Danger Within: Zak Kitnick Interviews Heather Rowe

On Returning 2007
installation approximately:
336 x 180 x 204 inches (853.4 x 457.2 x 518.2 cm)
dimensions variable
steel, stucco, sheetrock, found window frames and door frames, shag carpet, wood, mirror, glass, hinge and curtain


Heather Rowe’s work inhabits the areas around sculpture, architecture and installation, without strictly adhering to any one method of working. Permutations of wood and Sheetrock suggest transitional spaces such as corridors, doorways and windows with insertions of decorative details. Upon approach, these seemingly spare objects reveal surprising narrative elements—glass sharpened like knives and angled mirrors reflect and threaten the body. For her recent, fourth exhibition at D’Amelio Terras in New York, the artist reduced her scale, changing the relationship of the work to space and the viewer.

Expanding on conceptual art’s interest in décor as at once the antithesis and inevitability of art, Zak Kitnick’s work explores how the worlds of art and decoration borrow from one another. In his work, utilitarian and ornamental objects are abstracted by the systems that organize them. For instance, in Compendium (2011), reproductions of an arbitrary collection of vegetable posters are framed in grids alongside inlaid steel shelving. In each case, their structure overwhelmingly becomes the subject matter.

The two artists met in 2005 while Kitnick was working at Artists Space in New York, and Rowe was installing a work for the group show “Things Fall Apart All Over Again,” curated by Cecilia Alemani and Simone Subal. They have remained friends ever since.

ZAK KITNICK  Your recent show at D’Amelio Terras seemed like a departure in a couple of ways. One was scale, but more specifically, your larger works are primarily new construction—new materials with an almost fictional past. But in the smaller scaled wall works, you’re working with these old things, not so much materials as found objects.

HEATHER ROWE  In the larger works, reclaimed parts are usually details placed amidst the newer construction materials. They are clues to building an ambiguous narrative of the “fictional past.” The process is different in the smaller works. The found frame is the starting point and everything emanates from that, so there is an emphasis on that form. Also, the space in these works is very concentrated. All the details are stuffed within the form, compressed, like the smoked glass and fake fur behind the headboard in Paneled Insomnia (2011), or how the black glass covers the silver voile and pearl wallpaper in Cold Night (2011). I see it as slivers of a room hung on another wall.

KITNICK  In the installations you speak about architecture and cinema—in the case of On Returning (2007), Paul Rudolph; or in the case of Tenuous Arrangements (2010), Robert Altman’s Three Women. In the smaller mirrored works, it seems the found objects function as the subject matter. While the work isn’t about the architect or about the film, these more personally scaled works (as you’ve described them) seem to be more about themselves.

ROWE  Sometimes I’ll reference a film scene or certain characters in a film in the larger works. I’m mostly interested in creating a space to express a character’s absence or perceived absence. It’s about creating the space in between the structure. And the viewer activates that space on a social scale. But then with the smaller wall pieces, they almost become a character, or at least objects with their own personality traits. For the show, I made five pieces, and we ended up editing it down to just three—those with the most distinctive personalities to work off of each other. Separate yet together.

KITNICK  So it’s Three Women all over again.

ROWE  You could say there’s a similarity, although these works were not about personas, per se. Three in a group can build an interesting relationship. To add another piece just seemed to suck the energy out of the others. I’m interested in this one-to-one relationship to materials and how they have a certain rationale-carpet is on the floor, wallpaper on the wall, etc. I feel like these pieces are also working in an odd architectural model type of scale and there’s a tension between that and the “real” scale of the materials.

KITNICK  I wouldn’t think of them as a “model scale” because the size is based on the objects you begin with . . .

ROWE  Yes, definitely. They are based on the scale of a mirror you might have in your dining room. But I was also thinking it’s more of a size that you project yourself into rather than experience.

KITNICK  I guess that is what a model is. But seen together, the largest work in the show is the show, and so that is quite large. There was also the white on white textured wallpaper that produced an illusion of vibration. How does that function? As an autonomous work?

ROWE  Well, I knew I didn’t want to make a show where there were just objects hung on a wall. So that’s how the idea of activating the blank wall with a subtle pattern came into play-just shifting the room ever so slightly so that it became something other than the gallery space. I was thinking about some kind of Cubist space within the three wall works. It was partly the lights in the space that made the pattern of the wallpaper start to vibrate and the entire room became a subtle vortex.

KITNICK  It had that effect.

ROWE  It’s a backdrop for the three mirrors. But it also has its own identity and title: Discontinued Wall, which seemed appropriate since that line of wallpaper is discontinued, for reasons I don’t really know . . .

KITNICK  I think for fairly obvious reasons. You used it as it was intended to be used, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, and even on this relatively small wall it was incredibly disorienting.

That wall is blocking a window, so there’s a layering and concealing in addition to a cutting and exposing. In reading about your work, there’s often a reference to Gordon Matta-Clark, which I’ve always felt was sort of an inaccurate reference. One is destructive, one is productive. The overlap would be this act of cutting, and I see how one would get there, but I’m interested in your materials, the newness and accessibility of your materials. When somebody sees your work it’s not altogether unfamiliar. Whether it’s the house or an object in the house, there is a familiarity-we’re not talking about a shark in formaldehyde—we’re talking about materials that are quite literally at arm’s length. It’s not Arte Povera so much as a suburban Arte Povera. Anybody could find themselves in a place were these materials exist.

ROWE  Every artist has a few artists that are always floating around in their head, just sort of in the background. And Gordon Matta-Clark is one who I consistently go back to. There is an esthetic connection to this idea of cutting into architecture. I feel I am constructing the space around a “cut” rather than actually cutting into the material. I have a love/hate relationship with materials—I was in a show called “Stubborn Materials” and that title felt very fitting. I want to use something that is so familiar, the stuff that is all around us and holds and forms the spaces where we live. This familiarity perhaps bring something that is usually in the background to the foreground.

KITNICK  You went to the hardware store, you bought this ceiling-mounted “medallion,” and then took it back to the studio and cut it in half and saw that it’s foam. You made a work out of this but others are building their houses with foam, or ornamenting their ceilings with foam.

ROWE  And that interests me because it’s almost like an instant ruin. And so I’m also building up these ruins. But I see the work as existing in a suspended moment—it is neither decaying nor moving to a point of completion. This perhaps points to a certain theatricality in the work.

KITNICK  I think we were both in L.A. recently and saw the William Leavitt show. Maybe he addresses a similar theatricality?

ROWE  My introduction to his work happened to be a performance at L.A. MOCA. The sculpture became a set with props for the actors. And this influenced how I read the rest of the exhibition. The sculptures were waiting for some kind of action to occur. They were forlorn props in uncanny situations—drapes, sliding glass doors, plants.

KITNICK  The work is not about Paul Rudolph it’s not about Three Women, it’s sculpture and it’s about making something—about building, about construction. But why make anything? Maybe it comes back to this love/hate relationship with materials.

ROWE  Yes, making work is a way to struggle with materials, to push, pull and mold them towards an end but at the same time keep this end open and unfinished. It is an absurd, frustrating struggle and that is a significant part the process. The larger the work, the more unwieldy this process is.

However, doing this show of smaller works made me think about scale in a different way, much more about using parts of the existing space. This is different than some past shows which were really a large object placed in a space. I did a collaborative project with Kevin Zucker in a super small space and the sculpture was not just sitting in the space but attached to it-it really used the architecture. That might be a direction that I want to go in.

KITNICK  A building’s primary function might be to protect the contents inside. And when you’re making outdoor sculpture, you have to consider all these things that a building would otherwise consider for you. But when you’re making work that is the exterior of a building on the interior, it doesn’t have to consider any of these things anymore.

ROWE  Yes, there is a freedom. Though it does have to be able to stand and not collapse-then again, maybe not! But you are allowed to be illogical and perverse. There might be a plan, but it is irrational. Another thing I’m interested in is the way that form or formal issues can present themselves as tough or aggressive, but be weak or shattered underneath.

KITNICK  There is an aggressive fragility. You don’t know if you’re going to hurt the work or if the work is going to hurt you. Or both.

ROWE  The sharp edges are contained within these sculptures. It’s always controlled. There is a fastidious way in which the aggressive parts are organized-maybe this is where the idea of “the feminine” comes in.

KITNICK  What do you mean by “the feminine?”

ROWE  Just the way certain things in my work are cut and put together. They are not all rough and jagged, things are clean cut. So they are smooth yet very, very sharp. There’s something restrained or repressed about it, and I’m finessing the aggression out of these parts. We might want to strike the “feminine” because I don’t really ever talk about that. There is something about how I build things that I think is related to me being female, and that is an underlying, somewhat unspoken component of the work.

KITNICK  Essentially, you are making these sculptures with two tools: a saw to cut them apart and a drill to put them back together.

ROWE  Yes, that nicely sums up my process. Taking stuff apart, putting it back together and then repeat. Sort of like rolling a rock up a hill. Maybe that consistency needs to be broken . . .

KITNICK  [Laughs] I’m curious to see your upcoming exhibition at Galerie Zink in Berlin. The gallery space itself is new.

ROWE  Yes, it is an entirely new building, almost pristine. I think the interesting part for me will be working on pieces for the show in my studio this spring and then going there and doing some larger on-site work, which is a very different process than working on things in my studio. As you say, there is a lot of putting things together and taking them apart, over and over until everything “falls” into place. A history of materials emerges, new and used, there is a more layered and detailed effect. I really like how a show is never really finished except at the last moment, right before it opens.