“Trying to figure ‘it’ out.” It’s a statement that almost all of us have uttered at one point or another. For Liz Sweibel, it is a working method. Sweibel and I met on a rainy Saturday in August. As time progressed, our visit turned into several conversations about her work, materials, and process – among other things. When the afternoon had concluded, the weather had given way to a picturesque summer’s day. Weather conditions are usually a superfluous addition to the description of a studio visit. However, with Sweibel, the metaphoric qualities reflect her path from unclear situations to direct engagement with sadness, loss, and lostness.
It is nearly impossible to think of Sweibel’s career by finished works alone. One must consider the materials, as they lead the art making. As someone who rarely sources materials “directly,” Sweibel’s artistic practice is based on “making do” with what is at hand rather than seeking out a specific object or material. She is delicately attuned to her surroundings, often finding potential in materials that others may consider refuse. The “on-hand” often poses questions to which working with the materials toward a finished artwork is the solution.
Do not confuse Sweibel’s materials for found objects. Her materials tend to sit for months or years before she works with them; they need to take root in her space and sensibility before the questions they pose emerge. Evidence of this process can be found with her “sticks.” The image above is from what was once a much larger collection. Originally, Sweibel brought these into her Boston studio in 2001-2002. The lengths of wood sat for a year before Sweibel used them. Rather than serve as a method to realize an artistic solution, her materials inform her process. A wooden stick is potential, and in this case, the sticks have been on quite a ride. Sweibel’s first action was to dowel them into the floor of her studio like a small forest; in the decade since, she has made several bodies of work from them, most recently a series of sculptures no more than four inches high.
Every iteration has meant experimentation. First, Sweibel painted the sticks as they stood in the studio, mixing and layering gouache and acrylic paints, painting the sides of the sticks different colors. The goal of this exercise was to create a visual field that was resolved from wherever Sweibel stood. From there, Sweibel used the sticks’ natural holes and crevices to connect pairs with found wire and hardware. These delicate balances made them appear to be almost levitating.
From the “nothingness” of floating sticks, Sweibel then imbued the material with pure manual action. It was not until her 2007 residency at the Vermont Studio Center that cutting the sticks down came to mind. This unlocked more potential. The process of hand-sawing and eventually stacking the new smaller pieces resulted in the installation What We Do to Each Other.
In late 2011, Sweibel’s impulse was to scrape the paint off the sticks, thus creating new material from unused sticks as well as recycling older work. The scraped paint became the small works pictured above.
The continued transformations highlight yet another dimension of Sweibel’s art and process: bringing attention to attention. At each size, the works call on us to engage with them physically. Whether it is getting close to a tiny piece or gazing at the manipulation of space and gravity from a distance, Sweibel imbues her work with a sense of physicality that calls for undivided consideration. Before seeing the works in person, I assumed this was connected to an Eastern or Minimalist tradition. While that assumption is accurate, her artistic influence also connects to New York’s Abstract Expressionists. Consider Barnett Newman’s zips, which, to some at the time, were nothing more than paint and tape. Sweibel deeply admires Newman’s boldness in presenting so little that is actually so much, and his integrity in upholding his beliefs, both of which these artists share. The close affinity between the two artists is also reflected in a sense of the sublime. Newman achieved this through large canvases, a limited palette, and a spare visual language. In Sweibel’s case, the individual works are much smaller, but they encapsulate the viewer in a process, in a materiality, and in a carefully manipulated visual field. Despite having worked with the same materials for about a decade, Sweibel’s passion for her material proves they are still exploring each other.
This exploration is about to be brought from Sweibel’s Gowanus studio to Bushwick’s NURTUREart in an exhibit titled fragments of our own, opening September 6 and running until October 4. Much of our conversation was devoted to this upcoming exhibition and the preparations taking place to install work in a new space. Space is paramount to Sweibel. Her work and process directly respond to it. The history and particularities of a room or building contribute a layer of context that Sweibel incorporates into her installations. Her small architectural forms engage with the space, drawing attention to themselves in their surroundings.
fragments of our own is in some ways an extension to Parts to the Whole, Sweibel’s 2012 show at the Medicine Factory in Memphis. However, despite the inclusion of many of the same elements, they are reacting to a new space. 56 Bogart in Bushwick is one of the most popular gallery and studio spaces in the area. Sweibel aims to evoke the building’s history in the garment industry in her installation, and layer that history with related histories of her own. In her studio was a mock-up for the installation that pays an homage to the “needle trades.” On a low surface stood Sweibel’s familiar wooden structures. The height of the surface made a direct reference to the building’s working past, in echoing the height of an industrial sewing machine.
Space not only directly impacts the artwork but also deeply affects Sweibel herself. She has only been working in her Gowanus studio for about a year and a half. Before coming to Gowanus, Sweibel had a studio in the 17-17 Troutman building in Bushwick. In 2007, tenants of the building were evicted, leading to a period of studio-less creation. As the artist of “making do,” this setback did not hinder Sweibel from continuing to explore materials and space. Her Brooklyn apartment played home to creation for a bit, and the work responded to this. Video entered her oeuvre, addressing many of the same concepts as her sculptural works. She also spent more time making drawings and collage, which remain an integral part of the studio practice in Gowanus. Now approaching two years in Gowanus, Sweibel is delighted to again have a space to work in, and this is the first year she will participate in Open Studios.
Taking the time to visit Sweibel’s studio is a must for Gowanus Open Studios. While the event is still a month away, her exhibition opens this Friday at NURTUREart. In addition, Sweibel will also give an artist talk on September 29th.