Ted Lawson is a brilliant sculptor who resides in New York City, my hometown. I met him online through art dealer Emmanuel Fremin who told me he’d make a great subject www.tedlawson.com. He does indeed. He’s quite down-to-earth and approachable for someone so gifted. Check out our cool chat and see what I mean.
MICHAEL: Hey Ted! I'm always glad to chat with sculptors and you're certainly a talented one. Sculpture remains sort of a mystery to everyday people. It's so ancient and regal. What kind of reaction do you get from folks when you tell them you're a sculptor?
TED: Hey Michael, great to chat with you! When I tell people I'm a sculptor I almost always get the same question: "What medium do you work in?" I never really know how to answer. I think there's an expectation that as a sculptor, you will have some preferred material or craft to work within, which I actually do not. Part of my thing is to be able to work in any material (or use any technology) needed to finish the piece and push the concept. In general though, I think that most people think that being a sculptor sounds cool because the experience of actually making things from raw material is becoming more and more alien to most people's daily lives. Almost everything else that we do is either bought pre-fab or happens online, so sculpture-making seems almost exotic at this point.
MICHAEL: It's difficult enough to create in 2D on canvas or paper, but to create a 3D representation of anything must be a real challenge. What's the whole process like? What kinds of thoughts and emotions run through you?
TED: One of the things I enjoy about making sculpture is that it requires using every part of myself to finally get to the object. The technical side is massive. One part of the studio practice I have been creating is having the ability to take objects in and out of virtual space seamlessly. So I might sculpt or cast something, then scan it in 3d into the computer and then carve it in a material using CNC (robot) mill etc. To make the kind of work that I am interested in requires a full knowledge of chemicals, materials, tools and mechanics and understanding how it all fits together. For me, all this is actually the easy part, because it’s really just pure problem solving and I can geek out on the logic of it all (with my excellent art assistants) while trying to find the most elegant solution. The greater challenge of the work is that it gets very personal. Concepts are an emotional rollercoaster because they require taking huge risks, exposing something about who I really am or how I see things. When I work figuratively, I often involve people who are very close to me as the models or the muses for the subject. At many stages of the work, I am not sure if it is going to come across at all the way I had intended and the stakes always keep going up, because no matter how much time and effort (and money) has been invested, it can easily add up to absolutely nothing. I often find myself alternating between hilarious delusions of grandeur and pure crippling self-doubt within the span of minutes. I do tend to be amused by it all, but still, I’ve never really gotten used to that sensation of vertigo that comes when I get close to finishing something. Somehow, the work usually turns out strikingly similarly to what I had originally imagined - when I was completely inspired by just the pure idea, but it never gets there exactly the way I thought it would.
MICHAEL: Let's assume you've got the materials, money, time and the staff to pull off a project. How important are attitude and vision to the process?
TED: Well, there’s an initial moment when committing to a project where the only thing that matters is vision and attitude. You can put everything else together later, but what makes an idea exciting is that you don’t fully understand it and maybe can’t even visualize exactly what it looks like or what materials or techniques you will need to use to get it done. I never start with a perfect rendering and then set out to make that exact object because then what would be the point? For me, making sculpture is often about accepting heinous amounts of ambiguity and then turning that into some kind of sublime specificity. After you’ve gone all in and have fully committed to the project, there are many stretches of time where you can just zen out and focus on the tasks at hand or deal with the economics of the work. At the very end of a piece though, you have to put the thing down and stop trying to make it more perfect or it will never get finished. Having a deadline is really the only way for me to do that because I tend to obsess endlessly over small details and keep upping the ante on what I think equals perfection, but when I know that my time is up I have to say - fuck it, it is what it’s going be; And that’s usually a relief.
MICHAEL: Do you think Michelangelo or Leonardo ever said that? Seriously. I mean, as inspired as they were, they were still human beings.
TED: To even venture a guess about what Michelangelo or Leonardo were thinking would be purely me making shit up, which I'm clearly not above doing. So I'd say: Yes, they experienced all of those same issues, (even the part about the 3D scanning and milling. They just did it using the analog version). Of course, art existed in an entirely different context back then, so not every comparison holds up. I have often wondered if they wouldn't be completely horrified by the art world as it exists today. I tend to think that they would still be recognized as geniuses if they had to start their art careers in 2012. That’s just based on pure vision and talent alone, but the standards of art theory and critique are so completely subjective now that you never know.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I don't love speculation either. However, I asked the question because I think they had fewer distractions and at least their societies had a greater understanding of the importance of art and those guys had perhaps a bit more support. You think they might be horrified by the art world today. What do you think of the art world today? Pros? Cons?
TED: Personally I love the art world. I've spent my entire adult life deeply immersed in it. Though, calling it the "art world" still sounds funny to me because that somehow implies that it's an actual place, I tend to see it more as a vast meandering conversation that's been going on for quite a long time, probably as long as people have been communicating. In fact, the oldest surviving references we have to our humanity are a few small sculptures and some cave paintings from over 40,000 years ago (the archival-ness of those objects always impresses the hell out me). I think that just the effort to add something relevant to the conversation, on any level, actually makes me feel connected to the world and to being human. For that I am deeply grateful to be a part of it. I will say that there have been many times over the years that I have also felt deeply cynical about the whole thing; the blatant commercialization, re-purposing, the ego cluster-fuck and brutal shallowness that is always looming have occasionally left me feeling somewhat disgusted and conflicted about how to proceed. However, at some point, I made the conscious choice to just stop worrying about it all and fully embrace the art world as it is. That's when I feel like I started making my best work, because really it's now, more than at any other time in history, that you can make any kind of art you want … as long as the work presents a strong enough case for itself.
MICHAEL: Why is that? Do you think it's because of the Internet?
TED: This was all coming long before the internet pushed us over the edge. You can only be so post, post-modern contemporary etc, before the idea of specific art movements in time becomes completely irrelevant. Cubism was a huge movement at one point and now it looks totally quaint to me, like disco was for music. It permeated everything for a while (even the Rolling Stones made a few hardcore disco songs). There were once serious and very heated debates raging about the distinction between figurative vs. abstraction that now seem impossibly silly to me. The internet is the last nail in the coffin because all of the information is there and is available all the time. It's an endless swirling mass of chaos, so you just grab whatever you want from the past, present or future and ignore everything else. It's all abstraction anyway. The only objective is to find a good context for it.
MICHAEL: What you've just said is so incredible - really the WAY you've said it. The near complete democratization of art. Now all we have to do is convince the public!
TED: Well, I don't think I'm saying that art is becoming more democratic. In fact, I think it has become far less democratic as it gets more subjective. When there is no clear automatic metric or agreement for what constitutes artistic value, then the influence is shifted to an even more exclusive group of people to create that value, because it is not inherent in the craft or the materials or even the nature of the concepts. The value of art is now almost entirely in the contextualization of the object which is and has always been tightly-guarded territory and must be fought for. This idea bothered me for while, but as I said, I finally just embraced it. Fortunately, it doesn't prevent me from making sculptures that on the most direct, tangible levels can be understood by just about anyone, regardless of how intellectually sophisticated the work is meant to be. As soon as one encounters an object in real time they establish a direct relationship to it without even thinking. I try to exploit this time as much as possible, often by just seducing the viewer in with good craft and then letting the content resonate (sometimes with contradictory or morally ambiguous issues). If an object cannot be summarily dismissed within the first two seconds, then it's possible to permeate surprisingly far into someone's consciousness. Objectively, I want the viewer to actually feel something on a personal level. Still, how much of this affects the actual value of the work is hard to know. It's definitely not a democracy though. Maybe that's actually a good thing.
MICHAEL: Your work is fantastic. You're really stretching the boundaries and perception of what sculpture can be with “Entropy,” “Femur” and especially “Eve.” And I absolutely love, “Mortality is a Myth.”
TED: Thanks. With my most recent work, I wanted to create a number of pieces that represented entirely different ideas about the figure as idealized form, but with each one having some tangential relationship to the other objects in the show. I started this body of work with Eve, which began as a narrative idea about portraiture as a range of physical possibilities, rather than as a frozen moment in time. It ended up becoming more about physical body fetishes for me. Some people thought I was making a cultural or political statement about fat and skinny and though I'm pretty much open to any interpretations people have, I'm much more interested in presenting the shared existential experience over a specific political opinion. I knew that men and women would read the piece differently and that it would force the question of personal insecurities and desires, but also that everyone would have their own personal take on it. In general, I like starting with heavily loaded objects or subject matter, then dialing it back slowly through the process until it becomes almost completely open-ended in as many different directions as possible. The place I always want to land with the finished work is some kind of warm indifference, which is how I imagine the universe sees us. However, when sculpting each of the 8 figures in their various states of fat or skinny, I wanted to imagine each one as being completely sexually attractive, which is much more challenging at the extremes. Still, I know that any one of those figures is the ideal for someone and I wanted to give them that.
MICHAEL: You know, I have yet to interview a single artist who doesn't mind people having their own views of their work. However, many educators, docents or critics would have you believe there's only one or two ways to interpret things. If the views are hideously off base, then I'd understand, but still…
TED: Yeah, but it's really all in the game isn't it? Any artist who doesn't like having people form opinions about their work has chosen a very inconvenient lifestyle. Opinions are a funny thing though, because everyone thinks their own is super-important, which it may not be. Most people are already extremely strange creatures to me, and yet, almost everyone is hiding the exact same craziness right below the surface. Getting someone to reveal themselves through their views of your artwork is one of the most interesting parts of having a show. Those hideously off-base comments are often my favorite, because they are just so weird (and usually dark), yet sometimes quite illuminating. One place where the internet has clearly democratized the art world is that online, everyone's opinion has the potential to become as valid as anyone else's. A little off-handed blog that some art student writes about you may end up at the top of a Google search for your name. The end-result is the illusion that no one's "expert" opinion is particularly more important or valid then anyone else's. I think this may be a bad thing, like dunking your cup of coffee in the ocean before drinking it. I tend to like my art theory served up by professionals, but perhaps the hive-mind knows things that none of us can understand individually (I still have my doubts). Either way, I enjoy the constant tension between the institutions that run the show and the barbarians desperately storming the gates. Art gets hijacked all the time, but still finds a way to stay immune to too many outside influences. It's really impressive if you think about it. Once I have finished a sculpture, I really don't care anymore. It's already out there. When I'm in the middle of working something out, the wrong comment at the wrong time can truly fuck things up. A small bit of encouragement always goes a thousand times farther than that "well intentioned" nugget of art-criticism before something is finished. So, you have to be careful who you let into your studio.
MICHAEL: You have to be careful who you let into your email even! Isn't it great how some sculpture, yours included, has evolved into something that isn't just old school classical like David? David is cool, but so is artistic license. I guess without Michelangelo there would be no Ted Lawson.
TED: Wow, that's going back 500 years. A lot of other stuff has happened since then, but yeah, I went through a huge Michelangelo phase when I was studying abroad in Florence as a college student. Lately, I've been much more drawn to the works of Bernini. Who knows why? However, in general, I'm much more influenced by artists of my own time, because we are doing it right now and much of that conversation is totally interesting to me. Still, Michelangelo is clearly one of the greatest artists who ever lived, so his massive shadow is duly noted. Though, the fantasy of the Renaissance master genius no longer adds up to the same thing in 2012. It just doesn't mean the same thing in our culture to be that guy. Again, I can only wonder if Michelangelo would even want to be an artist in the current art world. Ultimately, we have to create our own fantasies that fit this time and live with those. There really is no going back.
MICHAEL: Yes, apples and oranges. You know, I must admit that I often find sculpture frustrating. I absolutely love it, but just by virtue of cost, time and display space required, it's simply out of reach for most people. This must also be tough for sculptors, unless Russian billionaires are snapping up your work.
TED: Hmmm, OK. There are always the smaller-edition works or wall pieces, but I see your point (and I was recently commissioned to make a few large-scale works for a billionaire, but he's an American, not a Russian). I do also paint and draw. It's amazing how much less expensive paintings are to make and how much easier they are to sell, but still, I've always enjoyed making sculpture the most.
MICHAEL: I'll get to your paintings in a moment, but I was just looking at “Organism 1,” the white sculpture that looks like ... well ... an organism. It's gorgeous. You could do a whole series on that.
TED: Well actually, Organism 1 was originally designed to be part of a series. Right before 9/11, I had this idea to create a cult that was based around an art project. I came up with “Project Organism” which was intended to be a sculpture that could continue to grow indefinitely as more and more people invested in it. It was initially designed as a catalog of abstract forms that were all different, but could connect together and were created using the same set of rules: Forms can have no creases or holes, if a form looks too much like a representational object, then something must be cut off and rounded over until doesn't look like anything specific and when viewed head-on, each protruding form must have perfect symmetry. I recruited a friend (Mike Kervel) to partner up with me on it and somehow we managed to get Commerce Bank to offer us nearly $1 million to sponsor us. It seems a bit amazing given today’s economy, but in those days outlandishly expensive art projects presented by completely un-tested artists were much more viable. Then, a week later, 9/11 happened and the city went to hell. Needless to say, it completely ruined our cult. I think the guy from Commerce who had signed off on the project got laid off, the funding evaporated, Mike and I both kind of lost our minds and the whole thing ended up in boxes.
MICHAEL: Wow. That’s a bummer to say the least.
TED: Six years later, I took it out of the boxes just to look at it. Coincidentally, on that same day, my friend Shelter Serra happened to bring his famous uncle Richard to my studio. I was totally embarrassed to show it to them, because I thought it looked terrible and I didn’t even have time to put it all away. Richard surprised me in that he not only liked the forms, but graciously offered to buy a few of them. On one hand, I was so excited that Richard Serra liked something that I had made, but suddenly I felt like I had to start working on the whole project again which I totally had not intended to do. Still I didn’t finish or show Organism 1 until this year. It only took a decade. Maybe at some point I’ll complete the project as it was originally designed. I still think it’s a cool idea, but you really never know what’s going to happen.
MICHAEL: That would be really be cool. Love that project. Quickly about your paintings - to me, your paintings look like you're exploring what you can actually do with paint.
TED: A lot of my work has been about exploring my own completely fantasized models of the universe. I'm not trying to approach it from the perspective of actual science or science fiction (both of which I am interested in), but mostly as a way to explore my own delusions about what I assume the universe looks like (which I likely picked up from the Discovery Channel, or movies - certainly from the internet). I remember seeing photos taken from the Hubble Space Telescope of these huge colorful clouds of gas that were supposed to be light years across in deep space, birthing billions of stars and I thought they were the coolest images ever - until someone told me that the colors had been added later in Photoshop! I still think they are quite cool, but that made me realize how much I assume I know based entirely on special effects. This idea got me playing with lacquer paints by dissolving them with various super-toxic solvents, without using any brushes, then letting the paint create naturally occurring forms. It's a very slow, hypnotic process of layering the colors to find a good balance between the paint as a liquid and freezing the image at the best possible moment. I'm still very conscious of the composition even though I have to give most of the control over to the material. After enough layers are built up, heavy textures start to form and colors begin to appear from underneath surface through the cracks. It reminds me a lot of geology forming at high speed. A number of attempts had to be tossed out because they just built up too much material and were so thick with lacquer that they lost their surface integrity and essentially became mud. The few that made the cut all had to evoke something that I recognized from somewhere, maybe high-detail satellite photos or images from space, but not in any specific way. Really, they are only meant to be paintings of paint. Pure abstractions. Ultimately, I see them less as paintings and more as objects because they aren't really images of anything at all, just what the viewer sees in them.
MICHAEL: Ted, we could go on and on about your work. We haven't even touched on the work you do for other artists. However, we obviously wanted to focus on you. We can talk about your other work some other time. In closing, what do you ultimately want your work to express?
TED: Thanks Michael, not that I don't acknowledge my prior history as a professional art fabricator, but that is definitely a whole other conversation. It's funny, but when I try to think about the answer to your question, I realize that I make work to specifically NOT have to answer it. It's entirely about what one cannot (or would not) say using words. It has to be that particular object at that particular time. I actually love writing and discussing art, but I do find it interesting that artists are expected to pontificate coherently about their work. Nobody would ever dream to ask a writer to make a coherent sculpture or painting about their essay or novel.
MICHAEL: Call me crazy, but I find this much more interesting than listening to actors talk about their movies!
TED: Regardless, each object has to contain all of that information without me and therefore it is the statement. The territories that I feel compelled to explore and where it all really comes from is still completely mysterious to me, even when I'm so deep in the process. In the moment, I am conscious of how it all might fit together, but ultimately, there is no formula for making a real work of art. Every piece is a huge risk on every level or I wouldn't even bother to begin. I prefer to tear it all open each time, as if I've never made anything before in my life and then see what materializes from nothing.
MICHAEL: Ted, I think this is the longest artist chat I’ve ever done, but it has been SO worth it. Peace Bro. Stay in touch.
TED: It's been a real pleasure chatting with you. Thanks so much for your questions and your kind words.
Want more? Still? Check out Ted’s website at www.tedlawson.com.