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Softly Sculptured

Los Angeles artist Megan Whitmarsh exhibits her quaint sculptured collections of everyday objects at Art Miami Basel

The Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, was one of Art Basel’s biggest delights. Given the gilded swankness of the 1920s building, we half-expected stuffiness and champagne. Instead, we got performance artist-slash-web celeb Leslie Hall, rapping while swilling beer, and four floors of increasingly charming and surprising art curated by American art-lover Todd Oldham. Our favourite? Megan Whitmarsh’s Recursive Objects, featuring myriad wee “soft sculptures” of everyday, personal objects, such as sharpie pens, diary pages and a Velvet Underground album cover.

Outside, we stumbled upon a giant heap of such objects entitled Trash Mountain. We had seen it days before, and thought it was another oddball bit of gloriously tacky Miami. We told Whitmarsh about this and the Los Angeles-based artist and mother of twins took “but is it art?” as the best kind of compliment, and indulged us in some questioning over Skype...

DD: So, how did you get started doing this sort of object?
Megan Whitmarsh: I started doing embroidery about ten years ago, but it was only in the past two to three years that I started doing work in this style. Honestly, what happened is that I got pregnant and had twins, and had a year and a half off.

DD: Maybe explain how sculpture is defined, because I wouldn’t have called your works sculptures!
Megan Whitmarsh: I guess I call them sculptures because I think of them as having Claes Oldenburg as their antecedent. I call them The Muppets meet Claes Oldenburg.

DD: Is he the guy who did the giant apple core?
Megan Whitmarsh: Yes. He was the first “soft sculpture” guy. Actually, his wife did all the work, but he got all the credit.

DD: Do you feel that there are a lot of female-made, handmade things that are labelled (rather dismissively) as craft, but that are actually art?
Megan Whitmarsh: I think craft is technique over substance, and for me the medium is a means to an end, not an end. Artists that are intentionally making art with craft – that’s art if that is the dialogue they are in, but some of it is not interesting to me personally because it’s too overtly political or the substance is sacrificed for the message. There are lots of women  artists who made work using crafts that laid the groundwork for people like me, such as Judy Chicago in the 70s. I don’t really like her work, although I appreciate her as a pioneer. I am more interested in an artist like Lynda Benglis– her concepts are revolutionary.

DD: So if the intention is art, it’s art?
Megan Whitmarsh: Yes, basically. But whether it is successful or interesting will always be up for interpretation. I think rather than question the category something falls into, it’s more interesting to question the hierarchies of our categories. For example, I love comic books and I revere some of them as highly as I do paintings by Philip Guston. I don’t think the paintings are better since they are high culture. Do you know what I mean?

DD: Absolutely! So, is it important to you as an artist to upset or subvert the hierarchy a little?
Megan Whitmarsh: Yes. I think subvert is the perfect word, or undermine. I want to have a gentle but challenging dialogue with the world.

DD: Had you been to the Wolfsonian before this show came up? Are you a fan of museums in general?
Megan Whitmarsh: No on both fronts. I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I rush through museums and can never maintain that air of reverence that I am supposed to feel for great artworks. In my own small life, I am not interested in the notion of collecting useless things. I have almost no art in my own house, for example.

DD: What’s the best compliment?
Megan Whitmarsh: I like the idea of contrasting feelings arising in someone, or a little bit of confusion, or surprise... which is why I liked how you told me that you didn’t know whether Trash Mountain was art or not. A lot of people seemed baffled, and then delighted, by the Wolfsonian show. That was a good compliment.

DD: Everything felt so tiny and intimate, like I was Alice in Wonderland after she ate the cake.
Megan Whitmarsh: Well, that is the best compliment! I want it to feel familiar yet new, comfortable but not boring. We saw Fantastic Mr Fox while in Miami, and it was so great. It had this feeling too, like you had seen it as a kid, but really you hadn’t ever seen it before.

DD: Do you think a film could be made using your work as the characters and props?
Megan Whitmarsh: I think it would be cool. I made a stop-action film with a figure I made back in the late 90s. It was only five minutes. But I have been thinking about doing video stuff again.

DD: What's next?
Megan Whitmarsh: I am going to make an installation of my objects for my next solo show, at Michael Rosenthal Gallery in San Francisco, where everything will be handmade including furniture and stuff. That will be at PULSE too in New York, in March. I also have solos in Seoul, Korea, and in Brussels coming up. I only do a couple shows a year, because of having kids.

DD: And it’s so much handiwork...
Megan Whitmarsh: I am fast at sewing and have no social life!

Postscript: Megan Whitmarsh would like it noted that Claes Oldenburg is one of her favourite artists and the quote about his wife doing a lot of the work is not representative of her feelings about his work and was part of a larger discussion about women's work in craft and art, and the influence of spouses on an artist's work. She in no way intended to be dismissive of his artistic process.