Stephanie Edwards: I would love to start out by hearing a little bit about your practice. Can you tell us about primary themes that you address in your practice?
Laura Shill: My background is in photography, so although I work across multiple disciplines, that really informs the way that I approach art-making. For me, photography confronts us with this profound contradiction. A photograph is not the actual object pictured, but the very absence of that object. So, some of the major themes that run throughout my work are the presence of absence and its intersection with the politics of representation. Our notions of power are constructed over time through the narrative of who gets represented and in what ways. I’m interested in how these representations are repeated to viewers over time and operate to affirm traditional hierarchies and reinforce bias. So, in much of my work, I create a pronounced absence—whether it be in an image, through an act of erasure that highlights a power dynamic, or sculpturally through concealing and revealing. For me, these pronounced absences function to make visible the invisible hand of the maker who constructs these power dynamics.
SE: I understand that you will be showcasing new artwork in the upcoming exhibit, Personal Structures, at the Palazzo Bembo in Venice that coincides with the opening of the Venice Biennale. How did you initially become involved in Personal Structures?
LS: I’ve been working in the Denver art community for the last five years, participating in group shows, giving talks, going to as many other artists’ exhibitions as I can. The two-year artist residency program at RedLine really brought visibility to my work and helped me to connect to the Denver art community. And so I’ve been able to work with and learn from many of Denver’s most brilliant art minds, like Louise Martorano, who works tirelessly on behalf of Denver’s artists at RedLine and Black Cube’s Executive Director, Cortney Stell, who is a fierce advocate for artists and has a grand vision for what is possible. There is this ethos in the artist community here, like, ‘Hey, let’s all build something together and invite as many people into it as we can, and then try to keep it growing and offering more opportunities so that it can sustain all of us.’ You can trace that back to RedLine and Black Cube founder, Laura Merage. She is an artist and her approach to being an artist is to build supportive infrastructures for other artists because what artists need most is a community of mutual support. The idea that she didn’t want to go it alone—we need each other in order to be sustain ourselves—is something that gets reflected back to me over and over again in Denver’s art scene. I think there is an understanding among artists here that none of us gets to where we are trying to go alone and we recognize that we have more collective power than we do as individuals. My good fortune is really just a byproduct of this collaborative approach to being an artist and building a community together.
SE: Congratulations, this is a huge accomplishment and an exciting moment in your career. What is it that you are looking forward to the most about the experience of exhibiting your work in Personal Structures?
LS: Thank you! I am always excited to meet other artists and learn how they work and balance an art practice within their lives. But I guess I’m most excited to put my own work into an international contemporary art conversation. Being in an exhibition with artists from all parts of the world at this particular political moment just feels so charged with a sort of urgency to be honest and reflect on other perspectives and it’s a privilege to be a part of that.
SE: Can you tell me a little bit about what your studio process has been like so far in preparation for Personal Structures?
LS: Well, I think that as a culture at large, we are undergoing a reckoning right now. Every artist I know is interrogating themselves and evaluating their practice to ask if what they are doing is important or relevant and that is certainly something I’ve been doing too. I re-evaluate my practice regularly, and have recently had to renew my dedication to object making as a way to connect with people in my absence even though it may not be the most immediate form of communication. I think it is instead a contemplative form of communication that allows room for the experience and interpretation of the viewer, and I think this is important.
For Venice, I wanted to create an immersive space for reflection. So, when I’ve been in the studio, experimenting with form and material, I’ve been thinking about things like false power and asking myself questions like, as an artist, am I beholden to visual pleasure? Could I even allow myself move away from it? Are visual pleasure and social or cultural critique at odds? This line of questioning has lead me to question the role of spectacle in our culture. Can you subvert spectacle for cultural critique or will it, by its very nature, just circle back, mirror itself, and blind those who are viewing it? Can spectacle be self-reflective and self-critical? With these ideas in mind, I hope that the resulting work will look luxurious from afar, but as you close in on it, reveal itself to be made from tawdry and garish materials—a shiny veil over an armature that is constructed of little more than consumer castoffs. I think the title Trophy Wall (to disguise the void) alludes to the idea that we create facades in our lives (or Personal Structures, if you will), as monuments to greatness that are really about hiding insecurity, distracting ourselves from our fears, and trying to forget momentarily, about our own impermanence.
SE: The theme of the 2017 Biennale is Humanism. How do you read your piece functioning within this theme?
LS: So, I guess there are a few ways you could approach humanism. You could look at it as a sort of guide for living where your actions are governed by reason and compassion over ideology in an effort to minimize human suffering. I see parts of our culture trying to move away from these two tenets. Formally, the work I’ve been making references the human form, but it de-centers the head, or the symbolic site of reason. It instead creates a downward weight on the head and visible tension as the focal point of the work pulls the gaze to a lower part of the anatomy that is not known for its great decision-making prowess. This leads us to the art historical Renaissance way of thinking about humanism as interpreted by an idealized human form. My work has often moved away from that approach because I don’t think that idealizing humanity gives us a realistic or full picture of the human experience and what binds us to each other. To me, our equality is proven by the fact that we will all face death and that this is the only certainty of human life. So, I actually think that fallibility is the thing that makes us most human and asks the most of us in regards to the way we treat each other—to exercise our deepest compassion and forgive each other when we do, inevitably, make mistakes.
SE: What do you hope people will take away from exhibiting your artwork in Personal Structures? From your perspective, how could international viewers perceive your work in the context that you are an American artist with regards to the current political climate?
LS: Ultimately, this is beyond my control. My hope is that the installation will ask those questions that I don’t have the answers to and can be part of a larger conversation that puts nationalism, politics, anger, and fear into a context that is broader than our specific moment. I am hyper-aware of being an American artist presenting work that uses spectacle to try and get at something human and universal in another country in our current political moment. It is certainly a risk to exhibit new work that I’ve had relatively little critical feedback on, but my motives are in the right place and I have to be willing to risk failure for the larger goal of personal growth. It is helpful to be showing my work alongside Joel Swanson’s smart and elegant work, and Chief Curator, Cortney Stell’s thoughtful writing helps to give our work context.
SE: Thank you for your time answering these questions. Could you share a funny story, a challenge, or a learning experience that you have encountered so far in preparing for the Personal Structures exhibit?
LS: It would be really difficult to talk about just one learning experience. This opportunity has presented all sorts of new challenges for my practice, like international shipping and logistics, how to work smarter and not harder, and how to make and present art in a way that doesn’t bankrupt me, but also maintains the integrity of the idea. So far, the process has been relatively smooth in the studio and working with smart people on the logistics.