By Anna Mirzayan
Barbara Weissberger’s mixed-media creations feature a complex interplay between soft sculpture and photography. Her playfully staged images invite viewers to consider the nature of meaning, embodiment, and attachment. Recently, she has been delving more into sewing and other art forms traditionally labelled as ‘craft work,’ placing herself in the rich history of women in craft arts.
In 2019, Weissberger visited the Whitney’s ongoing exhibition Making and Knowing: Craft in Art (2019), which showcases a diversity of so-called craft art over seven decades, bringing together a historical litany of artists who use a wide array of materials and techniques from glass to sewing, pottery, and mosaic. Some artists at the Whitney make explicit connections between so-called women’s work and craft; Liza Lou’s Kitchen (1996) is a painstakingly crafted bead mosaic based on the 1950s American kitchens and a particular role that women’s labor, both material and emotional, played during that period of American industrialization. The resurgence of interest in art that references craft, coupled with Weissberger’s recent work with sewing and quilting, prompted this conversation. We discuss her ongoing interest in assemblage and embodiment, as well as the evolution of her work and the relationship between craft arts and feminist ideologies.
Anna: As a woman artist working in sculpture, collage and photography, do you feel that you fit in the lineage of artists and techniques represented by this exhibition? If so, how? And were you influenced directly by any of the artists from the show?
Barbara: I would say that my work has been inching toward craft over a very long time. I started as a sculptor and at a certain point I felt like I had hit a wall with objects, and I made a somewhat abrupt turn to making drawings, works on paper and collage, and, through a long circuitous route, arrived at making the photo-based work that I’ve been making for several years. I use a lot of cardboard and discarded material, so there was already this inkling of craft, DIY ‘low materials.’ But I think it was still rooted very much in ‘fine art’ traditions, as opposed to craft traditions. Now I’m making these photo quilts, so it’s very explicitly connected to craft forms.
You mentioned that you started in sculpture, and there’s often also a dimension of photography in your work. But you print the photography, often on these non-traditional, softer substances, even if they’re mounted on the wall, some of them are more free-flowing. How do you see the relationship between photography, sculpture and the soft materials in your work?
Photography and sculpture have a long and intertwined relationship. After many years of making sculpture, I moved to drawing and collage using my own photographs. Eventually I started printing those, and then I started making installations with the photo fragments that I was using in the collages. And in documenting one such installation, something turned for me. I realized that I was quite interested in making such installations in my studio and making photographs of those. It was never quite exactly documentation, but the camera and photographs were a way of framing, organizing and keeping an artifact of what were temporary installations in the studio.
For a long time, my photographs were printed on paper, and then I often would treat the frame in some way, to make it part of the photographic image. I might have an image printed on paper and also on fabric, then wrap the frame with the fabric. And in that way, that photographic image would expand out from the print. I was always trying to bring the photograph back into this realm of objects, which is where it came from, right? It came from this physical arrangement of things in space and I wanted to return it to that.
Printing on fabric came out of an installation called GENERAL DELIVERY 59631 (2016) that I did at Incident Report in Hudson, NY, which was the first time that I had photographs printed on fabric. I quickly realized that printing the digital image on fabric made a very ephemeral image incredibly physical, and it would move in the wind with suppleness and fluidity. It was yet another way to make the image have this kind of physical embodiment.
You say that you’ve now more fully embraced sewing and you have these quilts. It seems like you’ve been inching, as you said, more towards, for something that we would firmly call “craft.” What’s at stake for you in that move towards more craft objects and how does that fit with or change the overall themes of your work?
I thought about sewing and its relation to art-making [for a while]. I resisted it for a couple of reasons, partly because of learning to sew as a kid and feeling that it was connected to domesticity and femininity, in ways that I was not interested in attaching myself to. I also felt that there were lots of feminist artists who had made work in the generation before me who had beautifully mined those traditions. I just put it out of my mind, because it felt linked to craft and women’s work in a way that I did not want to embrace. So naturally, here I am embracing it!
I would say that my interest in bodies has always driven the work. It’s a discourse associated with female bodies and feminist perspectives (at least in Western art traditions), which has to do with boundaries, with fluidity, with anxieties about female bodies, with an idea of bodies as unruly things, tensions between control and unruliness. Sometimes it’s difficult to parse the space in my images. Even that instability has to do with boundaries and containment, and, ultimately, links back to some of those notions of bodies as container versus spills or unruliness. And then sometimes explicitly, there are body parts, fragmentary body parts, often mostly hands and feet, which are, arguably, not gendered (or able to move around gender).
I think of bodies and attachment, and about how a viewer’s body might feel in relation to the work—intimacy and separation is the relationship between artwork and viewer.
Freud has this word unheimlich, which means ‘not at home,’ but in English it’s ‘uncanny,’ and its etymology fits with what you’re talking about, about not being in the domestic space, not being at home, in the body, all of these sorts of things. I saw your show, Mother (2019) at The Silver Eye Center for Photography, and your collaborative show with Eleanor Aldrich, The Soft State of Custodia (2020), at Bunker Projects, and I noticed many of these themes in both of the shows. What are the most impactful and memorable exhibitions that you’ve done, and how did it evolve your relationship to your practice?
The exhibition Mother was a key one for me. A lot of that show was about separation. I think of bodies and attachment, and about how a viewer’s body might feel in relation to the work—intimacy and separation is the relationship between artwork and viewer. To make some of the photographs, I cut a hole in a piece of paper that I’ve painted – or cut a hole in a photographic print or a piece of cardboard – and hold that right in front of the camera lens when I make the image. So, then a blurry aperture is in the foreground of the resulting image and that aperture acts as a frame within the picture, framing whatever so-called subject is in there.
When I look at those images, it heightens my sense of looking out of my own body. The image becomes this kind of opening in a screen, like looking out of your eye and then into another opening. I think it heightens the sense of embodiment for the viewer.
For the fabric photographs I am making now, for the quilts, I’ve been sticking a knee-high pantyhose on my arm. And putting objects, like I have one of a banana in the stocking…so in the image, it’s my arm and hand enclosed in a stocking with some kind of object in there. And I’ve been thinking of those as attachments—a kind of hybrid—a body and a thing as one, and a way of attaching a thing to a body. And I do think it’s funny that I did a show titled Mother and was thinking about separation. I even had a piece in Mother titled Hold Me in which people were invited to pick up and hold these blobby large limb-like soft sculptures. And I thought, oh, funny, I made a transitional object for everyone! And so just to stick with the Freudian early childhood theme, I thought, oh, and now I’m making attachments.
And the quilts—I can’t help but think about a security blanket, particularly in our age of great anxiety; a blanket that covers, that comforts, that keeps warm, that sustains… which is not unrelated to mothers. It’s been amusing me thinking about making those quilts because they are the first body of work that I’m making after Mother.
That’s all very intimate, and I think that feels very vulnerable to do in a public place. It is almost opposed to the attitude that a lot of people have going into a museum space, or a formal gallery space because it’s so formalized and public. Even though a lot of artworks lend themselves to these really strong feelings, people are very private and individualized in museums. That’s sort of the antithesis of what you’re doing with dissolving boundaries and reforming attachments and inviting these different kinds of attachments. Quilts are meant for bodies, to enclose them, they’re meant to be warm, they’re meant to be comforting… so in a lot of ways they don’t lend themselves to this world of the virtual that we find ourselves in with COVID. Many artists have responded with new ways of making art, but I would call your quilts ‘anti-Zoom’ in a certain sense. Why is it important for you to keep making these tangible works during COVID?
Perhaps there is something to the physicality of the object. This is what I think is missing; I love that we can go to talks that are being held in cities far flung from where we are, and we can hear music and go to readings, and we can do all these things. And we can see pictures, we can see digital images, we can see screen images. But what we don’t have is being in physical proximity with artwork and having not only a visual but a physical relationship to it, with temperature and sound and smell and scale and material.
I have been posting images of the quilts but when I do that, I think of it as a placeholder. In reality, looking at a photograph always involves a physical dimension.
Part of what I was referring to with the experience of the museum space is, particularly with experiencing something like photography or painting, and even sculpture and installation, can really put you into this almost purely perceptive hypnosis, where you’re just this solipsistic, Cartesian cogito, and that’s how you’re looking at the art. I think that that’s very pernicious.
At Olafur Eliasson’s 2019 show at The Tate, Olafur Eliasson: In real life, there was an older piece that wasn’t accessible, but the Tate decided to just leave the piece as-is, and that it wouldn’t be accessible to anyone other than an able-bodied person. Eliasson’s wall text said something about how when you go to a museum or a gallery, and you’re looking at art, you ‘move as if [you] don’t have a body.’ And I read that, in response to this Ciara O’Connor who writes for the Irish Sunday Independent, and who’s not able-bodied, said ‘I am always, ALWAYS aware of my body.’ Looking at art is disarming, vulnerable, and intimate, which may be part of why museum spaces have an unspoken protocol of privacy and discretion.
Yes, and there are so many protocols against tactility— these taboos of not touching the art, and in some cases that makes sense; some pieces are fragile objects, and the materials lend themselves to corroding and eroding over time. And somehow that’s not acceptable. The temporality is not part of the work in a certain sense. Yet you have these works that are asking to be touched. It seems like that connects with your use of discarded or cheap or easily accessible objects and, which fights against the high/low art dichotomy. Can you talk a bit about that aspect of your work?
I use cheap materials, I use scraps, I recycle things a lot. Things cycle through the work; I might have a photograph printed on a fabric more than once, for various reasons. And then that means that certain bits of imagery appear in multiple pieces. I think using scraps is connected to an ethos of working that considers waste. Using what’s at hand also has to do with improvisation and making do with what you have. In addition to that, particularly with fabric, it’s very connected to the tradition in quilt making of using the fabric scraps, of not throwing them out, which is something about making the quilts that really suits me. It’s like I already have what I need in this stack of things that I haven’t yet looked at in quite the right way. And in that way, a photograph also becomes raw material.
Your work brings the material to the fore, which makes me consider the relationship to waste and trash in different ways. You’re using ready-to-hand materials. And to me, it strikes me as so different from ready-mades, which were considered art largely due to the critical discourse around them. What about your relationship to the things you make, and their status as art vs. object?
Apropos to what you’re saying about this teasing feeling between the functional object and the art object, how you decipher and determine or designate really goes back to the actual object and its application, and perhaps the uncomfortable way that it might slip between those. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and it’s a somewhat new thought for me, has to do with the quilts and this idea of use and function. When I’m sitting in the studio and my studio gets really cold in the winter, and I think, “well, I have all these quilts…” They’re funny shapes, and I finish them with grommets, so they hang on the wall. But still, they are quilted and I’m putting batting in them, so they give warmth. They have this other aspect to them where they are not far from how they would function or be used as the thing that they are, and yet they’re not that thing; they are also the thing on the wall, pictorial, collage-like. Quilts are collages, they are fragments joined together.
One thing that jumped out at me in Mother was that there were no object labels or titles or attributions, which made the viewer work hard and also resisted fixed interpretation. That was a fecund aspect of the show for me, yet I also found it anxiety-producing as a person who goes to museums a lot and sees a lot of object labels. Having that support structure suddenly removed was very jarring, and then I sort of embraced it. It really opened me up to a feeling that I’m not very open to when I go to museums, which is humor—art can be so serious. There’s a lot of slapstick and funny stuff in your work. What do you think is the role of humor in artwork and in the works that you’re making?
I find joking irresistible, and it’s irrepressible. It’s like a language. Humor is a language that I like to speak or feel comfortable speaking. But also, I think that humor in artworks can somehow poke at that tension between high and low art.
Since you are concerned with bodies, one aspect of the body is age. Earlier you mentioned coming up in a certain world and resisting traditional feminized roles. I’m interested in how your age has factored in, if at all, to your art and you as an artist and whether or not your work has changed as you’ve grown?
You were talking about how in the museum it’s about preservation and not decay. With the presence of bodies, you’re speaking about mortality, living and dying bodies. I think as you age, you think about mortality differently, and that changing relationship to mortality is something that I feel in the work. I think I felt that with Mother; I would not have made an exhibition and a body of work that was titled ‘Mother’ when I was younger. I don’t even think I would have looked at that kind of vulnerability around attachment and separation in quite the same way.
I think one of the things for me with the collaboration with Eleanor [Aldrich], who’s of a generation younger than mine, is the delightful co-existence of our differences and connections, it really brings to life what we’re doing. There’s something hopeful about it. We often say there’s what each of us is doing, and then when we come together it’s like another life for the objects that we’re making—it’s a third thing.
Barbara Weissberger was recently part of Modicum, a group exhibition at Artspace New Haven. She is currently working on a series of photo quilts. In addition to being a Guggenheim Fellow and a past participant in the Drawing Center Open Sessions program, she is also on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in Studio Arts. You can see more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.