Nicholas Frank Talks to Ester Partegàs and Santiago Cucullu

I sat down with Ester Partegàs and Santiago Cucullu in the hour or two before their exhibition at the Lynden Sculpture Garden opened to the public. Knowing a bit about their work as individual artists, I dove right in to the particularities of their installation, Gos Sa Mer, which was fresh in their minds.

The reader will notice that during this interview the two artists often speak directly to one another, continuing their collaboration within the context of a conversation. The tone is sometimes fiesty or argumentative, but my sense was that they had developed a strong communicative bond—as one might expect, they sometimes finish each other’s sentences—and that despite their nearly opposite ways of working, they had found effective ways to share their ideas. The result, as can be seen in the accompanying photographs, is a cohesive exhibition. Partegàs and Cucullu succeeded in thoroughly combining their approaches in realizing Gos Sa Mer. Perhaps this interview can serve as a parsing-out of their distinct sensibilities within the one, grand work.

A few notes: Cucullu refers to the large rectangular structures in the Lynden Sculpture Garden gallery as “tubes,” while Partegàs calls them “beams.” The interview was conducted in the enclosed porch just off the lobby as the staff prepared for the opening festivities behind us. Sitting in this tranquil, sunlit space, between the interior gallery and the “gallery” of the sculpture garden, we often simply gestured and referred to “this” space (the inside) or “that” space (the Garden), terms that have been clarified throughout the interview. Lastly, the interview has been collated under subject headings for purposes of clarity, as the conversation bounced back and forth between these topics.

Nicholas Frank is an artist, writer and curator residing in Milwaukee. He currently teaches in the Integrated Studio Arts program at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, and was curator at the Institute of Visual Arts (Inova) from 2006-2011. He co-founded the Milwaukee International in 2006 and ran the Hermetic Gallery in Milwaukee from 1993-2001.

On the Context of the Lynden Sculpture Garden

Nicholas Frank: I’ve been thinking about two topics in relation to your work: monumentality, and the “public” versus the “private.”

Ester Partegàs: Both are there, in a way. Monumentality is interesting because lately it has been very much talked about in regard to sculpture, more historically with public art—that’s how it existed, it had to be monumental, right? Now it’s in the realm of installation and sculpture, but with a certain attitude, like an overpowering sculpture related with an economy, or a very masculine attitude.

But outside, nature is monumental. I think that’s what struck me here, that you have these
dualities all the time, with the sculptures in the background, in the landscape, but the more you think about [the sculptures and the landscape], the more they can be interchanged. That’s when the whole thing outside started to interest me.

Santiago Cucullu: Outside, the work is indeed monumental, but for me it’s always been
the essence of the way the grounds are landscaped. That really feels to me what the idea of monumentality is: this idea of a larger plan you can’t actually see; you can see a part of it but not the whole thing.

And in that regard I don’t see our work as very monumental. But inside [the gallery], these big “tubes” are the size they need to be to restrict access. At the same time they’re camouflaged, because they come in and out of the picture. In a sense they also start to replace people as people walk through, because with some of the photographs we took with people in the space, there’s one or two where you just start to see legs, and you see a “tube” cutting the top part of the person off. A sculpture dissects a person.

NF: Do you see the Lynden sculptures as replacing people [in the landscape]?

EP: A good question.

SC: I almost always see the di Suvero in back [Lover, 1973] with somebody standing next to it, and I think it’s actually not quite big enough. It is monumental, it is really heavy, but it’s maybe just three or four times taller than a normal person.

EP: So it’s not monumental enough, that’s what you’re saying? [laughs] I like the idea that [the sculptures] substitute for the people, in a way, because there are so many, each one has a personality. That’s how I started to see them. And some days you’re more drawn to certain ones, some days I’m only into the ones with red colors, and I don’t like the rest. Other days I start to see the rest and they have other features that are interesting.

NF: You’re saying it’s like a population, and they each have characteristics, territories. The rusty territory, the smaller-scale territory, some have more air and space around them. And then
also that play of scale…from my vantage point the flattened dimensionality—if you look at the Clement Meadmores in back [Upstart, 1967; Double Up, 1970] from nearby the Tony Smith [The Wandering Rocks, 1969] in front, they’re the same scale, on a purely visual, two-dimensional level. You’re hinting at that with the black-and-white flattening of the trees in your wallpaper, you lose the sense of scale, it becomes a kind of tangle, where the background and foreground get collapsed, and everything becomes part of the same plane. With this exhibition, are you making a comment about the scale and permanence of the monumental Lynden works?

EP: No, I don’t think we are entirely doing a critique of this type of [large-scale monumental sculpture]. I think on the contrary, we’re acknowledging this part of art history. I love Mark di Suvero sculptures, I know each city has one, but whenever I see one it’s something kind of familiar. I really like the scale of di Suveros because it relates to the body really well.

On the Installation

NF: I suppose what I’m seeing is a play of monumentality and anti-monumentality in the room. The “tubes” feel out of scale when you walk in the room, but then as you walk around them, you realize you could easily embrace one.

EP: Yeah, it was not so much the size of the beams, but that they had to be aggressive, to get in the way. Monumental in the sense that, especially for me, I needed to take over the space, the whole gallery needed to be this big installation, overwhelming. But then the materials are just photocopies, so cheap and accessible, very sincere materials, vinyl and photocopies….

NF: Easily-relatable materials? As opposed to Corten steel?

EP: Yeah, yeah.

SC: And you can see how we made it at every step, basically. Except perhaps for some of the engineering issues, in terms of the tubes, but otherwise you can see exactly how it’s cobbled together.

EP: So yes, it has both monumental and anti-monumental qualities.

NF: So in that sense again, the show isn’t meant to be a critique of the sculpture garden?

EP: No, it’s a dialogue.

NF: Do you see a sense of continuity, then, between the two?

EP: Not necessarily.

SC: It’s hard to say. I do, in the sense of—

EP: In a very general way.

SC: In the sense that some of these artists I see in the sculpture garden I love, I’ve become used to and I’m very familiar with their work, so it feels like a language I’m familiar with. At the same time I consider myself as working in two dimensions more often than not, so I see this [the “language” of the Garden] as not having anything to do with me, whereas you, Ester, see things in a completely different way.

EP: I think a lot about Mark di Suvero. Tony Smith is always there for me as a sculptor, as a reference. I wouldn’t say Henry Moore, so much, although of course he is.

SC: And then for me, my thinking comes around towards the fact that this [the gallery] used to be the living room, and then I think about paintings populating that living room, and I start thinking about landscape paintings and the way they represent a physical space…a kind of condensed version…and then you have all the space around it, which would be the living room, the chair, the people, and the sort of decorative quality of it.

NF: And do you see the sculptures here in a similar way?

SC: No, actually. I change my mind about their monumental possibilities, because they are so carefully taken care of. You really need a full-time fleet of people, whereas a painting, you just need yourself to dust it off.

NF: But I want to get at the essential difference, the essential qualities of difference between this [the installation] and that [the Garden]. You have these things, monumental sculptures—do they command their own space in a way that’s different from what happens in here? That this [the installation] gets domesticated and these [the outdoor sculptures] retain their authority?

EP: In terms of authority—I think that’s a funny word, but I would say that our authority comes in and out. So that your field of focus translates to either the thing in front of you which is blocking your way, or the way the space itself hypnotizes your eyes and confuses your orientation in the given space that’s very specifically defined by us. So we have our space—as opposed to the [decorative] fireplace part of the room—defined by certain decisions that we’ve made that alter the room so that you would be encompassed by this flat wall.

I think we’re getting out of the main question here, which is what’s the difference between inside and outside, in a very concrete way? I think the approaches are so different, right? Because these [outdoor sculptures] are singular standing pieces that have not been created in regards to
the context.

SC: Right, the artist made the work and then it was bought and placed here.

NF: Autonomous—instead of “authority,” let’s say they maintain their autonomy?

EP: Yeah, whereas here, inside, this is more a “project” than a sculpture or a painting or singular artwork. It’s a collaboration between two artists who have never collaborated before, and it’s a collaboration also with the Lynden Sculpture Garden, in a way. I think we have three [entities] working together here. And, the show is temporary, we are not trying to build something that will last and can be transported other places. It’s meant to be in situ, and in the form of a dialogue, a visual conversation with the place, and a proposal as well. So we are proposing a different space that has been inspired by the space outside. But we are also proposing a different kind of space, not just illustrating what’s outside.

SC: Our “third collaborators” were the other artists in the sculpture park, but I seem to remember you really being adamant about needing this very precise juxtaposition, and for me it was almost like I felt I could have used any juxtaposition.

EP: Well, I was the one proposing to include the park, the Garden as kind of a theme to start with, otherwise I didn’t know what to start with.

SC: Right, otherwise it wouldn’t have been as sharply defined for the viewer.

On Collaboration

NF: We’re getting at some of the differences, maybe not between this space [inside] and this space [outside], but between those objects [the sculptures] and your project, this kind of project. Like you say, the Lynden’s sculptures are not context-based, they’re built as autonomous things, and then they are given a context, or placed into a context. Given the play of contingency in your style of working, which means responding to the space, collaborating with the space around you, and with each other, in what ways did the project transform from your initial ideas to where you finally arrived? How much did it evolve?

SC: Well [to Ester], you set the parameters very clearly, and that was wonderful. The parameters were nature versus the manmade, or an idea of “nature,” whatever that can be, and however we can even start to talk about that, or even separate that from the possibility of fabricating an object that maybe is less related to the natural. Although I find this term [nature] really complicated in relation to this space [Lynden], because I don’t see it as natural at all.

EP: When I came here [during her first site visit in preparation for the exhibition], we had four days of pretty intense talking, a lot of asking “What are we going to do?” But early on—I am more the practical and conceptual one, I need to find a reason and concept to work from, and he’s more free-flowing, so I needed to have certain parameters—I needed to agree, to know why we were doing this, how, towards what? So I was the one organizing all the ideas into what I thought would be a more comprehensive—

SC: Well, it’s funny, too, because we had meetings before you came, also, before you had seen the space, in January, and we were talking about presenting the sky, or something? I think at some point you had presented this possibility of—

EP: But I wouldn’t count what we talked about before I arrived here.

SC: No, of course. But what I mean is, especially in your work, there is definitely a tie between that question of how man occupies the world, the natural world, and how he distorts that natural world, always. And that’s definitely a theme that I really enjoy, also. So when I had those strict parameters you would throw out…for example there was one moment where we were working on the collaboration when we knew that there’d be photos of trees, or of natural vegetation, and then we knew we’d need picture of these trees, and it was so easy to work within those parameters. Even “trees” became just sort of foliage, and then it became, “Actually, well, no it can’t be any tree, it can’t be any foliage,” it has to be a very local thing, from around this site, this space, and that would work here, so that it’s not necessarily imported.

Because I think a lot of the trees…I don’t actually know about this…whether the trees here have been collected and brought here from other places— [Editor’s note: the trees at Lynden were imported, and though many of them are local species, some are exotic.]

NF: You’ll notice that a lot of the trees are labeled with placards, so they’re very particular species. There’s as much a tree collection here as there is a sculpture collection.

EP: But that’s when the outside started to interest me, when I saw that the sculptures had this organic way of living, because they needed the maintenance, you constantly have to repaint them, and dust them off, and clean—it’s like taking care of something that you assume is a monument, and it’s like superpowers, right? Like, if superheroes would make sculptures they’d make these types of sculptures. And then you see the trees that also have labels like the sculptures, and they have characteristics and a history and a Latin name on the label, suddenly it’s like this dualism doesn’t really exist. It’s much more—

SC: One thing is like the other—

EP: Yeah, and that was for me the main—what I wanted to work with for the installation.

SC: This interconnectedness of things.

EP: This interdependence, connectedness, the web, that’s when the Gos Sa Mer name came. How can I express this webbing? This networking of different elements, that become—

SC: Different possibilities. It’s funny, you ask how did it change as we went forward, and really not much—I mean really the earliest visions of it…we had a checklist pretty quickly.

EP: I was the one saying “No, no,” and editing down a lot. Because he just goes, and goes—

SC: Right, I’ll put everything in. [To my mind] we could put this in and do this, we could put the Kandinsky [painting in the Lynden collection] in because the Kandinsky has the right kind of movement—

EP: If we had followed you more, it would have been something completely different, completely different.

NF: So then, can I ask you individually—you, Ester, mentioned being organized, practical, needing to be focused, having specific motivations, as opposed to Santiago saying, “I’ll put everything in,” or just opening to the available content and letting anything enter.

SC: Well, I wouldn’t paraphrase it that way.

NF: What I want to get at is how do you feel your practice as an artist was expanded or challenged by collaborating with Santiago, an artist you’ve never worked with before?

EP: In collaborating, I had to express my ideas verbally, every decision needs to be presented and described and defended. When you’re alone you don’t do that. So for me, it has been useful to stand up for my ideas, I’m more aware of my ideas, my process, because it has been in contrast with a different process. I’ve learned to negotiate, sometimes I felt that I had to defend my ideas very strictly, and other times I’ve been convinced by him that maybe something was not such a good idea. So I’m just more aware of my process of working. I guess we all assume naturally that’s how you work, but when you have to constantly be so over-conscious, self conscious over every step, every decision…

NF: Are there things you would have done that didn’t make it into the show?

EP: Yes, of course. This is half him, so mine would have looked different.

NF: Maybe a better question would be: Going forward, is there a voice you’re going to hear?
Will your internal editor have adopted one idea or phrase that Santiago presented to you during the course of your negotiations? What would be that thing that sticks with you, a different way for you to look at things?

EP: Maybe not, maybe not [laughter]. It’s been difficult. I’ve always had difficulty collaborating.

NF: I think collaborating is difficult—for people who have a sculptural sensibility, versus a writing sensibility, for example. I myself tend to take things as they are and comment o n them, whereas a sculptor looks at things and thinks about how to change them, how to transform things or space.

EP: I think a lot about transforming space. I cannot just plop a thing there. For me the whole place needs to be a revision, reorganized. I’m re-reading the whole space, so it’s a bigger enterprise somehow, at least physically. Maybe that’s the big difference between Santiago and me. He wanted to intervene only three-quarters into the room. I kept on it, every day I gained a foot [of space]. I’ve also learned that if I really want something, I just have to insist, insist, until the other person gets completely exhausted.

SC: It was such a good decision! The decisions you were suggesting, like to go higher [with the wallpaper, above the line of the picture rail molding in the gallery]—at first I was like, “No,” then you did it and it was so much better, so much better.

EP: You were treating the gallery as the dimensional surface on the wall, and I see the three dimensions, the ceiling, the floor. At some point I thought, “I don’t like this floor, I want to change the floor.” I see all that, you only see the wall.

SC: I was thinking of it in terms of views. The thing I started to really become enamored of was that physically, the sculptures push you one way or another. You go out of the room or into the room or back towards the natural dimensions of the fireplace, or through our world, towards the next agenda, which would be the house proper. You really get pushed through it. One thing that initially I loved about the earliest proposals was that the room in one sense was almost completely blocked. And then to navigate it, you really had to duck down, move over…and then while we were installing, somebody mentioned an obstacle course.

EP: Back with the question of my way of working, I think a good word for how he works, it’s very complicated to follow you as a collaborator, because you’re so impulsive. Every five minutes is a new idea, and it’s pure impulse. So, if I’m not you, how can I know? It’s really exhausting, in a way. So it seems as though I’ve been the hard one, holding the thing and saying no and editing down. But I think there’s no other way because obviously it’s your subjectivity to the extreme, and it’s impulse after impulse, and it drives someone crazy if he doesn’t have your same kind of direction.

SC: Well exactly, so I won’t enunciate what the impulse is from moment to moment. And you asked what things I would take with me from Ester’s sort of phrasing, Ester is really about pushing things towards their logical conclusion as much as possible, and being aggressive to get to that conclusion, and being very clear in the parameters of getting to that conclusion.

NF: Can I draw you towards the same question I asked Ester, which is in what way do you feel that your autonomous practice as an artist has been challenged or pushed or changed by working with Ester, and what do you think you might bring with you going forward?

SC: I guess I would say having those parameters be much more solid. You know, really questioning my impulses. Ester would critique a sort of decorative impulse that I might hold. And I’ve heard this before, too, “Don’t do that, that’s just a purely decorative move, you do it because it looks good.” Pure subjectivity, pure impulse. I actually think that’s often a very useful thing. It’s painful because it makes you very myopic, very shortsighted, but in that shortsightedness for me the edges become very clean, and very crisp. Whereas Ester’s point of view would be, no, you can’t hold that myopic perspective, you really need to consider a more open situation. One that you may not know yet.

On the Viewer

SC: Every time your focus shifts from one area of the room, it’s led to another area of the room. Whether because you’re walking through it and you have to pay attention, or because you’re looking and you become lost in what you’re looking at, or something in the foreground melds with something in the background. To sustain that space, that point of reference for the viewer, it’s very important to not have any part that makes the viewer go to that area more than another. There’s one thing that Ester brought up at one point in the installation, she was very clear that she didn’t want to have any particular point of view be more privileged than another point of view. And this is also something I’ve thought of a lot before, that I completely share. I’m in complete agreement with that.

EP: For me that’s always very important in general, to move out of theatricality, because this [installation art] can be so theatrical, a stage. But I think you can eliminate the stage, the make-believe, if you don’t hierarchize any point of view. Then you force the person to be active in the space, and it becomes more a cave or womb that you are in, not like a spectator, there is no distance, you are another element necessary to activate the volume of the space.

SC: Right, it adds agency to the viewer.

NF: I’m wondering about how you take private content, derive your content from private motivations, and then bring it into a more public zone where people can participate in it.

EP: This is what we talked about before, about subjectivity, and how you make your subjectivity shareable. But that’s one of the challenges of being an artist, that’s being an artist. Your own private vision and sensibility of the world, how do you make that make sense? But of course you’re not going to write a logical treatise, because you’re still doing it with visuals and sensory matter, colors, forms, shapes. But that’s the big question, how do you do it? So I always trust that how I see things, or my relationship with those things, is not that different from my fellow human beings. It’s just that I’ve chosen as my life project to express that relationship in a visual form.

I trust that it will be communicated and understood, but I also am very aware of what I call… I always relate it with scale…when I talk about ornamental or decorative, it’s basically saying what’s important, what’s not important. So I try to distill what I think is not important, which would be the more private and anecdotal things, that need a lot of personal explanation. I’m not into that. I’m not talking about me [in my work], I’m talking about a relationship with the world, as an artist, and that I think a lot of people have a similar one.

NF: Similar negotiations with the world. You’re giving those negotiations a form.

EP: That’s why when you read Shakespeare from hundreds of years ago, that’s why art lasts, because there is something very common there.

SC: One thing to the next. Which brings up this collaborative effort with the outside, the outside being the other sculptures in the garden. But one thing that was really interesting about the Gos Sa Mer project was really slowing down those private dialogues. The dialogue is not just an internal dialogue that one has and then thinks about and then solves, but it becomes really vocal, enunciated. Every move becomes enunciated. Which was really one of the things that you [Ester] were insistent upon from the beginning. You would say, “get it into writing,” or “send me a proposal, baby.” That’s a great, great line.

EP: He would call me with all these ideas, and I’d say, “I don’t understand. Send me a proposal, baby.”

SC: Meaning do a drawing of it, spell it out, enunciate it. And for me, it was great in that it slowed down so many movements.

EP: That’s what I was saying earlier, suddenly we become aware of our way of working that needs to be written down, articulated.

SC: But then it was also these other things [the individual works by Cucullu and Partegàs in the exhibition], definitely the [digital] paintings, and maybe you could talk about the t-shirts, too, because I see them occupying a similar space, in that I don’t think I’ve made a painting like these in ten or eleven years. And before that, it had been another decade. So it was a big question of moving into this abstract space. By myself I don’t know that I would have had the courage to do it? Courage is a weird word. Using the framework of the show became really liberating. For me it was this question of setting an arena for another person to react to, which is how I originally thought of the work as being made.

Another great thing about the collaboration was that there were several—what’s the word?—misunderstandings along the way, which was great because it made us renegotiate things, at every step take a few steps back, and reassess things.

EP: The misunderstandings were really interesting.

SC: The misunderstandings were really useful, which of course was the best part.

20 May 2012