Assaulting the Surface: A Conversation with Sarah Lovitt

Stairway, 2002. Wax suspended by filament, 32 x 10 X 8 in. each. Photo: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

Georges Bataille described eroticism as “life ascending to the point of death.” Sarah Lovitt traces that ascent, crafting embodiments of physical distress redeemed through spiritual hope. She creates images of death’s ubiquity that trace the volatile conflict between medicine and faith. The power of Lovitt’s sculpture emerges from her avoidance of morbidity as she creates her difficult yet reassuringly tender memento mori. Lovitt exhibited for the first time at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash booth in the 2001 Armory show. There, she hung two grand-sized, fine metal tubing and rubber rib cages alongside framed wall reliefs of molded flesh-colored wax. One of the wax pieces was pierced with suture marks; in the other, harshly raised impressions of a spinal column emerged from beneath the thin wax surface. She established her path with these arresting works and has since created increasingly moving images of bodily experience tempered by emotional awareness. In an art world often filled with sensational and sensationalistic work, Lovitt’s sculptures have the quiet impact of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s sonnets. As with Poe, Lovitt creates the brilliant impression of death mingled with passion and life illuminated by its fragility.

Blanket, 2002. Electrocardiogram paper and thread, 84 X 66 in. Photo: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

Ana Finel Honigman: Much of your work addresses the body. One wax relief has a system of veins underneath the surface, with a slim cut sliced in the, which was inspired by a scrape you saw on the inside of your arm. How does your sculptural practice reflect the body’s vulnerability and resilience?

Sarah Lovitt: The tension is between the break in the surface and the much more serious systems still functioning beneath. The body appears impenetrable but is always vulnerable. Still, within its vulnerability there are systems of resilience. The complexity of these delicate areas and their layers of defense inspire and move me. A small cut might highlight these layers, but the vital systems, like the circulation underneath small incisions, are buried and protected.

AFH:In a recent piece you sewed fragile and outdated EKG paper into a baby blanket. In this sculpture are you aiming to contrast quilting’s link to oral tradition with medicine’s impersonal way of measuring life?

SL: Contrasts, such as the one you suggest, seem inevitable whenever you pair science with sentiment. These connections emerge a lot in my work. In the blanket piece, I juxtaposed the more emotional qualities of this patchwork pattern with the mechanical print of the EKG grid. The hand-stitched human line is compared with the mechanical markings of the EKG. I’m attracted to these types of comparisons: science’s attempts to dominate or impose order on nature. There is also a reference to Minimalism within this geometric pattern. I am equating seemingly complicated physical material with something very basic and true.

AFH: The EKG paper has an unusual physicality. It bruises when touched. Any direct contact with the paper will mark it, if only slightly. How does the EKG paper act as a stand-in for the ephemeral body or as a reminder of mortality?

SL: The EKG paper is blank, it is unused, the only imprints are those left by the hands that touch it. As a material alone, EKG paper is associated solely with mortality. In the same moment that the paper begins to record the markings of life, it begins its journey toward death. This blanket is at once nascent and on its way out. “Those that aren’t busy being born are busy dying.”

AFH: How do you translate medicine’s healing potential to your studio practice and the technical aspects of your work, particularly the wax relief pieces?

SL: Those pieces begin from a pure, perfect surface. The act of assaulting that surface is for me a very existential gesture. I build the surface out of many gradual layers of wax formed on a membrane. I use surgical tools to mark the surface, so I will take a scalpel and cut into it. It always takes a little bit of courage, and the violent associations inherent in marring this pristine form affect me. While the process allows me an extreme awareness of these tensions, in art-making there is always some fear involved in taking a perfectly blank surface and altering it with a line or gesture.

Untitled, 2000. Poly-fill, nylon and wax in wood frame, 29.5 x 23.2 cm. Photo: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

AFH: Yet because you are creating the surface you alter, the wax pieces demand a process that is never totally divorced from you. It must be even more intimate than approaching a blank canvas. How do you view this connection?

SL: I don’t only make the surface and injure it—I will often try to heal it as well. I cut it, but I also sew it back together or at least put it on the road to recovery. The wax pieces are images of wounds and scars, so I am reconnecting with the perfect surface by helping it to mend. But the process is never complete.

Be, Being, Been, 2000. Metal tubing, rubber, nylon stockings, poly-fill and thread
59.25 x 59.25 x 29.5 in. Photo: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

AFH: Do you see corollaries between medicine and art practice?

SL: Well, I wouldn’t presume to know about the practice of medicine, but it is often referred to as the healing art. Actually, I think there is more of a contrast than a similarity. In general, I think that medicine requires the pursuit of perfection. In order to insure safety and success, doctors hone their skills through repetition. They strive for precision. And the surgeon is always aware of his human fallibility and the need to perform exactly right. In contrast, I think art is more about alchemy—turning something ordinary into something extraordinary, infused with spiritual powers. I am more interested in the emotional content of, say, the line and the pattern that the line creates. I am more interested in the imperfections and accidents that might lead somewhere.

AFH: So, would you say that art should strive for perfection, begrudgingly accepting the accident, or forgo any intention of perfection and allow the accident to become the ideal?

SL: Perfection is always in the eyes of the artist, but satisfaction with the finished work and exactitude in the process seem like entirely separate principles. My work is concerned with a living, organic process. Mechanical precision and the absence of fallibility don’t seem to have a place in my process, but in the end, the result is still concerned with perfection.

AFH:Do you see your work, either process or product, as relating to a feminist art tradition or interpretation?

SL: I do think gender is undeniable in my work. If only because I am female, I bring a female sensibility to the work. It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely the effect or influence of gender without getting hung up on stereotypes. I approach and interpret everything I do as a woman, through experiences that are uniquely my own.

Be, Being, Been, 2000. Metal tubing, rubber, nylon stockings, poly-fill and thread 129 x 44 x 29 in. Photo: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

AFH: So, you see your work as gender neutral?

SL: I am concerned with something very basic and central to questions of what it means to be alive as man or woman. My work responds to human concerns. I don’t think an artist’s work needs to be androgynous to accomplish this. Eva Hesse is a perfect example of the kind of artist I admire. I don’t see her work, as some have argued, perhaps out of date by now, as relating to a specifically female set of concerns, suffering or experience. I think that the personal, bodily concerns central to her work, the body as vulnerable, are profoundly human concerns, transcending gender.

AFH: In another piece, a fleshy wax relief graphed with scars is displayed in a sentimental circular frame reminiscent of a sewing sampler or small portrait.
In what way are your bruised sculptures indicative of a non-specific type of portraiture?

SL: I see them as a type of portraiture. We are our wounds, fragile and resilient. You are right that they are non-specific, but I also consider them as functioning as a kind of extended self-portrait. They are intimate works, framed like an image of a loved one; the act of putting a portrait in a frame is a sentimental and loving gesture. Yet, looking at something is more about our response to the image than the image as separate. In this way, these pieces function as mirrors. It’s the flip side. Attachment comes with a cost.

Untitled, 2001. Poly-fill, nylon and wax in wood frame, 32.25 x 10.25 in. Photo: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

AFH: How do you modulate the feelings of fear or distress evoked by this highly corporeal material?

SL: I guess some of this work might elicit a complicated response. I hope it does. Some of it is graphic. What I find distressing sometimes is the process of trying to replicate something that so graphically resembles pain. The finished work is hopefully about transformation. The process of creating can be soothing. Familiarity should have the potential to mitigate or soften fear, diffusing what might otherwise be frightening. I’m also intrigued by the power that aesthetic experience can have in drawing viewers closer and perhaps luring them into inadvertently accepting difficult content.

AFH: Your sculptures certainly suggest pain, but without morbidity. Despite the overt subject matter do you consider your work symbolic of optimistic organic change and renewal?

SL: They do not represent death. Mutability is the most important single aspect of the work. Constant change suggests something everlasting. Those mysteries are most present in the triptych of cloth and the rubber rib cages I have hanging at different stages of inflation. I created these pieces to try and replicate the body’s fragile elasticity. Bones are expected to be hard and brittle, but here they are overtly malleable. The three rib cages are all the same dimensions. The only thing that distinguishes them is how they are positioned. I was hoping the viewer could never tell which one should be first in the series. Judging which one is in the healthiest state is subjective. One lies completely flaccid on the floor. The cable that would suspend it rests by its side. One is distended, and it is not really clear whether it has exhaled air or will become re-inflated. The third, which appears the most robust and inflated, will probably resemble the other two at another stage in its cycle.

Untitled, 2000. Poly-fill, nylon and wax in wood frame, 29.5 x 23.2 cm. Photo: Courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

AFH: Art is often seen as totemic: cathartic for the artist or poignant and empathetic for the viewer. Do you consider art to have symbolic healing properties?

SL: Absolutely. When it’s good, it can bring you to your knees—religious in some way. Art can offer momentary relief from earthly misery. My finished work never really proves anything. It’s an exercise, an effort to find something out, come up with something I wish were true. I guess in this way it’s hopeful.

AFH: Are there also spiritual aspects to your work?

SL: Probably more desire than belief, but some degree of spirituality seems implicit. I am aiming to highlight the elasticity within things. I am interested in showing how something can be simultaneously fragile and elastic. The work shows a process in which nothing is ever fixed. I think this points to something transcendent. And within this fragile framework there is always a thread. This is the connection. This is durable: a temporary fastening, the stringing together, the suspension of something. Maybe this only points to the illusion of progression. For instance, the stairs are cast from a set of heavily worn steps. Here, they are brand new. Never stepped on but somehow used. The ends are undetermined; the top and bottom seem interchangeable. Precariously balanced, connected by a thread. Ascension? I don’t know.

AFH: How do you balance spiritual concerns with the corporeal nature of your subject matter? Do you think a division between the body/spirit is justified?

SL: I guess I see a link rather than a division. This work may be corporal but it is not corporeal. I think this is a very important distinction. I don’t see the body as distinct from the spiritual. The work is about a process, the depiction of something that occurs over time. It is open-ended. I see something mystical within this physical material. I consider the restorative ability of the body and mind, a scientific process, as inextricably linked to something larger than science. The body is simply the microcosm. It’s what we know. I have to look closer at what I think I know if I’m interested in coming closer to what I don’t know.

Ana Finel Honigman is currently reading for a Masters of Studies in the History of Art and Visual Culture at Oxford University, Mansfield College.