Artist Pamela Hadley joined Matthew Bennett Laurents and Jeremy Le Grand in conversation about their collaborative exhibition, Nirvanamatopoeia, presented at Carnation Contemporary in September 2022. The following transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Pamela Hadley  Thank you for making a really cool show, first of all. And thank you for inviting me to participate in this conversation. I’ve seen both of your work independently and then to see it come together was really exciting. I know Carnation only did two-person shows this year for its programming; I’m curious—how did it come to be that you two got linked up together?

Jeremy Le Grand  When I found out we were doing all two-person shows, I did a quick run through and imagined who my work would sit well with, and Matt was the first person that came to mind. I knew that we had a fairly similar working process. Aesthetically there are some similarities between our work, and I knew there were fun things I could do with his sculptural work. There were interesting ways to make it a cohesive two-person show, instead of two separate, side-by-side solo shows, which was a common approach during this last cycle.

Matthew Bennett Laurents  Yeah, Jeremy reached out, and one of the things that he shared in his initial proposal was the idea he could create shelves and pedestals that would be used to hold my ceramic work, drawing attention to the links that are already there. This ended up being an easy way for us to collaborate, and we worked almost completely independently until we installed the show. That collaboration was a really cool part of the process.

PH  I’m curious about this too, Jeremy—did some of that idea for making pedestals and shelves come from Matt’s show the previous year, where he had custom shelves for everything?

JLG  It was two-fold. One of the aspects I’ve really liked about Matt’s past shows are the methods he used to display everything; how he has things dotted all over the walls at different heights. It creates a really nice, dynamic exhibition full of little surprises.

The other aspect comes from my work as an architectural metal worker. I’m always thinking about different forms of fabrication; different ways things can be installed, displayed, and arranged. I thought it would be fun to pull some of that skill set and bring it into a show.

Since I have that skill set, I always want to find ways to push it into my work; but I tend to do 2D work, and I don’t have as many opportunities as I would like. When I thought about working with Matt, I thought about how fun it would be to make sculptural displays, and how they could be more than just sculptural displays without anything interesting to display. It’s much more interesting, obviously, to make objects to hold interesting objects.

PH  It’s funny, because Matt’s work is almost like the frustration of ceramics as a vessel. They’re all vessels, but you’d be hard-pressed to put anything in there that would be satisfying utility. I’m thinking, Jeremy, about your shelves as sculptural objects themselves, holding objects that are sculptural, which themselves are meant to hold things but don’t. Then you also made those small, leafy, branch- or straw-like thingies that sat inside of them. We should talk about that stuff more, I love those relationships!

JLG  One thing that’s moved me away from square paintings is the silhouette of a work, thinking about that as another shape or another line that sits on the wall.

One of the reasons I moved to making work on steel is that it’s so thin that it has this really interesting relationship to the wall. I float them off the wall just a little bit, so they have a shadow line. Keeping that in mind, I had this idea that Matt could send me photographs of some of his pieces, and then I could use those photographs to actually make paintings that were silhouettes of his pieces. Maybe around half of my paintings in the show were actually silhouettes of his sculptures—some of which were in the show, some of which weren’t. Then I took those silhouettes and went crazy with painting on them.

I thought that it was interesting that it’s the image of an object that’s this 3D thing, that’s now becoming flattened into a new object image.

PH  I love that. It’s like you guys are retaining your methodologies, but having the starting point—or the form—strongly influenced by, if not decided by, qualities of Matt’s work.

MBL  That’s one of the things that Jeremy and I talked about that made the collaboration one where a lot of interesting connections and juxtapositions could be generated, just by making work and putting it next to each other. We’re both referencing aspects of painting, utility, and pottery. It’s almost like Jeremy’s art is speaking in the language of paintings, but doing something different than paintings have done in the past. I like to think of my pots as speaking in the language of utility, but, like you said, they’re not meant to be used beyond being experienced as art objects.

Some of the conversations Jeremy and I had before and during the process were just really fun and interesting conversations about the philosophy of making art. There’s this innate desire we both have to make things where exploring the medium and the process is extremely satisfying, and sharing it with the public is really exciting.

There’s also this moment we’re in, where there’s this ambiguity because so much has already been done. It feels like an endless conversation to me: why we’re [making art], and what’s happening when we’re doing it.

JLG  The perpetual crisis of being a maker!

I find myself mostly making art because nothing gives me the feeling I have when I’m making art. That’s my primary motivator. Then there also are moments where you make the thing and you have some kind of audience in mind. In many ways it’s the ideal, imagined audience that gets everything you’re putting down and loves everything you do. Then there’s the reality: you spend all the time making the thing, thinking about the thing, thinking about the exhibition; you get the thing up.

There’s a moment of pause where you ask, outside of the satisfaction of making it—once it becomes a social object—what it is and how it lives. What is its life, now that it went from a very intimate, solitary exercise, to having a social life, for lack of a better term? You start to ask, “What is it?” What is this thing, now that it lives in this world full of other things and other people playing with similar ideas or having the same feelings? What does it mean to try to give this thing a life of its own?

MBL  I also loved when Pam called [Jeremy’s small sculptures] straws. They look like the silly straws that I used as a kid, that go around and around. It’s funny that it’s a sculptural straw, but it’s also this organic-looking element that’s growing out of my sculpture, which is literally a pot. And you could also look at the pot the same way—it’s a sculpture of a pot that’s not being used as one.

All the patterning in your paintings, Jeremy, does that to me as I’m looking at them. Why is this so familiar; why is this evoking a feeling a little bit like fear?

They play with the viewer and resist being pinned down. There’s something similar about walking around the modern world, where I feel these strong senses of things that I never get to pin down and define. When it’s an art object, that feels safer than going through the world and feeling confused by things that don’t go anywhere.

JLG  I like the idea that the gallery is a space that allows you to enjoy the uncertainty around you, to bask in it and be open to it. Once you walk out of the gallery and you’re in the real world, for lack of a better term, don’t you want a little more solidity? I think that’s kind of funny.

PH  I’m glad the conversation’s gone into this area of the in-between, of basking in the uncertainty. It’s interesting to hear you say the gallery can be a safe space to experience the uncertainty that we all experience all the time and maybe feel threatened by.

While there’s truth to that, I think that the opposite is also true: there’s actually nothing that’s uncertain. This is a perspective I occupy often. Everything’s prescribed. Everything is ideologically laid out and defined, largely according to economic structures. We don’t think for ourselves very often; we don’t notice how things are defined, the classifications that things have. “Oh, it’s a white wall,” and nobody thinks about it—but the wall has a whole spectrum of color, even though it’s white paint, because that’s the way light works. I remember learning that as a kid and being blown away.

That’s where I see some of the social value of art that’s very in-between; where it’s sensory overload, but in a controlled enough way that it feels okay to go there.  It’s training wheels! I can use my senses, I can use my judgment, and I can actually look at things and deeply pay attention to what’s happening inside of me, both my thoughts and my emotions.

It’s okay for me to deeply engage in all of those things, draw my own conclusions, and trust those conclusions. I don’t have to, and I shouldn’t, passively accept the the world as it’s presented to me. I see the gallery as being a safe space and kind of a training ground.

MBL  It’s almost like you put the training wheels on to experience the world in this contained space; then you walk out the door and the training wheels are off. It almost sets up the show as a simulated wild, like an artificial jungle where you’re pointed in a direction to become more aware of the world that’s not constructed by artists.

PH  The thing is, I see most of the world as being a complete construct that’s completely divorced from actual reality. You think of some old guy being like, “In the real world, you gotta learn how to blah, blah, blah,” and that shit is not real. It is an economic construct that doesn’t have anything to do with human or natural needs. I see the gallery, then, as also not real. It’s still mediated, but it’s piercing the veil of that cultural construct and trying to say, “Things operate outside of that system, and here’s an example of things operating in ways that disprove what we’re told is real.”

JLG  I think the subtext of what you’re saying is whether things are prescriptive or not. I honestly find a lot of art to be cartoonishly prescriptive.

To tie it back in with being in the space with the work, I’m not necessarily interested in the viewer gleaning an individual thing from the work. I am not interested in there being “a way” or “the way” to view my work. I don’t think I could make work knowing that I wanted it to achieve a very specific thing, because there would be no play. For me, art is so important because I wanna play. I wanna have moments where I’m not bogged down by hard-and-fast rules, and I can let my energy out and my mind wander.

To bring it back to the bigger thing I think you were talking about: In our show, there wasn’t a map to tell you how to view it and what to glean from it. There were a lot of opportunities to experience a physical and emotional relationship to the space and the works. There is something incredibly meaningful about that, which I think is often unappreciated. It’s important to be able to ask yourself questions that can’t be answered with language.

PH  I love that, yeah.

MBL  Jeremy talking about play made me think about when I was a kid going to playgrounds. I remember the feeling of getting there, and how there was this mental and emotional experience of mapping all the different possibilities. What do I want to do first? The colors and other physical properties of the equipment created a whole play experience before I ever physically got to them.

It suddenly reminds me of being in the show, how the intersection of all these things coming together with form, shape, and color created a similar experience to that. The show was like a mental playground that you couldn’t interact with physically, but that had a similar excitement and ambiguity about where to begin. There’s not a right way to play on a playground.

JLG  There isn’t a single right way. Yeah.

PH  I love this talk of play. I totally relate to that in my practice, and it’s obviously present in both of your works. When I walked into this space, I felt overwhelmed—in a very good way. I felt very full of excitement and joy. I didn’t know where to start. There was so much to look at that I wanted to take it all in, and then I started narrowing it down.

It’s cool, looking back at the photos I took. That show photographed so well; each section of wall was its own composition, then the floor stands were their own composition. Now that we’re talking about that, I’m interested to hear what thoughts you guys had on the curation of it. We talked a little bit already about the shelves, but there was so much color—really vibrant color. I’m interested to hear what kinds of conversations you guys had, or if it was, “Hey, let’s just do this!”

JLG  I think it was like, “Hey, let’s just do this!” We had had some conversations about different kinds of display ideas, and I knew I really wanted to have a tall, central object. I mentioned this to Matt, I showed him some photos, and then he mentioned this sci-fi novel. In it, a species transforms into something like a totem and ends up having a very large influence in its culture. After it dies, it becomes this object of worship and knowledge.

I showed Matt some sketches I had for this sculpture, and he had the idea to have a bunch of little, satellite sculptures surrounding it, as if they were going to have a conversation with it.

Other than that, we had had an initial conversation maybe a year before, and then we both went to our studios and put our heads down. I don’t think either of us saw much of the other’s work until we went to install. We literally unpacked everything onto tables and the floor and started hanging things.

MBL  We had one long conversation about a year before, and then another good conversation maybe six weeks before install. Jeremy showed me photos of his unfinished tall piece, and that generated a lot of conversation about how to curate around it. We had incomplete ideas of how it would actually play out in the gallery; but for me, it was enough that I did a lot of glazing and choosing objects based on that second conversation.

A lot of the success with how the installation turned out had to do with what you mentioned earlier, Jeremy, about the amorphous, organic shapes in your work. The only rectangle was the space itself, and there was nothing stopping us from allowing everything to come together as these different, organizational pieces.

The whole process of putting it up ended up being very easy, despite the power going out during our first day of install. We just started putting up three pieces and then lost all power, right as the sun went down. Besides that, it was really effortless to keep putting work up, take a step back, and talk about how it’s working; if something else needs to balance that out, or maybe that piece should actually go over here. It was very playful and felt like an extension of my studio practice; it didn’t feel like a hard break, where I suddenly wasn’t in the studio anymore.

JLG  Yeah, I agree. It was really fun. There were times where I would put a shelf on the wall and look behind me, and Matt would be putting a shelf on the wall. Then I would go hang a painting, and then he would put an object on a shelf. It felt like no matter what we did, it looked right; which was awesome and a huge relief. because oftentimes installs can be very taxing.

Another advantage of making works largely on steel is that I can hang everything with magnets; and an advantage of not making square work is that level is relative. Something can be off by an eighth and no one would ever know.

MBL  Don’t tell all the secrets, Jeremy.

PH  I wanna ask you about the name. I can’t even say it.

JLG  There’s this musician I like named Jerry Paper, and he has this song called “Nirvana Mañana.” I really love the title; I love this idea that you could put off a state of enlightenment like, “Oh, I’ll get to this thing tomorrow.” So much of my time, especially now that I have a kid, is thinking of how I can push off everything as long as I possibly can. That you would even wanna do that with this higher state of mind is very funny to me. I mentioned it to Matt, and I think that we had a similar interest in the meaning to it, but Matt came later with the suggestion for the final title.

MBL  Jeremy shared that song with me and what it meant to him, and I was chewing on that for a couple days. I was also thinking about the way we title our work. We name our works in a similar way: there isn’t an idea of what it’s gonna be until the work is finished, and then there’s a moment of looking at it and sort of asking it, “Who are you? What do you sound like?” Like wanting the piece to tell you its name, versus having this predefined idea of what you’re making and what it will be called.

That was where the “onomatopoeia” part of the title came from, which is a word I’ve always loved, meaning a word that sounds like what it means. When I’ve looked at Jeremy’s works in previous shows, when I see the title, I’m like, “Of course it’s called that.”

Jeremy, I feel like your titles are often very quick and evocative. It’s less about the thing having a name, and more about what it’s saying viscerally, without putting too much emphasis on the meaning behind that. It just is what it’s trying to tell you.

PH  So I wanted to ask you, Matt, about your process for preparing for the show. I know you were making some new work, and then you were also unpacking and going through existing work.

MBL  I had been making pots in my home studio off and on for a few months after we started talking about the show. Then I unexpectedly moved across town and had to box up my whole studio and all of my work. I got into my new studio about six or seven weeks before we were going to install the show, and I had pots in all different stages of the process. Some hadn’t been fired at all, some which had been fired hadn’t been glazed, and others had been glazed once, but I wasn’t happy with them. Usually they’ll go through at least a couple glaze firings before they’re ready. It was a bit stressful; I didn’t have a studio to work in!

I got an electrician over to get my kiln up and running, and then it took about a week of going through boxes just to find all the work after the move. I ended up finding a bunch of old pots that were unfinished from different phases of my practice. I decided to bring those into the mix, and that ended up being about a third of the pieces in the show. Some of the pots were made eight years prior but hadn’t ever been glazed.

That was a different experience for me. In previous shows, I’ve made new bodies of work all at once. In this case, I think it added a lot. It felt more playful to use these objects that were evocative of totally different versions of myself. Some were made when I was working very differently than I am now. In a way, it felt like the closing of a chapter, since I was finishing all of the pieces I had left over from other bodies of work.

The process of collaboration with Jeremy’s pedestals and shelves was also very dynamic. I hadn’t seen any of them before we arrived to install, so being able to play with which colors the pots were sitting on added a new layer. It was almost like another round of glazing.

PH  That’s really exciting. You said that some had so many layers of glaze that it dripped down, cracked, and exploded.

MBL  Unfortunately I lost probably 20 or 30 pots. Most of them broke from fusing together.

PH  Did seeing your work installed in the show together make you view your own work differently than before?

JLG  I’m always having fun, but I often get in my own head, and I think it’s an unnecessary burden. Seeing the work in the space, and seeing all the little surprises and unexpected moments, have really cemented this idea that I need to have more fun, make more things, and figure out more ways to make things sculptural.

I’m really interested in the picture plane and flatness; real flatness and illusionistic depth. I really like that interplay, and I had the opportunity to make some sculptural objects for this show that have similar illusionistic depth as the paintings. Right when you entered the gallery, there was this big, orangey-pink thing with cut-out shelves that were holding objects.

With that, I was seeing the different ways that I could approach the planes and get things moving off of the wall in an almost architectural way.

PH  Then it’s like you’re talking about paintings, but they’re not paintings; they’re sculptures, but they’re not sculptures. In so much of art history, painting is this sacred thing. I love when people challenge that. Making something that reads as a painting, then cutting holes in it and making it into something utilitarian like a shelf, that’s pretty cool. It’s still a painting, but it’s also a shelf.

JLG  Yeah. It’s fun.

PH  What about you, Matt? Seeing the work installed, did you see your work differently than you had before?

MBL  I think the process of collaborating with Jeremy generated new ideas for me about how I can work. I’ve never curated collaboratively that way before. I’ve had my work be part of group shows where I got to come in after it was installed and see interesting things that would happen with other artists’ work. This process—of making work that was bouncing off of each other, yet still working individually, and then coming together to put it up—was a surprisingly refreshing experience.

I’d had reservations about collaborating in the past—not with Jeremy, but out of a general desire to have complete creative control. There were elements in this show that I wouldn’t have ever thought of on my own; but it still was something I feel ownership over, because it felt like we brought our minds together and did it as one. The success was more satisfying because it was shared. It’s gotten me to think about different projects that could involve other people more—or even wanting to curate other people’s work, which I’d never really thought about doing before.

PH  There’s one thing about the show that I walked away being like, “I wonder what it would be like if blah, blah, blah.” Because there’s so much work in the show, I felt joy. I think that’s what gave me that intense feeling of being joyful and excited. Then, as I spent more time in the gallery, the impact of it all got a little bit frustrating. When you first see it, it’s like, boom! Cool. Then, when you spend time with it and look closer, there’s more and more, you know? Each of your works is so incredibly nuanced.

Matt, I know I’ve told you I like that you’re able to let clay be clay. You have such mastery over it that you don’t need to chokehold it. With Jeremy’s paintings, there’s so much detail to look at with each piece, all the layers you do with painting, taping, screen printing, collaging, and all of that. My point is: there’s so much richness in each piece, and I really love the way that they interact with each other—it amplifies them—but then a little bit of that nuance is lost because there’s so much going on. I guess I wanted to ask if you guys had any thoughts on something similar?

JLG  That’s interesting, because my first thought was, “If we had a space that was bigger, then there’d be more opportunities to spend time with an individual thing, and maybe there could be more negative space.” But honestly, if we had a bigger space, we would just do twice as much work! We’d make it just as dense.

My impulse is always to have lots! I love how you mentioned it was maximalist. Some of my favorite things to look at are people’s packed shop spaces, like machinist shops, workshops, and studios. I love really dense home libraries that have lots of books, objects, and paintings—books you can’t even get to, because you have to move a sculpture that has a painting leaning against it. I just love that. 

I completely understand your point, though. If you have a thousand of these small moments, and they’re all existing simultaneously, how can you carve out a space of quiet when every single moment is whispering to you at once? I think it’s something I took for granted because I just love accumulations of stuff.

PH  In theory, I guess, there’s some perfect balance, where you get the relationships but there’s still breathing room—or maybe some areas are more compact, and then there’s a part of the show that is more sparse, so you have different experiences in different parts. Or, if time and money were no object, if we had a bigger space, different rooms could be handled differently.

JLG  Phew, that would be awesome.

MBL  I also felt like it was minimal, in a way. While I understand why it’s interpreted as maximalist, in the process of installing, my experience was that there was a lot of space between each object. Maybe that’s just because I’m used to doing maximalist installs of my own work.

I remember there was a bit of back-and-forth toward the end of install, getting it to feel right and to have a flow through each object. If we had had a bigger space, we might have made more large works. That interplay would be really exciting if we did another show—to have larger sculptures of mine, larger painting objects of yours, and to then do these clusters of smaller ones together.

PH  I really love the clustering and the groupings.

I wanna rephrase my statement, because maybe what you guys found was the perfect balance. Seriously. I could get a lot of the nuance, I got all of the really rich relationships, and it was super exciting. Maybe it’s not that that balance was off. Maybe you guys got it just right, but I just want more!

JLG  I wouldn’t have minded more.

photo credit: Marcelo Fontana

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