Rita Grendze: Material Exploration

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Rita Grendze installing “Susurrations” , 2013, Krasl Art Center, St. Joseph, MI

Chicago based artist Rita Grendze draws, sculpts and makes large scale installations that bring the two and three dimensional forms together in imaginative ways. She creates visceral environments utilizing mostly found materials, ranging from music sheets to textiles.

You were born in rural Manitoba, studied in the US and continued studying on a Fulbright Grant in Latvia where you say you immersed yourself in ethnic craft, specifically embroidery. What would you like to share about your artistic journey?

It’s true I was born in Manitoba and lived there until I was almost 10 years old, but if pushed I would say my hometown is Lakewood, Ohio. Those first years, in a rural community without a lot of material wealth, laid a foundation of frugality and resourcefulness brought about by need: when you are a family of 8 living on an immigrant minister’s salary the reality is that nothing can go to waste. By comparison, when we moved to Lakewood, I felt like I hit the jackpot: store-bought clothing! Multiple bathrooms in the parsonage! Grocery store less than a block from home. These conveniences allowed my parents, and by extension our whole family, more space for intellectual and spiritual pursuits. For me the biggest change in moving to the states was my immersion into Latvian Immigrant culture. It was off-putting at first, to not understand the language or know the traditions, but I was young enough, and my parents were persistent enough, to keep me involved. I grew to love the language, the songs, the connection to the earth.

In Latvian the word for symbol has the same root as the word for writing. In Latvian folk songs weavers are often referred to as writers, as authors who weave meaning into cloth. This rich imagery and symbol language is ultimately what drew me to study fiber art, to search for my own non-verbal communication. I eventually landed with embroidery, fascinated by the placement of the symbols on ceremonial garments, the cultural significance of the colors used, and the surprisingly rich variety found in such a small country. I am sure that my studio work today, still based in material study, is rooted in these early experiences.

Tell me about the body of work in your recent installation exhibition, Hunger—genesis, idea, process, material.

Hunger can have such varied meaning, from a physical manifestation of the body’s needs to intellectual longing, to an emotional statement of the soul’s desire. These ideas are vastly different, but not really in conflict, since they often team up to manifest in strange ways, such as a raging outburst in a child that does not understand what they are feeling, or an adult overindulging in food or alcohol to fill a psychological void, or even as obsessive striving for professional goals in the career minded. Hunger is the driver, the punch that can send us on a trajectory that is erratic, out of control, wildly unpredictable.

During the pandemic, once I let go of the idea that the shutdown would only be for a couple of days (that turned into a couple of weeks, then…months), I found myself longing for places and people I didn’t even know I was missing. As grateful as I was for my family’s safety and good health, I yearned to be elsewhere, to experience something new. Simultaneously, since I was still working in our local high school, I became aware of food scarcity issues in my comfortable suburban mid-western town. The more I delved into the issue, the more I realized how acutely, and how differently, hunger is experienced across Chicagoland and beyond. It was eye opening.

At the same time, the forced isolation gave me more time than ever to spend with myself. I had time to really notice the new softness in my own middle-aged belly, the wrinkles, spider veins and scars that are signs of my well-lived life. It became obvious to me that my body is changing, aging, in ways I don’t yet know how to accept.

These two ideas, hunger and aging, are meeting in the show Hunger. The installation piece, Belly, is exploring ideas of empty stomachs, or collapsing sacks, either through lack of sustenance or through muscle failure. Belly is made of grocery bags accumulated during the lockdown that have been cut apart and reconstructed into oversized vessels. The drawing series Fading Perfume is a selection of daily drawings from this same period, poignantly illustrating attempts to capture fleeting moments, lost senses, longing for meaning.

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Belly, 2021, Artlink, Fort Wayne, IN Grocery bags, staples. Photography by Sierah Barnhart
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From the “Fading perfume” series, 2021, Watercolor and pencil on Baltic birch. 17” x 17”

On your website you include two categories: “Installations” and “Sculpture.” Perhaps “installations” refer to larger scale site specific immersive forms, while sculptures may refer to smaller scale, more self-contained objects. How do you see the difference in your approach to installation and sculpture? For example, Vivisection and One Hundred signs for those seeking light?

My work that is often categorized as sculpture, is the result of a material exploration. I love to work with large quantities of stuff but find that I really need time and hands on experience with whatever the stuff is to understand how to use it. Vivisection is a great illustration of this: the piece originally was contained in a welded steel armature, but the age of the book pages, their collective weight, and the way the paper reacted to humidity made the armature obsolete. This piece really wanted to sag and droop. I don’t see every experiment as a finished artwork, but Vivisection felt like something that needed to be shared.

Once I experiment with a material and understand its properties, I file away that knowledge for future work. In the case of one hundred signs for those seeking light I was invited to create a site-specific piece in the library because of my earlier experimentations and resulting sculptures that used old books. The organization’s criteria was for me to make a piece in Latvia, using books collected locally, reacting to the space. Without my previous experiments with book pages, my knowledge of Latvian textiles and the awareness of the context of the space, the piece would not have fit as well as it does. The installations of course take a lot more planning and require a lot more help to realize, but the foundation is laid in material studies.

Vivisection, 2012, installed at Water Street Studios, Batavia, IL. 12’x3’x 1’ Photography by Jim Kirkhoff
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One hundred signs for those seeking light, 2017, installation at Latvian National Library, Riga, Latvia. Found books, graphite, metallic mylar on Tyvek. 30’ x 30’ x 15’ Photography by Krists Luhaers

Your forms seem to flow with your materials seamlessly. Tell me about your approach to material. How do you pick it, and how do you come up with your compositions? Let’s take for example your sculptures Chorister’s Guild and Mamama.

Materials have integrity, have a way of being in this world physically, but in some ways also spiritually. I react to old musty book pages differently than to new crisp ones. Pages printed with musical scores might have the same tooth, bend and weight as those in a novel, but the print isn’t inconsequential, even if I don’t completely understand what is on the page. I studied fiber right around the time many schools were changing the name and focus of the department to material studies. The practice of delving deep into the history, physical properties and application of any material has stayed with me.

I have to be honest that many of my materials have come to me by chance: someone learns that I like to work with old books and offers 5 boxes of sheet music. Someone else hears that I repurpose fabric and drops off a stack of moth-eaten blankets. The stuff has to live with me until I am ready to start a new exploration. Even then, when I have an idea of how I would like to use plaid wool or piano legs, I have to find the right balance, the right complement (materials or environment) to help the work communicate.

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Mamama, 2013, found textiles, steel plate, string. 30” x 30” x 30”

Choristers’ Guild, 2013, Found objects, sheet music 32” x30” x30”

In some of your works you are working with linear forms, such as in your Synapses series; in others you work with layers of 2 dimensional forms, as in Signs for those seeking light. Both sensibilities make me think of drawing – dimensional linear drawing suspended in the air or grid-based gigantic drawings hovering in space. What is your take on that observation and how do you see the role of drawing in your installation process?

I love that you see my installations as drawings! I draw every day. Putting marks on paper, specifically, has long been my way of “commuting” to my studio mindset, even if that commute was only conceptual (like now, when my studio is at home). The drawing process is how I process ideas. I am terrible at sketching out concrete plans, but very good at drawing out an atmosphere. In both of the artworks I was hoping to capture the idea, the immediacy of drawing in a three dimensional space, to allow the viewer to be in between the marks. The challenge has been to find the right scale and materials to make those drawings, those flat renderings, expand into space.

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Synapses 6: grief, 2020, Installed at Aurora Public Art Council, Aurora, Il. Straws, plastic tubing, surveyors cord and twine. 20’ x 20’ x 12’

Drawing also stands on its own in your work–as in your three-dimensional drawing Magda and Agnes, and your recent drawings during the Pandemic. What would you like to share about these 2 and 3 dimensional drawings?

The Magda and Agnes pieces have a special place in the development of my work. While making the two drawings, I felt like I had found a true voice. The combination of materials was a gut reaction, but continues to seem honest. Perhaps it’s because they are an homage of sorts to artists that I respect? The freedom to feel connected to disparate work, to want to channel both the control of minimalist Agnes Martin and the emotion of visceral sculptor Magdalena Abakanowiecz. I come back to these pieces often as touchstones, as reminders of ways that my processes can intersect.

By comparison, the pandemic drawing series feels a little foreign to me. Or maybe just a little too raw? As I mentioned earlier, I have drawn daily for years, but only just preceding and during the pandemic lock down did I share the daily drawings. I had to forego my own need to feel smart, to feel like there is an intellectual undercurrent in the work, and just let the watercolors and pencil marks be. I am pretty surprised at the volume of drawings I’ve made these past couple of years, when my only goal was to finish a drawing every day, because sometimes that meant just stopping. I admittedly felt vulnerable, putting work that is unresolved on social media, but I appreciate that doing so allowed me to connect to an audience I hadn’t reached before. Perhaps my earlier practice, my drawing commute, laid the foundation for this soft series of two-dimensional works, but the pandemic series served me well for over 18 months. I find myself letting this process go lately, wanting to manipulate the surfaces and try more material integrations again. It is a practice, a process, so it is always changing.

Magda and Agnes 1, 2011 sisal on found steel and graphite on paper. 30” x50” x 10”

Magda and Agnes 2, 2011, sisal on found steel and graphite on paper. 42”x40”x8”

Drawing from the pandemic, 2021, watercolor and pencil on aquaboard. 14” x11”

I am coming back to Hunger and would like to think about it again in context of your overall work. It seems to me that in this recent installation there is a shift in your work, or rather, a new synthesis of drawing and sculpture. You merge volume and linear, gravity and airiness in new ways. How do you see this installation in context of your overall work?

With this show, Hunger, and particularly with the installation Belly, I did make a lot of progress in synthesizing my processes. I had to go back and forth between three dimensional and two dimensional throughout the process: from grocery bags to strips of kraft paper to flat planes, then a slow buildup of the surface and, eventually forming into three dimensional vessels, placing in space. It was an immensely satisfying process, and very physical, which somehow seems pertinent to the message. And the message seems to have found a true audience: Artlink heard my ideas and fostered a relationship with a local Fort Wayne organization, Forward Indiana, that is addressing food scarcity in their community. It wasn’t someone from the outside coming to Fort Wayne telling them what to do, but a connection between my artwork and an organization that is already in place, knowledgeable, heavily invested, doing necessary work. I don’t think this piece, at least not in the same manifestation, would be as effective elsewhere, but I am very interested in pursuing more collaboration with community organizations, harnessing the power of art to do good.

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Belly 2021, installed as part of exhibition Hunger at Artlink, Fort Wayne, IN Photography by Sierah Barnhart

Belly 2021, installed as part of exhibition Hunger at Artlink, Fort Wayne, IN Photography by Sierah Barnhart

Belly 2021, installed as part of exhibition Hunger at Artlink, Fort Wayne, IN Photography by Sierah Barnhart

Rita Grendze is a first generation American born to immigrant Latvian parents. She grew up between rural Rosenfeld, Manitoba, Canada and suburban Lakewood, Ohio. She is the youngest of six opinionated, rowdy, loving siblings (Grendze was the quiet one). Grendze received her BFA in Fiber from Cleveland Institute of Art in 1987; her MFA in Fiber from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1994. Immediately following her graduate work, Grendze received a Fulbright scholarship and spent a year in Latvia studying symbolism in Latvian folk costume. Grendze has taught at Maryland Institute College of Art in the Fiber and Foundations departments, as well as at Jersey City University. Since moving to the Chicago area in 2001, she has worked with Redmoon Theater creating costumes and props for outdoor spectacles, has taught community workshops in Kane County and been involved with the studios and gallery leadership at Water Street Studios in Batavia, IL. Her sculpture has been shown broadly, including monumental installations in St. Charles, IL; Chicago, IL; St. Joseph, MI; Reedsburg,WI, and at the Latvian National Library, in Riga, Latvia. Rita Grendze lives, works, and adores her husband and two sons in Geneva, IL.  

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com