I want to talk about the materials in your work. You incorporate beads, acrylic sequins, plastic chains, synthetic textiles, false flowers, and various sparkly ephemera. What draws you to those materials?
A lot of things that I make are really time consuming to create and are well-crafted, but then use inexpensive materials that are not well-crafted. It's not meant to be ironic. Like, the value of the high craft and the low craft is the same for me. I love fake flowers as much as I love real flowers, and I love plastic chains almost as much as I love gold chains. It's not really about highlighting the difference between these things, it's more about highlighting their similarities, and truly loving all of these things and trying to use them in a pointed way.
That's interesting, because I think you're right that a lot of times artists use outwardly artificial materials in an at least semi-ironic way. How do you try and bring that lack of irony through in your work?
My work is mostly about spirituality, escapism, and the aftermath of loss, and I’m thinking about using these items as tools for all of those things. I suffered this big loss in my life, and I couldn't stand that people kept giving me flowers, because the flowers would die. I was like, This is the last fucking thing I want: more death. So my sister and my best friend started bringing me fake flowers. We called them “everlasting flowers.” That really brought me comfort: the stability of these flowers to last forever.
Also, the more places I go and cultures I experience, seeing how people worship or rituals they might have: there's all kinds of materials used. I was raised Roman Catholic and everything was gold and velvet and really excessive. I’m into the excess and I love luxury, but you don't really need the gold to get to that spiritual level. You can still access the place you want to get to using some cheap shit from the dollar store.
Yeah, there's a more fluid relationship to materials when you're not overthinking it in the context of, “This has to be art.”
Exactly. It took me a while to feel okay incorporating these things into my practice because I felt like everything had to be so handmade, and so special, and sort of serious and precious.
Can you say a little bit more about that path from being sort of embarrassed by the materials that you liked to incorporating them very forwardly in your work? And where do you think that's taking you?
In grad school I finally started to really figure out the ways I want to make and the things I want to make with, and be okay with that. My one advisor would be like, “You have such a ‘fuck you’ attitude towards the world, but you're not embodying that in your work.” And so then I began to stand behind the materials and methods that I really believed in.
Before, my practice was almost totally two-dimensional. Even though I would make all these fibrous things, I wouldn't really incorporate them into my work with a capital W. And so when I was trying to figure out how to make these big sculptures for my thesis show, someone was like, “You could just make the way you know how.” And I was like, Oh, I could just sew it. Ding!
You said that your practice used to be totally two-dimensional, but you’ve also made screenprints recently. Those are particularly interesting to me because, as I was doing research for this interview, I initially thought a lot of them were sculptures or installations. Like, they have this very 3D effect. Are those a departure from your past 2D work, and is that warping of perception something deliberate?
Well, my background is in photography. I made only photos for many years, but they felt unfinished — not enough or something. I started making collages as mockups for sculptures, but then I started seeing that something was happening in the works on paper that, like, can't happen in a sculpture. There was definitely a magic in them that I didn't expect, where the space and perspective gets totally fucked up and deceitful.
Most of the photographic elements in there were things that I had photographed myself. I started to use collages as a new place for my images to live — I could take pieces of them and build a new world.
Something else that I've been working on recently is making a lot of functional objects like ceramics and jewelry. Maybe they will serve as a way to support my other practice, but I also like the idea of being able to make an object for people to use in their daily life. It feels more personal, and more connected to the user.
It’s not as reified anymore.
Yeah, definitely. But one of my goals for this residency was to jump back into my studio practice and start these objects I want to make.
Can you talk a little bit more about what you've been working on in Wassaic, then?
Well, I have all these glass crystals that I made. I fuse them in the kiln, and then I will polish and shape them in the cold shop — basically sand them down the way you would wood. They have this metallic glass trapped inside them called dichroic glass, which is really sparkly and shifts colors in the light.
I'm going to be gluing them together and also using some other materials that I have, including more chunks of glass and fake flowers. I love that these plastic succulents are just, like —
God, they're so good.
Basically, the result will be little crystal formations, and then I'm making these tabernacles out of fabric, foam, wood, and clay for them to live in. So there will be a decorated vessel that's to hold something sacred, and then you'll be able to look in and see the crystal formation.
You mentioned earlier that you grew up Catholic. Are the tabernacles in some way a reframing of that experience?
Yeah I would say it is a reframing, but I intentionally want to keep the objects kind of mysterious. You get the sense from the tabernacle that, Oh, this thing's important, but you don't really know what the purpose is of the crystal. You don’t even really understand what the object is.
Because otherwise it becomes interpreted only through the lens of: “Ah, this is a comment on the artist’s past Catholicism.” Which seems more reductive than you want it to be, or constraining the interpretive possibilities of interacting with these things.
Yeah, and in that case the information is kind of getting in the way of the feeling. If there's a clear definition or a clear story behind the thing, or someone's telling you what you're supposed to feel, that influences how you do interact with the thing or how you do feel.
I mean, it's just natural to want to be guided. But I like the idea of these things not guiding the audience. People can invest their own value or meaning into them. They're sparkly and rainbow and really, really pleasing to look at. That can also be enough.
Mary Ancel is an artist who was born and raised in Baltimore, and now lives and works in New York City.
2019 Summer Residency