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New York
Interview with Anne Percoco
by Aldrin Valdez

New York, June 2011 - Play and exploration: art retains these traits of childhood as the artist transforms one material into another. Isn’t this a kind of sustainable practice? Today sustainability is a hot word, but really it has always been an innate quality of art-making. Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades are a case in point. And Jasper Johns’s strategy echoes Duchamp’s irreverent re-contextualizing: “Take an object. Do something to it.”

In that light, Anne Percoco’s sculptures and collages underscore and make visible the explorative and sustainable process of creating art. Her materials are found objects—fabric, discarded water bottles, and recycled paper—gathered from heaps of trash or collected from phonebooks. These everyday things are constantly in production but we overlook the labor and energy that go into making them. Percoco’s body of work draws our attention back to the stuff that we’re constantly producing, consuming, and throwing away. Her current show “Field Studies” at A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn returns the urban viewer to nature, albeit through the very materials that we often forget were once trees and plant parts. ArtSlant contributor Aldrin Valdez met Percoco in her Jersey City studio to talk about the exhibition of phonebook collages and fabric sculptures, and her plans to explore the landscape of the Gowanus Canal.

Anne Percoco, Field Study, Collage with New York and New Jersey phone books, 2011; Courtesy A.I.R. Gallery

Aldrin Valdez: Throughout your whole body of work, you’re constantly reusing and reanimating debris and found objects. In your show “Field Studies” at A.I.R. Gallery, you’ve created Edenic vignettes of forests, collaged from images of trees and vegetation that you’ve culled from phonebooks. In a way, these scenes carry on the tradition of pastoral landscapes.

Anne Percoco: Yes, in terms of their genre, they are very traditional. I found many of these tree images as abstract elements of a logo or appearing next to a house in a real estate ad. I cut them out and smushed them together, for the most part editing out elements of the city and suburbs.

AV: They speak to how people who live in cities most often can only access nature in an urban context. Or to how nature is defined in relation to the city: seasonally, when people go on vacation.

AP: Right, in small doses, like a park. And yes, there are a fair number of palm trees from vacation ads. The thing is, this is what the land used to look like before we got here. New York and New Jersey were densely forested with deciduous and evergreen trees.  

But if you look closely at the collages, you can find pieces of the city in the landscape. There are a few a traffic lights, a bench, parts of a golf course. There’s a crane and a telephone pole. Little things make their way in, just by virtue of being near a tree.

AV: So in a kind of twist, people have to look for traces of the city in your work, whereas in real life, nature is relegated to the periphery in an urban setting. It’s unseen or unnoticed.

Anne Percoco, Field Study (book), Collage with New York and New Jersey phone books, 14” x 8.75”; Courtesy A.I.R. Gallery

AP: Yes, phone books are made from trees. So in this case, the thing being represented is also being presented. I’ve been thinking about this quote by Rebecca Solnit, from her essay Elements of a New Landscape:

"Attention to substances rather than scenes as manifestations of nature unravels assertions about alienation from nature. The artist Mary Lucier, whose videos deal with the representational traditions of landscape, once told a San Francisco audience, 'You don't understand—for us on the East Coast, nature is in the past tense.' A New Yorker who declares her alienation from nature might consider, while having morning coffee, that the city's water comes from an Adirondacks watershed, one of the world's first large nature preserves; consider the source of the milk in an outlying dairy farm and the coffee's more distant genesis in Third World tropical highlands—might, in fact, recognize that the cup of coffee is a link to sublime, pastoral, and exotic landscapes in which the drinker participates, if only as an unwitting consumer….”

Then she talks about how the coffee cup ends up in the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. We are intimately connected to and dependent on nature, we just don’t see it. It’s there in the substance of our stuff.

AV: The beanbag chair (Heap) you’ve created addresses that cycle in a similar way. The fabric leaves, for instance, can be either cotton or some combination with cotton in it. How did you make that piece?

Anne Percoco, Heap, 94” x 72” x 30”, Assorted fabrics, canvas, spandex, styrofoam filling, 2011; Courtesy A.I.R. Gallery

AP: It’s a rework of an older piece called Canopy, which was a sleeping bag. It’s now a giant beanbag chair which people can sit on in the gallery. The leaves are from many different fabrics, cut out and stitched together to create a loose, overlapping surface. The filling comes from three beanbag chairs I found on Craigslist, as well as Styrofoam pellets which a friend generates as a waste product of his own sculptures. It’s basically the same material that’s in a standard beanbag chair.

AV: Where else do you get your materials?

Courtesy A.I.R. Gallery

AP: I used the site to gather phone books, plus friends saved them for me and I picked some up off the street. The frames came from Materials for the Arts and Goodwill Stores. They are different styles, but all have a natural or faux-natural wood finish. The fabric leaves are from a variety of sources: mostly MFTA, fabric store scrap bins, and garage sales.

For me, the use of found materials has so many benefits. The materials have this whole life and identity before it gets to me, which becomes part of the work and enriches it, and which is often evident in its texture.  Plus, you’re not harming the environment, and usually it’s free or cheap.

AV: What I’m most drawn to your work is how you invite participation from the community.

AP: I really enjoy it, but I also enjoy making work for a gallery setting. It’s just a different set of restrictions. Working publicly is more of a challenge, since there are so many variables. For example: weather, rules governing use of space, and the fact that you sometimes have just one shot to get it right. It’s also challenging to make work for the general public, who may or may not be familiar with the language of contemporary art. But this is a good challenge. Also, public work usually allows me to engage with a place in a more direct way, which is why I did so many public projects while in India.

Anne Percoco, Shrines Of the Gowanus Canal, Digital slideshow, 2011; Courtesy A.I.R. Gallery

In "Field Studies," I also present plans for a public project, Shrines Of the Gowanus Canal, which will take place in July. I’m going to lead a workshop at the Gowanus Studio Center in which participants will convert an old boat into a floating shrine dedicated to the Gowanus Canal. (This workshop is part of the Sea Worthy festival.)

AV: And that’s taking off from work you did in India, with Friends of Vrindavan and the Asian Cultural Council, where you constructed a cloud-form from found plastic water bottles and sailed it on the Yamuna River. Like the Gowanus, the Yamuna River is also very polluted and your work highlights and draws attention to that condition.

AP: Yes, and it’s also related to my 2008 thesis project at Rutgers University, in which I built a network of shrines dedicated to the local drainage system, and led public tours. I think of the shrines as focal points of the landscape and magnets for attention and remediation. I’m especially excited about the Gowanus project because other people are going to participate in building the shrines. And the boat element is something of an inversion of the idea of pilgrimage. Usually the pilgrims are the only ones in motion, but here the shrine itself is moving as well.

ArtSlant would like to thank Anne Percoco for her assistance in making this interview possible.

--Aldrin Valdez

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