Will Corwin and friends
Olivia Murphy Interviews Will Corwin
Will Corwin’s special blend of fantastical lightness and structure comes through in his current solo show at George and Jørgen in London—a blend made possible by Corwin’s unique take on mythology, archaeology and the need to make big sculptures. Will takes some time to talk to me about his show—“alans wood” (on view through April 2nd), and his unique art practice.
Olivia Murphy: Your formal education is in architecture; can you talk a little about your transition into art?
William Corwin: I think I always wanted to make big sculptures. I used to take art classes when I was a kid at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I desperately looked forward to the two or three classes a year when we got to glue wood bits together or make stuff out of clay. I found myself, once I’d graduated, and in the summers between terms of architecture school, mostly making models of buildings. It’s kind of a ridiculous proposition because these models were often incredibly ambitious, meant to impress a client who then would insist on a more economical project, and then the architect would be dejected because their dream had been crushed. So I really began to think about the architectural master plan as this abstract sculpture, that's where the dioramas started. My first ever dream profession was archaeology though, so the dioramas are the intersection between the morose, lyrical and nostalgic aspects of a ruin or archaeological site, and the absurdity of an architectural master plan. Think the map room scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Murphy: Now, I definitely see the Indian Jones reference in Last Judgement. This architectural/archeological influence is prevalent in much of your work, but your current installation at George and Jørgen gallery in London is more directly related to medieval mosaics, in particular The Last Judgment from Santa Maria Assunta. Can you talk about how this medieval reference comes up in these large scale shelf-like and diorama sculptures?
Corwin: I’d say that I use architectural metaphors to deal with medieval diagrams! My friend Mike Ballou, who’s a sculptor made fun of my carpentry in my last project, and admittedly I’m not interested in a “refined” look, I have a sort of rube-Goldberg approach, building things as I go along, and tailoring things to the spaces they inhabit, that’s where my architectural/construction sensibility comes in. It also appears in the dioramas, as I mentioned before. The Last Judgement mosaic itself is an amazing vibrant diagram of how the universe works, as imagined by the artist that created it. The shelves fit really well into that cosmology, and instead of applying the medieval hierarchies of good and bad to people, i.e. saints, sinners, angels and demons, I applied it to the materials I use and the detritus I usually have in the studio-painted plaster rubble, plaster-coated wooden panels, etc. It really isn’t meant to make a lot of sense, but then our ordering systems don’t necessarily do that either. Dividing the natural world into kingdoms and orders and classes is very arbitrary, and intensely medieval at the same time.
Murphy: That hierarchy of materials comes through a lot in this installation. I'm interested in your self proclaimed rejection of the "refined look," being as you began making architectural models, which you talked about being more ambitious than even the client wanted. Is this more ad-hock approach to making a way of distancing yourself from that community and referential field?
Corwin: I guess in a way. When I first stopped being an architecty-person and moved completely into art I focused on painting and image making as a way to forget all the information I’d had to absorb in architecture school; structures, construction etc, but in the end it wasn’t architecture that made me dig spaces and three-dimensional objects, that’s why I approached architecture in the first place, because that’s where my art is at. I think making ad-hock structures is a bit of me “taking the piss” out of architecture though, to use a British-ism.
Will Corwin, alans wood, 2011
Installation view; mixed media
Courtesy of the artist and George and Jørgen
Murphy: The show is entitled 'alans wood,' where does this phrase come from, and how does it relay the show's concept?
Corwin: I rented a room from this guy named Alan Wood when I first lived in London. He invited me to dinner with George Barker, the “George” in George and Jorgen (Ingrid Reynolds in Jorgen, just to confuse things!). George and I hit it off and he and Ingrid really liked the installations and wanted me to basically commandeer the gallery space for a week and create this site-specific show-an artist’s dream really. Alan also introduced me to my girlfriend and has turned out to be rather unintentional guardian angel from Yorkshire in my life. So I suggested this title to George and we felt that a lot of the show was about random coincidences, so the name was suitably random, yet rife with secret meanings. Plus Alan’s last name referenced the building material, and making Alan alans kind of referenced typical British place names, like St. John’s Wood, which also made me think of the Stones’ song, which seemed to make the exhibition suitably site-specific-British and cool.
Murphy: I love that free associative take on one's own work. That too, almost has a raiders-of-the-lost-ark feel—all these little bits of personal history buried within the show. Does this give us some glimpse into how you think in terms of creating bodies of work that have so many layers of history—personal and not—embedded within them?
Corwin: I think I’ve had an amazingly lucky run with the artists I worked for and with. People like Richard Patterson, Ellen Phelan, Ronnie Landfield, Mike Ballou, have had the ability, and the subtlety to integrate intensely personal narratives into an abstract framework. They avoid the “cringe-factor” of Too Much Information, but instead talk about things they love, traumas and tragedies in their lives through the materiality of their work. That’s a big part of what I like to do-we assimilate history through our own personal references, or at least I do, if you can take a big meaty subject and find something that is part of yourself, it makes the lessons of the course of human events mean something. I never stop thinking about the Nazis-it’s a sort of Woody Allen thing with me.
Murphy: You spend some time in Germany—the smaller works in the show are works from your residency there. Where in Germany did you do your residency? How did this experience shape these works? How do you see these works fitting in to the larger 'Last Judgment' installation?
Corwin: My residency was in Hamburg, October and November 2010. My studio was a fantastic loft in the Fleetinsel district, but I had an exhibition at the Kunstlerhaus Frise, in Altona. The smaller pieces were made for that exhibition. I guess in the back of my mind I was thinking of the firebombing of Hamburg during the second world war, and in general the ghosts that lurk in the history of that country, in relatively recent memory. The smaller pieces, which I’ve been making for the last couple of years generally are about gloomy meditative spaces, on the one hand, and small shrine-like spaces on the other. The shrines are glass-fronted and kind of Joseph Cornell influenced, I call a lot of them Mirhab, after the small niches that you find in mosques that represent the direction one faces when praying. I really like the idea of an architectural detail somehow linking in with a sort of cosmic, or at least global spiritual positioning system. The ghost pieces are more about creating a dark peepshow environment, where it’s very hard to make out what’s actually going on. The gloomy pieces are meant to frustrate the viewer, like looking through a keyhole into a walled garden, to bring it all back to another iconic medieval metaphor!
So there’s a tenuous connection between The Last Judgement, and the Diet of Worms (2011) (the other large piece in the show) and the smaller Hamburg pieces-mostly a connection in emotive capability, rather than theme…they share an aesthetic.
Murphy: You were in London for the opening of 'alans wood' (on view in London until April 2nd), correct? What's next for you then? Will you be back to work in NY? Any upcoming shows or events on the radar?
Corwin: I’m back in New York relatively soon after the show closes. The only definite project on the horizon is a residency at the Clocktower Gallery. It’s an amazing penthouse space on top of a building in lower Manhattan, where I’ll get a room to myself for six weeks, and some money from the Jerome Foundation. My idea is basically to build myself into the space- layer the interior of the room, onion-skin style, with shelves and bookcases, piled high with these plaster objects, which as the project moves along, will become harder and harder to access, a library of frustration. I’m really excited to work at the Clocktower - it was founded by Alanna Heiss and Gordon Matta-Clark, Joel Shapiro and Richard Tuttle showed their early work there, so it’s both a challenging and at the same time inspiring space. There’s also a plan in the works to do something in a chashama storefront, I’m thinking of doing a small satirical version of Hitler/Speer’s Germania that can only be seen through peepholes left in a whitewashed store window.
Murphy: Wow, an archeological, onionized installation sounds great. Will that be open to the public while it's happening? Or will it be on view after the fact?
Corwin: The thing about residencies versus gallery shows is that very often your process is meant to be available to public view-especially at the Clocktower, which is a public gallery space as well as a radio station (108 Leonard St, Top Floor). I hope people will stop by and look, July and August are a pretty quiet time in New York, so I won’t have much competition—which I’m really jazzed about—but it would be good to get a two week head-start putting the framework in place, before the hordes of visitors I’m expecting start showing up!
Murphy: That sounds great! Looking forward to checking it out mid-July!
Olivia Murphy is a New York based writer and artist. She is finishing up her BFA at NYU, works for Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery and contributes/edits for freundenvonfreunden.com.