Whitehot Magazine

Ticket to Paradise: An Interview Whitney Oldenburg at Chart Gallery


By CLARE GEMIMA December 13, 2023

The intellectual landscape of sculptures and drawings in Whitney Oldenburg's latest exhibition, Ticket to Paradise (notably the work in the show entitled Feeding Frenzy), scrutinizes the intricate dynamics between protection and waste in the context of contemporary consumption. In conversation with Clare Gemima for Whitehot Magazine, Oldenburg illuminates the exhibition's conceptual framework, delving into the consequences of information overload, and the deliberate choices behind her materials. Influenced by the Situationists International, an organization made up of European social revolutionaries and avant-garde artists (active from 1957 to 1972), her work serves as a poignant commentary on existential, environmental, and economic challenges, and entices viewers to navigate beneath her compelling, unpredictable surfaces. The parallel existence of drawings alongside her sculptures reveals a shared emotional undercurrent, fostering a cohesive thematic connection. Oldenburg's studio practice, rooted in allostasis, mirrors the adaptive nature of her creations, offering a thought-provoking perspective on societal responses to dire stressors. Witness the interplay of form, materiality, and societal critique that is Ticket to Paradise, showing at Chart Gallery until January 6, 2024.

Whitney Oldenburg, Hopes and Dreams, 2023. Molds of air filters, clay, steel, string, resin, credit cards. 73 x 48 1/2 x 7 in. Photo courtesy of the artist and CHART.

Clare Gemima: Your works explore the theme of consumption in contemporary society. Could you elaborate on the conceptual foundation behind your solo show Ticket to Paradise, and the specific experience that led you to create these sculptures and drawings?

Whitney Oldenburg: I’ve been thinking about a collective consciousness that is overwhelmed, overstimulated, and numb. I’ve been thinking about this in relationship to accumulation and production, especially about consumption in terms of its effect on our biology. The sheer quantity of information produced on a daily basis cannot possibly be fully processed, and I think the byproduct of that is a flattening, a lack of critical thinking, an aversion to anything that might increase discomfort, or require concerted effort or nuance to understand. Rather than an actual “ticket to paradise,” my exhibition is asking what paradise is today. I wonder whether the idea of paradise is actually a fallacy…

Gemima: The materials you use in your sculptures are diverse and often unconventional. Could you discuss the significance of the materials chosen for Feeding Frenzy, such as the red tickets, rock, wood, aluminum, and others? How do these materials contribute to the overall message of your work, and where do they actually come from?

Oldenburg: The materials I use in my work come from the natural and commercial world. I want my work to both reference the earth as well as the man-made, non-biodegradable, waste accumulated as a byproduct of our existence. I allow myself an enormous amount of freedom with my material choices. With Feeding Frenzy for instance, I was initially thinking about the things we use in an effort to protect ourselves. The helmets, ear plugs, and cheese cloth bandages in the work are all literal examples of products used to protect. I then began to think of other forms of protection. I am inspired by the Situationists International, and so for me the tickets speak to Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.” I believe we seek out spectacle, or entertainment as a form of mental protection or self-preservation. I embed the man-made items (tickets, helmets, ear plugs) in rock, wood, aluminum, and leather as a way to show how our waste is embedded in the natural world. I think about how our plastic belongings will outlive our own bodies.

 Whitney Oldenburg, Feeding Frenzy, 2022. Tickets, rock, wood, aluminum, resin, string, staples, helmets, ear plugs, cloth, zipper pulls, red yeast rice, glue mixture. 72 x 96 x 18 in. Photo courtesy of the artist and CHART.

Gemima: Your press release suggests that within environments of “stuff”, your neuroplasticity is sparked, leading to adaptive variation. Could you provide insight into the mindset you were in when you made this body of work?

Oldenburg: I often see connections and patterns between unlikely things. Making art feels like I’m seeking something - like I’m trying to make sense of these patterns. It can often feel like a game, though the game has rules. It feels less about winning and more about competing. There is a large emotional component. I must surprise myself. I must see or understand something that I did not see or understand before I began.

Gemima: Your sculptures embody and explore the existential, environmental, and economic crises of our time. How does your work comment on these issues and what message do you hope to convey to your exhibition’s visitors?

Oldenburg: It seems impossible to escape the existential, environmental, and economic crises of our time. My work comments on these issues through my process, its materiality, where I source materials from, and its ultimate form. I seek to make work that embodies my emotional reaction to my lived experience, which cannot be divorced from these existential crises that we are all living through.

In terms of what I’d like to convey, I’d like my viewer to be attracted to the work—perhaps unsuspectedly lured in—with the work then slowly revealing a deeper meaning. I’d like them to think about the labor and time behind its creation, and eventually see the darker undercurrent of my work, and finally its hopefulness. I want my art to confuse or perplex the viewer. I want to increase my viewer’s attention span. I want to force my viewer to pause. I want there to be a delayed gratification.

Whitney Oldenburg, High Tide, 2023. Molds of Feeding Frenzy, metal, clay, lollipop sticks, tiki wall, generic acetaminophen, leather, linen, resin. 60 x 51 x 28 in. Photo courtesy of the artist and CHART.

Gemima: How does Barbara Kruger's influence on consumerism in the late '80s resonate with your output, and in what ways do you build upon or diverge from her approach towards criticizing the impact of consumer culture?

Oldenburg: While we are both interested in the idea of something holding multiple meanings, I think more about consumption as it relates to the physical rather than the visual. My work is very much related to the body and the earth and how consumption physiologically affects the body and the planet. Rather than illustrate through image and text, I try to sublimate through form and material.

Gemima: The drawings presented alongside your sculptures appear to contrast in style but share a thematic connection. How do your drawings inform your sculptural works?

Oldenburg: I think about the difference between illustration, sublimation, and substantiation. My sculptures start from a place of wanting to bring forth a particular feeling in relationship to the materials I’m working with. I think sublimation is part of this process. The presence of unhampered material—for example, the remote controls—is a funny way in which I substantiate that which I sublimate. The drawings are my way of illustrating each of these feelings. I do not draw my sculpture, it’s not a one-to-one relationship, but my drawings and sculpture feel very connected because there is a consistent emotional undercurrent, which results in similar formal relationships.

 Whitney Oldenburg, Treasures, 2023. Charcoal on paper. 26 x 19 1/2 in. Photo courtesy the artist and CHART.

Gemima: Michelle Grabner's essay describes your studio practice as being steeped in the condition of allostasis— variable stability through change. Could you elaborate on how this description resonates for you?

Oldenburg: Michelle Grabner’s reference to allostasis resonates with me because I seek to make art that physically embodies adaptation. Often my work is made from molds of other works, so I like to think of my art as mutating and reproducing. Also, I often include materials that may act or point to external stressors. I think about how amidst the gross accumulation of goods and materials, the rate of production of these goods and the waste associated with the production, and the quickening of environmental degradation. Most of humanity is already feeling the effects of and biologically reacting to external stressors. Something as simple as screen time can affect our biology and evolution. One can argue that over time our ways of emotionally connecting will change, our ways of processing information will change, and our ways of communicating will change, all on a neurological level. I think you could argue that this is already happening. This both horrifies and interests me. I think about external stressors and wonder about how the exponential effects will surface over generations, and across different populations. My art is an emotional reaction to these stressors, a reflection of the anxieties, but also a solution, an adaptation into something that survives and grows. WM

Chart Gallery November 3, 2023- January 6, 2024, 74 Franklin St, New York, NY

Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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