From Self to Other, an Exhibition of the Intimate: A Conversation Between Yael Roberts and Israel Heller
The show explores the idea of inspiration by looking at the relationships between artist-muse couples in the 19th and 20th century: Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The exhibition is an installation of 9 lithographic portraits, created from postal art. The artwork is based on the letters and diaries of the 8 historical figures, and on the correspondences of the artist over the past year about inspiration with friends and famous artists and writers.
Recently, Senior Arts & Culture editor Israel Heller had the opportunity to converse with Roberts about her work and process as an artist:
Israel Heller: Give me the broad history of how you became interested in text, image and creativity. This exhibition is about you as an artist, a thinker, and an intellectual. How did you get to where you are today?
Yael Roberts: I see myself as more an artist and a writer. Many of us are writers—actually all of us are. But being an artist is a very intrinsic part of who I am. I’ve always had this impulse to create—[I’ve had it] my entire life. I began considering myself an artist after junior year in high school when I went to an art camp (BIMA at Brandeis). I came back and was alive with an art making frenzy.
IH: The exhibit, “Correspondences.” It’s at once a visual medium and a literary, or verbal, epistolary medium. How did you connect the two? What was your inspiration?
YR: I’m attracted to mail and letters because they can contain both art and writing like any page can contain image and text. But mail has a formality in that mail is given and received.
IH: It’s also so focused. It has singular audiences.
YR: It has defined audiences. Anyone can write something or create an image and the audience isn’t so defined. But when you write a letter, it is to a specific person. That I could send letters to myself and also send letters to other people in a very defined way spoke to me, because I was attracted to the dichotomy between self and other in the Victorian period.
IH: What do you mean by self and other in the Victorian period?
YR: I mean that today the boundaries between self and other feel more malleable. We can impersonate whoever we want in the virtual world. Identity, the idea of the self is questioned.
IH: They have that new movie coming out with Spike Jones, Her. A man falls in love with his operating system. An other which is not a self.
YR: And I think what I’m trying to convey is that in the Victorian period, the distinctions between self and other, public and private, male and female were rigid, and I think our perceptions of these distinctions have dissolved over time. I wanted to visually show this dissolution.
IH: Through letters?
YR: The couples I explore illustrate this dissolution. In the Victorian period the woman is shunned and lacks import; she is the muse, not the artist. Whereas in the modern period, the woman can be the artist and the man can be the muse. So it’s kind of a feminist piece in that sense.
IH: Can you define artist and muse in this context?
YR: For the purposes of my work, the muse was this idea of an often female, goddess like, perfect, beautiful, unblemished virgin figure that was the source of inspiration for a male artist.
IH: So broadly, how did you connect all of these really interesting disparate parts, like self and other, artist and muse, into a whole?
YR: Your question reminds me of the Conor Oberst song when he talks about Arienette. She is this ideal woman, but she doesn’t exist. Part of what I was trying to explore is how the idea of the muse has shifted and changed and how today we draw inspiration from a lot of things—often it comes externally, but it also comes internally, and that’s where the self/other part comes in.
IH: What are some of your sources of inspiration?
YR: I strongly believe anything that inspires artwork develops over time—I don’t think there’s this moment of inspiration of “Aha,” I now know everything I didn’t know.
IH: So you’re not into epiphanies.
YR: I am, but built out of a long period of subconscious and conscious thinking. They don’t just come out of nowhere. In Spring 2011 I was thinking about the stamp as an iconic image and reading “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. I decided to make that literal by portraying dead female authors on stamps. That June, I couldn’t stop thinking about death and mailboxes; I was fixated with these things in an almost obsessive way. The way I fixate on certain ideas very strongly is integral and comes through in my process.
IH: Can you say more about your obsessive process?
YR: For this project, I created 9 portraits, and I created them each in the exact same way. It was hell. One of the only things that got me through was Antony and the Johnsons—I would listen to him to get through the grueling work I had to do. I remember when I started the artwork in June 2011. And I finished one step and thought ‘wow, this is step one of so many. This is so daunting.’
IH: How did you get from death and mailboxes in June 2011 to June 2012 when you’re deeply immersed in this project?
YR: In Fall 2011 Dr. Linda Shires wanted me to apply for the Kressel Research Scholarship. Suddenly, I had to combine the death mailbox art ideas with the self/other and artist/muse English ideas I’d been researching. My research and my art are very separate but also connected.
IH: So this is really a story about how your art meets your research?
YR: I think of those as two separate worlds, and they are. I’m not the same person when I’m doing these two things. But my artwork emerges from my research. So those two sides of my brain are very connected. Writing my proposal for the scholarship forced me to integrate those two schools of thought. That year in my life was intense for me. I was literally extracting ideas.
IH: From where?
YR: There’s a well inside of you—and then the well dries up.
IH: But the well is a vessel: what were you extracting?
YR: Emotion. I was turning the emotions inside myself into concrete ideas and words that would lay out what I would then do. It was a sort of cycle. I had emotions because I was extracting ideas and I was extracting ideas because I had emotions.
IH: So in June 2012 you’ve completed the idea. But when did the idea of the exhibit, “Correspondences,” as it looks now, crystallize? What does it look like?
YR: I can’t tell you so much about what it looks like because that’s part of viewing the exhibit. I mailed a lot of postcards this past year. And part of the exhibit is people watching—another idea behind the art is the difference between the micro and the macro—the way things look abstract close up versus the way they look far away. And what I want people to appreciate is the stark contrast between holding one postcard in your hand and seeing all of them together.
IH: You asked people to return postcards with responses. What did you ask people to respond to?
YR: I mailed 792 postcards this past year. Only 144 were to other people, the rest were to myself. Those 144 I sent to people I know and to famous people, some of whom wrote back, which was really thrilling. I left a bunch around the city too. I asked them: Who or what inspires you? How do you define inspiration?
IH: You sent out all these postcards. How do they correspond to the exhibit?
YR: The exhibit doesn’t just look at the historic figures to understand inspiration. It also looks at the way the everyman or people today think about inspiration or what inspires them. And the variety of responses I got was astonishing. I think people felt (but I don’t know exactly how people felt receiving them) a pressure to respond. How did you feel receiving it?
IH: I felt like I was being brought into a conversation, into an interesting, constructed space in which to think about a lot of things at once. Letters are this outdated form of communication. That’s a very powerful thing these days. It says a lot when someone says that you and I should remove ourselves from a plane of communication, that everyone, billions of people are accustomed to, and revert back to something older. Together.
YR: It’s intimate.
IH: It almost feels like a yerida. There’s a lot we take for granted about communication. And getting that letter with the idea that you have to set aside real time, without the aid of spell check, without being able to instantly write and re-write should a better idea hit you. It really invigorates you. Receiving a letter makes such a demand in our generation. It becomes this very intimate, very powerful sort of space; it imbues you with a sense of responsibility that someone put out a communication to you, and you have to give a piece of yourself back. Even as far back as the 60’s, you have Alex Chilton’s big hit “The Letter” in 1967.
YR: Or one of the songs by The Mountain Goats I loved listening to while doing this project about going to the mailbox and receiving a postcard.
IH: Or Donnie Darko, which strongly revolves around mail.
YR: Another part of the project was trying to collect these pieces of other people, something I felt I had to do. Communication online has taken that intimacy away and I wanted to get it back.
IH: Would you say that’s part of the reason you did this exhibit? Was that part of your motivation?
YR: Was I searching for intimacy? Really, I was trying to demonstrate the lack of intimacy today.
IH: It’s funny to bounce the word “intimacy” off of “exhibit.” You’re turning the idea of intimacy outward.
YR: I am, but it’s about a lack of intimacy and the fiction of the artist-muse relationship. It looks really rosey but all of the couples have their pitfalls. Rossetti fell in love with Jenny Morris. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera cheated on each other. Lewis Carroll may have been a pedophile.
IH: So there’s sort of a deep tension to the artist-muse relationship that hangs over the show?
YR: And it hangs over me. I don’t have the muse or the counterpart but part of it is that I don’t really wish I did. There’s something totally fictional about it. How much does one person really inspire someone’s artwork? You can attribute it to them, but are they really the sole inspiration? No, absolutely not. Like I said, ideas collect over so much time, that I’m sure it’s not that one person, that one moment.
“Correspondences” will be open from January 15-21, at Blackburn 20|20 in Manhattan (323 West 39th Street, 5th floor). Gallery hours are from 4-6PM, with the exception of Friday (1-3PM) and Saturday night (7-9PM). The gallery is closed on MLK day. A closing reception will be held on January 21 from 6-8PM.