Waking dreams

Hydra – Azur, 15 x 15 x 3,  sculpting epoxy, tacks, nails, washers, acrylic, wood and canvas

When you think of Hawaii, the first thing that comes to mind probably wouldn’t be Pulse, the new solo show of abstract constructions by Carol Brookes on view now at Viridian Artists. Yet that tropical island is where some of the most compelling pieces in this show, the Pulse Hydra group, originated. Her encounter with that lush yet volcanic landscape is what infused itself into her materials when she went back to work in her Chicago studio. The results are startlingly organic, full of shapes that evoke plant and animal forms, sometimes lips, eyelids, and labia. The Pulse Hydra pieces are wildly colorful, a condensation of her physical experience while visiting the island. The results are fascinating. The work can be intriguingly weird, as if you’re looking for the first time at new life forms from the bottom of the ocean or another planet. Each work is it’s own little world. There’s an intense energy that runs throughout every line, shape and color.

Her three-dimensional constructions typically improvise, building up toward the viewer from a foundation of fundamental geometric shapes, which she assembles often out of found materials that catch her eye and won’t let go. The world is her art supply shop. Walking through a hardware store is, for her, a bit like being a kid in a toy store a few weeks before Christmas—but then, so was climbing a volcano. More and more in this new work the geometry seems to recede and become merely a skeletal presence behind the pop and flow of organic form. She describes the creative process the way Coleridge and Keats once did, how ideas arises in that zone between sleep and wakefulness. As a result, her constructions are little windows into the subconscious.

I drove into New York to attend the Wine and Words roundtable at Viridian last weekend, and I helped prepare the walls for Carol’s new show, pulling out the old nails, spackling and painting to cover up the evidence of the group show coming down. I used the wrong paint at first, absent-mindedly, and after cries of horror from a fellow worker or two we found the right paint. (I was a little too frustrated trying to stream the Michigan/Notre Dame game from an Orlando NBC affiliate, of all things, on my MacBook as I was helping repair the place.) Meanwhile, Carol and her family were unpacking her work and arranging it for hanging, and the more I saw of it, the more impressed I was. Earlier in the day, I’d spent an hour with her and her husband, Alan, at the Half-King, a restaurant which has become more or less a Viridian Artists annex, where many of us go for a beer or a brunch, on 24th St., almost under the Hi Line. Over lunch, Carol answered some questions for me about the show:

Can you tell me about how you started doing these constructions?

I was an abstract expressionist in the late 60s. Then I started to build structures. My father was a real estate developer, so there was always architecture around me. No matter what I tried to do, it became three dimensional. In undergraduate school the structures I did had a very heavy texture. It came from my experiences with architecture growing up. When I was six, my father took me to one of his subdivisions, partially built, I walked up a ramp into the house, and there were these giants on stilts slathering mud on the walls. Lath and plaster in those days. The workers walked on stilts so they didn’t have to go up and down ladders. To me this was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I kept wanting to put my hands in the plaster. That must have had some profound effect on me because I’ve always been into texture.

I used paste and sand and a trowel. It became more and more minimal. Trapezoids and parallelagrams. When I moved on I took a paper making class in Chicago. I started making these very textured papers, and did a lot of ceramics. I used the clay and pulp in the same way: pressing textured fabrics into them.

About five years ago, I started taking the handmade papers I had and putting them together with other materials and went back to structures. Everything I’d done over twenty five years came together in one thing. I started a series called Construct Series, using mixed media, found materials and handmade paper. Hardware. I love hardware. It’s architecture. It’s sculpture. It’s jewelry.

How did the current work evolve, the Pulse Series you’re showing at Viridian?

A couple years ago, Alan took me to Hawaii on vacation. We’ve been to China, Egypt and France where we looked at architecture and art. For some reason I didn’t want to go out of the country. So we did two weeks in the Southwest and then Hawaii for two weeks. I said, it’s going to be Florida with volcanos. We started on the big island, very empty, lava and minimal and empty and very spiritual. It was as if the earth was totally alive. We went on an astronomy tour on the top of a mountain. Got up there as the sun was setting. Everywhere we went there were these cinder mounds. I didn’t know if they’d pushed up from the earth or if the ash had fallen and formed these mounds. The earth there was so alive. I was obsessed by it. Organic and natural shapes were burned into my brain.

A sculptor told me there’s this epoxy you have to try. I got the information because at first I’d come back and found these molds, you could mold a sphere by doing one half and then the other half. I found the molds and then the sculpting epoxy. I thought, what am I going to mold them with. I could actually create these hemispheric structures. The whole thing just started from there. I went back to square structures with the frames. I could press all kinds of textures into it. It had a four-hour drying time. It just unleashed all these possibilities.

How do you create the folds and petal shapes on the spheres? Do you mold them or shape them by hand?

Some of them I’ve actually cut parts of this mold, pieces of it, and covered it. I’ll mold it and let it harden around it and then use it. Every time I have to relearn how to make what I want to do, I have to figure it out and that’s part of the excitement of doing it. I consider the whole world my art supply store: I’ll go into a hardware store and see something and think I have to use that. I went into Crate and Barrel the other night and there was this basket with rubber floor mats with this texture on it. I felt in love with this black floor mat. It took me two months after making a piece with this floor mat to put any materials on it because I didn’t want to touch it. In summer there are concerts in Millennium Park (in Chicago). In the Frank Gehry band shell there are these  steel trapezoid forms that curve  and bend, creating the shape of the band shell. The last piece I did was made of tiles that look like those walls.

Most of them look metallic. One group, that’s called Pulse Hydra is color. Usually, I use metallic color that looks like the material itself. They aren’t metal, they’re epoxy but they’re painted to look metal. But the Pulse Hydra group are painted. Really organic. I went and got all these spray paints and it just happened.

Some of your work reminds me of Kandinsky, though I don’t think he’s an influence. His belief that abstract painting could express spiritual realities, something of that seems to be there in what you do.

The spiritual element just happened. I was influenced by Louise Nevelson. For a while I started reading her book every day, and then I worked. There were times I’d go to museums, in Minneapolis they had some of her pieces almost all by themselves and I would sit on the floor as if I were in front of an altar.

Recently we went to Santa Fe and spent time with Georgia O’Keefe’s work. I walked into her studio and went “Oh my god.” The guide said, “You’re an artist aren’t you.” There was a glass wall and beyond it you could see that mountain she painted so many times. I also went through a minimalist phase. This is a coming together of all the influences.

You mention minimalism. You like to work in a format that’s tightly defined: a circular improvisation inside a square frame that’s really part of the work itself. Even so, you don’t seem to find that inhibiting—you’ve got quite a few pieces in the new show.

The ideas just keep coming, coming, coming, coming. There’s that place between sleep and waking where all this art just happens. I feel like I have to live another sixty years because I have so many ideas. People say “I have no ideas.” I say work every day. That’s the key. The ideas will emerge. Let your art talk to you, not the other way around. It’ll tell you what’s next.

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