by Brenda Haroutunian, edited by Yamuna Haroutunian
Bomb magazine presents an irresistible email conversation between sculptors Phyllida Barlow and Vincent Fecteau in its 2014 winter edition. Barlow’s ideas are rich and carefully considered. She is theatrical and engaging. Fecteau’s ideas are at once soulful and practical. The notion of comparison irritates them both. Yet, it’s a theme that they refer to again and again. The format of the article is predicated upon comparison. The two artists are featured side by side in an exchange that is friendly yet deeply inquisitive.
The irony stares at me as I read the conversation. Barlow is a gifted thinker and a master of discrimination. She separates familiar form from invented form and then points to differences in how each is made and understood. While the former is borrowed from reality, the latter refers to the process of setting the form free of its origins through creative action. In turn, the category informs viewer response. A sculpture employing familiar form resembles something (a mountain possibly) that we easily recognize and identify with while invented form stirs the viewer’s will and imagination towards discovery.
“I’ve often fantasized about making a form that would be so incomprehensible that it couldn’t actually be seen.” —Vincent Fecteau
While Barlow makes thoughtful discriminations about the seen world, Fecteau speaks of transcending it. The exchange between the two artists is loose and friendly, yet there is a remarkable difference in tone and content. Reading the article, I sense that Fecteau has considered the predicament of the human soul at some length. He doesn’t speak of notions of abstraction and representation that govern his process. Instead, he writes of an obsession with the invisible, with meaning beneath the surface, of comprehension that is not reduced to analysis.
If Barlow’s ideas stand in stark contrast to Fecteau’s, both (for different reasons) long for abstract form free of familiar reference. He speaks of making the invisible visible, of representing psychological states and so on. Barlow speaks of form that inspires discovery and the unexpected. The shallow comparison of a sculpture to its natural form irritates her.
“I long for the shape to break free, and for a shape or form that cannot be likened to anything to emerge.” – Phyllida Barlow
Groan. As illuminating as the conversation is, it nevertheless has its dry, dogmatic moments. Barlow with her strong mind analyzes these two categories to the binary extreme. I find myself in quicksand and the earth is slurping around me. I ask, what does nothing look like? Fortunately, Fecteau’s pragmatism speaks well to Barlow’s analysis when he points to the unforgiving nature of either/or categories. I am on dry land again. Fecteau goes on to suggest that our humanity may refuse an artificial distinction between abstract and representative form void of human touch. If the form does not conform to an object that we identify with, it nevertheless points to something in our experience that we do identify with.
While comparison is a drab concept, it helps us make sense of our world. It provides us with a means to measure the value of things. It reveals surprises and contradictions. Certainly, there is risk involved, for example, in propping a sacred object up against another object for the sole purpose of visual analysis. But here both artists have given implicit consent in allowing Bomb to publish this conversation, in which they are compared one against the other. In dialogue with Fecteau, Barlow appears to be not only an artist who is richly informed about sculpture, but also as a human being interested in intimacy, in uncovering secrets. Fecteau, emerges as not just a starry-eyed visionary, but also a pragmatist capable of navigating rough terrain. The two together are more than the sum of their parts.