Danish transplant, Camilla Newhagen, has a muscular, individual aesthetic coupled with a tough-minded rigor that underpins her work, yet her artistic membrane seems as permeable as some of the multiple mediums she uses as a vehicle to translate a world obsessed with body image and aging, among other things. (She has referred to her female sculptures as, "my women," and called the old undergarments that intrigue her," the last piece of clothing surrendered before complete nakedness.") At her studio, located in the heart of the Mission, one finds squishy underwear mannequins, some missing their heads or other essential body parts, sentences scrawled on tissue paper or other surfaces and lots of latex. Adept at intergrating evocative tone poems that are suggestive but not polemic, she creates provocative pieces, part sculpture, part haiku, which defy easy categorization. Although Newhagen brought with her the signature sleek lines and spareness of Scandinavian design, she has examined the propensity for control--the hidden cost-- of the spartan elegance so many admire. After bridling against the repressive confines and emotional reticence of Danish culture, the artist has thrilled to the expressive freedom of her adopted home but has done so without sacrificing the cool eye of an outsider.
Newhagen's understatement, minimalism and wit may seduce the viewer but, step closer: there's more here than meets the eye as San Francisco City Editor, Sura Wood, recently discovered. One can visit Newhagen's studio during the city's annual Open Studios event; Friday October 17, 6-9pm, October 18th & 19th, 11-6pm or by appointment with the artist. (415-902-5179)
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Sura Wood: You use both sculptural elements and text in your pieces. Can you talk about the role and importance of language in your work and where the text comes from?
Camilla Newhagen: Moving to San Francisco from Denmark almost 10 years ago made me very aware of the power of language. I would go to bed the first three months exhausted from having dealt with a second language all day. After a while, I began dreaming in English but it has taken me a long time to feel comfortable writing in another language. When I joined a creative writing group two years ago, writing became just another tool in my creative process. I have kept a journal since before I knew how to spell. I write every day, to clear my mind, to visit my past and my dreams, or to describe new ideas. I sketch next to my words and sometimes a poem or little stories will appear and fully describe my next project. For a long time I would sneak the poems in as statements for my exhibitions. But after a while they developed into their own physicality.
SW: It can be challenging to integrate word and image. How do you approach this?
CN: I approach writing as I would any other material, intuitively. In my writing, I end up with similar aesthetics as in my artwork, sparse and minimal but with an organic and sensitive expression. I wrote a poem that deals with the decay of living things. On the paper it ended up having a curve as that of a heartbeat, a graph or a "Life Cycle;" hence the title of this piece. I displayed the words on latex to get the feeling as if they had been written on skin. I cut out each individual letter from left over underwear and fabric, materials I had accumulated while making my soft sculptures. I pasted the words with latex on cheesecloth. Recycling the recycled material made my process feel lifelike and complete. It's not that I simply apply text to my existing work -- it's more that the words themselves inspire me to create the forms they take.
SW: Do you consider yourself primarily a sculptor?
CN: Yes. I mostly think in three dimensions. But since my work depends on having the freedom to flow in and out of mediums, I also see myself free to flow in and out of categories.
SW: Do you feel that having grown up in Copenhagen you have a special perspective on or insight into American culture and, if so, how has this filtered into your work?
CN: I grew up in a small socialist suburb 20 minutes west of Copenhagen--a young town full of academics with great ideologies and ideals. My surroundings were late-sixties concrete buildings, socialist sculptures and modern thought. It was a place created for working parents with an emphasis on available day care and a school system for all. The 70's were a very politically involved decade and I spent a lot of my school time going on field trips to Copenhagen, demonstrating against the Parliament's new laws and regulations on school policies. I was involved, aware and outspoken at an early age, dealing with taboos and social issues. I use those early insights everyday in America, questioning the two different cultures, the two different sets of values and the motives behind the different actions taken.
I return on a daily basis to some of the qualities my education has given me. Attending the Danish Design School, Desingskolen Kolding, strengthened my drawing skills, my sense of aesthetics, and my ability in my work to eliminate elements and stick with what is important. My sense of strong composition also comes from Denmark - all very technical and functional qualities. But my most important period in defining myself as an artist came in 1998, when I entered an exchange program at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Referring to myself as an artist had never occurred to me until then. The goal from my Danish schooling had been working towards functionality, something I unconsciously steered away from as I tried to create sculptures instead. At CCAC, artists like Clifford Rainey, Pamina Traylor and Bella Feldman became a huge source of inspiration to me. I experienced a freedom to do anything and felt that the students' own creative ideas were the limits. The library became my shrine. I studied other artists' work and began working with dictionaries, a process I still use today. I found America fast moving and loud both to the ear and the eye. I still experience it that way, but have learned to focus and shut out the unnecessary noise.
SW: How have you integrated your skills in glassmaking, ceramics and figure drawing? Do they converge?
CN: My education is in ceramics and glass. Both of those processes involve work with wax, plaster, rubber and latex. Since the human body most often inspires my work, my figure drawing skills help me translate ideas from body to sculptural work. My first year in San Francisco, I apprenticed with glass sculptor Clifford Rainey and, during this time, all my ideas were in glass. I created my first body of work, "Impede," during this period--installations of glass toes and feet, dealing with uprooting myself from one country and settling in another. In 2001, I had my first child. And after children, time became an issue. I realized if I wanted to finish anything it had to be in new and less time-consuming mediums. I loved the freedom of this ultimatum. I began painting and this was when my "Hair Paintings" came alive. I look back and still love my glass pieces but feel an immense freedom from having left that fossilized stage of my life. I can pick up any material now and let my surroundings inspire new projects. I have become much better at listening to my intuition. And I love the fact that I don't have to get stuck in one category.
SW: You've said that you use undergarments to uncover personal history. Could you elaborate?
CN: My body of work, "Interpretation of the Marks Left Behind, " is made of soft sculptures I stitched together from used undergarments. The idea for them began in Paris while I was picking up some artwork from a former exhibition. I went to a flea market and bought some heirloom underwear from the 1800's. I didn't quite know why I wanted it until I took it back to my studio, where I started a collection of used underwear. I felt so intrigued by the intimacy the left over undergarments implied, I began stitching it into my female sculptures, my women. Handling these old garments knowing that they have been close to someone's skin makes them very personal. They're literally the last piece of clothing surrendered before complete nakedness. I feel like I am recreating the past and fulfilling the destiny of the former owner. It's an amazing process.
SW: Could you talk about your use of specific materials such as glass, latex and wax? How do you determine which medium you'll use for a specific work?
CN: I mentioned before that glass is a fossilized state in my mind. I feel removed from that state of mind, maybe because of moving from one country to another, maybe just by moving within myself. Latex is fascinating to me because of its resemblance to skin, and I'm drawn to wax because it's malleable like the human body.
Occasionally, I get inspired by the material alone, but most often the idea comes first and then I find which material best expresses what I am trying to say. Right now, I am sketching an idea for a video installation or performance, and both mediums are ones I haven't worked with before. But the idea appears in my journal as a sculptural project in motion, so that's how I interpret it.
SW: Do you prefer tactile materials?
CN: I do. I am a sculptor and I like to touch.
SW: Does your work focus solely on women and, if so, why do you find this area compelling?
CN: I didn't consciously decide to focus only on women but they are what appeals to me at the moment. I reflect who women are in my art, but I think my art appeals to both men and women because it deals with the hidden world of a woman's thinking. Women inspire me and I find that there are a lot of secrets and taboos in their lives-- the list of material is endless.
SW: Your artistic relationship to the body and sensuality seems central. Could talk about your preoccupation with the body?
CN: Body, body language, body art--it all inspires me. I find life dense with characters and layers of complexity. Most often my own complications and relations are mirrored in other people, and I work toward an imaginary story I am interested in trying to pretend to live myself. I find life intriguing and at the same time depressing because of the people in it.
SW: You've separated some of your installations into categories with provocative titles: What Women Want, Marks Left Behind, Decaying Super Heroes, Ink, Impede, and Hair Painting. Can you describe what you were attempting to create in each these groupings?
CN: When I made my website earlier this year it became important to me to categorize my work into bodies of work as they appeared to me. They are all very connected yet because I work in such different materials I needed them to be separated, to be viewed properly. My titles refer to the titles of the exhibitions the different series were created for. My latest body of work, What Woman Want, was specifically inspired by a theme made up by curator Cecilia Foote. She had taken a great interest in my soft sculptures from The Marks Left Behind, so I wanted to make a similar sculpture with this specific theme in mind. The sculpture for this exhibition was named, like the others, after the brand of underwear used, in this case, "Victoria's Secret." She reflects a woman trying to find her own pleasure. I also created a photo series with a valentine's poem that I wrote to myself and then had written on my body.
SW: I'm curious if men and women respond differently to your installations. What kind of comments have you gotten?
CN: My work often has a humorous aspect, so I get a lot of laughs mixed in with the seriousness of the theme. I have had every kind of reaction and I do think women and men approach and respond to my sculptures differently. But the first reaction is often shock or shyness, slowly moving closer and taking a more thorough look. Some people have managed to walk by them, clearly not ready to discover what is in front of them. The different reactions probably have to do with the viewers own familiarity with undergarments, pubic hair and naked bodies. So far, I have only used women's underwear and portrayed the female figure in my sculptures. Male underwear just doesn't seem to make it to the thrift store and, even if it did, I am not sure it would inspire me.
SW: Is it your goal to challenge people's preconceptions?
CN: Yes, that is always my goal. Life never seems to be just what appears on the outside. My mission with my art is to poke and poke some more.
SW: One of the intriguing statements you make in your biography is that you question our belief that we can control aging by turning our attention to the beauty inherent in decay. What did you mean?
CN: The stress of aging is interesting. Culturally, it seems to occupy a lot of our time, and I include my self in this. The difference might be that I happen to find decay in all aspects of life fascinating, beautiful and a necessary process. So little sophistication is reflected in humans' trying so hard to capture a moment in life and get stuck with that self-image. Blooming is only beautiful because of the following steps in the life cycle - the wilting, dying and rebirthing of the body. We have gotten such a materialistic perspective on everything that even our body translates into parts we can change and parts we can get rid of. I am sad to see the history erased in our bodies. I am afraid we will have nothing reminding us of our past. A friend told me that the Native American's life perspective includes looking three generations forward as well as three generations back. I don't even think we have the courage to look at the one we are in.
SW: You've also said that while the presentation of your work adheres to the principles of Scandinavian design, you're challenging the fears within Danish culture to move outside the box and violate the taboos of humanity. Could you expand on this idea and how it finds expression in your work?
CN: I grew up in Denmark obeying, like most others, the unwritten law called The Jante Law. It basically tells its citizens not to think much of themselves. Not to put themselves in the center. I grew up with a lack of belief in individuality and no experience in competition, which is why San Francisco seemed like such a boost of freedom to me. Denmark is a country known for its great design, sleek and sparse aesthetics. Appearances might appear perfect and well polished, but in my work I want to scratch that surface and display what is hiding behind the facade. I do create sparse and sleek art pieces, beautiful from a distance but, if you have the courage to walk up close, my work will deal with the necessary and sometimes disturbing truth.
SW: What do you do when you're not in the studio?
CN: I am a mother of a kindergartner and a first grader, so I volunteer at their public school, mostly adding to the art program. I like to cook and after bedtime I return to my stitching and sketching. I get most of my new ideas from just keeping going.
SW: Do you find that everything, all experience, comes back to haunt your work?
CN: I absolutely do, but I wouldn't be without it. I have no clue how non-creative people learn from their past or digest what they walk by in their daily life. For me, having the creative outlet is the only way to realize where I come from. I have many times been surprised by my own work and its mood or expression, but it always has a reason for showing up the way it does. And it teaches me something new every time.
SW: How much time do you devote to daydreaming? Is that activity important?
CN: Yes, daydreaming is an ongoing state of mind --I can't say now I dedicate the time and now I don't. I'm always daydreaming and am probably not the best small talker for the same reason. My mind is either on or off. The best break I can give myself from my own head is watching a movie. Most people don't have the luxury of daydreaming on their schedule, but maybe they should.
ArtSlant would like to thank Camilla Newhagen for her assistance in making this interview possible.