Ornament as Content: Shannon Bool talks to Rosemary Heather

Shannon Bool, The Serpent Heart, Photogram (2006) 131 x 101 cm Version 2 of 3, 1 Artist´s Version


You used to do work on paper and now what do you do?

SB I’m still doing work on paper but I’m doing a lot of different things, a lot of photograms, photo collages, painting and drawings still, installation pieces or room pieces – pieces that are specifically adapted to exhibition space.

RH And what’s the thing that ties it all together?

SB I guess the content that I’m working with is similar in different works that I make. But then I always come to a different sensibility in making it. So something might lend itself to becoming a photogram or something might become a silk painting. Or something might become an architectural sort of project but this comes usually within the process or even before the process when I’m thinking about what I want to make. I want to work with this picture I found in the flea market. Or I want to work with the The Golden Notebook. Or I want to work with Martha Graham. And these things are usually parts of bigger bodies of work…I usually have two or three kind of bodies of work that are close together in content and then I try to keep free with the technical aspects of making it. Because often I make things more than once and the way I make it has to be very specific for it to function. I guess it’s kind of about form and function too.

RH You know what you want, you know how to get it and then you just…

SB Yeah, you just kind of pick up things along the way. Because the way something is made or using different mediums I think is just a sensibility that comes with trying to be really clear about saying something in a unclear way that doesn’t relate directly to the content. So my process is really necessary to show itself as content. And this is something I think that merges together with the original starting point of the idea that I have.

RH Why do you want to say something clearly in an unclear way?

SB I mean to say something in a non-narrative way, not one-to-one with the original, the original content or form rather, because I often use a photo or make reference to something that already exists. And so I don’t want to just simply appropriate – it just doesn’t work for me to work with one-to-one appropriation.

RH This is something I noticed, for instance, in Six or Seven Wolves (2005-2006), that the wolves are depicted in an indistinct way.

Shannon Bool, Six or seven wolves (glossy version) Photogram (2006) 162 x 101 cm Version 3 of 3, 1 Artist´s Version

SB Yeah.

RH And then also there’s only five of them…

SB Yes. This is a good example. I can take you through the process this way. This was in the Case Studies…Freud’s case study, “the Wolfman” where the patient’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder was traced back to this dream that he had explained in one of his sessions. He had this dream when he was about three or four, he said. And he looked out his window and he saw the six or seven wolves and they looked like white huskies. They looked like they were white wolves with (sheepdog) tails, they had really bushy tails and they were all staring at him. And it was completely unheimlich, uncanny. And he did a drawing in one of his sessions with Freud and he only drew…there’s five wolves I think in the photographs. He only drew five wolves in his drawing but he said there were six or seven wolves. So because of this Freud went through I think four pages of his own interpretation of why these two wolves could have been missing. He thought that the two wolves maybe stood for his mother because he had seen his mother having sex with his father’s wife in the doggy style position. And another example was, there was a fairy tale in Europe called the Wolf and the Seven Little Kids. It’s kind of like Little Red Riding Hood but with more characters. And I think there’s something about all of the kids getting eaten except for one who hides in the clock case-Freud also connects this fairy tale because the wolf has the baker whiten his paws to trick the baby goats.

RH Four pages of Freud’s analysis specifically about the fact that those two wolves were missing.

SB So what I wanted to do was to try and make my photogram as similar compositionally as I could to this drawing from Pankejeff, I think his name was, the patient. So I went through like literally hundreds of images of walnut trees without leaves to try and find one that worked like the one in the book, in the drawing that I had seen. And one of the reasons that the wolves were kind of similar is because I drew them myself. And when I was younger I drew, I think this is one of those Canada things, like I drew animals, wolves, wild animals quite a lot. So it’s just natural to draw wild animals…I researched Arctic wolves; I found them in the right positions and added these sheepdog tails. And then in the whole lighting process with the photogram you don’t really have that much control over what it’s going to look like because I’m using cheap computer prints on A3 transparent paper in this work in particular. And so how the wolves and the tree come together in the end is kind of out of my control to see how the borders will look or what will happen. I guess what I am what I’m trying to do is to clearly determine a certain kind of psychological space. Or a certain kind of attitude that comes from my re-assessment of a lot of different material values and a lot of different stores of meaning that comes from working through what I see.

RH This is quite clear, that you create this psychological space and the image of wolves looking at you seems very powerful. And it also has this real world reference to this actual psychoanalytic case study, a famous case study. This creates a division between the way the wolves are depicted and the idea of what’s depicted, and what’s beyond the surface of the work. This connects to what you were saying before about how the work embodies a relationship to the content.

SB Yes.

RH You said in a previous conversation that your goal was to create ornament as content?

SB Yes, something that John Dewey said is that ornament is usually dissociated from its sourced content. So if you have for example a Heriz carpet. I have a Heriz carpet at home.

RH What is that?

SB It’s a region in Persia. I stare at it all the time. The emblems and the ornaments in the Heriz carpet have been divorced for their original tribal and political associations. So two hundred years ago, three hundred years ago, the ornaments in these carpets served as a kind of admission to cultural meaning for the people who lived in this town who made these carpets. And then these carpets became very valued in the West. They became really popular because they’re quite tough and they’re also very harmonious, very geometric. And so they started to change the ornament based on the wishes of the Western consumer. So now a Heriz doesn’t have the same ornamental values, the meaning of the ornament is not there like it was before. It’s made for Western people now (and) the ornament isn’t associated with the meaning of the town itself. And this is something that I find interesting because when you’re using ornament today you can’t really take the face value of what it means.

SB In my Six or Seven Wolves drawings series, I was using ornament as an atmospheric quality. Its less of decorative thing. But then as I came further along I realized how ornament can kind of, can function as a base in its own right. You can take these…the original context it gets suspended and it becomes something else. It indicates something different than you would originally expect, something that’s not decorative. The purpose becomes depth in itself. Normally when you see ornament, you think of it as something that covers the surface, and it makes things pleasing to a viewer because you have a scientific relationship to geometric configurations that makes you feel good when you look at them. That’s why ornament can be very dangerous because it’s a cheap draw-in for the viewer. You don’t want to kill with kindness.

RH What do you mean dangerous?

SB If you work with ornament and it’s not specific it can just be something that, it can just be a pleasing element. It can be a darling, you know it can be something that you…

RH Which is not what you’re trying to do.

SB No. But I see it in contrast to using something that draws the viewer in. I think the draw, the ornament…I see it as its own entity. These days for example if you want to try and use Cartesian perspective to show deep space it’s really like a sleeping pill because you can’t compete with Hollywood. You can’t compete with all of these special effects things that have really simplified and flattened deep space. And so what I would like to do or what I try to do in some of my work, or a lot of my work, is to look deeply at a surface and to see what the surface resolves in a deeper way.

RH This segue ways nicely to the floor work Schraegraum (2005) This is a Photoshop work that actually translates Photoshop perspective into real thing on the floor?

SB Yeah it was more about the idea of living with a material on a regular basis. So we have a lot of surfaces that we take for granted.

RH Yes.

SB Or surfaces that are just in our space. So something like a laminate, it’s kind of a paradox that we accept it as a real spatial existence.

RH Right.

SB And also I think a lot of artistic developments take an angle on, on certain materials or certain kind of technology when it hasn’t really been pushed to its limit. We don’t really know how we can translate an idea like laminate into a different space. And it’s also dealing with more of like a suburban sensibility as opposed pop culture. Some kind of breakdown of values that are just generally taken for granted in a visual space.

RH I don’t think it’s a very common concern at the moment of dealing with conceptual issues in two-dimensional representation? It seems to me what you’re doing is kind of unique.

SB Yeah it’s not; it’s not a common practise definitely.

RH No, it’s not like the big collective project to develop cubism.

SB Yeah that’s true.

RH Maybe you can give some more examples of the idea of surface and space. What about Origin/Inversion (2005) It’s a wall drawing and it’s drawings of carpets?

SB Yeah, it’s both. One of the carpets is from a painting by Jan van Eyck and the other one is from a painting from Hans Memling. They’re both from paintings from the fifteenth century. Perspective started to get configured back into painting at this time. But these are paintings from the Northern Renaissance. And instead of this Cartesian Italian approach where it’s almost like a stage set because the perspective is so perfectly crafted, (where a narrative is really balanced into the composition), what you have with the artists who were working in the North, like Jan van Eyck especially and Hans Memling is a very meticulous rendering of surface. So the end effect is more a kind of atmospheric sense of content, the content is less about the narrative that’s happening and more about the resonance of the different materials that are depicted. And this is also the origin that I have of the work, Schrägraum (2005), the laminate (floor). Schrägraum is a term from Panofsky. He’s talking about how the perspective of the Northern Renaissance painters is often crooked. Because they didn’t have the linear perspective perfectly executed. What comes out of that is a different reading of the space. He wrote about its’ psychological quality, which I find interesting, too). So this (my point of origin in) working with these kinds of surface materials to see how they resonate into a new reading of space.

RH Well I mean, why put the drawing of the carpet on the wall?

SB I wanted to make it architectural, (and bodily)

RH It’s in the corner.

SB I designed it on the computer to go in the corner. In the original paintings, the carpets were on the ground and then the perspective goes up the floor with the carpet. Each carpet serves as the starting point of the painting‘s perspective. And what I did was I put them together, because they both have a slightly different perspective, and inverted them on the wall.

RH Then there’s the pedestal.

SB This is a piece of laminate that I also wanted to ground it with another aspect of fake material that would add to this atmospheric quality. So I, I built (the) sculpture to rest on the floor to give it more resonance.

RH It’s like an apron.

SB Oh yeah.

RH And then there’s this coffee stain here. What is it?

SB That’s a wheel.

RH Oh, okay.

SB This is the Wheel of St. Catherine.

RH Uh, huh.

SB Because this is from the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine by Memling, And it’s St. Catherine’s wheel. These carpets are all from the Ottoman time. These paintings also show the emergence of capitalism at this time. The fact that people started to trade with the Orient. And this is one of the first examples of…

RH Merchant capitalism.

SB It’s a good example of ornamental qualities being taken out of their context and used in another artistic platform.

RH The ornament from the carpet being used in the painting.

SB Yeah, then it becomes about the wealth of the church and doesn’t have the tribal connotations anymore.

RH I was interested to hear you speak about your process being dissociative. So maybe you could talk more about that?

SB Well, the idea of dissociation in its basic terms is the idea of splitting off. So it’s the idea of you losing contact with the present world and going somewhere else but in a non-hallucinatory way. It’s more about splitting from yourself. I connect this to drawing and the process of making work. What I find interesting is to use a sometimes very dissociative process of making work, which has to do with the repetition of making. The idea of making ornament is also very dissociative. If you look at Outsider Art – or art from The Prinzhorn Collection, for example – a lot of it is extremely dissociative.

RH What’s The Prinzhorn Collection??

SB It’s in Heidelberg. He was a psychiatrist who started collecting his patient’s work and naming it “art” in its own right. I think it was in the 1920’s. (I am off in the original, it was from 1919-1922 that he really started collecting) There’s a permanent exhibition in Heidelberg, you can go and see it. And then Dubuffet and Art Brut took up these ideas. With this kind of art you don’t have the division between the self and the paper. The ego of the person goes directly onto the work itself. There’s also some sort of psychic connection to what you’re making. But when I think of dissociation it’s this idea of, especially when I’m using something like ornament, I’ll start with a very analytical perspective of something that I want to make; or something that I want to say. Then in the process of making it something else comes up and often this has to do more with continuing the process itself than staying with the narrative content. And it starts to layer itself and its something that you can’t really edit that carefully. You can’t start from the beginning and say oh, the work is going to be like that or I think the work should look like that because it never works out that way.

RH So you use narrative references, like ornament, to create content about the process of making art.

I think that relates to the fact that you it does create a psychological space in your work, like in Six or Seven Wolves, for instance. So, maybe we can talk a little bit more about that?

SB Yeah.

RH It’s kind of a fraught psychological space.

SB I guess you just never want to make it easy for the viewer.

Shannon Bool
Shannon Bool, Ostkreuz (2006) Oil on silk, 163 x 122 cm

RH Why not?

SB This is something that you can connect ornament to. The idea that it’s a comfort zone. It’s like icing or it can be like mashed potatoes in a work. And if you have too much of that it becomes less about creating the work in a smart way or understanding more complicated aspects of the work. It doesn’t go deep into anywhere, not even the surface. It just kind of satiates the viewer. And it has to do with being comfortable within your own process and comfortable within your studio process, and what you’re using, the materials you’re using. This mannerism that’s created, it’s dangerous. It’s the dangerous thing about ornament and it’s something that you have to avoid.

RH Have you read Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime?

SB Yeah, it’s great. But Loos was really hard on ornament. He compared ornament to Maori facial tattoos (I don’t want to quote Loos directly with “savages”), that they have ornament even on their face shows how lower they are the Darwinian scale. And he (wrote) about prisoners, that they tattoo and decorate their bodies and how this is another example of how low ornament is. I thought it was brutal when I first read it. But then the first time I went to Vienna I could see his point of view because everything is so ornate and decadent there. And then you go into this café that he designed, the Museum Café and it’s just like a breath of fresh air. And you see these Art Nouveau buildings everywhere and just coating after sugar coating of ornament. So I think that for ornament to function is has to be aware of this aspect of cancelling itself out. It has to know its limitations.

RH I read a book by Rebecca West, a book of essays. In one of them about the Nuremburg Trials, she said something about how she could see in German architecture the non-restrained detailing was indicative of the decay of that civilization.

SB But this is true in every art movement you have a point where the scales start to tip and the work becomes comfortable with itself and it becomes, it stops functioning because it knows what it’s doing too well. So that’s why I think ornament is dangerous because it has to be used in a new way. You have to look at it in a way that looks at its intrinsic value- not just its original intrinsic value, but the terms of how it functions in a space today.

RH Well bearing in mind this idea that it’s dangerous, this is one of the main tendencies in your work ornamentation, pattern, detail…And it occurs to me that this dissidence is built into it, there’s always a disruption in the pattern field…

SB This is this wall-paper work Liquid Pizzeria (2004) where I had an architect design this disruption in this pattern from cheap pizzeria wallpaper that you find in pizzerias in Germany. I wanted to use this idea of futurism, of depicting motion and space but using the wallpaper as the background for this motion. So I had an architect design this swirl for the wallpaper but then I hand collaged it because I wanted to, to me if I had just printed it out on the computer this work would have been too boring. So when you see it, it has these hand collaged little bits in it so it really slows down the reading of the work. Which is really mucked up.

RH But I mean this swirl, it’s a brick pattern, no?

SB Yeah.

RH And when you asked this architect to do it, what did you ask him to do?

SB I wanted to have some photo disruption in the space so she just showed me different designs and ideas and we sat through a session of looking at different things that could happen and then I decided on this one.

RH Can you talk about the floor?

SB Yeah, I just, this is an idea; this is another very dissociative idea. And I thought this work was really formal.

RH What’s it called?

SB It’s called, Partially Renovated Floor (2004) And it’s funny, because I thought this work was very, very clean and formal and then a conceptual artist that I met told me that it is more of a fetish work.

RH Oh, yeah that’s interesting.

SB Which is true.

RH Yeah, yeah.

SB And I think this work is highly dissociative because it came from being in one of the studios I worked in when I was at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt and staring at the floor for a year. It had originally been a studio from the Hermann Nitsche class so there was a lot of shit on that floor.

RH And, basically, you scraped it away?

SB I just renovated a part of it. But then you see the difference, and one of the reasons I did it was that the floors are very, very expensive hardwood floors, they picked the best kind of hard wood floor for the studios.

RH Is it parquet?

SB Parquet for the studio spaces and these studio spaces were supposed to become painting studios and the architect knew that but he still wanted this floor.

RH Right.

SB And then after twenty years it was covered, you could just barely see some of the lines of what had been underneath.

RH So what is this covered in?

SB You can see close up, like, just paint and dirt.

RH It’s just dirt.

SB Well mostly paint. I think. Like it’s mostly just oil paint that gets squished in different layers over the years. And then worn in dirt that gets stuck to the paint and also some other stuff like beer and…

SB But then one of the things that I found interesting… other content comes up after you sand through. I was showing a different part of the Staedelschule from a time when it was so rich. The school was so rich in the 80’s that they would send full classes of students off to China, all expenses paid for two weeks. And they had the money to say, oh, we’ll use the best parquet for the painting studios, no problem. So when you make these sorts of gestures,( like sanding and polishing the floor) other information gets implicated (into) the original intention.

This interview originally appeared in C Magazine, Issue 92.
Shannon Bool is represented by Galerie Kadel Willborn.

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