Interview: Marsha Pels

Marsha Pels poetically recontextualizes found objects of power and politics. Cohesion in her works is achieved though this particular modus operandi, though not necessarily in subject matter. Her gutsy recent exhibit at Schroeder Romero, “Dead Mother, Dead Cowboy,” made a connection between the recent death of her mother and abandonment by her partner. Artworks within this exhibition included a fluorescent lit, crystal-clear casting of Pels’ mother draped in mink stoles, her ex-lover on a deconstructed motorcycle, and castings of her own hands made in her mother’s gloves. For lack of a better word, this personal and haunting expose on desire, loss and morning is brave—laying bare an honest, and witty personal narrative. Recently Marsha discussed her creative inspiration, and her in-depth thought process behind her recent sculptural series. 

 

SL: Many of the conceptual frameworks underlying your works share an aesthetic similarity, in particular recontextualizing found objects of power and politics—though not necessarily in subject matter. Your explorations have ranged from the Holocaust, to Mesopotamian jewels—can you describe your creative process, from the inception of an idea and decision to sculpturally explore it, to its creation? What other sources of inspiration do you draw on? 

 

MP: My work is autobiographical, it is that simple- a combination of where I am personally in my life and physically. Meaning what place psychologically and geographically, because I travel a lot and what issues I am responding to as a 2nd generation Post-Feminist American at home or abroad. 

I have been dealing with the Holocaust as subject matter since my Prix de Rome in 1984 when I had the opportunity to travel from Italy thru North Africa up thru Spain to Germany. I unconsciously took the journey my Sephardic ancestors had taken and I landed up in Emden, Germany on the North Sea, the town of my paternal grandparents. This culminated in 1997 when I won a Fulbright to Germany to work on a site-specific Holocaust Memorial proposal “Reclaimed Site” for Emden. 

“The Mesopotamian Jewels” was conceived after I had seen “The Art of The First Cities” show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2002. This was a survey show celebrating the Iraqi culture. I was following the CAA journals and the newspapers about the looting of the Iraqi museums and archeological sites. This series of work along with “The 9/11 Tablets” became a show called “BOOTY” at Schroeder Romero in 2004. It was my response to my outrage over the war. 

I made a set of epically large cast bronze jewelry based on real Mesopotamian models and infused the narrative with contemporary war imagery. But as I discuss in my November 2004 conversation with Megan Heuer in “The Brooklyn Rail”, I wanted this show to be seen universally as a meditation on all wars, the suffering all wars cause is pointless, nothing has changed: all wars create booty archives. I was reading Susan Sontag’s “Regarding The Pain of Others”. I was trying to time travel from this ancient civilization to the present using these large-scale objects as symbols. 

The 16’foot necklace with pendant charms was my first way into the subject matter. When I was a little Jewish American Princess growing up on Long Island and my parents shipped me off to summer camp & went to Europe, they would come back with a little gold charm from the country they had visited as a gift for my bracelet; an Eiffel Tower, a Chianti bottle, etc., etc. This memory allowed me to contextualize the narrative of my sculpture charms now: the World Trade Towers, a statue of Saddam, The Tower of Babel. There is a fabulous collection of ancient Roman glass at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. I remember seeing these pate vere rings of Roman generals. This inspired “The Trio of Tyrant Rings” in cast crystal and bronze with the low relief portraits of Saddam, Bush & Osama. 

 

SL: What sparks the initiative to create a series of work centering around a specific idea? 

 

MP: I become obsessed with something then I know its mine. I know it’s a piece: I dream about it, I think about it all day. I start to read what I can about it, research it- it kind of just grows in my head and takes over and then I have to struggle to see if it is worthy of a series, an installation, how can I flesh it out. More than just an “idea’, but a body of work that can sustain me for a few years, because that’s what it takes to do a show: a few years. I do no not think in discreet objects anymore. 

So after 6-9 months of thinking and research, then I go into fabrication mode. That’s when the studio life takes over, meaning where am I materially to make these concepts work. Also I usually know where I am going to show it, so I am thinking site-specifically about the space or site, how it is all going to work as a whole. 

 

SL: Your recent exhibit at Schroeder Romero, “Dead Mother, Dead Cowboy,” made a connection between the recent death of your mother and abandonment by your partner. Artworks within this exhibition included a fluorescent lit, crystal-clear casting of your mother draped in mink stoles, your ex-lover (presumably the Cowboy) on a deconstructed motorcycle, and castings of your own hands made in your mother’s gloves. For lack of a better word, this personal and haunting expose on desire, loss and morning is extremely brave—to lay bare such an honest, and witty personal narrative. Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration behind this show? 

 

MP: I was surprised that the adjective ‘brave’ kept coming up so often in relationship to this new body of work. For me, it was simply necessary. My friend the painter Joan Semmel kept telling me after the opening when all this brave stuff was surfacing and the work was “too personal”, she said, “Don’t worry, Marsha, the work we do makes people vulnerable and that makes them uncomfortable.” 

Everyone has a mother and some people have someone who have probably loved them and left them. Recently, Rachel Whiteread did a few pieces in honor of her mother’s death. Sophie Calle’s installation at the 2007 Venice Biennale was about her mother’s death and her ex-lover leaving her with an e-mail. 

I’m not being ironic, I know “Dead Mother, Dead Cowboy” is way out there. But lets face it. I am not a cool English Post-Minimalist nor a coy French conceptualist. My mother died. We had a contentious relationship. She was a narcissistic, difficult woman. As I was working on the sculptures for this show & dealing with all of her fashionable, dated belongings typical of her generation; as I was trying to deal with her death, her persona, our intense relationship, The Cowboy unexpectedly walks out on me, ending an 11 year relationship without even acknowledging me, like I didn’t even exist. It seems like he was in the relationship with himself, so he could end it by himself. 

To a certain extent, I didn’t exist even in my mother’s eyes also, because I was only a reflection of herself and with the Cowboy, he could never really see beyond his own problems. My mother didn’t have a funeral, so I decided to give her one. I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to the Cowboy, so this is my way of doing so. They each loved me in their own ways, but they were deeply damaged individuals who could not love, because they did not like themselves very much or the world around them. 

So now, the show gets interesting, once the shock wears off. I realize formally and materially I can play these two characters off against each other. In pure sculptural terms, as well as a narrative, I have a richer, more dynamic show. He’s as much of a sexual stereotype as she was. And yet they are one and the same, in so many ways, as they functioned as Freudian milestones in my life and as universal archetypes. 

I made “Ten Things About My Mother”, the book of photo etchings and text in 2002 when she first got Alzheimers as a tribute to her/our memory. So now in 2008 I am able to make “Ten Things About The Cowboy” as a tribute to the memory of our relationship. 

Originally I had wanted “Dead Mother” to be carved white translucent Carrara marble to mirror all the funerary statuary I had seen in Europe, but logistically it would not have fit through the gallery’s door. Since I had been working in cast crystal glass since the early ‘90’s and all of my Holocaust work was in cast glass, there was a conceptual reason for glass. Also this whole installation was planned around light and making the gallery space, which was tomb-like to begin with, come alive. 

I had worked with colored crystal-clear (which is a resin, not glass) on a small scale and many people thought my cast crystal (glass) was crystal-clear (resin) which infuriated me as a purist and a hands-on sculptor, so this time I figured what the hell I would do “Dead Mother” in crystal-clear and work with it on a large scale and play with the light and try to make it look elegant and icy cold against the warmth of the mink stoles. I am sorry if this is confusing but it is an important distinction, because resin will never be glass and vice-versa. I use each material as a cultural signifier to add layers of meaning to the sculpture. 

All of the modeling and material decisions I made in “Dead Cowboy” were in direct formal dialogue to “Dead Mother” (his gloves, his boots, his hair, his cock (kind of)- her gloves, her shoes, her hat, her handbag). As a biker chick, I was trying to pick up on all the apocalyptic regalia that goes with the territory. From ‘Easy Rider’ to “Mad Max’ ad infinitum. 

But he became a larger political symbol: “America is a Dead Cowboy’ people kept telling me, slapping me on the back, like I’d discovered a cultural icon, the new anti-hero. The text for the argon mercury signs came from their handwriting in their letters to me. I was trying to implicate all the great Arte Povera work that influenced me in Rome in the late ‘70s and mid’80’s, and more recently all those fantastic biker bars we’d been to in our travels. 

SL: In drawing these parallels, certainly your own mortality, along with the viewer’s, is implicated—in fact, many of your sculptures really address universal issues of history, time, loss….how do you view these concepts playing out within the context of your work? 

 

MP: These universal issues of memory within the spectre of history, time and loss are always there within the work. I am a patinist at heart. I don’t think you can look at a moment in time without reflecting on the continuum of the past. Yet I live in the moment. 

 

SL: Your series, Hitler Vitrines, explored darker political undercurrents, offering up and complicating war relics and remains- I found it interesting you situated this subject matter within pristine vitrines, clear glass resin—what do you think this contrast between material, presentation and symbolism achieved? What inspired you to offer up these objects in this fashion? 

 

MP: “The Hitler Vitrines” are cast crystal glass objects, not resin. All the Holocaust sculpture is in glass because of Kristallnacht, ‘the night of broken glass’ in 1938 when Hitler destroyed the synagogues. During my 1997-98 Fulbright in Germany and for a few years afterwards as I was working on my Holocaust proposal commuting to Germany, I became obsessed with Hitler and Joseph Beuys. There was a psychopathology in the ways in which the Germans specifically manifested their hero worship. I began to draw a subtle relationship between these two male power figures. The art world follows the same rules as the real world when it picks its heroes. 

I read a lot. Not only the usual Ian Kershaw bios on Hitler, but “The Hidden Hitler” by Machtire and “Mothers in the Fatherland” by Claudia Koontz , a kind of feminist take on how women helped to bring Hitler to power. And of course “Male Fantasies” by Klaus Theweleit. I decided to deconstruct Hitler’s psychosexual profile in cast glass objects and objectify them in vitrines because of all the damn vitrines I saw by Beuys from Darmstadt to Hamburg from Bremen to Berlin. I was fascinated and sick of Beuys , as well as Hitler, at the same time. The vitrines were the contextualizing device like a scientific paradigm in which I could focus on Hitler’s specific obsessions. They were constrctivist metaphors for the medical experiments of the concentration camps. Little Wunderkammmers all unto themselves. These cases have their own halogen lights because it is necessary to control the light, the presentation and the shadows. Both men were control freaks. 

SL: One of the most haunting pieces within that exhibit was the live eels swimming in an aquarium of teeth—probably the most sensational too, considering the inclusion of animals—can you talk about your specific inspiration behind this piece? 

 

MP: There were a few specific reasons for the eels. I wanted live animals in the show because Beuys used live animals for shamanistic reasons in his work. There was the infamous 1974 performance at the Rene Block gallery in Soho “I like America and America Likes Me”, when he roams around with the live coyote and of course the ritualized performances with the dead hares. 

I picked eels because in Emden, in Northern Germany where I lived for a year the eels were everywhere: they swam in the canals, I’d go for walks and look down into the water and they’d be flickering in the light following me everywhere. And the townspeople ate them as a delicacy in myriad forms- fried, pickled, in pies. You’d go to the market in the morning. It wasn’t gorgeous like Italy or France: you’d see these frigging, squirming eels everywhere and everyone would be excited except me. The eels made me feel like a Jew: the eels became the Jews. 

Then there was my childhood memory of Gunther Grass ‘s “The Tin Drum”; that amazing scene when the mother lifts up her skirt and the eels come out. They were death. My wonderful dentist on the Upper West Side started to save me teeth after I woke up one night from a dream seeing the eels swimming around a bed of teeth as if the teeth were human skeletons. 

 

SL: Another enigmatic, and somewhat frightening image from that show was a portrait of you in full Hitler regalia—including the mustache. In representing yourself this way, and metaphorically inhabiting Hitler’s likeness, what do you think the implications are? Can you talk about how it felt to be dress up within this costume? 

 

MP: I meant it to be more than Sontags’ “Fascinating Fascism”. I wish I had found the uniform earlier, because the year I lived there in that little town still filled with Nazis, some days I’d walk outside expecting to be taken away. Of course, I was embroiled in Holocaust research so it was a black cloud that followed me everywhere. I wish I could have gone to the gym in my Hitler outfit. 

I donned the drag to be consciously transgressive & to be humorous, But it upset people on both sides of the Atlantic, Germans and Jews galore. Dressing up as Hitler bothers people, whether you’re the future King of England or a middle-aged Jewish female artist. Mira Schor in her “Blurring Richter” essay, presented a York organized by Rob Storr for a Gerhard Richter panel, was one of the few critics who understood its multiple meanings. This will be published in her upcoming 2009 book ‘A Decade of Negative Thinking; Essays on Art, Politics & Daily Life’ from Duke University Press. 

I was confronting the German male artists who had freely used this symbolism in their work. Anselm Kiefer, when he was a student of Beuys in his ‘Aktions’, dressed up in an SS uniform and did the “Seig Heil” gesture. Gerhard Richter painted his Uncle Rudi in an SS uniform. And of course in answering Beuys himself, I titled the photograph, “I Like Germany & Germany Likes Me.” My other sources were memories of seeing women in Nazi uniforms in the S&M ads in the back of the Village Voice. And the brilliant movie, ‘The Night Porter” with Dirk Bogart & Charlotte Rampling. 

How did it feel: strangely empowering, weird, uncomfortable because it never did fit me and hot. It was over 100 degrees the day of Andreas von Lintel’s photo shoot. The only good thing was that I cheated with my Steve Madden platform boots. The Cowboy and I went to a Halloween party, he as Jesus Christ, me as Hitler one year in Westchester hosted by some fancy French people. One woman was very upset by us. Her idea of a costume was a lot of eye-liner. She kept following us around with her champagne glass trying to castigate us. Finally our host came up to her, filled up her glass and said, ‘But Madame, they’ve been sleeping together for years.’ 

SL: You also create works that are also site-specific—how do you feel the location of your sculptures changes their meaning? Can you talk in depth about some of these installations, your inspiration behind them? 

 

MP: As a child of the ‘70’s Smithson influenced me and location is everything. Even though all of the work we have been talking about for this interview has been gallery-oriented, I still consider myself a site-specific sculptor. It’s just wired into how I conceive spatially of objects in relationship to each other, whether they are outdoors or indoors. 

It would be best to look at “Pieta” installed at The Pratt Sculpture Park in Brooklyn, NY and “Acheron” installed at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ to get a sense of what I am talking about with my outdoor installations. “Acheron” is a Holocaust related sculpture, one of the first. And “Pieta” ironically was one of the first pieces about my mother. 

 

SL: Where else can we view your works in the upcoming months, what else do you have scheduled? 

 

MP: Surgery on my neck; cervical fusion( each piece in”Dead Mother, Dead Cowboy has a spine in it..). So the next few months I am lying low. I will be in a two-person sculpture show with Terry Lee Dill from LA in Detroit in March. Also in March, I will installing a site-specific bronze “Lupa” on the museum grounds of The Hebrew Home For The Aged in Riverdale, NY. 

To view more of Marsha Pels’s work, go to: 

Marsha Pels 

Or visit: Schroeder Romero Gallery 

Image Credits: 

Images courtesy of the artist 

From “Acheron” installation, New Jersey 
1993 
patined cast bronze and white Vermont marble 
4′h x 16′w x 4′d 

From “Acheron” installation, New Jersey 
1993 
patined cast bronze and white Vermont marble 
4′h x 16′w x 4′d 

Necklace 
from the series “Mesopotamian Jewels” 
2002-2004 
Patined cast bronze/aluminum, cast glass, terra cotta, rope, and steel 
Ranging 2′-16′ long 

Rings 
from the series “Mesopotamian Jewels” 
2002-2004 
Patined cast bronze/aluminum, cast glass, terra cotta, rope, steel, and custom light boxes 
Ranging 2′-16′ long 

Bracelet 
from the series “Mesopotamian Jewels” 
2002-2004 
Patined cast bronze/aluminum, cast glass, terra cotta, rope, and steel 
Ranging 2′-16′ long 

Breath (Detail) 
from the series “The Hitler Vitrines” 
1999 – 2001 
cast crystal in mirrored steel and glass vitrine 

Nature 
from the series “The Hitler Vitrines” 
1999 – 2001 
Live Eels & Human Teeth In Aquarium 

I Like Germany And Germany Likes Me 
from the series “The Hitler Vitrines” 
1999 – 2001 

Perversion (Detail) 
from the series “The Hitler Vitrines” 
1999 – 2001 
cast crystal in mirrored steel and glass vitrine 

Dead Cowboy (detail) 
From the installation “Dead Mother Dead Cowboy” 
2008 

Installation View 
From the installation “Dead Mother Dead Cowboy” 
2008


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