AR: In your earlier work, there seems to be a tendency to play with figurative forms (vessels, towers, and shapes that allude to stylized human shapes). In your recent work (the cubes, the Stele, and Strata pieces) you tend to be veering toward a more abstract quality, or a more marked open-endedness…
TR: I’d say I can shift back and forth between the two bodies of work—the vessel and anatomical forms and the more architectural pieces—because they feed different parts of my brain. When I was going to go to college, I was either going to become a math major at Johns Hopkins or an art major at Wesleyan. So I have an intrinsic interest in math, and things like cutting templates, building, and joining are very satisfying to me.
When I took the cube form and started pushing it—playing with it and turning it on its side or its edge—I was slicing lots of edges pieces off. I have a kind of obsession with remnants and detritus, so I would save all these pieces, and at the end of doing a body of work I had stacks and stacks of boards with these pieces. So I just started working with those to create the Stele and also these other sculptures that felt like 3D collages to me. I couldn’t stop doing that; it was totally fascinating and exciting because I was in the process with each piece and not really sure where I was going. So the newer work started with the remnant pieces, but now it’s less so because I have a clearer formal purpose in mind—especially with the Strata series.
AR: Your moon tablets are an interesting conjunction of materials used in sculpture, but with a painterly presentation… What led you to making these?
TR: Last summer a bunch of my friends and I got together. We had dinner and then went down to the beach at midnight. We just lay in the sand for a couple of hours and during that time I saw about forty shooting stars: the Perseids. Around that time last year, there was an extraordinary super blood moon eclipse. So those two things just lodged in my mind. When I was between projects, I noticed some pieces of clay lying around, so I just cut them up and made them into small paintings.
AR: Your cubes are often asymmetrical and placed in unstable positions. Many of them make me think of fallen pieces that have incorporated themselves into the ground in a “counter-intuitive” way … How did you come to thinking about cubes in this manner?
TR: My way of working is really very intuitive. On one level, I was simply curious about how the shape and volume would look if I turned it over. With the cubes, I might start out thinking of a particular orientation, but the process that it goes through—the drying and the way it shrinks or warps—could change the initial idea; the piece might just “want” a different orientation. I also turn them over to give them a little bit of lift, the first one I did just felt dramatically different from the ones that sit squarely on the ground. Not that one is better than the other, but when you’re working with diagonals, the scale and the sense of balance feels different. The dualities of tension/ease and strength/fragility are always at play in my work; the awareness that something could tip over at any moment but at the same time it’s really firm and strong—which in a way is a reflection of my own life.
AR: Your use of string in some of your works must surely be connected to that…
TR: The use of string was at first slightly accidental and then became extremely purposeful. I had been using it as a kind of resist—when I was still using glazes in my work. I would take string and wrap it around a piece, then glaze it. If the string didn’t burn during the firing, I would just take it off and it would leave interesting marks, but there was one day when I had a bunch of pieces wrapped up in string—sitting outside to dry before I fired them—and I just loved the way they looked. So I started experimenting with wrapping some finished pieces with string and found that I was completely drawn to these thread-like patterns in relationship to the very solid forms. It definitely has to do with strength vs. fragility and something that appears to be delicate but at the same time is very strong and can hold things together. Maybe it’s an expression of the constant struggle that I experience as a woman; wanting to break free of certain definitions and boundaries, while at the same time feeling that I need to stay within them.
AR: Can you tell me about your work’s relationship with the viewer, particularly the pieces that are more explicitly personal?
TR: People tend to ask a lot of questions about the work, about the materials and the process. My recent body of work in particular has evoked a lot of emotional response. This has been really very touching to me, because when I make art I never think about the viewer. I’m just making work because I love it. So when someone has that emotional response to a piece I’ve invested so much of myself in, it’s really extraordinary. Some pieces have writing on them—personal memories of mine—but by the time I’m done with them and all the layering of slips that come into the process, the words are hardly readable. I’m not so interested in having people decipher the words as much as I am in the feeling of there being memories inscribed; the patterns and the purely abstract facets of writing.
AR: The idea of the possible unintelligibility of words—of things simultaneously being and not being—reminds me of “The Presence of Absence,” the title of your upcoming exhibition at Ricco/Maresca Gallery…
TR: When I decided on the name of the show, I went online and Googled it to see if it had been used for something else out there—even though it absolutely felt like the right title and I wasn’t giving it up! As I found out, there’s a book of poetry by Mahmoud Darkish (one of the better known Palestinian authors) that’s called “In the Presence of Absence.” There’s a poem there that’s very beautiful… It’s about words and the stringing together of letters and language; their literal and poetic facets.
AR: Finally, tell me about your recent project for the Parrish Art Museum (“Permanent Transience”) and how you came about the concept.
TR: The Parrish Museum asked me to do a site specific installation as art part of their “Roadshow” project. The invitation was completely open-ended, no parameters whatsoever; I could’ve chosen anywhere on the Eastern end of Long Island and done something really tiny if I wanted to. I’ve never worked on a large scale before, but I have always loved the straw wall at Marders—it’s in the tonalities that interest me and has an elegance and an aging quality that I really love.
So I initially thought I wanted to create a kind of mural on that wall, stitching textured patterns of thread into it—but physically it was too grueling and the idea didn’t pan out. At that point I really had to re-think the project, so I went back to the property and the current idea came like thunderbolt. My attention went to the giant boulders that are sitting in front of the straw wall, and immediately I knew that I wanted to do something that incorporated the two elements. I was making a lot of cube pieces at the time, so I decided I was going to envelop the boulders with my cubes and make the cubes out of straw. I worked with a team that helped me create these streel infrastructures made with rebar. We then lashed each bail of straw with rope onto them in such a way that the rope is invisible. That solution gave us this very angular base to work from, because one of my goals was to challenge the nature of the materials; to juxtapose the organic hay material with these solid rocks and kind of change the nature of the two elements—so that the straw became rigid and the boulders fluid.
AR: If you were to do another site specific project on this scale, do you think it will relate to your body of work as directly as the Parrish installation does?
TR: I think that my work can’t help but be. It’s like my singing voice, recognizable no matter how many songs I might sing. The way that I work is very incremental, while this might seem like a leap in many ways, it’s really just a leap in scale. While that’s really stimulating and exciting, there’s something fantastic about working small and the intimacy of it. I love being in the studio and having my hands in the work, so there’s some balance achieved there.
“Toni Ross: The Presence of Absence” will be on view at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York, Sept. 8-Oct. 15, 2016.
This interview was originally published on Artsy.