Interview with Artist Margery Amdur, Aesthetica Art Prize 2015 Longlist

American artist Margery Amdur blurs the boundary between painting and sculpture in her hands-on and tactile visual arts practice. Longlisted in this year’s Aesthetica Art Prize, Amdur has exhibited widely across the U.S. and Europe, presenting work in over 60 solo and two-person shows in various locations including Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and England. Her work purposefully utilises low-tech methods in a high-tech world, and traverses multiple disciplines: collage, assemblage, drawing, textiles, and public art. Her longlisted piece Amass #13 is part of a new body of work that uses commonplace materials and simple building techniques to create extravagant and ornate surfaces and installations. We speak to Amdur about her interest in the embellishment of the everyday and attraction to tactility, repetition and ritualised processes.

A: Amass encompasses multiple disciplines including collage, assemblage, drawing and textiles in a low-tech way. Why is it important to maintain a highly tactile practice in today’s digital age?
MA: It is extremely easy to live a major portion of each day accessing information and knowledge indirectly by using some form of filtering device such as a computer, a TV, a cell phone, a Fit bit, and now an “Apple watch.” We live much of our lives at least one step removed from primary experiences. Most of us were fortunately born with all five senses. How are we making the most of them? Over 15 years ago in a lecture that I attended in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Contemporary Art Critic, Dave Hickey, in his noticeably sarcastic manner, made the prediction that people, non-artist types, after spending long days sitting in front of computer monitors would want to return home to either have sex or make something tangible with their hands.
Physicality plays an important role in my work. My primary tools are my hands. I learn and develop my concepts through the act of doing. I cannot envision myself solely working on the computer to generate my art. In this age of technology, there are great works of art being made strictly through programming. On the opposite side of the coin more and more artists are creating work at the crossroads of community organisation, ecology and civic participation-working together “hand-in-hand.”

A: Your work uses commercially manufactured cosmetic sponges. What is the significance of this material?
MA: Many times during the course of my career it has been the choice of a certain material that has been the catalyst for new avenues of research and inquiry. After completing a large permanent public art project I had the need to return to a more hermetic studio practice where I wanted to make something(s) that felt soft. I picked up some old pastels and an applicator with a sponge on it’s tip that was used for applying pastels – I did not like the work I created suing the applicator and pastels but I was attracted to the sponges. When I looked up words associated with sponge, cosmetic sponge appeared on my monitor.  I was drawn to cosmetic sponges due to their gendered and “throwaway” qualities, but also their fragile yet resilient nature. At this point three years later working with sponges as building materials has paved the way to larger and more complex work in a variety of contexts. My attraction to a cosmetic sponge has inspired me to think about urban cityscapes, geometry, geometric land formations, hanging gardens, forms of meditation, networks, etc. These ideas came out of my persistence to work with my hands and experiment. Trusting the process is half the battle. When all is said and done I take materials out of their everyday contexts and ‘re-purpose’ them. In doing this I extend their definitions which enables me to investigate more comprehensively ideas, processes, and materials that I may never have come to through intellectual and philosophical consideration.

A: Can you discuss the impact you wish to create with these large-scale installation pieces?
MA: I am interested in posing questions. I do not expect people to walk away with answers, but rather wonder why someone might choose to work with this set of materials in the ways that I do? Again, echoing the way that I access information, I would like this work to first imitate a visceral response. For those who are willing to take time to look further for some of the secrets that exist between the forms I hope to inspire questions about longevity – is the work about impermanence or permanence? How do notions of time and beauty relate to what is going on in our current state of affairs. Is the work commodity or experiential? How do the object and my processes mark time? What is it structure- how does it hold it shape over time? Should it weather over time and is this part of its meaning? Do I fabricate the work myself or with others? Ultimately, this work is about location, but not a specific one, and the scale speaks to natural forms intersecting with what is now referred to as the “built environment.”

A: Amass #13 has been long-listed in the Aesthetica Art Prize 2015. In your opinion, why are awards important to both emerging and established artists?
MA: It is daunting to realise that there are so many artists with exceptional imaginations and vision. Most of us receive far more rejection notices than acceptance letters. It makes a difference, I think at any age, to be selected and recognised from within a vast crowd. We do our best to handle rejection; however, it never feels good. I would say that the challenge is to feel the disappointment yet know that ultimately if we were going to change our “majors” we would have done so a long time ago. So, yes, it makes a considerable difference to be critically recognised by a jury of internationally established critics and professionals. However, as makers, we take too few moments to acknowledge ourselves for staying the course in a culture with limited opportunities to shine. I tell my students that if “you don’t have to make art get out now.”

A: How does this series compare to your other work, and what’s next for 2015?
MA: This series extends my earlier work, yet it has a sensibility that is distinctly its own. As my career has progressed I see ever more clearly that certain threads run through all of the work. These connections such as issues of gender, scale, tactility, repetition, and ritualised processes, may not be apparent on the outside, but they remain core issues embedded as the structure for new concerns to build upon. I am in the process of completing a collaborative video piece that I will use as a projection in an upcoming installation. International solo exhibitions in Iceland, Hungary, France, and in Hawaii, Philadelphia and Texas within the US will follow. I have recently applied for permanent, temporary, and more socially relevant community-based public art projects. I also continue to work toward, apply for, respond to, exhibit with, teach many, contribute and build relationships with highly curious, energetic, and inspiring people.

The Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition, until 31 May, York St Mary’s, Castlegate, York YO1 9RN.

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1. Margery Amdur, Amass #13. Courtesy of the artist.