Now Featuring Robert Otto Epstein
How do we wrap our minds around shifting notions of form and function; the china cup too delicate to use, the book propping up a table leg? Robert Otto Epstein plays with this fluidity. Painting and drawing with materials you’d find at a hardware store, he carefully re-renders schematic patterns. These patterns, in turn, come from instructions for machined and do-it-yourself textiles, both ornamental and functional. Deftly folding categories upon themselves, Epstein points to an open, freeing notion of what it means to make something, and beyond that, to express oneself.
MH: First of all, you base your paintings on diagrams for a specific type of textile. Can you talk about what filet lace is and how you became interested in it?
ROE: I originally became interested in knitting by happenstance while researching models for my figurative work. I’m keen on the vintage look and had come across a Bernat knitting pattern book from the 1960s and was immediately drawn to the understated elegance of the figures modeling knitted garments in ways that seemed genuinely simulated, real life mannequins that were impeccably still. Simply put, I became obsessed with collecting as many knitting books as I could find on eBay, from a cadre of grandmothers appropriately named Ruby, Patricia, Dorothy, etc., from Grand Rapids to Pensacola. When I was fixated on the models wearing sweaters, cardigans, coats, dresses, etc., I had not even noticed the actual knitting diagrams mapping out how to make the garments. And then one day, not to be too dramatic, I knew there had to be more. My version of thinking ‘outside the box’ was reaching further inside the box, to the source of things, which, in this case, was the blueprint for clothing.
MH: Can you talk about your interest in schematics? In breaking wholes into parts? I can see a sort of push and pull between the way your figure paintings (the ones on block of wood, especially) break the subject into chunks, and then the way the pattern/knitting diagram painting play with how increment pieces (stitches, marks) assemble to form a whole.
ROE: I think my interest in diagrams goes way back to when I was a child. My grandmother used to sew pillowcases, bed sheets, tablecloths etc., but it was my father, a mechanical engineer who introduced me to the way things are made in draft form. He would bring home rolled up drawings from work and I would study them, reading my father’s typewriter-style handwriting behind arrows pointing to plotted shapes. Fast-forward several years later to when I studied deconstructionism as an ‘adult.’ I became obsessed with breaking ideas down; questioning assumptions/beginnings. In my knitting and lace pattern drawings/paintings there is a first stitch—but in a way, there isn’t. By focusing on each square or stitch as a whole I lose sight of the bigger ‘picture’ until the end when I run out of empty squares.
MH: Where does your interest in American decorative art come from? Whether the knitting/embroidery-related works, or the figure works, everything relates to what one might see in a certain type of suburban living room in the 20th century, from the framing of the figures as studio portraits to the motifs in the knitting.
ROE: I would venture to guess that my earliest fascination for decorative art in general dates back once again to my childhood. My parents are Eastern European (my mother is Romanian, my father, Lithuanian) and their friends were from the former USSR. I can remember seeing a rug on the wall for the first time in one of their houses and thinking to myself, what the fuck? —And yet also finding it strangely appealing. It challenged my expectation of what handmade objects are for, of their use—an eight year-old’s existential confrontation with the whole notion of form versus function. As for American influences, I went to the American Folk Art Museum a few years ago and was drawn to all those quilts, rugs, weavings, and needlework, etc. The work of Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez especially blew me away.
MH: Your current statement includes the following: “My primary interests are in modes of production or ‘the machinery of making.’ I like to consider the body at work in the vein of Gilles Deleuze’s ‘desiring machine’—as a kind of round-the-clock factory model where the assembly of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ and its creative wares are one in the same.” Can you talk about how your work with source material that is both industrial (what Deleuze is speaking of) and also perhaps quite domestic (as a skilled handicraft, as a hobby, as a personal decoration)? It seems like the shift in scale also changes the political context.
ROE: Deleuze, like Foucault, was a proponent of a kind of schizophrenic way of seeing/being the world, a state of mind where one can reach beyond and within oneself through/as other, even risking a loss of normalcy in order to achieve a beautifully expressive means of being. The materials I use—the paint and paper—come from a hardware store (industrial) and my personal use of these materials (for decorative purposes) runs counter to typical applications of these materials. Yet they are my solitary means of expression, of how I navigate the world: as a self-taught artist ‘desiring to produce’ work yet constructing it the only way I know how—through an other’s means. In fact the interweaving of the industrial and the personal reach a climax when the work is framed and hung, when the house paint meant for the wall that the work is hung on, is instead used to adorn it.
MH: What projects do you have coming up? Are you obsessing about anything new and starting to stock up on eBay or checking a bunch of books out of the library?
ROE: I will be showing my work in the next few months in New York with Parallel Art Space, Mulherin + Pollard, and Airplane. I’m very excited about this!! And I’m always hoarding knitting pattern books from my eBay and Etsy grandma dealers. My work is evolving at the moment; this will become more evident in the very near future.
MH: What artists are you excited about these days?
ROE: Due to my overriding generational Jewish guilt I am unable to be excited about anything, but I’ve revisited Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, Martin Ramirez, Robert Rauschenberg, and Art Vandelay.
MH: Finally, what’s your own home like? I’m always curious about the way artists who are hyper aware of domestic space design, or don’t design, their own places.
ROE: My girlfriend, my dog (a copacetic golden retriever), and I rent a craftsman style house in northern New Jersey. The living and dining rooms and a room upstairs are my ‘studio.’ Basically it’s a shitstorm everywhere. But the three of us get mani/pedis every weekend, so it all evens out.