The following is a series of excerpts from an ongoing conversation between artists Cyrilla Mozenter and Leslie Roberts. Their concurrent solo exhibitions will open at 57W57 Arts on Thursday, November 11.
Cyrilla Mozenter: This evening I managed to finish a piece. Bigger than what Ive been doing lately: 5 feet wide. I call it the present participle. (From Gertrude Stein. No matter how many times I read her, I always find new treasures.)
Leslie Roberts: I love the title and the piece. The shape OF it, together with the shapes within it. It is a bit like a creature, looking to the left. A friendly leviathan. Carrying others. On its way somewhere.
CM: It was kinda bogged downand then, boom, it came together. Now Im trying to take it in. Hmmmm. Lately, most stuff I make is hard for me to take in. It is not uninteresting but hangs together so oddly. Awkwardly.
LR: Odd in a very appealing way. Each piece is so idiosyncratic. Theyre scrappy, literally and in spirit. Irregular. Fewer rectangles and “classic” shapes. Things that desperately need all their parts to become a whole. It feels as if you put shapes together because they need to be together, without knowing yet what they mean. In a lot of these, no text or even letters offering clues. But interesting tension. More tension than off-balance.
CM: The tension of the stitches, in combination with the irregularity of the felt, subtly distorts and creates topographical fluctuations, which cannot be predicted. But seem lawful in hindsight. Which never ceases to amaze me.
I understand this as metaphor. In a certain strange way, this work makes itself. Which I obviously dont mean literally.
LR: A lot of these pieces look as if they are feeling out what that scrap of felt wants to become. They look especially open.
CM: This work strikes me as raw, but I sure like that you used the word open about it.
LR: I like the “surviving scrap” quality of this group. They may not look finished in a conventional senseirregular edges, loose threads. Or they look . . . informal? But theyre neither unfinished nor informal; some may be quite formal, depending how one means that word. They aren’t heavy, but some have a lot of gravitas. Others are at first unassuming, but memorable and sometimes endearing in that very quality. They are finding a form through process, one that was unknown previously. They are carefully considered and evolved. Every part, however it arrived there, is seen and accepted.
CM: I started sewing in some of these shapes before I knew how I would resolve the whole piece. There was something so right about them, I figured somehow or other I would make it work. Its definitely high-risk.
As a very young child, I drew with scissors, imagining hidden creatures released from their construction paper ground. As an adult I bring these creatures (be they letters or other shapes) back into the corral and stitch them into position/relationship. It is generally not an easy fit, despite the accuracy of the cut spaces.
Some of the new pieces edge from 2D to 3D. I made a freestanding pairing (small plus signs), and am working on a 3D y. The 3D pieces involve the consistently unexpected thrill of a flat geometry becoming curved.
LR: I love the hairy plus signs. And the fallen-over Y.
CM: The fallen Y was basically for my own amusement, just to see what would happen, what would it look likebut maybe thats true of everything.
LR: A while back, I decided that “because I want to see what it looks like” may be the truest and most multipurpose explanation of why I make anything.
CM: I see that in your work. It evidences a true curiosity and willingness to not over-control. I believe life is inherently messy. I trust artworks that I sense address this fact one way or another.
LR: Life is messy. Art can reflect that. Although, given that Im cluttery, not physically organized, sometimes I think painting is the place I make order out of some aspects of life . . . Ive turned to do lists into paintings, without ever checking off all the items on the lists.
CM: To me it is clear there is a logic to your work (I believe it), while the end result is also mysterious. Its interesting that your work process involves seemingly logical sequential steps but they yield an unexpected result.
LR: That was why I started using words initially: not as content, but to find unexpected color and form. (Though of course collecting language now interests me.) Diagrammed words become paintings I couldnt otherwise invent.
I want viewers to be able to look at the paintings a long time. As I map letters into grids of paint, marks accumulate to become dense, visually polyphonic structures that take time to see. Structures that are close to being patterns, but not regular patterns.
CM: I love the fact that your work has a pattern-like quality, but opens up big spaces which patterning would not, thereby defying expectation.
Yesterday I was thinking about the notion of breaking symmetry. I have been drawn to Korean ceramics (not contemporary) for roughly 20 years because thats what they do. Imperfect/perfection. Both embracing and subverting geometry.
Classic Persian carpets do this as wellin that it seems the patterning is consistent throughout, but its not. It is just these breaks with symmetry (and expectation) that give your paintings lifeand mystery.
LR: Its good to hear the paintings have mystery. I know you dont mean they need to be solved. The writing and rules arent something to decode. In discussing my work, Im often wary of seeming to place the emphasis on the writing, of putting the conceptual before the visual. No need to choose. But if forced, Id lead with the visual. And something essential to the visual character of these paintings is their diagrammatic nature. Not so much that they diagram words, but that they diagram themselves. The lists, annotations, and grids of paint, together, record the paintings making.
CM: In your work, the lists in relation to the gridded area in the middle could be compared to the right and wrong sides of embroidered fabric.
LR: Exactly. The written and painted sections are parts of the same whole. (I keep looking for the right words to distinguish those areas!)
CM: Even though they are records of how theyre made, your paintings also become themselves to a degree that one is not motivated to unravel or simply cannot unravel. I feel no need to take your work apart step by step. Im so grateful, really, to get a glimpse of a totality, a world.
LR: No, you can’t unravel these paintings, not in the way you’d decipher a diagram. My work may look cryptic, as if it contains secrets, but its all right there on the surface. I suspect people often just don’t take in how simple it is.
CM: People think my work is cryptic or secret too. And theyre wrong. Mine is, in some ways, just dopey. Like maybe a kid would get itif there were something to get. Yours is all clearly spelled out.
LR: I would say both our work traces a thought process, makes it visual (or vice versa sometimesform/texture/color sometimes lets us recognize what we think?)
In my case, the process is progressive and cumulativecollecting, listing, sorting, reassigning, rethinking, reconsidering, retranslating: turning language into something visual. Writing it out as letters, then using those letters as DNA for color, line, shape, structure.
Some viewers see my work as a deconstruction of language. I remove spaces between words, so the columns of writing can be hard to decipher. But theyre legible with close looking. Not deconstructed.
CM: I do not see your work as deconstruction. I do see a breaking down. Changing systems. Shifting meaning/context. True thought/impulse-mapping. Letters can be dry abstractions. In your work they lead to a world of color and movement and rhythm.
Your touch is intimate. Its matter-of-fact, but so expressive without trying to be. The way your paintings are made, which includes the smudging etc., leads back to the senses, to the body. One of my very first takes on your work was that they want to be held and carried about.
LR: I do hold the panels in my lap when I make them (hence the smudged edges.) Theyre like slates. I often invite studio visitors to pick them up.
CM: Looking at your work, the word thicket comes to mind to describe the denser areas. I love the thicket-ness. Which is an obvious contrast to the listing and organizing efforts. I see a relationship to my work: the compressed chaos that is felt, which is (similarly) in contrast to the attempted regularity of my stitching.
“Entangled densities could be a description of felt. It might also be true that the felt provides the energy/angst that coughs up the letters, symbols, etc.
I think also about the relationship between the words text and textile. Though felt is a non-woven textile.
LR: Both of our work addresses words and thinking, but were both in search of visual form. Your work makes visible something between words and sound and thought. Often not distilled into a sentence or word, but moving toward one or more. Form, color, material, that embodies a notion or idea on the verge of being shaped. Ambiguous and inchoate aren’t the right words, because your work is quite specific. But it often contains letters and almost-letters that are not solidified into words.
CM: The letters are not so much to be read as to be appreciated for their beauty and implied soundsin a medium (felt) that is silencing. I mix up letters of the alphabet with pictogram-like shapes that refer to actual stuff. Both have iconic power. Hieroglyphs and pictograms are alphabets of pictures. They talk to more than the mind. Its all language to me.
LR: Yet its not always obvious what your pictograms represent. And when your work does contain words, their meaning isnt singular. Whether pictograms or words, there are multiple meanings; sometimes you realize they mean more than you had thought at the outset; the meanings can’t be simply summarized.
CM: As for meanings, I tend to think that if the process feels meaningful to the maker, that sense of meaningfulness will be communicated. For things to matter is, in my opinion, a big deal. I do not think it is necessary to nail down meanings beyond that.
LR: Right. My paintings contain writing, but you dont necessarily have to read it to grasp their meaning. You have to look.
CM: I think good art reveals its meaningfulness in different ways over time.
The more I think of it, the more I think the shift is what its all about, different systems coming together but not so smoothly. Linear coming up against the non-linear. Offers a freshness. Disarming. Disruptive. Subversive? Devilish?
I was also thinking about humor. Deadpan. I find a good standup comic thrilling. Their thing is just such a shift (Outa left field . . .) Takes you by surprise. Pulls the rug out from . . .
So we laugh.
Cyrilla Mozenter, Leslie Roberts; 57W57 Arts, 57 West 57th Street, Suite 1207, New York, NY. Opens November 11, 2021.
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