It is hard to go through a city (any city, anywhere) these days and not be somehow affected by the constant flow of visual stimuli we are bombarded with. From architecture follies to commercial signage to traffic information, our vision field, our sense of personal space and connection are constantly being challenged. Some call it visual pollution but some actually take inspiration from it, like artist Michelle Weinberg.
She applies her talent to create environments that seem to see the poetic side of the chaotic urban ethos. She seeps through the images we routinely dismiss (or think we do) from our visual cortex and builds with them, arranging them like an architect would, planning interiors, vistas and selecting materials, walls and textures with which to build. Her 'architecture' at first glance may seem like a cartoon, stage set faux facade, but it appears within a surface context in a way that becomes intrinsic to it and part of a deeper sense of space.
A brave explorer of mediums, she has collaborated with architects applying her bold graphics and colors to buildings, creating site specific work for both walls and floors, and recently has been awarded a public commission in Tampa, Florida that will bring her work to the asphalt pavement on the city, giving new meaning to the expression 'street art'.
Last week, on the verge of her recent opening at the Bob Rauschenberg at the Edison State College in Fort Meyers, Florida, I caught up with Michelle and we talked about architecture, her process, the many mediums she works with, the digital world and being a creative person today. Here is some of what she told me.
Paul Clemence: Without a doubt your work has strong connection to architecture, whether painting, installation or print, the build landscape is present. How do you see that connection?
Michelle Weinberg: I can say that my interests are in things architectural, but filtered through my own playful physics. If architecture is the container for human activity, then the arena of painting is the container for visual thought. I'm occupied with translating the 3D sensations of architecture into 2D language. In doing so, I'm dis-integrating some things and synthesizing other things. My allegiance is not to form, but to pictures, so I give myself a lot of leeway to invent new, impossible spaces. I'm interested in expressing structure as veneer.
What most catches your eyes today? Signage, texture, light, color palette...what do you feel your visual radar is more sensitive to at this point?
MW : My visual radar probably picks up color relationships first, then patterns and then forms. An unusual color can convince me of an unattractive or unlovable form. Then I read the landscape, and that's where the verbiage comes in. Letters, words, language, phrases - poetry. It's the word/image coupling that grabs me.
PC: From buildings to pavements to textiles, rugs, ceramic tiles and plates, and canvas and prints, you are prolific in your exploration of mediums. What are the adjustments you make when going from one medium to the other?
MW: I think this is mostly intuitive. A painting demands solutions that conform to its own logic. Design of a surface for a public space add the public users as a variable in that equation. Scale is probably the most important thing - something intimate that will be taken in its entirety, viewed over a long period of time, is different than something that forms a backdrop for public activity. Also a functional object plays a role, serves a purpose, as well as collaborating with other unknown elements to create a scheme.
PC: That will certainly be the case in your Zack Street project in Tampa. It is a very exciting project and I don't recall seeing something like it before. How did that project come about?
MW: Public art consultant Ann Wykell invited me to submit some pattern ideas for 3 blocks of Zack Street in downtown Tampa, a great location, leading to the waterfront park with the Tampa Museum of Art (designed by Stanley Saitowitz). My idea was to imprint the sidewalks and cross walks with a colored asphalt material. The palette is bold reds and blues, to contrast with sand-colored sidewalk cement. The cross walks will be very dynamic, with black and white patterned motifs on a gray background. Working with the team of Phil Graham Landscape Architects in St. Petersburg has been very productive. My work is a play on ColorForms, hopscotch, stepping stones, meant to encourage a playful meandering on these blocks - but to hurry up when you need to cross the street!
PC: What is a medium that you have not explored yet but would like to?
MW: I'd like to work in large scale glass for architecture. I'm interested in transparency and layers lately. A project I collaborated on with Felice Grodin opened up my interest in something sculptural, but at the same time formless. Something which could be both a picture and a place. I guess that's what I'm always teasing at. Also, ceramics - tiles and vessels - I think this could occupy me endlessly. Animation, both hand drawn and digital, is something that I could easily delve into and forget everything else. Sequential art forms are very tantalizing to me.
PC: On that digital note then, has the digital world and its richness of imagery influenced your work?
MW: The visual avalanche of the internet is fantastic. I'm an obsessive book learner, and the internet is like a giant book that adds new pages all the time.
As far as digital media itself, I am fascinated by game space - a new dimension - a new public art form really - that has been under-exploited still. I have dabbled in creating clickable game works modeled after Escape the Room online games. Stay tuned for more on that....
PC: How you see the arts today? What do you feel has changed since you started on this path?
MW: I think the art world has become steadily more market-driven, just like every other facet of culture. Viewers have been trained to recognize and align themselves with brands, as a convenient shortcut for longer, slower, more complex, demanding and open aesthetic exchanges between themselves and art. The business of art has become more known, more available, and direct art experiences may have become more bland, more market researched. When I was young, art was often made to shock. Since that's not as easy to do now, art had to become spectacle. It's interesting to observe, like any subculture. There are pros and cons to churning out more MFA grads than ever existed at any time in history!
PC: What are qualities a creative person should have today to survive/make it?
MW: Survival is not so hard. And success still ought to be defined by each individual, but the common understanding of making it today as an artist or a designer is facilitated greatly by being a celebrity or knowing celebrities. Beyond that, I think having business savvy is essential. It can be learned, but some have the knack over others. My definition of success is having as few extraneous obstacles to your creative life as possible and to enjoy creative work in all facets of your life, not just what is identified as the 'artwork'. To have your own story, that is unlike anyone else's, your own adventure.
And an adventure for sure is what Weinberg takes us on with her work. Her images have a seductive fascination that invites us to discover: an exit to the highway, a rear entrance of a warehouse, a cool mod lounge, or corner of a long forgotten street. We know we have been there and seen that and then realize that regardless of known location or not the place we arrive is one of fantasy and poetry. And we know we are happy to be there. She might take clues from outdoors, from signage and advertisements, but she does not use them to sell us anything. Instead she tells us something about ourselves and the way we live.
Michelle Weinbergs exhibit 'Pictorial Record' can currently be seen at the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery, Edison State College, Fort Meyers, Florida. 25 May - 30 June.
Interview by Paul Clemence
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