Q&A with Resident Artist Julie Schenkelberg
Few art installations conjure up a sense of theatrics like the work of Julie Schenkelberg.
The materials are industrial-meets-household — think scrap metal, industrial paints and concrete colliding with your living room furniture. The staging, however, has plenty in common with Broadway, carrying a sense of place and narrative that’s more main character than backdrop.
The blend of industrial touch and stage production traces back to Schenkelberg’s origin story as an artist. For 18 years, she worked in theatre as a set painter — a skill she describes as “very specific.”
“There’s details and chaos” in my work, says Schenkelberg. “I was a professional set painter and that practice really influenced how I saw the physical form in space.”
There’s no doubt that Schenkelberg’s installations dominate the space they occupy — monumental arrangements that don’t shy away from scope, transforming the space they fill from a gallery into what feels like sacred, mythological ground.
The sense of fullness and occupancy in her work is partly from her experience of seeing the elements that brought a script to life on stage — the direction, the blocking, the lighting.
“I really respected how actors, directors and lighting designers brought that world into existence with very minimal materials,” says Schenkelberg. “I started to build these small installations in studio-type situations. Eventually, over time, I looked for a community that would support this strange art form that I thought I stumbled upon and realized it was just another form of expression in the art world.”
You’ve mentioned that there’s a lot of your personal and visual history of growing up near Cleveland is featured within your work. Can you expand on that concept?
I use a lot of information from Cleveland — like the visual history that’s programmed into me, one being the industrial decay surrounded by former opulence which you have here in Detroit. There’s a lot of grey and white in my work, which points to the winter in the sky and the lakes. My work is shifting into this lighter tone, which I’m now exploring more about physical things like higher consciousness and the colors connected with that. I’m using these earthly items to display this more spiritual idea, but it’s really my own construct by viewing nature, by viewing temples and other human-made structures that invoke the sacred. So, my sculptures look sort of like that and they often imitate some sacred funeral pyre type situation. It taps into the roots of my life like losing people or coming to terms with how we move into the afterlife or what we imagine the afterlife to be.
And that’s a very clear connection to the other artists in this residency Judith Supine and Lucien Shapiro — each carries a sense of mythology alongside their artistic identity. In addition, theater sets are able to communicate great deals of subtext with very minimal displays. Is there any particular message you’re trying to communicate to the audience?
I like to create that stillness that we don’t get in life. Clearly, my work is creating this artificial environment of stillness. I think it’s this distraction and it’s like a mirror for our own interior, like finding the peace in our own way. My work does do that for some people in the sense that it quiets down the whole situation and there’s so much chaos in it, but the chaos is organized in an unexpected way. The color is off. There’s this dream tone to it, so it really stops the viewer. Some people find it extremely sad, but most people find it sort of quietly comforting.
What’s interesting is a lot of times people view my work and they’re like, “I don’t know why but it’s familiar in an unfamiliar way.” I really like that twist of intellect for the brain. I like art that does that to me, too. My work is so dense and scattered at the same time, but there’s minimal work that I really like that I think does the same thing.
How much of your theatre background ends up getting carried over to your art practice today?
I have no fear of space. I walk into a space and I can envision something and I have no fear of how to execute it. I know there’s going to be obstacles and things that will get my attention during the process, but I know there’s always a way to construct it and there are people that have those skills that help me to do that so I’ve learned to be physically present in the space when I walk in. It really helps me to think outside of the framework of art and that’s what I like about it — that it continually pushes me. It’s not the TV on the wall. It’s ethereal in a sense. When I look at a space, I also want to bring that mystery in. I think lighting designers are amazing in that way — that they can bring mystery in without even putting an object there. But I’m dealing with object and I’ve just started experimenting with light instead of direct pigment, so we may see that here — we’ll see.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper