Nick van Woert, Sculptor

by Michael Caines, July 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011. 1pm. Nick van Woert sat down with Artwrit, in the midst of preparing shows in New York and Paris, to discuss his process, literary influences and “earnestness” in art. Audio + transcript below.

Artwrit: I’m speaking today with sculptor Nick van Woert, New York City artist, born in Nevada. This past spring, Nick has his first New York solo exhibition, which was really stunning at Yvon Lambert and he’s currently preparing for exhibitions this fall in Paris and New York. So, hi, Nick.

Nick van Woert: Hey.

We recently had a visit at your studio, and I thought I would start by asking you about a number of objects that you had bought at auction from the Unabomber, of his effects, Ted Kaczynski. I thought you could talk a little about your interest in Kaczynski, which I think relates to your connection to landscape and to growing up in Nevada in a peculiar and interesting way.
Yeah, the relationship he has to the outdoors and my relationship to the outdoors I think came about in a roundabout way. I first latched on to him through a number of sources, one of which that I think is the most direct is through Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau has this amazing quote that says something to the effect of, “I wanted to live my life—when I die, I don’t want to look back and say that I never lived.” He wanted to strip all of the modern amenities away, all the comforts, and move to the woods, which he did for like two years, which the book Walden is based on. Just to live raw in nature, I guess that was the idea. Kaczynski did basically the same thing in a way, where he went out, built a cabin in the woods, no electricity, no running water. Both of them had the same idea towards modern life. Kaczynski was anti-technology. Thoreau in a sense was as well. I’ve also been interested in Earth First, like Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, and all those guys who are super interested in preserving what we have left of the American West.

Maybe, for people who don’t know, say a little bit more about The Monkey Wrench Gang.
The Monkey Wrench Gang is a book by Edward Abbey. It’s a fictional book, but Earth First, who are these environmental terrorists or eco-terrorists—they would probably deny that, but they do some crazy shit—they took his book quite literally. In the book, it has a group of individuals, moving through the West, organized under a common ideal, which was preserving what was left. So they would go out there, destroy tractors and burn billboards and do all kinds of weird things. I had heard about the book when I was younger, but had never read it until last year. I was pissed because the work that I’ve been making over the last few years, every now and then I’ll make a billboard project. I have a weird relationship with those in that I love the structures they’re on, they stand for things that I believe in, the efficiency and the economy that they’re made with, but then the images that are presented on them. It’s a revolving door of images and lifestyles that may contradict one another, and they’re all presented on the same material. I’m interested in a material language more so than a visual language, in my work anyway. And the Monkey Wrench Gang have a beautiful relationship to materials. One of the Earth First guys, Dave Foreman, wrote this book called The Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, where he describes how to go about destroying tractors—there’s drawings of everything—how to burn billboards down. One thing that they talk about is mixing hair gel with chlorine. The two materials I love because one, they’re totally mundane, ordinary materials that all of us have come into contact with at one point or another. The chlorine is the swimming pools, which I think relates to a certain lifestyle of luxury, play or whatever. The hair gel is, well, you get style-y and do your hair up and all that and the colors that it comes in are so exciting. But at the same time there’s a horror hidden behind these materials that I think the Monkey Wrench Gang and Dave Foreman are able to find that, and Kaczynski, where they can mix ordinary materials to a destructive end. I love that. I think it’s a sculptural thing or at least I want it to be.

Well there’s a lot of ideas wrapped up together in the way you’re speaking about the Monkey Wrench Gang, Kaczynski, Thoreau. They’re all intensely idealistic even though we may or may not agree with their ideals, and somehow, in a very interesting way, you connect that to a purity in relationship to material, which is a very modernist idea, which connects you… some people might know you have an architecture background.
Yeah, and they ram that stuff down your throat in architecture school. It’s an awesome thing, I loved it. The truth to materials idea is amazing. I think modernism now is not that. I think Ikea’s the closest thing to real modernism now than anything else. In the beginning, Corbusier was like, “Low income housing, let’s make things affordable, modular, that’s the way to do it. We can make this stuff and get it out there to the people.” And now it’s expensive. All those forms have moved up the rungs in terms of classes and it’s kind of crazy, where Ikea’s dirt cheap still.

Yeah, it’s interesting, it makes me think that normally, when most people think of modernist ideas of purity, we think of more earthbound materials like stone and more clean lines and that kind of thing but you’re actually bringing that part of modernist sensibility to highly artificial material, which is a really interesting leap. I think a good example is the way you pour plastic, this incredibly toxic, artificial chemical, material, that you actually treat with an interest in the integrity of what that strange material is.
Yeah, the plastic is a urethane and urethane, polyurethane, it’s like the Coca-Cola of building materials. It’s everywhere. People use it in jackets to waterproof them, you can find it in insulation in houses, they’re building buildings out of Styrofoam. It can become rigid, translucent, transparent, it comes in every form imaginable. I can relate that to what you’re saying about modernism is the sense that I think at that time, they were using materials that were cutting edge, up to date, contemporary, which was concrete and all of that, which was part of an evolution that’s ongoing now where we’ve moved away from more monolithic materials—the stone, wood, you can even see it in sculpture, architecture, all across the board. It goes into concrete and more processed materials. And now into this urethane and Styrofoam. You can see the transformation happening from stone to Styrofoam and I think it’s a reflection of the way we see ourselves.

How do you mean?
Well, if you look at the history of sculpture… Take figurative sculpture for example. We always make things as a mirror image of ourselves. They always reflect whatever is going on in our heads at the time.

And also, sculpture tends to always in some way be in relationship to the physical body.
I think so. You can see our priorities towards materials, our attitude toward material, nature, all of that stuff, toward production, it’s all built in. So if you look at those early works, just classical works, it’s a monolithic, formal representation of the body. It’s a superficial thing, not in a negative way, but in the sense that it’s about the surface and how light bounces off of it and all of that. It think that architecture at the time was the same thing and now it’s moved away towards an alloy, to a combination of more processed materials, and it can be mixed and matched. I think it relates to our ability to shop, the availability of things nowadays… I guess I lost track of your question.

No, that’s okay. That’s a nice segue actually into talking about Classical sculpture and Classical materials because you often use, not Classical sculptures, but replicas of Classical sculptures and you drill into them, pore through them, take them apart. There’s a real playful, aggressive relationship that you have with that material.
Well, the Classical figures I use, to me they’re like Hello Kitty. They’re totally meaningless objects. I look at them and I can see how we relate to them. Again, before I even touch them I think that they’re made for specific reasons, or they exist in the world now and still, in the material they’re in and the way they look, for particular reasons. So, I think, when I read them, we’re interested in preserving an image of the past—because they’re all based on famous sculptures. They may not be the right size, so scale is not an important issue in terms of preserving the past. We don’t put much importance on scale. We definitely don’t care about material because they’re all mass-produced in fiberglass or plaster—cheap, easy. They’re all hollow. It’s not about being monolithic anymore. They’ll last, but they won’t last that long. So, before you touch them, you start to read into them all of these priorities and our ideals of who we think we are now. They have an illusion of importance, or decadence almost. The history is there but not there. For me, it just made sense as a starting point, where I should start a sculpture. Why not start with an existing sculpture? The thing is they’re more tchotchkes, their role in the world now, than they are sculptures. But they exist and they’re out there, sitting on the art freeway, kind of trying to catch a ride. So I pick them up and bring them into the conversation and see what happens. But, yeah, I just destroy them and break them and build inside of them or on them or whatever.

And related to that, when we think about those Classical sculptures, they have that monolithic nature, or they did, where they’re heavy, they last. Your sculpture—and I think it’s something that connects to some other of your sculptures—there’s this provisional quality of things leaning against each other. They look like they could sometimes fall apart. I’m very aware that something was just poured then it stopped when it got hard. That’s such a contrast to the idea of something very weighty and permanent.
For me it’s about the reality of the materials, like what they can do, whether it’s the plastic and you just see what happens when you pour it out of a cup. When something goes from liquid to solid, it’s kind of like, “Well, what do you do with it?” I think you just show that that’s what it does. It goes back to the modernist ideals in architecture from when I was in school, the truth to materials. I think that’s important. There’s enough fiction in the world right now, like you turn on the TV shows, the billboards are all shot in studios. It’s a certain fictitious lifestyle that these products are promising. I don’t know, I’m not so into that. I think the reality is always more shocking than fiction.

That also makes me think, through all of this conversation and from looking at your work, that sneaking through the cracks of everything there is a kind of idealism in you. But it’s bruised in a way. You’re damaging things and you’re playing really hard with history, but it’s not cynical and it’s not ironic at all. I just saw, at David Zwirner, some Donald Judd sculptures, and they’re not the wood ones, they’re the artificial metal and plastic. So you’re working with similar materials, but that era—minimalist sculpture—has an overt weighty seriousness that your work doesn’t seem to have.
I mean, I take it seriously. The minimalist stuff, I have a weird relationship to because, like a lot of things in the past, we reduce them to just beautiful objects and don’t really care what they are about or they’re position at the time they were made. I think about that Kaczynski stuff, the objects that I got, and how their meaning is totally stripped. When you take that out of context or you forget the history of it, then it’s just a sweatshirt or an axe or a pipe or whatever. But when you tell someone what it is, it’s scary. Maybe that’s happened to minimalism as well. The horror, the shock, the seriousness of the objects is somewhat gone and they’re just beautiful things to look at. Some of the premise of all those works, I don’t really—I get it, but I got it when I was three years old, like how I relate to objects in space. That’s like the first thing we understand as humans, like, “Oh, I’m shorter than that. That’s behind me, to the left, up, down, left, right.” That’s being human. To take that super-seriously as an older person is kind of weird. [laughs]

Yeah, it sort of goes without saying. I don’t question at all your seriousness, but it makes me think about how now—I don’t think it’s just in sculpture, I think it’s in most art, that there isn’t really room for earnestness. But earnest feelings are a very fundamental part of being human. We share them intimately and with friends. But they have to be snuck into art now, I think. I think they do sneak into your work, but it’s very coded. I guess I have a real strong image—based on my imagination—of you in Nevada as a kid, playing around, and your relationship to landscape. When I look at one of those big, burnt-out, post-apocalyptic billboards, it places me in landscape and your relationship to landscape.
I think that’s important, too. Because abstraction now is very, kind of… I could get beat up for saying this, but lazy. Like, how casual can we be with these materials? I like it in a way because it’s not taking itself super-seriously, like those guys were.

Like the minimalists, you mean?
Yeah. But at the same time, that shit is fucking everywhere.

Yeah it is.
It’s getting boring. But I think it’s pretty and easy and acceptable. So a lot of people are playing that game right now. In terms of materials, all that stuff is about balancing and leaning things. Going to the “earnest” thing, it’s earnest in the way that it appears to be, but I don’t think it is at the end of the day.

Well, another thing I’ve been thinking about is the ambition in your work. You very freely pull on all kinds of threads of history, the really old Renaissance sculpture, or—I was looking at some of your work online today, Service Alloy, one of the pieces which is almost a cage with objects inside and made me think of those Duchamp sculptures. You pull on a lot of threads without hesitation and I don’t think there’s any accident that your first solo show here was called Breaking and Entering because it’s like you’re kicking your way into history.
Yeah, that would be nice. [laughs] That piece, again, is a figurative sculpture. All of the objects inside are organized according to how the body is organized. There are chunks of fiberglass Classical sculptures that I have in there, there’s a plaster bust, so it’s a head-to-toe organization. Then some various tools taken from The Monkey Wrenchers’ Field Guide mixed in with all that stuff to make a new portrait of who I think we are, or I am, now.

One thing we haven’t spoken about yet is, in terms of your relationship to the bodies and, sometimes quite literally the bodies that you work with—a skeleton or an old sculpture, there is a kind of medical feel, like you’re dissecting. Those big pins you use make me think of acupuncture or medical charts. Also, very playfully, the skeleton piece from your last show was called, You Will Die of Something. I’m not sure exactly what I’m asking, but that kind of inside/outside of the body, mortality, those things are in there, too.
I think those ideas have always been there in some way with my work. But then I was doing some boring reading about Classical society, like Roman life way back when. I came across this guy called a haruspex. He was almost a soothsayer or a fortuneteller in a way. When they were interested in developing a new city or camp, they would send him out to the potential site and we would collect animals and dissect them. Their innards were seen as a mirror of the outside world. So, the health of the guts reflected the health of the landscape it was found in. I thought that was amazing because it seemed empirical in a way. You can apply that to the human body as well and you can reverse it also to look at the built environment now, outside the window, and see that as a reflection of who we are inside. Not our guts, necessarily, but definitely our ideas because it’s all constructed by us. There’s that painting by Rembrandt, where the doctor Tulp… I can’t remember…

Is it the medical class?
Yeah, the doctor dissecting a cadaver and there’s like five dudes standing there, looking extremely interested. For me, it’s a painting of the surgeon showing man to men. We’re all made of the same stuff, but the inside is something that we’re totally unfamiliar with. So they’re seeing themselves anew, like they’ve never seen themselves before. And the painting just shows a guy pulling at some tendons in the cadaver’s wrist, it’s nothing spectacular. But at the time it’s kind of amazing. I just want to have that relationship to sculpture or the built world or whatever I’m interested in.

When you cut open these sculptures we see hollow plastic.
Yeah, I think that’s part of it. You see what these things are actually made of. I don’t use paint on my sculptures, I don’t try to make them look like something they’re not. Just look at what’s right there in front of you, the material. Try and find the figure in there.

I remember you said to me when I visited your studio that there were maybe two scraps of sandpaper in your studio and that was it.
Yeah, I don’t use that stuff. The stuff I make, I don’t want it to mimic the level of production that’s expected of things outside my studio. You go to the store and you see things and I feel like, of anyone out there, the artists are not meant to mimic the standards that are set for us when we’re brought into this world. I think we’re supposed to question that and do whatever the hell we want to do, follow our own rules.

At the same time, interestingly, you go about making sculptures of finding a dirty beauty or a gorgeousness in much different ways. Say, those sculptures where you drilled holes through them and poured plastic. It’s a very gorgeous, gunky, almost gory thing. But it’s not from a precious manipulation. It’s really the opposite of that.
The holes in those things, where the plastic is poured through, is a structural thing. I was really worried that the plastic just around the perimeter of the object wasn’t going to be enough structure to hold itself up. So I was like, “All right, we’ll put some holes in there, we’ll run through.”

So it came out of a practical concern initially?
Yeah. The holes in the other ones where the balls are coming out. Just spaced them evenly throughout the thing and the balls reference the chemical guts.

It’s interesting that despite the sometimes seeming casualness or, not casualness, that’s not quite the right word, but you are always thinking about balance and proportion.
Yeah, I hate that shit though. In architecture school, you never make a building, you make drawings. So, if your drawing looks good then your building is good. That’s the relationship you have with what you’re making. My father’s an architect and I grew up looking at all of his books, my entire life, and all you look at is the photographs. You understand architecture through images. Then I went to school and you make architecture through images. I had this weird and inaccurate understanding of what things are based on that, which I think you can break down into proportion. If it looks good on the page maybe it’s good in reality. I think as a culture that’s how we understand things now, through the images.

You have multiple streams within your work, but one of them that stumps me more than others are those large architectural templates. As you spoke about your father, I thought, in an interesting way our physical relationship—these are templates that would in reality, if a similar object existed for architecture, it would be quite small, I would assume. But these are quite large, so we’re actually very small in relation to them. So, it’s kind of a kid perspective.
It is in a way. I just scaled them all up from their original size, which is quite small, usually smaller than a piece of paper. But I scaled them all up to 48” wide, which is a standard unit for building. Plywood comes in that size. You could probably measure this room out in terms of four-foot increments. We build things in cheap ways, so it’s like we will have to cut less wood and waste less wood if we divide it up into four-foot increments. I feel like that relates directly to the use of templates in architecture, a series of standardized forms that can be reproduced forever and used under any circumstance. They’re all made of materials that mirror that idea as well, whether it be Formica, urethane, some aluminum. All of the templates put together you could build some type of of building. So there’s an HVAC system—heating, ventilation, air conditioning—there’s a bathroom template, there’s furniture, all mixed in there.

So they all very much relate to the physical world we live in, in terms of the spaces we inhabit, but they’re things that most of us wouldn’t normally encounter. An object that has these shapes cut through it that actually relate to everything that we use.
That line of thinking goes back to some of the stuff with the balls, reducing things to diagrams in order to understand them. The balls go back to a diagrammatic way of thinking, the templates are the same way—reducing things to simple increments. It’s a way of understanding something much larger in a simple way, but I think at the same time, if we don’t like what we’re seeing, we’ll change it to a form we can understand. And maybe miss the point entirely. I think the materials and the templates are all about that, and the diagrams.

You’ve had a pretty intense year and your year continues to be pretty intense. It’s been career boot camp in a way, in a very exciting way. A lot has been happening. I wonder how that is for you, in terms of your time in the studio. It’s a very exciting time, but it’s a different kind of pressure on your practice, I would think.
I’m pretty easygoing in the studio, I think. I don’t get too angry when shit hits the fan, but all I do now is skateboard a little bit and work in the studio. It’s seven days a week, eight, ten hours a day, sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s crazy. Because it’s all I do, I don’t feel a ton of pressure at certain days or certain hours. If I don’t do it at 10:00 AM,  I can do it at 10:00 PM. It’s a pretty fluid practice like that.

It sounds like an okay life.
Yeah, it’s not bad. I want to put some quarter pipes in there. We got a ping-pong table, so the studio is a place where people can hang out as well. And my studio, hopefully, will be everyone’s studio. Come by if you need to do a special project or whatever, I don’t care. Because it’s hard to find space in this city, so if I can get it, I hope other people can benefit from it. Why not?

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk.

And good luck with the next couple of months. I know you have a lot to do.
[laughs] Yeah, thanks.