Now Featuring Phillip Maisel
Phillip Maisel’s work asks you to question what you see, but never delivers a “gotcha” moment. Instead, his photographic series gently prompt questions about representation and abstraction, the photographed image and the photograph-as-object. This subtlety allows his work to hover between an optical, hypothetical 2D space and a fully embodied 3D reality.
MH: So much of your work seems to happen via a process of accumulation and collection, either literal stacks of materials (like papers or magazines) or layered transparencies. What’s your relationship to collecting? How do you think collections create meaning?
PM: I collect things, I suppose, but it rarely feels like collecting. I think I just accumulate things in spurts and fits. I have a pretty ambivalent relationship to collecting. I come from a family of collectors. My dad had been collecting these mid-century decorative metal wastebaskets for a while. It is a pretty specific thing to be collecting, but his grandfather’s company made them and I think he felt this compulsion to acquire all of the company’s designs. But at some point, when his basement started filling up with stacks of wastebaskets, he was like, “What am I going to do with all these?” That is kind of how I feel most of the time.
That said, photography has always felt like a form of collecting for me. I have a terrible memory, and I think I originally started taking photographs as a way to supplement or inform my memories. I’ll likely forget an event if there isn’t some sort of documentation of it. I think maybe I think about material possessions in the same way. These things become vessels for memories or a moment or a specific emotion sometimes, activated in their use or by merely encountering them.
I feel like meaning created by collections is specific to context. And that includes who is looking at the collection, where the collection is kept, when the collection is being viewed.
MH: How do you construct/collect materials for your stack photos?
PM: The materials I end up using are a combination of very specific and personal items and kind of generic throwaway items. In terms of the latter, I am seeking out specific materials that have a sort of blankness, a banal-ness, or an already-known-ness about them. There should be something so familiar about them that they are barely noticeable. And I am interested in seeing what happens when those things are photographed, that is to say when they are placed in a specific context (or perhaps context-less) and transformed through the act of looking at them through the monocular perspective of the camera’s lens. When finding these things, I might be drawn to something as simple as a specific color or texture.
Some of the other materials I use are things that happen to exist in my life, in my studio; kind of like the debris and residue of living. And finally, found photographs and postcards, as well as very personal family photographs, seep their way into the work sometimes.
The construction part is harder to talk about. It is not a highly structured or planned event. It involves a lot of unknowing. There is not a lot of preplanning. It feels like play, it is very intuitive, almost meandering. Each photograph that I end up making feels like an iteration, or a step, or a decision, or maybe a question. I have been shooting digitally, and so there is this immediate feedback in which I can immediately see what whatever I am photographing looks like photographed. What I mean is that this two-dimensional rectangular representation of my subject is presented instantaneously to me, and that informs the decisions I am making as well.
I am always compelled to arrange things, organize, balance, make precarious structures out of random things. And so in a way this series like an extension of this everyday habit or compulsion of mine. I am often in a rush, or not thinking very much when I make these images. I am relying on gravity to do most of the work for me really. Most materials I am using are just balanced on each other, they have a weight. I like their precariousness; I like that they are fleeting in their construction.
MH: What’s your relationship to abstraction and figuration? I’m enjoying how you’re making representative photos of things that, because of their plainness and geometric shapes, appear abstract or digitally collaged, but are in fact real arrangements of objects.
PM: I am glad you appreciate that. Abstraction feels like a tool to try that lets me ask the viewer to stay a bit longer with the images. I find it a way to explore this tension inherent to photography’s relationship to the indexical. It’s a way for me to try and provoke the viewer to question what they see, to kind of jog the relationship between vision and perception. I am not doing anything particularly special to these materials themselves. It’s the context in which I’ve put them, and the act of photographing them that really transforms them.
In work that I ultimately exhibit, I like to play with the printed form. As a way to further confuse the space of the image, I am introducing strategically cut pieces of paper and Mylar, elements utilized in the production of the image itself, back into the image, literally wedging these forms between the print and the glass of the frame. It feels like a gesture towards collage, and a way to acknowledge the photograph as an object itself.
MH: Can you talk about that blankness you’re looking for in the objects you accumulate for your pictures? The mirrors and translucent glass in your LPP series seem to be even blanker still; since a mirror reflecting nothing is the blankest thing I can think of. Is it part of the way you invite viewers to stick with your compositions, to allow plainness to give way to subtle detail?
PM: Well, for one, the mirrors aren’t quite reflecting nothing. I mean, mirrors are always reflecting something, even if it is an absence of light. And in these images specifically, I was experimenting with what could be reflected in the mirrors. Sometimes it is fairly clear what is being reflected, and that doubling was interesting to me. And then sometimes what is being reflected is out of the frame, less obvious, less predictable.
And to answer your question, I can see the plainness acting as a lure, for sure. It feels like a way to potentially activate certain mental shortcuts in the viewer. If one knows, or thinks they know, what it is they are looking at, they’ll bring their own expectations in regards to the form or pattern to that given thing. So if then I can figure out a way to disrupt those expectations just a little bit, then maybe I’ve done a good job.
MH: Whose work are you following right now?
PM: I draw inspiration from a wide range of sources, which is constantly shifting. Right now, I am looking at a lot of Bauhaus work, Russian Suprematists, and Constructivist painting and collages. But I also am inspired by the work made by my peers and colleagues, Instagram, Google’s visually similar image searches, old magazines, my students’ work, the stereo photographs my great-grandfather took in the mid-20th century, as well as my mom’s picture text messages, which are often of her television from weird oblique angles.
MH: I love photographs of TV screens, too, so much more than a digital screencap. (Now I wish my mom texted!) By doing things the “wrong” way you get so much more information, context, so many more interesting accidents. You talked about shooting your work quickly; is that kind of quickness useful in making accidental discoveries?
PM: Yeah, a lot of the time I am shooting pretty quickly. I think I have to, otherwise I would agonize about everything single detail for too long and it would kind of take some of the fun out of making the work. Accidents are great for my process. Things fall, glass breaks, something is unintentionally left in the frame. But those things also help inform my decisions moving forward.
MH: Is photography integral to all your work right now or do you explore sculptural situations for finished work? There’s something cyclical about your process that makes it seem like it’s possible that you do, but not necessarily a given.
PM: I think right now whatever work I am making tends to circle back to the photographic, and relates somehow to the process of photography. I’ve created stacks of materials for installations before, and I will be doing something similar for my window installation at LPP. And I like making things that look good photographed, like these funny little sculptures I just made for Southern Exposure annual auction. But I also think about my finished photographs in terms of sculptural works as well. I take careful consideration of the way the photograph is exhibited, its height, its relationship to the space in which it is being shown, the frame, the edges and borders of the photograph. Part of why I am wedging glassine and paper between the glass of the framed pieces and the photograph is to draw attention to the photographic object itself. The photograph is not just a window, but also a dimensional object.
MH: What’s next for you? How do you think your work with transparent images is evolving?
PM: I just bought some spray paint that makes mirrors out of regular glass, so that is pretty exciting. But really, who knows! Most of the time I don’t know where I’m going until I’ve gotten there.