By NINA MDIVANI, January 2023
Rachel Mica Weiss is contemporary American sculptor working with a diverse set of natural and synthetic materials. In her examinations Weiss embodies a scientist who tweaks the materials she works with, but also she is a social activist positioning used materials as metaphors for something larger than us. This conversation was recorded during Weiss’ current exhibition “Gravity” on view at Here Gallery, Pittsburg through January 7. As the founder of the Here Gallery Lexi Bishop wrote as part of this interview process: “Rachel’s sculptures utilize the gallery space in a way that had not been done before – we spent time speaking about joists, weight and spatial barriers. Each material, whether cast foam or resin, is both soft and light as well as hard and heavy, which often baffles viewers. Who doesn’t love a mystery?”
Nina Mdivani: Please tell me a little bit about your beginnings in the art field. Was art something that you were interested in since you were an early child, or this has developed later?
Rachel Mika Weiss: I have been drawing since I was a child, and have always been interested in the artistic expression, but had never really thought about it as a path of living my life. So, I pursued studies in psychology at college and that's what my degree is in. After I spent some time in an artistic colony in Senegal and I realized what I am supposed to be doing with my life. With that insight I graduated with a master's degree in sculpture from San Francisco Art Institute. But the colony in Dakar was a place that kind of funneled me into life as an artist. I spent a month there with around 40 artists who worked in the colony. Some also lived there and some rented studios, depending on their financial status. Some artists were in their 50s, and 60s, and had established careers with their works presented at art fairs in Europe, but there were many younger people who were just starting out and approaching the older artists as mentors. At that time, I was doing research into indigenous materials and techniques alongside my courses. That kind of experimentation was very liberating.
NM: Yeah, it sounds very, as an open-minded place. I wish there were more of those types of places in the U.S. because I keep hearing it from many artists that like they miss this kind of really supportive community. Now art world is much more about competition, about getting ahead, rather than about the community that could actually support you.
RMW: Yes, absolutely. That is something that I always struggle with also, the tension is there. Because sales are part of the capitalist environment. And even in institutions, money always has to figure into the calculus somehow.
NM: How did your master’s degree influenced the way you think about visual art, because you take all these traditional materials and imagery and are changing them. So, is this something that started for you during the graduate school?
RMW: I think transformation has always been part of my visual language from the time I was working in textile. Although now a lot of my work is not textile-based, it is using the same mechanisms - many small parts that together form a unified object similar to speech. So, during the grad school I would frequent scrap yards and architectural reuse sites, to source my materials. For example, I would get huge beams or just like old rope, making them parts of my language. And it was also then that I started to work large, that's just something I do as part of my practice, I can't escape it. Working large in a small space requires thinking sites-specifically. Space and architecture and their constraints have always been of a primary interest to me. And so, the sculptural work, you know, deals in those concepts as well. This was also important for Gravity, my solo exhibition ending this week at Here Gallery in Pittsburgh. Here Gallery just celebrated its one-year anniversary. I got to know the founder, Lexi Bishop when I lived in Pittsburg before moving to Brooklyn, and now to New Paltz. Pittsburgh has a very supportive, close-knit art community in the way that that New York doesn't. Everyone wants to kind of support and lift each other up.
NM: Where does the title Gravity comes from?
RMW: Due to the scale of the objects and their mass, gravity has always been part of the equation for me. I definitely deal in weight. But I think that's always been a metaphor to talk about more metaphysical concerns. I use gravity as sort of a common metaphor to talk about, psychological burdens and weight. Just the way that the work exists, the way that objects are, are draped on, always deals with gravity. Gravity is part of the work that I can't really control. And because my visual language is so spare, I want the work to be able to function in a lot of different ways. Chains absolutely talk about oppressed bodies and individuals or imprisoned bodies and individuals. There is also connection to labor, element in machines used to transfer power between machines, also connection to shackles, but also to adornment and jewelry. Constraints of and around femininity are parts of a salient conversation for me, all of these are possible conversations and I want them all to be present in the work. And also, there is a conversation around both physical and also psychological constraint, which is a lot of where my inspiration comes from, deep web that we form in our minds.
I think that that is my main point of departure is that there are darkness and light, as there are constraint and liberation, those forces are always working with one another, always striving for dominance. I look at this tension and strive for resolution or something along those lines.
NM: What does color signify for you? How do you choose it for any specific kind of sculpture?
RMW: In terms of the material, confusion has always been another through line for me and color helps here. I'm very interested in confusing people, in that tension between how things seem to be and how they actually are. For example, the work Portal,2022 is a sort of amber-colored work there is an element of sea glass, but also of a rubber. And some people think that the green work Passage, 2020 is made of sea glass and not of cast urethane resin. Question of material integrity arise very easily.
NM: Rachel, so tell me a little bit about so for this year, what is your kind of the most interesting or important project that's coming up in 2023?
RMW: Oh, that's a good question. Well, I am working on several large-scale public projects right now. The most significant in terms of output is probably like the piece behind me, which is for Oklahoma City. And there are six of these, like gigantic arches that are 12 feet by 12 feet by 8 feet. I am always sort of working on sculptures, and then working on these public projects. And because materials are different, they are all sort of dealing with similar conceptual goals informing each other. Public projects are so precise and mathematically driven. And in some ways, that's a nice change, because the sculptures are their own entity, they're alive, they want to do what they wanted to do. And I have so much less control over what happens, this leading to these really wonderful, unanticipated outcomes. WM
Nina Mdivani is Georgian-born and New York-based independent curator, writer and researcher. Her academic background covers International Relations and Gender Studies from Tbilisi State University, Mount Holyoke College and Museum Studies from City University of New York. Nina's book, King is Female, published in October 2018 in Berlin by Wienand Verlag explores the lives of three Georgian women artists and is the first publication to investigate questions of the feminine identity in the context of the Eastern European historical, social, and cultural transformation of the last twenty years. Nina has contributed articles to Hyperallergic, Flash Art International, The Brooklyn Rail, JANE Magazine Australia, NERO Editions Italy, XIBT Magazine Berlin, Eastern European Film Bulletin, Indigo Magazine, Arte Fuse. As curator and writer Nina is interested in discovering hidden narratives within dominant cultures with focus on minorities and migrations. You can find out more about her work at ninamdivani.com