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A Conversation with Mel Kendrick

Posted on 29 July 2011

Kendrick Sculpture Installation

Artist Mel Kendrick, a part-time North Haven resident, talks about showing his series of sculptures, “jacks,” at the Parrish Art Museum, the process of sculpting with concrete and the geometry of art.

These are definitely structures you have to see in person. Can you tell me a little about their construction?
They’re kind of massive. They’re very solid concrete, cast and laid. And this white is the natural color of the concrete. And the pigmented is the black, and it goes all the way through, you know, so they’re solid. It works as sort of a progression from one end to the other in a way. They’re called “jacks” for numerous reasons. One is that mainly they have that three-point connection that a jack has in the game of jacks. But it’s also something about the box and these things being brought up outside. So, if you look at them, you’ll realize that what you’re seeing on top is really what what’s missing underneath.

These “jacks” were first displayed in the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City. Why did you decide to display them now at the Parrish?
It’s very interesting, because I installed them very differently there. It’s kind of a large, very rectangular room; I installed them so they sort of had a dialogue, you know, diagonally, across the space, and they were turned different ways. The room gave a nice structure. But at the Parrish Museum it’s linear and it’s almost like a church basilica. Everything kind of fit together and I like the way you move past them on the path. They create a whole different structure here. It’s great. And I put them in numerical order, actually. So, they’re all called “jacks,” small j. But they’re just number one, number two, number three, number four. And if you move through them, you see there’s kind of a progression of relationships there.

Moving them to the Parrish, that was really something Mary Boone and Terri Sultan got together on. And you know, Terri saw the show in New York and it just seemed like a great idea, because these pieces are really meant to be outdoors. I mean, with the material and the weight and sort of the relation to architecture, I think they should be outside.

You’ve used many different materials in the past. Why the decision to work with concrete this time around?
It started with a group of sculptures called “Markers” that I showed at Madison Park in New York City. A lot of things that I’d been working on came together, primarily by investigating this idea of using recast concrete; but also by the layering of the black and white so that you have these lines that carry through the whole block and all the shapes. And then, you know, they were also installed in a line, because that bit of geometry was good. So I like the reading of one to the other and back again. It’s sort of a back and forth of information.

How long did this project take?
Well, this project probably took a year. It’s always – like everything else – it’s all the pre-work. I worked small with these at first, because I was going for a clarity and almost a simplicity of relationships. That required me to kind of analyze and do a lot of them small. And of course they change when I make them larger, because they’re not computer enlargements. So, then I make the molds in EPS foam, kind of like beer cooler foam, and with that I slice it and make these molds – the stacking molds from which this is cast. Then I have fabricators step in and do the concrete, because you really need a factory to do this. So, once I’ve made the molds and base, you start pouring. When everything is set, they can do one layer a day. And the one layer joins to the next. When I started out, I had this idea about striations. I thought it’d be cool to cast each one separately and then stack them somehow or glue them. And considering the weight and everything that became an impossibility. So, we came to the better idea of just stacking the molds so that the black is poured on top of the white, and then the white is poured on top of the black, and the black on top of the white, and they’re all interlocking, you know, with the rebar structure inside. Rebar is what you see in concrete when it’s poured, with the stainless steel rods inside to help hold it together.

Do you think this physicality of art draws you to sculpture?
In this case I chose the size of these blocks and the fact that each of them had four layers. But you know, I’m always pushing against and limited by the materials that I’m using. And that’s interesting to me. I don’t know what I would do if faced with a blank canvas, because obviously what people do – they invent their own structure, they invent their own physicality. At this point, I’m doing that too by just saying that I’m going to work with this one size block, this material, and then figuring out how to make it work; and very often making this concrete do things that concrete doesn’t usually do. But the same thing is true in my wood pieces. People will say, oh, are you interested in woodworking? I always say no. They don’t believe it. I’m aware of the beauty of the wood, but I like other aspects of the wood. I like the fact that the way I work is kind of like drawing. That I cut apart, and if I don’t like it, I glue it back together. These pieces led to something else. They’re layers of the block or entry cuts. Some are clearer than others. I mean, now that I say that, I don’t see one that’s particularly clear.

Can you explain the design of black and white stripes?
In some ways it’s hard to focus on both the stripes and the shapes at the same time. That creates this sort of inner dialogue, which is really what the piece is all about; perceptually the eye I think goes black and white. Then you begin to understand the surface things. A friend of mine looked at it and said, ‘Oh they’re camouflage.’ And I said, ‘No, they aren’t camouflage. These are attention getting devices.’ This is what people used for prison clothes before day-glow. That’s why the first group is called markers – white houses, crosswalks, the black and white was the attention indicator. This is after the fact, but there’s a type of camouflage they experimented with in World War I called dazzle. And they would paint everything black and white zigzags, including battleships. You’d think that would be terrible camouflage. But what it did was break down the geometry so you didn’t know where something began and where something ended. These are much more self-contained and clear.

Can you walk me through “jacks” as individual pieces?
Well they’re very different. And they are individual pieces; but I like having the chance to do it this way. It’s kind of like a countdown. I think it starts [with number one] from the most architectural, with a feeling of striped Italian cathedrals. And then it starts taking one twist, another twist. And then the final one, I have to say is the culmination – all diagonals and strange points. In the Mary Boone Gallery, these pieces were kind of freshly poured and they were really black and white. They were very graphic. And now, what I really like that is happening with the water and the outside is the physicality of the stone is coming into play. The stone kind of lives. When you get close and you touch it, you know, you suspect the weight. As opposed to seeing them from a distance and in all black and white, then you might think, ‘Oh well, that’s just hollow.’

You reference geometry in your work. How does that influence your art?
Geometry to me is a catch-all when you’re talking about volumes. But it’s an intuitive geometry, because I don’t use a computer. There are lots of ways that one can make perfect objects, but I’m much more interested in the physicality and the decision making. There are no formulas, no perfect circles. They’re all very hand drawn. But I just think that somehow that’s important to me, to be working with basically hand made objects of this scale and mass — I think that’s what I discovered with the concrete. You know, I’m interested in geometry and physics and the physical relationship. But it’s also more playful than that. The interior space of this work is something that you want to enter into mentally; you project your understanding of what’s on top by understanding what’s been taken out from the bottom.

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