Sophia Flood: Objet petit a

I first saw Sophia Flood’s sculptures and paintings in her solo show at Sadie Halie Projects last year and again at Gowanus Open Studios last fall. In March we met in her studio off Smith and 9th Street as she was wrapping up a profile project with Great Big Iceberg and getting ready to travel to China in April. 

The paintings, sculptures, and your collections all seem to be coming from a particular place that I can’t exactly locate. They share a specific palette and formal shape language.

I like the idea of a world of objects and paintings that trade places. I think of the sculptures as markers in a space, like a pipe that ends abruptly or those rings of decorative edging that you see in front yards around the city. That’s where I get ideas for some of these forms—these strange, tender entities that populate public spaces. The sculptures can locate the paintings in a half-domestic, half-unfamiliar setting. It makes you aware that the images come from the world and refer to a familiar realm of experience, but seen in a certain light.

I’m coming from dealing with a lot of found color—painting in a way with found objects and materials. This process might involve picking out objects because of certain colors, but not necessarily generating color. That’s a driving point of why I'm keeping some of these just painting now: I like that they can more directly create an atmosphere or mood. 

They all emit the same color and radiance of night lighting.

Lately, I’ve been interested in my apartment at night. I try and absorb it. The forms are darkened and hard to read, but at the same time everything has its own light. It’s impossible to describe outside that experience, and you can’t quite take a picture of it. 

Yes, that quality where everything is on the verge of a color the eye can’t exactly read.

That reminds me of that darkened gallery in the Chris Olfili exhibition. There was almost no light in the room with these monochromatic paintings—narrative scenes in dark blacks, blues, and purples. Your eyes had to adjust. It was the weirdest optical trick. And it was fascinating because it wasn’t gimmicky. They slowly revealed themselves in a way that was about sensing them and feeling them. It was like seeing something at night without quite understanding it, and having it become an image over a period of time. That whole phenomenological space between you and the paintings was just so activated. 

It was an incredible experience that I’d never had with painting. It made me want to paint at night, too. I’ve done some plein air painting over the past couple years. It’s a totally different and more direct way of working. 

You seem to be attracted to traditional modes and mediums—plaster sculpture, oil painting—but there’s always play. Things are reopened, like 3am (all works 2014): a small oil-on-canvas landscape on plaster-coated kitchen scrubbing sponges.

The traditional mediums are relatively new to my work. As recently as two years ago I had never made a painting that was just a painting. I was using mostly ephemeral materials in collage and installation – painting expanded. But I got to a point where I wanted to reign in my material palette. It was getting to be too much. Around that time I started working for a conservator, which made me think about art objects differently. Dealing with things that existed for hundreds of years got me interested in ancient objects, ancient things, and their heavy materiality. I set some different parameters for myself, but you’re right, there’s always play within them. Finding ways to work objects into the mixture– sponges, birthday candles, a cup, a sock – is second nature to me. They can provide specificity, and subvert an otherwise predictable process or surface. And even with painting materials, I find myself resisting when the language feels too familiar. Staining, scrubbing into raw canvas, slopping and smoothing and digging into plaster…this is yielding a lot for me right now.

3am, 2014, kitchen sponge, plaster, and oil paint

Everything is handled a lot, the plaster on the surface of the sculptures are modeled like painting and remade as painting even.

Yeah, painting them on the surface; using dye in the surface…the material holds the imagery to some degree. Paint is absorbed in the canvas.

It’s interesting that this sculpture has such a definite flat side to it, which relates to painting. But it’s awkwardly freestanding, tethered with a rope to hold up this unwieldy trunk.

Yeah, right around the time I was starting to make contained paintings I was starting to think of making a freestanding sculpture (rather than working everything directly into the space). All these ugly, lumpy parts were created in the moment, trying to find some way to just make the piece stand! I planned the whole thing out in a pretty methodical way. The rope was essential. The base at the bottom that I drilled into is concrete. But even with these preparations, it was still doing its own thing as I added more material. And it resulted in a weird, Brancusi-like form. The flat side is some kind of display unit I found at a Russian banya in Brooklyn, on Coney Island Ave.

I’ve been there before: the little café with the Astroturf patio, the hot and cold pools.

That place was my dream. I was obsessed with it for a while, and with bathhouses in general. The regenerative promise in such dingy, corporeal form.

Even something about the physical look of a steam room—the steps, the plaster—could seem reminiscent to some of the work.

The steam room at the YMCA is also something I’ve tried to work with several times. Finding that piece of Masonite from the banya was a gift, because I wanted to make work that was situated there in some way; but I didn’t quite know how to do it until then. It was almost like this figure stepped right out of the bathhouse. 

You sometimes start your paintings by looking at objects or still lives that you assemble in your studio… 

Yeah, I never know how much people can actually read. It’s such a mysterious thing to me, but you probably can read what the sort of subject is in there, right?

Is it a ring dish?

It’s a fountain actually.

I wonder if I had not seen your collections here, or if I wasn’t familiar with your previous work, if I might not read any particular thing in these paintings at all. The surrounding space is weightier than the objects, although each retains a presence and weight in space and leaves a shadow. That feels important, and the objects themselves seem erased and become like placeholders or monoliths.

I’ve gone back and forth a lot, over the years, on how I use objects in my work. Sometimes it’s direct and at the surface. With these paintings, I wanted to make it more about the encounter with the object, the space around it, and that moment of first finding or understanding it. It’s not just about the object or its specific history or reference, but everything around the object and your relationship to it. 

What kind of experience with the object?

With this painting, Open Omen, I was thinking about this mysterious window display in my neighborhood. There’s a deck of cards in the window, with two cards facing up: one is an eight of diamonds and the other is a seven of clubs. It was like that for a long time, but then one day I walked past and noticed that one of the cards had changed. I wondered when this might of happened and why. 

I intended to make a painting of those cards and other things from the window, but when I started, I couldn’t. I already knew what those things were. The moment I scrapped that and started dealing with what was happening in the painting, it opened up a whole space that felt much closer the original, lived experience. 

With a lot of these objects, they have some sort of significance that I could never fully understand. And that keeps me interested in them, as a kind of an omen. There’s something that could be read, someone else’s gesture, or a situation someone else has created but I can’t totally access.

And the same for Clearing?

This is actually the only piece that comes from something I didn’t experience firsthand. My friend, Julia, told me about a painting that her grandma had made. Her grandmother lives in Germany, in a house nestled in the Black Forest. The painting featured a sculpture she had made of my friend’s sister as a baby next to a tree stump, with her house in the background. The image seemed strange to me and it just stuck. Normally I’m working from sensory experience, but Julia's telling contained enough sensory information in it. I loved her version of that painting and all the different levels of remove in the story, and I decided that I wanted to make my own approximation of this painting. I ended up with this series of pedestals – maybe the stump is a stand-in for the baby.

Starting with someone else’s intention is an unusual decision.

Yeah, but I don’t necessarily feel like I can possess a lot of the things I look at, especially walking around Brooklyn. It’s not where I grew up and I feel a little like a voyeur sometimes. My interest in windows and looking into private worlds is about my experience with the things I see, but there’s a lot that I could never understand there and I need to respect that or be aware of it. 

There’s a distancing or an elevation in some of these works, or an interest in display. Some of the sculptures resemble showcases for real or readymade objects, such as the New Year’s Eve hat in Endless Spring or Gatekeeper’s plastic mask. 

Definitely. In some, the pedestal is more important than what’s on top. It’s also an impulse to push an object back or to bury it, and then find it. That’s how I see Endless Spring functioning; it’s about this fleeting connection with the object. Well, I say fleeting, but it’s a frozen moment. And the sculpture restages that moment or tries to create some space around it.

 Endless Spring, tinted plaster, ceramic tile, cement, new year’s hat, plastic sheeting, 2014

Like in retail display?

Certainly. Retail display is where that dynamic is most commonly staged for us. It’s funny: I’m actually making window displays for work right now. 

It’s research.

It’s a bizarre experience working on the other side of the window. People walk by and watch what you’re doing. You’re physically in the space and role of the object. And window displays illustrate that whole relationship. The thing is held off at arm’s length, and the whole space between you and it becomes this arena to project whatever your wish for the object is and what it might fulfill. 

Sometimes it’s on the surface, like lifestyle branding, selling people an image or a version of themselves. But I think it’s something deep in our psychology and really specific and personal for everyone. Retail has simply found a way to harness that space.

There’s an eerie reversal of space around the mask. Its interior is facing up, so that the concave forms are pitted, imprinted, on the top of a plaster mass. It suggests the face down body posture of a kowtow. It’s interesting that you start with such a thin, disposable object and then add mass and weight around it. The inversion reminds me of how that thick atmosphere is functioning in your paintings.

It’s like a ghost image—there and not there at the same time. Ben always says that too; the objects are falling into themselves or out of themselves. I think I’m trying to obscure a certain amount, and it’s the result of that push and pull. 

Yeah, the negative information that holds and encases a subject is really dominant.

It’s also a result of the plaster. The mask is kind of a fossilized thing, and these intimate objects and experiences become monumentalized. I tried to give it geological presence, as if it were preserved in this form over a long period of time. Maybe someone would re-find it and have this token. 

For me, the New Year’s hat is a really sad object. As soon as New Year’s is over, it’s just hanging around. It’s already performed its function, and it’s kind of off-duty. It embodies all this celebratory hope and party and yet New Year’s Day can be such a bummer. 

That after-the-party quality seems related to the cosmetic bottles in some of your arrangements. There’s an eyelash brush and plastic lemon at the center of Silver. That sculpture is already trophy-like in its scale and with its pedestal. With all of these cheap, disposable objects you’re preserving that hopeful sense of getting ready, which becomes so sad when unfulfilled. Decorations have that same pressured function of creating or adding to a moment’s specialness.

Yeah, it’s the immanence of something. “Getting ready” is a great way of putting it, and that feeling of excitement bumped up against the disappointment of a moment passed. The way I’m thinking about objects has so much to do with desire, and an attempt to satiate or fulfill some deep-seated ideal.

I like the desire—to stay present with some fleeting moment—that you keep coming back to. Even with the story of Clearing, trying to hold onto the immediate impression, even if all the initially intended components don’t get realized. 

Yes, it’s the significance of finding this moment and trying to dig out what’s there. Why am I remembering this? I think all these materials and objects, too, are sedimentary. Much of the sifting process happens in your conscious mind, and you’re left with these parts and pieces that resonate for whatever reason; that’s what I want to go back to and explore. It’s a process of revisiting something—going back and back. 

And although they’re fleeting, I think they persist. That’s something I was thinking about today: this idea of ancient history being frozen time that you can’t access. And maybe that’s another way to think about fleeting; the access is fleeting, but not the thing itself.


For more information on Sophia: sophiaflood.com

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