Marcie Miller Gross, Edge, 2005; cotton huck towels; dimensions variable
Courtesy Byron C. Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art, Kansas City
The following is excerpted from an e-mail interview between Kemper Museum Curator Elizabeth Dunbar and artist Marcie Miller Gross, October–November 2005.
Elizabeth Dunbar:For the past several years you have been making works from used bath and hospital towels, surgical towels, and clothing, all of which bear traces of human contact. The embedded histories in the textiles were an important element in the resulting works. In foldoverfold you are using new textiles—white, pristine, and straight from the box. What brought about this change? Is it a purely formal decision, or is it a conceptual transition for you, as well?
Marcie Miller Gross: As with the majority of my work, I believe that the response to a space or context should be a merging of both the conceptual and formal. My typical working process involves exploring what I see as the essence of a place, examining the physical, the emotional, and the conceptual elements that speak to me within a space. For example, in a recent installation I did within the lobby of a self-storage facility, I constructed the sculpture of used clothing from a nearby thrift store, as a means of conceptually and emotionally connecting with the function of the facility and the people of the surrounding neighborhood.
As this exhibition at the Kemper Museum approached, I considered what might be the most intriguing ideas and essential qualities within this place. I determined that the architectonic conditions of the gallery space—its whiteness, the cathedral-like ceiling, the quality of light in the building, the angles throughout—and the spatial experience create a contemplative, spiritual environment.
During that consideration I came upon the cotton huck towels that I have used for this body of work. They are quite similar to the blue surgical towels from previous work and are also for medical and dental use. I became interested in their ambiguity of origin and use; they seem to exist somewhere between the domestic and the industrial. Their papery, crisp, starched flatness is fascinating in a formal sense, and there is a quality of purity and elemental materiality in them that seems to connect with my conceptual reading of the space.
I also became more interested in distilling the mark of the hand on the cloth. By stripping away the prior associations of the used textiles, I am trying to heighten the tension between the action of the hand, the act of folding, and the look of manufacture.
Seeing the works in your studio, I would guess you have truckloads of huck towels. How many have you used?
I am going on five bales, at twelve hundred per bale, so, approximately six thousand towels for the lot. It's hard to believe we have handled and manipulated so many, but I am primarily concerned with the overall mass and its visual weight, and not the significance of the quantity.
I find it interesting that the towels are manufactured in Pakistan but come from multiple distributors. In this way, they refer to the global distribution of labor and the far-reaching consequences of international commerce. Also, that the towels are white seems to speak volumes, especially in that there are various shades of white (perhaps a result of their origin in different textile factories).
It is interesting to consider the origin of the towels … something I have thought about while working with them, particularly as events have unfolded this fall in Pakistan, and the extreme human suffering and need resulting from the earthquake.
I am curious about the fold as a gesture, as an object, as an idea. When did you first start using the fold and how has it evolved over the course of your work?
I am interested in the physical action of folding as it focuses on order and repetition, and refers to the essence and gesture of domestic labor in a simple, daily activity. It is one of the most elemental tasks our hands learn as young children. There is something intriguing to me in the condensing, compressing, and reducing that results from folding, only to be opened up and released. The creases carry a memory of that activity and maintain the gesture of the hand. There is a sense of enclosing and containing a space within a fold. I also find parallels in Minimalism and abstraction, within the serial: pattern and repetition. There is a beautiful quality to a folded edge that seems to delineate in a precise, contained way.
I first used folded grocery bags in my work about ten years ago. They were densely layered and compressed, building up blocks or units, and folded, because it was in their inherent character. As I shifted away from that material, several years ago, to towels, it just seemed the inherent way to build a form and structure of cloth. I wanted to work with a substance that is accessible and universal because of its contact with the human body. We all have intimate associations with towels and there are multiple domestic references that I am interested in exploring … like some of the mundane, meditative aspects of folding laundry, or the way they are organized and displayed in stores.
Within this exhibition, I have been interested in how a form evolves from the edges, and folds and selvages, and how that accumulation dictates a bump or curve, or makes the form topple, and adds to its tension and precarious nature. I have also become particularly interested in a more refined density of folds, creating a tighter mass structure. The manufactured towels in this exhibition have a starched quality that allows for a more precise fold, as well as more ambiguity between the domestic and the industrial.
You mention that as children we learn to fold. I would add that children are also immediately drawn to stacking (put some blocks or Legos in front of them and away they go!), the other primary gesture in your work. Do you find these actions to be playful in some way? I would suggest that these childlike gestures add a bit of levity to otherwise psychologically loaded materials, such as hospital and surgical towels.
Absolutely. I also have two kids whom I have watched build with lots of Legos and blocks. I guess I really hadn't seen my own actions as playful, but they are, as well as elemental. Do you know the book Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman? It's a pretty interesting look at the German roots of the earliest kindergarten program, and the exercises or “gifts” that were taught. It was based on Froebel's gifts, which included activities such as block building, stitching, folding, cutting, weaving, modeling with clay, parquetry, and drawing. What I find really interesting are the parallels they show with the work of Paul Klee, Frank Lloyd Wright, Piet Mondrian, Le Corbusier, and many others.
I can't help but also think about children's diapers when I see these works. Like diapers, the towels are cotton, white, and square. Do you think your children are creeping back into your work?
Certainly there are parallels and crossover of experiences, events, and aspects of my daily life, my domestic life, that find their way into my work, sometimes very intuitively and unconsciously. I am often intrigued by the mundane and ordinary, and look for the extraordinary and poetic within that. I find a compelling tension in the intersection of these dualities. I did do a fair amount of washing and folding cloth diapers for a few years there, and remember at the time, thinking how distinct they were … their soft, stacked white bulk.
One of the most striking things about the work in foldoverfold is its allusion to landscape and topography. The floor pieces, in particular, read as strata with a hollow core; they seem to refer to some of your earlier works that incorporated earth and other natural elements. Is landscape a primary concern in your work, even when highly abstracted?
I have been interested in the relationship of space and place, environment and landscape as long as I have been an artist/designer, so I think it is inherent in my sensibility. Whether focusing on an interior space or an object, I often emphasize a horizontality and incremental building of layers that creates the notion of geological strata. This process of making goes back to my work in graduate school, and earlier work with hand-woven textiles. At that time, I also became very interested in land and environmental art.
You have trimmed the edges off of all the towels (except for the floor works), so that, in a sense, they are borderless and uncontainable. I get the same sense from the accumulations—that they could extend infinitely across space, as well as up and down. The relationship between material and structure seems completely unified. Was this part of your intent?
It was a big decision to cut those two edges off! Mainly because of the additional labor involved, but it also alters the integrity of the towel itself. It was a decision of function; otherwise, the towels could not stack evenly, but it is an interesting insight that they are “borderless and uncontainable”… The two pieces, Intersection and Edge , are intended to suggest a continuum, almost like the x , y , z axes. And, an ongoing, underlying concern in all of my work is the integral relationship of substance and structure, and how that influences its conceptual underpinnings. I experiment with many different structural possibilities and it's an ongoing challenge to find the balance between a simple structure, its formal and poetic qualities, and its conceptual direction.
One of the most critical aspects of your artistic practice from the past few years is how you utilize space, how you engage and activate it through the specific placement of works in the gallery. For you, these are very controlled decisions that result from an exhaustive study of the architectural environment.
In making site-responsive work, I always find it an interesting challenge to project an idea through sketches, models, and mock-ups. Until the work is actually installed and complete, I have to trust my reading of the space. The very nature of my work responds to the specific conditions of a site, so looking at it within my studio isn't necessarily an accurate predictor. Early on in my working process, I study the floor plan, elevations, circulation, axial lines, the spatial experience—how it feels—to get as close to knowing the space as I can, while also looking for clues that might trigger a specific idea. Simultaneously, I set all that aside to intuitively explore materials and form, and then I go back and forth between drawings, looking more closely at the relationship of the two.
As I examine a space and its relationship with the interplay of objects, I also consider aspects of repetition, emptiness and form, mass and void, weight and weightlessness, equilibrium and imbalance, compression and releas e. Within these very physical qualities I find parallels in the physical states of the body and the human condition. This interest in the experiential and psychological aspects of space has led me to explore ways of articulating and understanding abstract space. For example, I have recently been interested in the Japanese concept of ma , which combines the sense of place and time in spatial intervals, extending to an underlying structure within arts, music, architecture, and drama.
Coincidentally, your husband worked with Latvian architect Gunnar Birkerts on the original design for the Kemper Museum. What were some of the advantages/challenges you encountered while working with this particular, unusual space?
For me the most intriguing and dynamic quality of the Kemper's gallery space is the varying ceiling heights shifting from 9 to 23 feet in height. Because of the extreme height, the space feels simultaneously huge as well as somewhat intimate. My response to the space contrasts the fractured geometry of the design through the placement of simple dense forms and planes. The contrasting dense planes/forms on the wall and floor accentuate the ceiling line, while holding the spaces between as important as the objects themselves.
I was originally trained in design and interior architecture, and spent several years in that profession before going back to school to pursue art. As an artist and maker, I think this background in interior architecture has informed my creative philosophy and sensibilities in a fundamental way. Increasingly, my work and my focus have become more site specific and responsive to place. My interest in architecture is ongoing, particularly in the minimal work of architects such as Peter Zumthor, Samuel Mockbee, and Tadao Ando, for their restraint of form and geometry, elemental materiality, and contemplative nature. For quite some time, I have also been interested in many artists of the 1960s that worked in the movements of Land Art, Minimalism, Arte Povera, and Mono-ha.
I have long been fascinated with the Kemper Museum building from seeing some of the early conceptual drawings (from my husband's work on the competition entry) and particularly Birkerts's interpretation of organic expression. I am also aware of the early influence of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto on Birkerts, which this building seems to reveal. So the chance to respond to this building with my own work is an incredible thrill.
Marcie Miller Gross was born in 1958 in Kansas City, Kansas. She received her BFA from the University of Kansas and her MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She currently lives and works in Kansas City, where she has had several solo gallery exhibitions. Her work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions, including shows at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls; Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas; the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, Missouri; and the Salina Art Center, Salina, Kansas, among many others. This is the artist's first solo museum exhibition.