny valley, but with objects. The hope of that work is to break down the viewers schemas of their both natural and manmade environment, and to redefine those constructs into something that reconnects them to a world where they are part of nature rather than at opposition to it.
AS: You are the kind of sculptor that works in whatever medium the piece requires. The thing that seems vexing (from the outside looking in) is the need to master new processes for each piece. Were there any esoteric processes you had to learn to complete this show?
TS: A lot of this show was very material centric. I chose materials that had history, many of them were at one time thriving living things and at some point they just became stuff. 99% of the time we experience our urban life so far removed from origins, from the seeds, you put a price tag on something and it puts it into this other system, a human system. I find that dangerous to our existence. Its easy to take things that are precious for granted, its easy to say its just paper, its just oak lumber, its just a thing. I try to see the origins and I see forests, I see birds making nests, I see ecosystems as vibrant and perplexing as nature itself. In a way I owe it to the materials, or now-materials as I would call it, to bring out something important, to cause a shift in the ways of seeing, to bring them back to life if only for less than an instant. Its only then that my ideas come through, or at least get closer. To get to that point often requires a lot of struggle and a ton of problem solving. You are right about it being vexing, but I feel the ideas merit overcoming those obstacles. For this show I worked with a couple of crotched table cloths that I dipped the bottoms in a tub of fabric dye. Over the course of a few weeks the dye would wick up into the table cloth and slowly separate out the pigments into greens and eventually yellow like flowers. Everyday I had to spray it down with a spray bottle like I was watering a plant to keep the dye traveling up. I have never done this before and I don’t think anyone ever has, or at least posted it to google. Its a scary way of working where you know that it should work, but it takes a lot of faith and a lot of luck. Modifying a paper shredder to cut backwards with a 2000ft roll of paper is awkwardly a little easier to handle.
AS: You’re building an interesting public art resume. (Burning Man, recycle trucks, etc) What is it about working in that arena that interests you?
TS: I’ve started working more in public art realms, just because it seems the most fitting to who I am. I have a ton of interests, I love working with many different materials, electronics, visual language, architecture, science, engineering, and other specializations. I guess I get bored easily and I need projects that are beyond me to keep me interested and keep me going. For many artists, their practice keeps them behind closed doors and that gets really lonely. Public art offers an opportunity to engage a project with other people and to new viewers that might not spend as much time looking and thinking about art as artists do. Burning man I made lifelong friends and partners working on that project, it was probably the hardest thing I will ever do, but it was a challenge that we managed to overcome and succeed. I would probably never, never, ever do a project out there again, but the people I will work with definitely in the future.
AS: If you were stranded on an island with one tool, (and you had to make art on that island), what tool would it be?
TS: Haha you might like this one. This is how my mind works, I read this and instantly knew that I would bring a culture of this bacteria called Sporosarcina pasteurii ( I had to look up the name but ive been researching it for a while). But it is a culture of bacteria they are using to calcify common beach sand making it as hard as marble. They are looking into using it to stop desertification in Africa sahara or to make beach houses like permanent sand castles. You mix the bacteria with couple of common chemicals and some water and a little while later you have stone, or art, or more importantly a waterproof boat hull and a cast stone volley ball named Wilson. Gotcha