Experiencing William Corwin’s sculptures may resemble opening a time capsule filled with mysterious objects made of familiar materials like sand, rope, clay and wood. By drawing on references ranging from architecture to archaeology, totems to teeth, Corwin’s sculptures resonate with archaic civilizations — removed yet urgently present. William Corwin shares with Art Spiel what brought him to sculpture, takes a look at some of his projects, and sheds some light on his curatorial and art writing practices.
AS: You got your B.A. in architecture from Princeton. How did you get to sculpture and how did your background in architecture impact your art?
Will Corwin: Initially I was petrified of my work having anything to do with spatial ideas—even when I was making art in undergrad and then in grad school at Columbia, I painted portraits, which I somehow thought were as far from architecture as possible. I wanted a clear separation between making art and work-work. I moved from canvas to plaster very quickly though, and started painting on these units that were 24” x 18”—a wooden panel with a plaster coating, perfect for a slightly oversized portrait. I made tons of those, always from life. I painted my friends, fellow artists, anyone who would sit for me. I even painted Boris Johnson back when he was a magazine editor in 2001. I started making bigger pictures: mural-size things that I would make out of dozens of these panels. In 2008-9 the Five Pointz/Funfactory in Long Island City where I had a studio was shutdown for grievous structural issues with the building, and me and my studio mate the photographer Tommy Mintz had to find a new spot. We moved up to the Harlem Studio Space and I built a rack to store all my painted panels. I looked at this multi-shelving unit with hundreds of panels stacked on it, and I thought how much better I liked it like that—all piled up with the implication that there was this hidden information that would be revealed if only you could look at these panels/tablets. At that point I started telling people I was an installation artist. Around the same time I started working at the Clocktower Gallery doing a radio show and helping out with the exhibitions and I was out at some openings with Alanna Heiss the director. She wanted to introduce me to someone and said “what do you do again Will?” and I mumbled something about painting and installation and transforming space, and she turned to this person and said “this is the sculptor Will Corwin.” So that was the answer. Obviously, as I started building shelves and stacking plaster panels, I was inhabiting space more and more with my work, and using plywood, 2×4’s, and plaster, all of which are primarily construction materials, so I was clearly channeling something from my architectural roots, and it’s not something I’m particularly scared of anymore.
AS: In a 2019 Artcritical review, “Angels for Lent: William Corwin at the Judson Memorial Church,” David Cohen describes your sculptures at that exhibition as having the appearance of archaeological “artifacts” or “specimens”. Can you elaborate on the archeological aspect in your work overall and more specifically at the Judson?
Will Corwin: When I was about three, my parents went to see the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark in the cinema, and they clearly enjoyed it, because my mother decided to tell me the story for bedtime. I made her tell it to me every night for some long period of time, and became obsessed with archeology and the Ark of the Covenant. I was able to go spend some time in the presence of the Ark in Ethiopia in 2016, which was very transformative. As for archeology, while I was doing my interview show on Clocktower Radio, I started to interview archeologists like Jill Cook and Colin Renfrew, and I have continued that project with Art Papers, in a series called “Origins of Creativity” where we discuss why people painted in caves and when human creativity began.
In my sculpture practice, I think what I get most out of archaic art, from all over the world, but particularly from the Fertile Crescent, is the immediacy—it embodies a direct use-value for art. The sculptures and depictions we see from ancient sites like Gobekle Tepe and Las Ventas are direct communication with other planes of existence, just like the Ark is “a radio for speaking to God”. The opportunity to create an altar for Lent at the Judson Church was incredibly exciting—it was in the space of worship and was activated by the congregants and the ministers. In creating an arrangement of sculpture, I wanted something dynamic like the figures in Donatello’s altar of the church of St. Anthony of Padua. I used the animal symbols of the four evangelists, the lion, eagle, Ox and human, and then played with the hazy zone between Judeo/Christian/Muslim imagery of angels, and much older descriptions of demons from Sumerian traditions. There’s a marvelous bronze sculpture of the demon Pazuzu at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago who has four wings—apparently something typical of demons — that clearly influenced Jewish descriptions of angels in texts like the prophecy of Ezekiel. The centerpiece of the Judson altar was a grouping of three of these beings—I created a pair of kinder/gentler and more angelic versions of the Chicago Pazuzu waiting in attendance on a rather fearsome scarlet Flaming Creature which was an interpretation of a Seraphim.
The Flaming Creature was meant to be an evocation of the Judson spirit, and the ministers, Donna Schaper and Micah Bucey sort of insisted I make the sculpture a processional object. They then had me carry the Flaming Creature through the church on Sundays at the beginning and end of services. I also decorated the altar with flowers for Easter. Dressing up statues for important events has been a vital practice for sculpture through all of human history but isn’t something that’s accepted in mainstream art circles in the west these days, though I think that’s beginning to change.
AS: In a 2018 Brooklyn Rail review of your exhibition “The Old Gods” at Geary Contemporary, Tom McGlynn describes your sensibility as “Art Brut tactility”. Let’s take for example your installation there, “The Old Gods” – how did you choose your historical source material, the materials, and process?
Will Corwin: I just choose sources that make me happy, and I’m drawn to those sources that utilize the most basic visual means to express the message of their image. A lot of Mesopotamian art shows a sovereign, and they’re a sovereign because they’re seated, so I like that simple gesture displaying power or energy—so one of the sources I chose was one of the famous basalt images of Gudea of Lagash, from Mesopotamia. Or the Striding monarch, one leg stepping forward, which shows motion, power, and is a simple engineering trick that allows a sculptor to make a more stable and taller statue. There’s a giant wonderful striding Tutankhamen, again at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, that I used as an inspiration. The striding monarch or god is a sculptural type that Giacometti was jazzed about as well. The Geary show had several figural pieces like that. I also used the multi-breasted cult figure of Artemis from the temple at Ephesus. Also lots of gates, wheels, crosses, and tear-shaped multipurpose hand-axes that show up everywhere in Paleolithic times. Humans have tended to stick with many of the same sculptural forms over the last 50,000 years or so.
AS: Tell me about your sculpture Teeth (2018) in that show.
Will Corwin: Teeth came about from a pair of interviews I did with two archeologists in Ethiopia—Yonas Beyene and Yohannes Haile-Selassie. They’re specialists in the oldest traces of human-like beings on the planet, going back around 4 million years or even earlier. In fact just this past fall, Yohannes published his discovery of the most complete skull of what he thinks is an Australopithecus Anamensis from 3.8 mya. Teeth come up a lot in discussions about humanoid ancestors as they seem to make up an inordinate amount of the humanoid fossil record. If you go to the basement of the Ethiopian National Museum where they have several replicas of Lucy on display, and a few other skulls and bones, it is mostly cases of teeth. I was thinking a lot about teeth and how they define our humanity. Teeth are quite fearsome objects, and they’re morbid too, along with the Freudian reading of tooth-loss. But the way they clench together and their long roots really have a wonderful aesthetic of angst but also strength. I saw an architectural subtext in that, and in addition teeth have always figured in classical decoration, at least in the descriptive title of dentil. It’s a wonderful idea of a building having teeth.
AS: Let’s go back a bit. You named your 2016 show at Geary Contemporary “Champollion”, after the precocious French decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs, I believe. You also chose to install the sculptures in the shape of an Egyptian burial ship. Can you elaborate?
Will Corwin: It all goes back to Indiana Jones I suppose. I started reading books about archeology in grade school, and my favorite was C. W. Ceram’s “Gods, Graves and Scholars,” a book my mother gave me that describes the long parade of archeologists: scientists who have decided to spend their lives carefully assessing piles of rubble and deciphering bits of incomprehensible scratching on the sides of pot sherds. It’s very far from treasure hunting and more about puzzle-solving. Champollion always appealed to me because I admired how he discovered all the mysteries of Egypt basically sitting in a garret in Paris (he did spend time in Egypt too). I liked the idea of never having to leave your home and having the universe come to you. I think the decipherer of cuneiform was the same way: that was another tale from Gods, Graves, and Scholars. So the show Champollion at Geary was all these little gods and beings I had discovered, they could be read both as beings and stories, in much the same way the Egyptian hieroglyphs are both pictographic and decorative as well as a source of information and poetry and spells. The gallery space was perfect for a large site-specific sculpture, so I decided to make a big wooden Ark to hold most of the pieces, and it could sail, conceptually, up Varick St.
AS: In her Whitehot Magazine review of that show, Sarah Corona describes your sculptures as “totem-like” which she associated with “funerary practices” and ”parallel universes”. What is your take on that?
Will Corwin: The pieces certainly have a lot of totem qualities—there’s a Virgin Mary sculpture I made that was composed of a scallop shell and a Paleolithic hand-axe. It had lots of nice layers of meaning: the shell is a symbol of pilgrimage and the object from which Aphrodite emerges, the hand axe is the oldest human tool, and in a way it has nurtured humanity much like a maternal spirit. Also, there is a famous hand-axe that has a shell fossil embedded in it. It’s called the West Tofts hand-axe and it’s between 200,000-300,000 years old. It’s the clearest evidence we have that humans, probably Neanderthals, were creative at that time, because someone back then liked the shell fossil and made a tool very carefully around it. So there’s a totemic structure of references in that piece and many of the other works in the show were similarly layered. I think part of the aim of art is a flattening of time—removing the linear progression from past to present, and this does mean that we can experience sensations and ideas from completely different planes of reference.
As for funerary, I often like to work small, and frequently the objects that were created to accompany individuals into the Hereafter are often quite portable, so I can see how there would be a sense of that. I also like to display my works in the gallery in very specific ways—in patterns or with reference to each other in formations, and objects are often laid out in very specific protective arrangements in tombs. I feel like when an artist gets to present their work in a gallery, that’s the last time they have control over how their work will be displayed—then it goes into someone’s house or collection and it’s up to that person to exhibit the work, so it’s a special moment for the artist to present their work.
AS: You are also a curator and journalist. How do you see these disciplines in relation to your art making?
Will Corwin: I think a vital part of being an artist is contributing to the dialogue of art and ideas in the time in which you are working. Some artists feel that their main focus should be holing up in the studio, that’s not me. I also went to architecture school, not art school, so when I had the opportunity to start interviewing artists, first for Saatchi Online in 2008 and then the Clocktower, and then writing reviews for Frieze in 2010, I took it as an opportunity to sort of have a one-off lesson with art luminaries as well as peers and mentors. In the end I’ve done at least 200 interviews with artists for the Clocktower, the Brooklyn Rail, Art Critical, Art Papers, and I’ve been able to spend a couple of hours talking in person with Carolee Schneemann, Ai Wei Wei, Lynda Benglis, David Hockney, Joyce Pensato or Xaviera Simmons. Again it’s a sort of flattening or slowing down of time: I can examine in minute detail the nature of human creativity as it flows past at this moment. Writing reviews and essays, both interpretive and historical, lets me organize my thinking and isolate what I’m really getting from the work of other artists. This sharpening of my thinking also helps me figure how I can say what I need to in my practice.
AS: Tell me about your recent curatorial project.
I’ve just co-curated an exhibition at the Gazelli Art House in London of seven Abstract Expressionist painters—Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Mercedes Matter and Helen Frankenthaler, called “9th Street Club.” It considers the under-recognized and fundamental contributions of women to the Abstract Expressionist movement. These artists were either in the artist’s association The Club, or they were in the 9th Street Show in 1951, or both, and they helped define American painting at the time: usually they are relegated to the role of followers of the initial innovators. That isn’t true or fair—many of them are responsible for the initial ideas, especially Matter, Fine, Krasner and Elaine de Kooning. The show, in my mind, is an offshoot of an exhibition I curated at The Art Students League this past November: Postwar Women. That show presented the work of 44 artists, mostly alumnae of The League. It highlighted the fact that the combination of the Roosevelt Administration’s Works Projects Administration in tandem and the expansion of women’s art education in the second half of the 19th century led to an unprecedented empowerment of women as professional artists in the Postwar Period. Artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson and Gwendolyn Knight received money from the government to create murals and prints. After that initial taste of empowerment they went on to have their own studios and inspire artists such as Grace Hartigan, Joyce Pensato and many others. It was a wonderful show. It got a review in the New York Times!
AS: What are you working on in your studio these days?
Will Corwin: I like that the simplest casting processes leave a side of an object perfectly flat. This blank side gives an otherwise three dimensional cast a literal front and back, or top and bottom, the interesting question being which is which? As I’ve been working with the simplest casting methods out there—sand casting and dirt casting—for the past few years, I’m making pieces in plaster and metal with this intriguing flat side. I’ve been creating high relief wall sculptures, some of which are teeth, but other forms as well. While the sand allows for a relatively high level of detail, casting in dirt produces a really mottled texture—playing with readability in the pieces is a very interesting project. It will eventually lead to room-size sculptures: floor-to-ceiling friezes. So I’m very excited about this new series of pieces.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She holds BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, BFA from Parsons School of Design, and MFA from SUNY Purchase. 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: firstname.lastname@example.org