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interview: Peter Shelton
by george melrod
May 2012

Mixed media
70" x 50" x 42"
Private Collection New York
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA & Sperone Westwater, New York, NY

Los Angeles artist Peter Shelton is something of a tactile provocateur, creating conceptually disorienting objects that engage the viewer's body and mind alike. Yet his work is also rigorously, deliberately, made: eschewing the use of fabricators, Shelton crafts it himself with assistants in the studio, wrestling with issues of material, form and surface. Despite his relatively low profile, he is arguably one of the most significant sculptors of his generation. Shelton emerged in the late 1970s just as the field of sculpture itself was being transformed, from the reductivism of Minimalism, through a broad range of architectural, performative, experiential practices. His early installations often featured architectural elements and diverse objects that invited interaction with the viewer's body. By the late 1980s, his work had metamorphosed into discrete abstract sculptures that suggested organic body parts merged with clothing or architecture, or essential geometric shapes: objects that were engaging in scale and elusive in intent and steeped in their own brand of loopy anatomical whimsy. Spanning a striking variety of mediums, his works play off giddy contrasts of volume and mass, and notions of inside/outside, often moderated by their tactile surface membranes. His recent PST-related survey show at LA Louver Gallery, titled "eyehand: Selected Sculpture from 1975-2011," reminded viewers of the breadth of Shelton's handiwork and vision; in April, Sperone Westwater hosted his first New York gallery show in over a decade. art ltd. editor George Melrod sat down with Shelton at his studio south of downtown LA, to discuss his compelling oeuvre.

GEORGE MELROD: It was great to see your survey show at LA Louver. You're also in a PST show, right? The new one at Pomona ["Part 3: At Pomona," through May 13, 2012 at Pomona College Museum of Art]. Your career starts around the period that PST ends, in 1980.

PETER SHELTON: Yeah, at least if you run at it in terms of exhibitions, I had a bunch of exhibitions in 1980. I showed brownrooms at LACE and BIRDHOUSEholecan in the big "Architectural Sculpture" show that LAICA organized. I did a large site work HEADROOMfootspace at Artpark. And the year before I had done this other work called SWEATHOUSEandlittleprincipals. So those were the first major things that I had shown publicly.

GM: When you were at Pomona, were you studying art, or anthropology and other things?

PS: I started at Pomona College as a pre-med student... and yes, theater and anthropology... I did a semester home-stay up among the coal mines in eastern Kentucky. But I took art classes all along. I was always making things as a kid, obsessively, madly making whatever. And applying myself to these kinds of projects, which were often fantasy environments of one kind or another.

GM: Did being pre-med impact your formal sensibility later on?

PS: Well, in a round-about way it did... I was very interested in the body, in physiology and anatomy. But when I was in school, the idea of working with the figure in any way, or any figurative ideas was really an anathema. Although people were working with the figure in the sense that artists were making these environmentally engaging works, that often challenged you or at least put you in some physical relationship or some procession relative to the art... Mowry Baden was a teacher of mine, and his work was very involved with these--almost clinical physiological interactions.

GM: Did you study with Michael Asher or Lloyd Hamrol who were doing projects there?

PS: No, but I spent a lot of time in those works. Lloyd's was something that you'd look through a window to see, but with Michael Asher's piece, I was in it all hours of the day, as it was open 24/7. In fact, the cover of the Pomona PST catalogue has me at age 19, standing in the middle aperture of that Michael Asher piece... But I was also a student of Jim Turrell's. Jim's work was rather more diffused, but nevertheless very physically interactive, with a palpable kind of environment that you would move through, particularly the things he was doing in Ocean Park at the time, the Mendota Stoppages...

GM: How influential was Nauman to you at the time?

PS: Well... I liked the idea that the conventional hierarchy of art, between sculpture, theater, painting, would be liberally intermixed in his work... I also found it appealing that he wasn't sort of a hardcore kind of formalist, in the sense that there was kind of a narrative, even an absurd poetry in his work... I really liked the variety of Bruce's work. Sometimes it could be very austere and stripped down and very existential, and other times it could be rather graphic and even depictive.

GM: A lot of your early works were these very ambitious installations that involved an entire gallery space and numerous elements.

PS: Sometimes, there would be a group of objects that you would move around, and other times I would make more of an architectural envelope that made you somehow oriented, or cut you up, or divided you, or framed certain parts of you, that turned you into a bit of an object.

GM: One piece at LA Louver, holecan (1980), was a cylinder that had been part of a larger installation. You step inside and it feels like it's going to be very confining. But it's not because there are all these holes that are based around orifices in the body, eyes and ears and genitals...

PS: That came out of the piece I did in that LAICA show in 1980. It was called BIRDHOUSEholecan, and it had two propositions that were meant to be compared. One was a very open, diffused cage like a birdhouse or aviary, that you could climb into, seemingly very innocuous from the outside, but upon entering it... you're up in the air without any particular orientation and quite exposed. holecan was meant to be its opposite, or at least, its complement, in that it was a space that looked very uninviting and intimidating from the outside...

GM: But was the opposite inside.

PS: At least, that's the way I thought about it. I took 26 members of my family, and plotted out the graphic points of the body, the orifices and appendages, the tips of your fingers and toes, and laid those out as a series of small holes... As you stood in this confined dark space with all these little pinpoints of light, it had an unexpected spaciousness like being in a planetarium. And as you begin to recognize that anthropometric nature of those holes in this seemingly antisocial structure, there is a surprising extended social dimension...

GM: A lot of your early furniture/architecture works involve water in some way. Can you talk about your use of water, as a symbol and material?

PS: Initially the use of water probably related to some dream work I was doing in notebooks in the early 1970s. Holding, collecting and distributing structures are common in my work. But more ineffably, floating, elevating and displacing weight became themes of mine. In a real way, its fluid and formless nature parallels our own fragile liveliness... As I said, when I got out of school, one of the things that had been a taboo was anything of a directly figurative nature. Walking around in something you interacted with physically, that was okay. But anything depictive, particularly in the context of an object, would be impossible... So I kind of snuck up on that at some point by thinking about... anatomy and interiors of things, as a kind of micro-version of the kinds of environmental things I was making.

GM: Was it a conscious embrace of a bodily allegory?

PS: I don't know if it was conscious. I think that, one of the things about living in LA, particularly in the '70s, when the number and the constellation of artists was so diffused... I remember somebody in an interview of Nauman, asked him, why do you appear in a lot of your work? And he was like, 'Because I'm here. I'm readily available.' And it seems silly but in fact, it also says something about why a lot of people were involved with things that related to the body in one way or another, because if you don't have this cultural proscenium... that's so clear in a place like New York, you tend to rely on what is at hand. Here, it's so diffused, that I think a lot of artists got more involved with dealing with something that could be verified and brought out of their own resources, and often it would be their body or their own senses. I also think that's why a lot of artists developed their studios into a kind of a work in itself, it became a kind of self-sufficient envelope. Because you really didn't have many museums, and there were no galleries particularly, so there really wasn't even a venue for your work. So in a funny way, the studio, and the envelope of the studio, and you in the studio, became significant subjects.

GM: You were just kind of working off the grid on your own?

PS: Yeah, and I think that most people were in LA. I found out quickly that it wasn't so much that LA was supportive of hybrid or independent work, it's just they didn't give a damn what you did.

GM: I guess there was both a freedom in that, and a price to pay.

PS: Oh, a lot of freedom. And a price to pay, yeah. There are times that I wish I had an evil twin, who could go make the right career moves, and leave me to work at home.

GM: Once you shifted to making discrete sculptures, to what degree were your works deconstructions of body parts? There are spines, and organs, and things people can identify, and also more elusive forms, which meld together with a certain ambiguity and humor and poetry...

PS: I don't know that I ever work directly like that, in terms of thinking about it being depictive in any way. I like to think of my work as being something that's not about looking outside, it's about looking back inside from about five or six feet away. I often think of my sculpture as tight-fitting architecture... I wanted to get across this idea of a slightly externalized, objectified form that is a little hard to grasp what its scale is. Is it bigger than you? Is it a small organic thing inside of you that's been sharpened, or is it something architectural that's been softened in some way? Or is it even a kind of existential proposition, a meditation on insideness or outsideness?

GM: Did making these discrete objects raise a new series of issues for you? Did you see yourself as specifically engaging the idea of the post-minimalist object?

PS: Well I certainly wasn't polemical about it. You know, I think that most artists my age, now I'm 61, most artists my age were bumping into a kind of end game presented by the people who preceded us... So I could either be an acolyte and keep that flame alive, as a second generation practitioner, or I necessarily had to find some other sort of way out of that. So, my interest in medicine and interior structures of the body were definitely a way out of that it melded with my interest in a kind of environmental, enveloping kind of work.

GM: At the same that you were developing your oeuvre, there were people like Richard Deacon in London and Martin Puryear in New York who were also making these kind of hand-wrought, organic, sculptural objects to escape the end game of minimalism in their own, sometimes allegorical ways.

PS: Well, Martin's older, and started that sooner than Richard and I, but I think in a way he was responding to the very things that Richard and I would have been responding to. And it's interesting, I've had this conversation with some of these guys about, you know what they were up against and what they were thinking about. And we all kind of did different things with it.

GM: How important was it to you that these works, were created by you in the studio? Because certainly other sculptors by that time began using fabricators.

PS: Yeah, Don Judd specifying to the sheet metal guy how to put something together, I think there were a lot of people experimenting with that. I thought that the sort of tactile, visceral, dermal nature of my work would require largely being made by me, or certainly being very involved with it--that it was a way of reinforcing a relationship that would transmit into your body in a way.

GM: I've seen you quoted, talking about the way one experiences the work through the body.

PS: Yeah, hopefully so. The continuity from let's say, the environmental works, where you were literally involved, to now, where the objects often have openings and have interiors which you can think about, look into, or imagine... I hope that the work verifies itself in your body as much as in your mental process. There's a lot of things that I don't do personally all the time, a lot of repetitive processes that if I can, I have somebody help me with. But I think that's an important part of the work... Sometimes I'm at a loss as to how to treat or render something, in terms of what its final skin is. But most of the time, I'm trying to find a way for the process and its final appearance and materiality to be somehow fused in a way, so that you can't take it apart. So what you're looking at with the work couldn't be anything else than what it is.

GM: You have a very distinctive way of titling the works.

PS: It's a little bit like, if you could have gotten this and that together and mated them, it would have been one of these... But it's also serendipitous. I don't start off with the titles, it's always somehow in the process of making that I go, oh, this thing's called twobiglobe (2011). It's two big lobes but it's also globe-like, and we might think that it is just too big.

GM: Your work redouroboros (2004-11) almost feels like a deconstructed heart...

PS: But I also thought--and they all kind of do this--I was really interested in how it twists on itself. In fact, it's almost circular, and that's where the reference to ouroboros comes in.

GM: The snake that eats its own tail.

PS: The ouroboros is this thing that turned on itself... circular. So redouroboros was this idea that the thing kind of twisted, and turned on itself, and drew you into its insides by drawing you around, so it wasn't just a frontal thing, that you had to move around it, it kept circulating you around its surface. And also the idea that it is red like our own lips: the whole interior of our body is soft and wet and smooth like the inside of a conch shell, or some kind of other shell, and then it turns to the outside, where you're nubby and hairy.

GM: What was the most recent work in your LA Louver survey?

PS: Probably the most recent piece is blackslot... that big sort of oblong holely interior that hangs off the wall... You're not sure if it's a folded surface. The way I think of it is, what's the inside of your hand? At what point is the inside of your hand out? Like how far from a corner in a room is it no longer a corner? I mean that's typical fare for me... The idea of a surface that becomes a container at one point, but then at some other point it's not fully a container... and extends ambiguously between from in to out and back again.

GM: It seems like physicalizing conceptual analyses of space and volume and surface and materiality is a key theme in your work.

PS: Yeah, probably so. It's not like I set out to illustrate it, it just becomes a kind of negotiation between something that's very visceral and something that's cerebral. And you hope that it finds its synthesis in a place that's somewhere in your middle person... That's why I think sculpture's great, because really that's all the whole enterprise is about, it's largely a kind of meditation on the tension between those two things. ...And what you see in my work I think is just my ongoing interaction with that very problem, over and over and over, in different ways.

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