Immersive Studio Visit
Studio Visit No. 2
Last month, Eazel was invited into the studio of Victoria Manganiello, a New York-based textile artist who creates woven paintings and installations. She is known for spinning, dyeing, and weaving her own canvases using materials she creates herself from natural ingredients and found objects she happens upon in the urban environment she inhabits. Her work has been exhibited around the world, and she teaches as an adjunct professor both at New York University and at Parsons School of Design.
We heard that rising New York-based textile artist Victoria Manganiello spends as much time in her Brooklyn studio experimenting with raw materials as she does carefully designing the intricate sets of coordinates her loom will render as large woven patterns.
On our way to meeting her in this laboratory-cum-studio we were especially curious about the conceptual subject matter her work has been exploring as of late.
Eazel: Victoria, thank you for inviting us into your studio. Jumping right into it, I was wondering if you could start us off by speaking high level to your overarching project as an artist.
Victoria Manganiello (VM): Welcome, and what a big question to start with! I don't think that I necessarily know what my overarching project is because it's changing constantly. I'm a very intuitive maker, so I don't always have an end goal in mind. I'm driven by the materials and processes I'm working with for a given project. And I spend a lot of time developing a working knowledge of these things—which tend be very complicated, tradition-based, and historical. It’s engaging them in the physical world that inspires me, which is a process in and of itself. I guess you could say that with each mark I make, the goals change.
Eazel: Would you describe your work as conceptual?
VM: There’s certainly a conceptual aspect to my work; however, it seems, at least to me, to come out nearer to the completion of a given work, as opposed to being part of the starting point.
A lot of my work has been inspired by a new color that I've cooked in my dye kitchen, or a new fiber or material that I've encountered and that I’m experimenting with. I get curious about how these things interact with each other—the different effects, colors, textures I can create—and as I'm working with them I’ll say, ‘Oh look, there's some interesting geography happening here,’ or I’ll realize what it was that I was thinking about when I did something, then become aware of all these metaphors baked into the process as I’m adapting it. At some point everything just falls together and starts making sense to me. Really, it’s toward the end of this process that I begin to understand what it is that my work is seeking to convey.
Eazel: It sounds like getting immersed in making is central to your work and process.
VM: Making is a very human process—whether that something is digital, a startup business, or a canvas. Taking information in a virtual setting, or materials in the physical world, and then translating them into new things—essentially reordering them while keeping them together—is very much what defines us as humans. Although I'm not really thinking about it this way while I’m working. I'm just doing it because it's intuitive, and part of my nature.
Eazel: Makers and making seem to be top of mind in the popular imagination these days. Is there an aspect of social commentary to your work?
VM: Not really. I tend to think that way when I'm working in collaboration with other artists. As an artist, you’re just this one person engaging with a community and then going back to your studio to translate the experience into art, so it’s really inevitable that the two aspects of the process will speak to each other in some way.
While I'm interested in a lot of concepts—things I'm reading about, hearing about, talking about with other people, things I’m involved in socially—and I'm always hoping that at some point these interests will cross paths with the abstract objects that I'm making, the process is nevertheless very intuitive.
Eazel: You describe your work as paintings on canvases that you’ve woven yourself. What do you mean by this?
VM: Any painting on a canvas is actually a woven structure. While the canvas is usually purchased by the artist from a manufacturer of canvases who weaves them en masse in an industrial factory somewhere, the basic structure of the painting—the canvas—is woven.
As far as my work is concerned, I see it as painting in the figurative sense—I’m just working on a canvas that I create myself as I go along.
The reason I make it a point to call attention to this is because I am identified as a textile and fiber artist, and while I have no problem with that—I think it's wonderful to be connected to the rich history of people working with these materials—those of us working in this category of art have been distinctly separated from artists in other categories, and I don't think this makes much sense.
When you look at the history of art and how it has been talked about—as well as how society has assigned value to different kinds of art—the fiber, textile, and craft artists have generally been placed at a lower rank. There's a lot more to it of course, but what I’m interested in highlighting is that in very basic material terms, this kind of artwork is not much different from paintings.
Eazel: It would seem like your work is making a statement about the space between art and craft. Is this the case?
VM: Anni Albers—who, by the way, is one of my most important inspirations—and the Bauhaus School were one of the first to recognize craft as having some sort of equality with other types of art. Over the last hundred years or so, this idea has slowly made its way into the conversation. And I think it has only been pretty recently that textile art has gained a bit of traction in the commercial contemporary art world. But there have been a lot of impressive artists working with these materials for many years that are only now gaining recognition.
Generally speaking, it would seem they have been ignored throughout the history of art. And while it seems to be more common to see textile work in galleries these days, I don’t think this is because it’s being made more often now. It's just that these artist have managed to attract the spotlight as of late.
Eazel: Your work would seem to evoke themes of nature and ecology. Do you have these things in mind while you are creating?
VM: First of all, I'm creating a lot of my own materials with ingredients—for lack of a better word—that come from nature. So I'm using things like flowers, dried bark and bugs, onion skins, avocado pits, etc., to make color. Sometimes I’m collecting them from a source point such as an online store or a local store, and sometimes I'm collecting and harvesting them myself—like the flowers and bark from a park, or the onion skins and avocado and pits from my kitchen. In the case of the latter, the connection to nature is obvious as I’m using natural materials. Of the found materials that I collect, I'm interested in working with things that are commonly viewed as synthetic, such as many of the yarns that I weave with. And a lot of the dyes that I make myself come from synthetic sources like chrome or other toxic chemical-based materials. It’s how I combine the natural and the synthetic that inspires me to create a story about the history of what's natural and what's happening today. I'm very curious about the way these two words are used as designations in other contexts.
Eazel: Is this a story about the art world, or are you making a more general statement?
VM: Natural dye was the source of all of our color until synthetic dye was invented only a hundred and sixty years ago. So when you think about the history of color, it has come from natural sources for pretty much all of history. And while synthetic dyes give us the colors that we encounter everyday in advertisements, the clothing we wear, the paint on our walls—this is all because of a relatively recent innovation in how we’ve been able to render color using synthetic dyes. I believe there is an interesting story here, and as an artist I’m especially curious about why it is that people feel the need to distinguish the natural from the synthetic—as if the synthetic were unnatural, or didn’t at some point come from nature. We’re quick to say that something that's more simplified or intuitive is natural and that something that’s more complex is synthetic. This fascinates me.
Eazel: It would seem like your work and process is exploring a middle ground between the abstract and the intuitive. How do you translate the more esoteric aspects of the contemporary art world into work that speaks to a more general audience?
VM: Well, I'm using materials that are familiar to people—whether they realize it or not. When you look at one of my pieces you already understand what it would feel like to touch it because you’re wearing the same material on your body. Not only are you wearing it while you’re looking at my work, but you've been wearing it all your life—from when you were wrapped in a swaddle immediately after you were born, to whatever you have on at the moment, to the burial shroud you’ll be wrapped in when you die.
As people, we’re interacting with these materials in a very intimate way throughout the course of our lives. So when you look at my work, you already know what it is—intuitively—even if it’s not front of mind. I think this is why I'm compelled to work with both textiles and with abstraction.
Eazel: We’d like to get your thoughts on this idea of ‘fast fashion’ that businesses like H&M and Zara are promoting these days—where the marketing concept of planned obsolescence in conjunction with trends in the fashion world are driving shorter product-driven life cycles for clothing. It would seem like clothes are commonly believed to be disposable—not meant to last. As a textile artist, what are you thoughts on this recent development?
VM: In my role as an adjunct professor teaching courses on textile art and the history of the textile production, I’m regularly pointing out to my students that the fashion industry is the number two contributor to environmental pollution and global warming—second only to CO2 emissions. Worth mentioning is that both of the universities where I teach are encouraging the students to be sustainable and reuse materials.
Obviously it's a huge problem. But this is mainly because we are all buying new clothes every season when we don't need to. As a society, we don’t seem to appreciate the years it actually takes these materials to biodegrade in landfills. Just visit the Met and you'll find textiles that have survived hundreds—if not thousands—of years. Sure, these materials aren’t going to last as long as steel, let's say, but they're not temporary either. While we could use our clothing a lot longer than we typically do, we’re compelled by the ubiquitous marketing of the fashion industry to keep up with the latest trends and styles that appear every season.
Now there is also something called ‘ultra fast fashion’ where clothing is made for a single use and is then compostable. While I appreciate the thinking behind this, and while the concept of compositing sounds sustainable, when you take into account the economics of supply chains, as well as all of the waste and energy consumed in the making of each new garment, it should be noted that the impact on the environment is nonzero.
So fast fashion is definitely not going to disappear anytime soon, but sustainability is sort of on trend right now, which is great.
..To be continued in Studio Visit #2 – Victoria Manganiello (Part II) (VR))
All Images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise stated separately.
Victoria Manganiello, Axis, 2016, Natural and synthetic fibers and dyes, 15 (h) x 6 (w) x 15 (d) feet. Image courtesy of the artist