Carol Salmanson began as a painter and then gradually started embracing the use of LED lights in her work. In “Two Sides to a Coin,” Salmanson’s recent solo show at SL Gallery, she shows her paintings and light work side by side. This results in a dynamic conversation between the two forms. Salmanson shared with Art Spiel the genesis of her work, thought process, and projects.
AS: In an interview with Leah Oates for NY Arts Magazine (2013) you describe quite a complex art journey – you were passionate about art and ballet, discouraged by your family, got both a degree in biological psychology and an MBA from stellar universities, and then zig-zagged to art again. How do you see it from your present vantage point and how do you think this route affected your work?
Carol Salmanson: Both Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business developed my analytical and quantitative sides. They also instilled an appreciation of design elegance: at CMU I planned experiments to study the effects of drugs on the behavior of lab rats (which horrifies me now), while the University of Chicago’s business school was known for its financial theory. Although I didn’t think too much of the theories, the formulas and equations fascinated me. When I started working with light I was comfortable learning the basics of electronics, ultimately to mostly forget them by my use of the transformers inside the plugs (similar to cell phone chargers).
I subsequently had a business in Denver buying houses, renovating them, and re-selling them. The renovations taught me the emotional effects of light and space. It was then that I also realized that light has volume without mass, which I think is magic.
AS: You started out as a painter and then started working with light. Can you tell me about the genesis of your light work?
Carol Salmanson: I had wanted to work with light for years. In 1997 I wrote the renowned theatrical lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, asking where I could study light. She instead taught me herself, by taking me to technical rehearsals for pretty much every kind of performance, such as theater, dance, and opera. But then I had no idea where to start. After 6 years I finally told myself that I was no longer allowed to paint. I took long walks and drives until I got the single idea that got me started. I made it and loved doing it. It had absolutely nothing to do with my subsequent work, but it got me out of that long tunnel.
AS: In your current solo show at SL Gallery, “Two Sides to a Coin”, you show both painting and light works. I guess the title in part references that duality. How do you see the relationship between the 2 media in terms of your work and thought process?
Carol Salmanson: Actually, one side of the coin is my organic, gestural work, while the other is my body of architecturally-based pieces. Both the paintings and the Gesture Drawings, which are made with light, have a strong affinity with each other. The gallery partners Bill Schwinghammer and Tony Long felt that their connection would be evident by pairing the two media, and I’m delighted with the way they installed the show. The two large Lightshift works in the rear gallery are based on Byzantine mosaics. These are very new and exciting to me, because it has taken me many years to distill my love for the mosaics into something I could actually make.
AS: Going back to “Two Sides to a Coin”, the light works at SL Gallery can be visually divided between works made of amorphic linear forms, shaped by the artist’s hand and more recent works made of more geometric clean forms. How do you see that change?
Carol Salmanson: I started making paintings with acrylic on panel in 2016;before that I made a lot of work with gouache on paper. I see all of them as a single body of work. During this same time I continued making my gestural and geometric works, as I do now. They emphasize two different sensibilities that I have: one which is more concerned with space, while the other is about the touch of my hand. They are united by color. Even the paintings, which are limited to black, white, and three shades of gray, have light and color in them, evoking the great colorist Matisse’s assertion that black is a color, too.
AS: In our recent conversation at SL Gallery we brought up the spiritual element in your light work, specifically its relationship to Byzantine art (in your latest pattern oriented work). What are your thoughts on that?
Carol Salmanson: I hesitate to use the word spirituality because it’s so often used to describe facile or trite artworks. But that component is in my work, and I aim to strengthen it with each new piece. Light has a unique ability to evoke memories and emotions, and I use it to build different worlds. The Byzantine mosaics were built to create a sense of awe, and their use of light and color do this through joy. This is not happiness, which is on the surface – joy is more profound. The mosaics were created to work with light before electricity – my use of industrial materials echoes the ancient use of glass, pigment, and reflection, while still being contemporary. In this way I feel that I can bring the mosaics into work made today.
AS: On your website “About” section you bring a quote from Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase: “It is rather our role to take what unrealistic factors that exist and to work them into a more sophisticated form that might be grounded in the grand scheme of reality.” Why did you choose this quote?
Carol Salmanson: The different worlds I create don’t exist in reality, and light has volume that you can’t touch. They are ‘unrealistic,’ but grounded in reality by my use of decidedly prosaic materials.
AS: Tell me about your process. How do you start a project?
Carol Salmanson: For the Gesture Drawings I start by arbitrarily coming up with a size for the Plexiglas pieces. Then I make pencil drawings the same size, and it usually takes several of them before I come up with one that I like. After drilling holes for the LEDs’ wiring I embed them to do the final construction of the piece. All my LEDs, and I have more than 150 different kinds, have been calibrated to a consistent brightness by the use of current-limiting resistors.
In contrast, the new geometric Lightshift pieces are done on the computer. I first select a limited number of colored back lighting and reflective sheeting—I have an Excel file with many colors and combinations that work well together. After that I render and duplicate a small number of them as needed to make the design.
AS: You also do site specific work. Can you tell me about a site specific work that was particularly challenging?
Carol Salmanson: I love making site-specific work – the limitations imposed by the locations are challenging, and I also love to incorporate elements of their architectural surroundings.
The most rewarding project to date was Water Bubbles, a window installation in a landmark Constructivist water tower in the city of Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains of Russia. The 92’-high White Tower fell out of use in the ‘60s, and has been crumbling ever since. Now, a volunteer group of architects is working on its restoration. There were 10 round and 10 rectangular windows in an eccentric round structure sitting on a narrow rectangular base.
To design the installation I spent several hours on Google Street View and got screenshots from all sides of the tower. After experimenting with different materials, I eventually settled on various colors of adhesive-backed vinyl transparent film, which I then made in Brooklyn and shipped to Russia. For its design I used the language of Constructivism, both its architecture and its paintings. The final composition used rectangles and circles that echoed the movement of water to evoke the building’s intended function. Constructivism originated in Russia, and in the early days was supported by Stalin as a new form that was representative of the new Communist government.
Its installation was quite an experience: the tower had poorly fitting plexiglass windows, no plumbing, and not much electricity for space heaters. And I’d do something like it again in a heartbeat.
AS: You have a lot coming up. Can you share what you are working on next?
Carol Salmanson: In early September I’ll be installing Double Diamond in the four-person show Mesmerize at ODETTA, and I’m very excited about it. I’ll also be doing the window installation Crown Colony in the Garment District, which uses the architectural details atop all the surrounding buildings for its form.
On September 15th I leave for a residency in St. Petersburg. I’ve been wanting to visit that city for years. I’ll be studying its rich collection of Constructivist buildings along with the ornate Baroque architecture adopted by Peter the Great and built during its founding.
All photos courtesy of the artist, unless indicated otherwise