A.I.R. Fellowship artist 2014-2015, Sara Mejia Kriendler talks about her experience at the first women’s cooperative gallery in United States and her artistic research involving different materials, from styrofoam and plaster to objects found on New York City streets. Kriendler had her solo show at A.I.R in May 2015 called The Anthropocene: “I was thinking about geology and the marks that we are leaving on stone and the deposits we are leaving, and in my research I came across the anthropocene, which is this issue that geologists are discussing right now. It was an accidental discovery, but considering my thinking about geology and consumerism, it was also the perfect title for the show”.
How did you get to know to the Fellowship Program in A.I.R?
I use NYFA, which is a resource in New York for finding opportunities – open calls, fellowships, grants, and so I saw it listed there. Honestly I didn’t actually know a lot about the gallery before then, but I decided to apply. Then, I learned about this amazing institution, with a really rich history. Part of the program was a solo show, which is huge. It also provided many workshops and the opportunity to meet other artists, which was amazing. I was also interested in seeing how non-commercial and non-traditional galleries really operate. It was great, it has been fantastic. It was pretty intense. I think maybe when I applied I didn’t realize how intensive it would be. We had meetings almost every other week.
But with a mentor so something?
Part of the program is that you have a mentor, some of the members of the gallery serve as mentors and each fellow was assigned to one. But the meetings were different workshops every time, for example, “Speaking to the Press”. These workshops were usually led by someone from outside of the gallery. We were also meeting a lot of other people through that. That was great. We had a lot of different workshops, a lot of events in the gallery, and openings. It was definitely very involved.
And how was the experience of being in an all-women’s institution?
It was the first time for me. Well, actually I have a group of friends that I meet with, we call ourselves the “Creative Circle”, and we are all women. Not all of us are artists but we are all are doing creative things, so that was the only other all-women environment that I have been in. A.I.R. has been a very supportive environment. I don’t know if I felt differences to other environments because it was all-women, but I met some great people, I met the fellows for the next year, and those from previous years.
The community aspect appears a lot in the interview with A.I.R.’s members. Do you notice that too?
Yes, definitely. There is always a community interacting with you, and in every part of the fellowship there was someone helping you. For example, you have to write the press release for your show and you are doing that in conjunction with somebody from the gallery and collaborating with them. We had a lot of meetings about the work before the show. In another environment maybe you would be just on your own with no feedback. In some ways that was the most beneficial part. After grad school I was working in my studio just kind of by myself a lot, and this was one of the reasons why I applied for the fellowship too, to be part of a community again and not just isolated in my studio. It was important to meet with other artists, talk about their work, talk about my work, learn new things. And also the artists I met were doing totally different kinds of work; the fellows don’t necessarily have anything stylistically in common. They are all from different backgrounds, so it was fresh. It was a great experience.
Did you have the idea of what you wanted to present in you solo show or it was sort of growing?
It was growing. I had absolutely no idea. It was particularly challenging because the gallery was moving, so I didn’t know what the space was going to be until a month before the show. So, normally, I use the space a lot more – knowing the space I kind of build to that space. But I had to be more flexible and work differently this time and it was great! It was terrifying but it ended up working for me. I made all new work three months before the show.
So it was a very intense process.
Yes. That came partially from another aspect of the fellowship, which was another really important part of the program for me. The fellowship program is juried; all of the members jury the work but they also have three outside jurors who help to select the fellows, and then each of the fellows got a studio visit with one of these jurors. And they were great, really fantastic women. I had an amazing studio visit with one of the jurors and that visit changed the work that I was making. It had a really big impact on me.
But because of what she said about your work?
Yes. Because of the feedback, the perspective she brought to the work… I was, of course, already in a moment of wanting to change drastically and wanting to make something really new, but definitely that visit pushed me over the edge and changed my direction. So it was great. I’m very grateful for that.
Sara Mejia Kriendler ‘The Anthropocene’ (source: A.I.R.’s Facebook)
How do you see the art scene here in New York?
Well, I haven’t had a show in a commercial gallery in New York, so I can’t really comment on that side of the art scene., It really depends which part of New York you look at because there are so many different art scenes in NY. If you are looking to the more traditional scene, I would say that A.I.R. is drastically different from the structure of a commercial gallery. But there is also so many new spaces opening up and they are not traditional, they are trying new things.
Do you think the art world is still sexist?
Well, I think the world is sexist! So i think the art world is hence sexist. But I didn’t personally experience… Well, I had a teacher at one point said to a friend she shouldn’t sign her work with her first name so people wouldn’t know that she was a woman. That is one clear example I can remember.
But you think he said that in way that the work would be discredit?
More that people wouldn’t be as likely to buy it. I was pretty young and I thought that was crazy. I mean, when you see the statistics of shows, of sales, it’s impossible to say it’s not sexist. On the other hand I feel that there are a lot of opportunities in New York, I’m sure in other places it is much more difficult to be a woman artist, so I generally feel grateful that there are so many opportunities and places like A.I.R., and a lot of amazing women artists – that is the most inspiring part.
When did post-consumer waste start to catch your attention and be incorporated in you artistic research?
When I moved to New York I had a studio in Chelsea, I was in grad school there. I hadn’t really used found objects before. But there was so much trash everywhere. I had never seen so much garbage. And especially in Chelsea and other neighborhoods with giant condo-buildings that would throw away mountains of stuff. I just started collecting from the trash and I have been using it ever since. It was funny because I had this show in Austria and they wanted me to make found styrofoam installation. Before this show I was making this architectural installations out of styrofoam. But it was a small town in Austria, how much garbage can they possible be producing? I only had one month to make the show so I had to have them collect Styrofoam for 3 months before the show in order to have enough material to make the work. In New York I could probably get it in one week.
Sara Mejia Kriendler ‘The Anthropocene’ (source: A.I.R.’s Facebook)
How did you come up with Anthropocene as a title for your solo show in A.I.R.?
A lot of my inspiration for the show came from relief sculptures and the history of relief sculptures. I was thinking not only about the content or the narrative, the stories these sculptures tell – which are part of what I love – but also about the materials. I was thinking a lot about stone, and I used a lot of plaster in my work so I was researching where plaster comes from. I had used it for years but I had no idea: it comes from caves, it’s a crystal. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, if you haven’t seen photos you have to look it up, it’s incredible, it’s beautiful.
I had no idea it comes from a crystal.
Yes, and in different environments it grows in totally different shapes. In the desert it grows in the shape of a flower, it’s called “the desert rose”. There are also fields of plaster. In United States there is even a national park for preserving a plaster field. I was thinking about plaster deposits and that led me to geology. So I was thinking about geology and the marks that we are leaving on stone and the deposits we are leaving, and in my research I came across the anthropocene, which is this issue that geologists are discussing right now. It was an accidental discovery, but considering my thinking about geology and consumerism, it was also the perfect title for the show.
How do you see the dialogue between science and arts?
I definitely don’t consider my work scientific. I think some artists are making art work in a more scientific way, which is very interesting. But I do not. Science serves as an inspiration but is not at all a part of my actual production or process.
I was thinking about science in the geological aspect.
I think science is an amazing starting point in terms of your imagination. Which is maybe a strange way to think about it, but I took this great class in University which was The Intellectual History of Science Fiction. So we were studying scientific discoveries and then reading novels and science fictions that were inspired by these actual scientific discoveries. That class really inspired me; using science as a starting off point, as a way of expanding what is possible. Where can this take my imagination? In my work I think about science as tool for my imagination
Do you see your work politically?
I hesitate to say it is political because I don’t have a specific viewpoint or message that I am trying to put across. But I see it is as critical, as a way of dealing with a conflict I experience. For example, I was watching a video on FAO Schwarz – it’s this big toy store in New York, it’s the oldest in United States, and it’s right on 5th avenue. I grew up going there and playing with all of the toys. But now they are moving so it’s the end of an era. So I was watching videos of the old FAO Schwarz and marveling at all of the amazing toys but also thinking, “This is disgusting”, all these things are totally ridiculous, nobody really needs any of them. It’s cheap stuff, someone is going to play with it for a year and then they will throw it away. So I don’t know if I’d say my work is political or that I’m trying to make some kind of message, because I don’t have a clear message, it’s more my reaction to feeling conflicted and occasionally disgusted by this crazy world we live in. So the work is my reaction to this conflict.
I was also dealing with the idea that we are really the first generation that has grown up with the idea that we are actively destroying the planet. I remember hearing since I was 2 years old about the ozone layer, animals going extinct, the rain forest in South America being destroyed. There is no other generation that has had this experience. During the Cold War they were worried about a nuclear disaster that would wipe out the planet, but before that people were not thinking actively their entire life that they could destroy the planet. I think that has affected me a lot. I think it affects everyone that is growing up now. I hope it’s affecting everybody. It should be! But I think that pressure of having that concern for my entire life has definitely become a big part of my work and something I can’t ignore in my work.
What about the work that has the woman body – how did you come up with that one?
I was looking at a lot of relief sculptures, which was really where it all started, and the narratives in those relief sculptures. And the ones that interested me the most were the ones with female characters. There are amazing Buddhist icons that are these amazing goddesses, there are Madonnas, and there are queens, and angels and I was interested in these amazing representations of women in relief sculptures. I wanted to make a contemporary version and think about how I could use the tradition but speak more about today. So I bought a Wonder Woman doll and I was going to use the doll, but once I got the doll and took it out of the packaging, I realized I liked the package more than the doll itself, because it brought together two important ideas – the interest in female protagonists and the narratives that I could tell, but also packaging and waste. So it was all because of that one doll. Then I found other dolls that I used, but I didn’t want to use only dolls, so I tried to find other found female forms. So I got a mannequin from a dollar store that they hang bikinis and t-shirts on. I particularly liked it because it’s strangely exaggerated, but also abstract and I just thought this was an interesting combination. So that was the inspiration for that piece.
Sara Mejia Kriendler ‘The Anthropocene’ (source: A.I.R.’s Facebook)
And because of this did you start to incorporate the feminine element or was it already you interest?
I hadn’t used the female form for years. When I was in Philadelphia, I went to a very representational school, so I was painting and sculpting from models, often women. I was also making wire sculptures that were all based on the female form. That was in 2009, so it hasn’t been a big part of my work until now. Definitely my Fellowship influenced me. I think that it definitely pushed me back in this direction.
Do you think men and women have different artistic sensibilities or we can’t really distinguish those?
I would not generalize. There are some commonalities but I think there are so much cross over between the two sexes… There are too many sensibilities out there for me to categorize. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say categorically. Maybe women tend to do some types of work more, or use some materials more, but I don’t know if that is a natural instinct, a societal pressure, or a matter of history. There can be so many different reasons why it occurs. I don’t think that it’s necessarily inherited. But I think as a woman artist you have to think about that. That I find difficult.
What do you mean?
If you know the history of what is traditionally women’s art or what’s considered women work, I feel like there is a pressure either.. not a pressure, but you have think , “Do you want to follow that tradition? Do you want to break with it? Do you want to react to it?”. Can you use pink without having your work be labeled as women’s work. And if you are actively avoiding that label, what does it mean? So I definitely feel these questions and conflict in my work.
Do they have an influence in your work?
I think about the consequences. I think when I was younger I wanted to make things that were more monumental to avoid having the work be categorized as female. But I think as a women, this is something you have to think about, while as a male artist you don’t have to think about that. I don’t know. Maybe men do too. Maybe they are also concerned about using pink, I don’t know. But the other side is, ok, so you are associated with women’s work. What’s wrong with that? That’s the conflict. That’s the problem. Maybe that is the sexism in the art world.