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Timo Fahler and the Nuance of the Ordinary

Sebastian GladstoneComment

Next month Timo Fahler will be part of a group show at LAXART's new project space. I had the chance to speak with him about his new process-based wall and floor mounted sculptures. Fahler's new body of work is a compelling mixture of everyday objects that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also serve as strong ideas on identity, reality, and the unknown. Look for Fahlers work in the January 10th LAXART show as well as the new public works project Con Safos (C/S) in 2015. 

S.G:In a couple of sentences, could you tell me about your latest body of work?

TF: Not in a couple sentences; I could easily give a couple words, like experimentation. I think I’m transferring ideas from an overwrought sense of concept into strictly practice and, like I said, experimentation. Right now that's kind of what everything is about for me; seeing what I can do, how I can push materials, learn from them, and push them even further.

SG: You employ a sort of additive process where you kind of tack things onto each other. What attracts you to that and where are you leaving things to chance as opposed to intentional actions?

TF:  I would say I can't see the end result when I start, so the additive process starts because I’m kind of casting in reverse. What I’m seeing is the reverse imagery. The only thing I can really control is the placement of color. I can control where the linen is placed and whatever I pour, whether it's a concrete or hydrocal. That kind of secondary addition is where things go to chance because I can’t control the texture of things as it comes out. I can control it in a way where I add a lot more texture or have it as smooth as possible but there's still a lot of variables that are not necessarily known to me. Color is a little within my control. Again, whenever I talk about experimentation, like what I’m doing right now with hydrocal and cement by using color and additives, it’s something that I haven't seen and so there is nothing for me to work off of. There's no recipe when it comes to adding color to a product like that so I've been experimenting with different types of dyes, whether they’re clothing dyes or actual cement dyes.

SG: In your writing, you talk about how a lot of these pieces are very American. What elements of American culture are you responding to?

TF: I would say its more of an emotional element and I don't think it's visibly there, at least not yet, especially in the more sculptural forms. I think right now there are two different bodies of work happening; there is a kind of painterly wall sculpture and these other standard and more formal pedestal style pieces. I use that word ‘American’ because the body of work that I finished in graduate school was more about me exploring a cultural past that I didn't feel a part of and that's Mexican culture. I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I knew none of my father’s family. There's maybe 30 different relatives on my mother’s side of the family that are Mexican, my father being German. Throughout grad school I chose to really explore going down to Mexico and trying to establish contact with family members and cultural elements down there. That was a big and heavy part of my exploration at that point and once I began this newer body of work, what I wanted to do or maybe what I’ve come to realize these two years out of grad school, was more of a central idea of what it's like to be an American. And for me, I am first and foremost American. I was talking to somebody else about this the other day; the American dream is lost in our culture specifically and I say our culture as in maybe youth culture today. The American dream isn't what it used to be. I definitely explored this in the work that explored a Mexican culture coming to America, exploring the American dream, and trying to attain it. I grew up in America not feeling white, not feeling brown, and I am slowly coming to realize that that's what it is to be American, and so this work explores that in so much as it is an expression of my own desires and my own inadequacies. Because again, there's that question, "What does it mean to be American?" But also the answer is, like, “I am American.” I had a lot of trouble I think wrapping myself around that as a kid and even up into grad school. I didn't like to say that I was American. My choice was to explain that yes, I was born in America but, yes, my culture is Mexican and that's something that I’m trying to face in this body of work so you know it’s coming from me.

SG: Can you take me through your working process? What are some of the materials you use to create different textures?

TF: I am a huge fan of texture and I am also a big fan of cyclical and repetitive patterns. Also things that are unseen like simple patterns. A lot of times I’ll take molds from everyday materials that you don't really notice until you see them cast in the materials I use. The main material that I’m using right now is hydrocal because it's a stronger form of plaster that has a more longstanding presence than plaster; it doesn't deteriorate, and it holds to whatever material I'm casting. I’ve been using that and I've been using a type of cement called quikrete, which is also a material that is super long lasting and holds shape and form well. I like those materials because they themselves are kind of building materials and they're what I can afford right now. My degree is in ceramics but I can't afford to make and use ceramics at this point in time, so my technique in capturing those textures ranges. I'll go through silicon molds and sometimes I’ll use just regular plastic. Like I said, I find textures in different elements, a light cover for example. Styrofoam is something that I’ve been playing with. I’ll use cardboard and the inside of these cardboard tubes to get very subtle replications of texture. I've been using balloons a lot as well because I like these amorphous pieces. I think of Louise Bourgeois whenever I see these pieces come out because they're kind of like these bulbous, amorphous, almost alive objects and there are a lot of cellular connotations in them. I like to take textures and transform them into something else where they are reminiscent of their original texture but also, they've become something else and provide that question like, "What is this?" Then I really like whenever it incites, like, not only an emotional response but a physical response. If you want to touch the sculpture, then I really feel good about that.

SG: There's also a particular ambiguous repetition, can you tell me a little more about that?

TF: I think it goes back to the experimentation of the material. The repetition comes because each piece is a response to my previous piece. I experiment with the casting  and try to push it and try to push a certain amount of elements within it. What do I do with the linen placement and what do I do with the colorant that's added to the material and how do I mix say two or three materials together? How do the colors mix? What happens there? And then the textural element is ok, but what's happening with it when I'm throwing chicken wire underneath the plastic and when I just have plastic on smooth cement? So I’ll make a casting and I’ll pull the piece out and look at it, finding different elements that I really enjoy and maybe some elements that I'm not too comfortable with and push them in a further direction. The repetition in the wall mounted objects is, I mean, there's an obvious repetition in scale because they are all 14"x14" squares but beyond that it is basically one object leading into the next. If I were actually to set them up in a way where I would show you the first casting all the way to the last, you might be able to see different groupings and basically different points in which I learned oh I can do this or oh I can do that. I’m starting to focus on these different elements of color, texture, additives or even subtracted elements and then kind of building into a new group and pushing it as far as I can. At that point, I usually find something new I want to explore within the piece or something new that gets added into it.

SG: And you took your MFA at UCLA; coming from an MFA program what are some of the challenges you faced with making work after leaving school?

TF: I felt frozen. I definitely felt frozen outside of school. It's taken me two years to start on a body of work and there were a number of elements that came in there. There’s something that happens when you leave grad school, at least in my experience, where number one, you leave an institution like UCLA and I felt in the end that I didn't really utilize or maybe I didn't grasp a hold of the career mode of being an artist. Number two, by the end I was so heavily inundated with theory and concept and in graduate school they expect you, and rightfully so, to be fully proficient whenever it comes to materials and process and technique. So grad school for me was more of a focus on what are you talking about, why are you trying to say this, what does it mean, what does it mean, what does it mean? So coming out of grad school, or when I eventually started making work again, I was asking what does this mean before even making, and that paralyzed me because I couldn't work without thinking about what it was going to mean first. I had to stop and kind of strip any notion or idea of that form of making and go back to this basically early undergraduate style of working or even pre education pre institutional style of working which is just experimentation, play, fun, and exploration. Once I got back there and it became fluid and the work just started pouring out one after another after another after another then I was able to realize that that conceptual process that had been inundated in graduate school was still there, it was just more of a fluid like language. It just comes out of you because it's been instilled within you. It was almost as though I didn't even have to think about it ahead of time so much as it was parallel to the creative practice. In other words, it would be coming out simultaneously because theory and concept go in conjunction with experimentation and materials. At least at this point in my practice they have.  

SG: And I also noticed that your more recent work lies much more in the abstract, what do you think led you away from the figure?

TF: You know, when I started this body of work and I started to get caught up and, like I said, paralyzed I had to really stop and think about what I was doing and I was really grappling with why. I realized I had lost touch with the simplest or what I think to be the simplest notion behind not only creativity but making art and that is the aesthetic of beauty. I thought that different artists and also different people perceive beauty in different manners and so I wanted to create and make and look for and be involved in and be surrounded by things that I found beautiful. ‘Beautiful’ is obviously kind of a cliche, so things that interested me, but also things that I found to be exciting and that I enjoyed, I didn't want to get to be making work that I had to think about first. I go and look and work and if the work I prefer is work where I can enjoy it's beauty and then also pull out concept or theory at the same time, that’s great, but if I have to look at a piece of work and that work is telling me ‘you have to understand me before you can appreciate my beauty’ that really turns me off.

SG: Who are some contemporary artists you look to for inspiration?

TF: That is a very good question and I also hate that question. I work for two great artists, for Mary Weatherford and Dashiell Manley, and that said I can't help but look at their work. If I think about the work that I like or the work that I see, it's a lot of work that my friends are doing. I like Jon Pylypchuk, I've always been a fan of his work. But like I said, there's a lot of my friends that are in the same boat I am that are making amazing work. Kids I went to school with, Michael Kelly and Aaron Morrison, I really enjoy the work that they’re doing. I'm trying to think of, like, maybe shows that I've been to recently or things that I've seen that I've really enjoyed. There's a whole gambit of contemporary sculptors, I always mention Louise Bourgeois. I do like her work but I can't say that I look at it all the time and I guess that her being dead doesn't mean that she’s contemporary in the sense that she's living and making work, but I consider her work contemporary. I guess as a contemporary, I used to really be into Ursula von Rydingsvard.  There's an artist named Lee Bul, I liked her work a lot. Of course Mike Kelly but more so as just that quintessential artist, like there's certain bodies of his work that I adore but I think I like the idea that is Mike Kelly, the idea behind the artist Mike Kelly. I like the ability to fully engage yourself with the specific modality; fully focus, fully engage, fully explore this type of working until you've gotten what you wanted out of it and then you move on and your practice continues to develop and evolve in that manner and I think Mike Kelly is definitely one of the strongest artists to have done that. I love Paul McCarthy's work definitely; that guy has continually kind of pushed things in a way that I find to be very exciting.

SG: In your work, there is this sort of bridged gap between the formal tight knit pieces and then sort of rogue pieces that divulge into their own aesthetic. What about this duality interests you?

TF: That's a great question because the second type of work that you were talking about, that work allows me to get back to the first type of work you're talking about. You've got basically two types of work and when I first started graduate school I was showing some of the work I had made and showing some of the work that I had used to get into the school and a girl looked at me and said "I'm surprised seeing you, your work seems to be so formal." That kind of response surprised me and I guess I didn't really understand what it meant. As my own creative practice has evolved I used this, the work that kind of goes all over the place, in order to find new elements in my formal work. In other words, I make a practice of spewing things out, making a lot of work, making a lot of things, and kind of pushing these different and various limits. I push something to an extent of being like that shit freaks me out and I'll look at something and be like I don't like that, I'm not comfortable with it, and I don't want anybody else to see it and see I've made it. But that's how I get there and there are certain elements within it that I'm able to put in my formal work and my formal presentation but I don't discount those other works that are kind of rogue pieces. I don't discount the rogue pieces; I keep them around. Without those pieces, I feel like my work wouldn't evolve. One thing I learned from Barbara Kruger early in graduate school was once I stopped pushing myself I'm not really doing anything new. She encouraged me to continue to ask that question, to not get stagnant and to not get lazy. It's funny when I think about her work; you can see Barbara Kruger in a Barbara Kruger piece and it's quite possible that one day you would be able to see Timo Fahler in a Timo Fahler. At this point, I feel like these rogue pieces are very important in the progression of my more formal works.

SG: Lastly, your process seems much more about discovery that planned action, what do you like about working this way?

TF: My degree is in ceramics and it is a very unpredictable medium. There's something very impractical about that but I think that that's kind of where my enjoyment comes in and so I continue to work in mediums that act in that way. There is a way that you can pour a cement block and its predictable, there is also a manner in which I can work in that is more akin to the ceramic process. For example the 14"x14" pieces; I know that they are going to have those dimensions in the end, I do not however know where the folds, where the color, where the texture, where the subject matter will meet and then what's going to come out in the end. I like that I feel that question of the end and it’s really like opening a gift. It provides a lot of excitement for me because the other style of working, you know it’s not that I don't respect it, I have plenty of friends that work in this kind of predictable I'm putting this mark here and it suits its purpose’ way. I appreciate that way of working, it’s just not my way of working. I like the unpredictable because I think there is an excitement in that for me and that’s just it. I think if work were to lose that excitement or factor of unpredictability, once it does then it’s time for me to move onto something else, onto some other form of working.

To see more of Timo Fahler's work visit his website here