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Currently on view at Pioneer Works is a show of monumental sculpture by the artist Charles Harlan. “Flood” includes large-scale works, made-up of unassuming material like brick, fencing, and shingles. The Red Hook-based artist spoke with Whitewall after about his process, choice in medium, and use of the unique exhibition space.
WHITEWALL: What first made you interested in working with industrial products?
CHARLES HARLAN: I’ve always found beauty in building materials, and I think what they represent is really profound. The physical objects that we build our homes with, and surround ourselves with as a culture really has always said a lot about who we are at any particular place and time on the planet.
WW: Could you briefly describe your creative process? Do you first get an idea and then seek out the materials to create it, or are the materials the source of inspiration behind the structures?
CH: Really, a lot of my ideas just come from being around Brooklyn. My studio is in Red Hook, which is still a fairly industrial neighborhood. Walking around I will see something in the street, and have an art experience with it. That uncanny feeling of encountering an object and being uncertain whether it is art or not, or whether it could possibly be art or not, is an experience I try to duplicate with my sculpture. But yes, the materials themselves are often a source of inspiration—how they look stacked, or packed for shipping. It’s like an accidental aesthetic that translates well into sculpture.
WW: Despite your work being large-scale stationary objects, they nonetheless suggest movement. For example, Water (2016) requires the viewers to move around the sculpture to gain different perspectives, while Fence (2016) drapes along the floor in an almost snake-like motion. What do you think is important about the relationship between stillness and motion in your work?
CH: We think of stillness and motion as opposites, and one idea that is a constant inspiration for me is the hermetic idea of alchemy, which is ultimately about the reconciliation of opposites in the mind. Motion and stillness are units of the same thing, only different by degree. So, for example, the Tree wall sculptures featured in “Flood” (in which a tree has grown up and through a chain link fence) are neither man-made, nor completely natural. They are this strange hybrid being that to me is the perfect example of transmutation—they are the polarities of humanity and nature made whole.
WW: Gallery and institutinoal settings usually contextualize the objects within them as art. Do you find that the interpretation of your art changes depending on the context it is situated in?
CH: This is a very common consideration for anyone whose work touches on the readymade. Because really, the art moment happens when the found object is re-contextualized. And for me it goes back to what I mentioned before about walking around Red Hook. The experience of an art object, whether in a gallery, or in the street is just as powerful. And I find that blurry zone between the different contexts interesting.
WW: How did this project at Pioneer Works come about? What was the starting point?
CH: My friend, David Everitt Howe, who curated the show, suggested we do something at Pioneer Works. So we began going back and forth with ideas. We have a great relationship and he really pushed me, and because of that we came to the idea for the Water sculpture, which is a large brick cube with a basin of water inside. I don’t think I would have ever come to that piece without his input. It was really helpful seeing my work through someone else’s perspective.
WW: Could you describe how working with Pioneer Works differs from other gallery shows you’ve participated in? Did the location and setting of Pioneer Works influence the design of this exhibition?
CH: This is very much a site-specific installation. For one, Pioneer Works is only a few blocks from my studio, and the show is really about Red Hook in a way. But the viewing space inside Pioneer Works is so unique and special. David really wanted me to think about the verticality of the place. So the Fence piece—in which I hung a chain link fence with vinyl privacy inserts from the ceiling—tries to address that idea. Seeing the piece hang from that kind of height has a really disorienting affect. But with the Water piece I really wanted to take advantage of the mezzanine like layout at Pioneer Works. The second and third floors of the building overlook the gallery space, and create all these great vistas from which to see sculpture. From the first floor, the brick cube seems mundane and minimal. But from a higher perspective, the piece unfolds and becomes much more complicated. That is completely a product of working with Pioneer Work’s architecture, and something that really sets this show apart from previous projects.
WW: What is the main thing you hope visitors take away from their experience?
CH: I just hope nobody throws anything in the pool!
“Flood” is on view through February 28.