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Both Sides Now:
The Installations of Phoebe Washburn



Her installations consist of countless cardboard boxes or thousands of slats and other pieces of wood. Phoebe Washburn collects and reuses seemingly worthless materials, creating works on a gigantic scale that address entire complexes of global themes: sustainability, renewable energy, social utopias. Next year Washburn will be realizing a commissioned work for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin – reason enough for Cheryl Kaplan to visit the New York artist in her studio.




Phoebe Washburn in her studio, 2006
©Photo: Ashkan Sahihi

If Phoebe Washburn were living in the 1930s, she'd probably be eating most of her meals at an automat. Her fascination with doors, flaps, and automated services is profound. Walking into her Brooklyn studio in DUMBO, (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is like walking into a laboratory of unmarked samples. The window ledge is filled with murky jars and lawn grass growing out of cut-out water bottles, and there's a lone string bean vine climbing a wall. On the floor below, black tubs are noisily whirring with re-circulating water and clumps of lily pads. A wheelbarrow has been hauled in, functioning as another landing pad for more lawn grass, while a large wall is lined with wooden boards, cut every which way and interrupted by rolls of fluorescent-colored sticker dots tucked under hinged flaps. Upon closer inspection, the wood flaps resemble Donald Judd’s minimalist sculptures repeated over and over again.


Phoebe Washburn in her studio, 2006
©Photo: Ashkan Sahihi


Outside Washburn's studio, there are rows upon rows of electric coils from the power plant next door that feel like an extension of the artist's space. There's so much going on here that it's almost hard to focus, yet Washburn couldn't be more composed. She's an interesting presence in the art world, with a strong wit and the unflinching reserve of a young artist caught between the obsessive installation tradition of Sarah Sze (whom she studied with briefly at the School of Visual Arts), the sprawling energy of Judy Pfaff, and the quirkiness of Jessica Stockholder's hyper-vital sculpture. Of Sze, Washburn says: "She's like a spider. Everything is so finely orchestrated and netted together; my approach is completely different. I get so detailed in parts of an installation, spending hours filling up the space to the edge."



Manning Stay Station,
Installation view
American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 2005,
Photo courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery

Washburn's world is filled with trial ideas that serve as miniatures for her grand-scale installations. She works in sections, partly for practical reasons – her work is so large that it can never be transported in its entirety. Each project is first seen as a fraction of its growing self. Her studio is nearly the reverse of the urban sprawl, although a close double. What she's interested in is "anything that fractals out and repeats and can be understood from an aerial and miniature point of view."



Manning Stay Station (detail), 2005,
Photo courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery

Referring to her earlier newspaper installations, where she created massive structures based on glued newspaper forms, Washburn says: "The newspapers were day-specific, covered with information, while the cardboard installations were completely anonymous." Washburn describes her process of finding objects and reusing them as a way to "keep the materials in circulation. Everything gets torn down and cannibalized into the next project. I try to keep feeding that system." But if a piece gets sold, well, it's out of commission.


Untitled, Installation view Bronx Museum, New York, 2004,
Photo courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery


How does she do it? She's spent the better part of her career waiting at loading docks all over New York, hunting for perfect scraps. Her address book is filled with names of places that dump things. She shows up the night before to collect tons of cardboard, newspaper, unclaimed paint, and more, keeping a list of recycling schedules, which in turn become her life. It's a little like shopping, only it's free. Washburn views these scraps as "a really good investment. I got familiar with the routes and got greedy." At one point, a worker asked: "You're not finished moving yet? What are you packing up?" Washburn returned with photos of her art.





It Makes For My Billionaire Status,
Installation view Kantor/Feuer Gallery, Los Angeles, 2005,
Photo courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery.

When installation art reached its peak in the late 80s, it was as popular as art-based films today.Washburn is vitally interested in the relationship between sculpture, architecture, and installation. "There needs to be an interaction with the space" – a directive at the heart of Washburn's upcoming project for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, scheduled to open in July 2007 and running through September. For this piece, Washburn has been looking at factories and assembly line equipment; she'll be working with several technicians skilled in creating mechanical forms, such as conveyor belts. "I'm building an installation that's a working factory. I've never done anything like this with mechanics and machines. It's a little bit Detroit. My idea is a plant factory."



It Makes For My Billionaire Status,
Installation view Kantor/Feuer Gallery, Los Angeles, 2005,
Photo courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery.

The shift in Washburn's work marks the transition from a private, more personal world to a larger public circumstance. For the installation at the Deutsche Guggenheim, she'll be growing plots of grass and then moving them along the evolutionary path via conveyor belt. Once the cycle's completed, the plot is removed from the assembly line and placed upstairs on the roof and left to die. Along the way, however, there will be various stations where the grass will be watered and attended to. The entire installation will be viewed through windows housed in a large wooden structure. "On this loop, there will be plots of land. Someone will take the plots off the track and put them on the roof." Yet the viewer is allocated to a voyeuristic position, with no physical entrance inside the factory.


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