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laying down record player

A conversation with cover artist Julie Schustack


OL: What impresses me most about your work is the sheer number of conceptual levels on which each piece operates. Take “lying down record player” — it’s fascinating in it’s physicality: what is it? But no sooner do we confront the most obvious questions (proximity to the electronic source of sound makes us a part of the machine / the physical world includes invisible diagrams of the motion of sound and light in space) than we become swept up in the object’s allusions: it’s a wrecked hull festooned with barnacles, its a loom that spins grooves into tunes. Then too, we sense a gesture toward art history: the doubling of the chairback and the inverted posture and partial absence of some of the objects seems to replicate what the cubists were doing on one hundred years ago on canvas, only in reverse. Instead of gesturing toward a multi-dimensional (modern, casual) space in a two-dimensional medium by fracturing the language of that medium, you’re gesturing toward a four-dimensional space in a three-dimensional medium by fracturing that language. And so I wonder where a piece like “laying down record player” begins. Were you dreaming about Braque? Did you find a couple of old chairs glued together in an abandoned schoolhouse? Were you reading up on the physics of soundwaves? What’s your process like?

Julie: The process for building many of my pieces including “Lying Down Record Player” usually begins with a certain problem that I want to solve. I have a problem solving kind of mentality which becomes a source of fuel and inspiration in my work. In this case, the problem to solve was to make this record player play despite its position and conglomeration of unusual materials such as the spooning chairs in the piece. I begin with a problem to solve and then add even more challenges to the equation, not knowing where the piece will go and loving the adventure of finding out. I did some research on soundwaves, but my process is much more experimental, where I may have several sound-based tests happening in my studio at any given time. I love the exploration and discovery of basic science and use what I learn in my experiments directly in my piece. In this case I discovered that sound waves could travel a short distance and still be picked up by the ceramic cone forms. 200+cones later I considered the piece complete. Every cone on this piece literally represents the effort that this piece is making to achieve its function. The challenges that I set up for myself in creating the work directly affect its final form and the result is usually strange, sometimes pathetic and often absurd.

OL: Your early work involves the shape of the human body, you later work the objects created and modified and mis-imagined by the human-constructed world: an exploration of the rooms and items and devices we use every day. One thing that has remained consistent, however, is your framing. You’re partial to objects that call attention to their status as specimens, as items for study: the vitrines around so many of your pieces, the kitchen-in-a-bottle of “flytrap,” even the visible clamps holding “laying down record player” in one piece. This awareness-of-being-seen seems to be a very deep part of your work, and of your own conception of your role as artist. Has it always been a part of your aesthetic or was there a transformational moment?

Julie: I am most fond of the idea of my work being some sort of specimen. Most of the time my work directly incorporates some sort of element of science. Over the years my work has invited me to study sound, light, gravity, and algae to name a few and when my own interest in studying things can become an aesthetic element in the work, I encourage that. The vitrine invites the viewer to “study” my work in the same fashion that i enjoy studying science. In “Hearing Aid” for example I included the vitrine in order to give the object context. It becomes evidence of an object that may have been integrated in society. Without the vitrine, it remains a strange and somewhat absurd invention, but the vitrine gives it what gives it a fictional historical context as well.

OL: Your framing of objects in this way also — paradoxically? — robs them of their functionality. “Hearing aid” isn’t a hearing aid, because it’s under glass. Do you find this thinking, this sense of being once-removed, affects the way you view the ‘real’ world? the way you interact with it?

Julie: This aspect of my work is directly influenced by my upbringing. I grew up the daughter of a blind father and a mother that does not speak English, so our family had many challenges and we functioned very differently than most families. Sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, we often times adopted an absurd approach of how to solve ordinary life problems. I don’t intentionally rob my work of its function, but its an element of my work that often sneaks in and I accept its role in my work and see it as a reflection of my life.

OL: A surprising number of your Frankenstein devices have a plangency about them. They’re rendered sympathetic in a way most object’s are not (R. Mutt’s urinal, for example, is something the viewer chuckles at, or thinks about, but doesn’t identify with). But the partialness of your work, alongside the sometimes scrambled construction, creates an unlikely but unmistakable emotional engagement. How important to you are the emotions (as distinct from the ideas) of your viewers? How important are your own emotions when you look at the work of your contemporaries? Your past masters?

Julie: If a work of art can create an emotional engagement, it is a great gateway for the viewer to relate to the work. As human beings, it is empathy that really separates us from other species. Specifically, it is our ability to have empathy for another species (a dying dog for example) or empathy for inanimate objects such as a painting of a dying dog that is not seen in another species. When artwork can remind us of this and engage us in this way it helps define an essential part of being human.

OL: So why LA? What do you like about living and working there? What don’t you like?

Julie: I love living in LA because it is total cultural freedom. People often times associate LA with superficiality, but in reality there are so many different kinds of people and different social cultures here that really anything goes. I can walk around at the grocery store wearing filthy studio clothes and I won’t even get a glance. I love that kind of freedom. As an LA artist, its great to have an active art scene with many opportunities and stimulating people nearby. LA also offers a great variety of affordable housing. There are expensive neighborhoods, but there are affordable one’s as well. At this point I am sharing a 2200 ft. warehouse with another sculptor where we live and work.

OL: What are you working on now?

Julie: Currently I am working on my second “sliced” piece. This piece is fabricated 9″ slice of a bedroom, including the floor, walls, ceiling and furniture. The finished piece appears as if someone took a saw and cut out 9″ of a bedroom. Specifically, it is a fabricated slice of a bedroom in my grandmother’s house. In order to build it, I am rebuilding the furniture and walls to look as close to the actual room as possible. These “Slice” pieces that I am currently working on serve as a kind of dissection or closer look of a domestic living space and in this case, it becomes a way to capture the essence of a room in my grandmother’s house despite how the actual room may change in the future. It is becomes a kind 3D photograph of the space in which it is modeled after.

Julie Schustack (Gardena) holds a BFA from California State University Long Beach and an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Recent exhibitions include (F)Utility at Arena One Gallery and End of the World at Biola University Art Gallery. She has also curated show’s including Found Object Found Image at Greenleaf Gallery in Whittier, CA. and Breakdown at Chapman University. Her work incorporates subject matter that revolves around function or the lack there of. Complex constructions of record players, music box innards, cords and wires, vice grips and motor parts combined with delicate ceramic cones are not attempts of musical instruments, but rather reflections on the multitude of various capabilities that all people have.


Artists and artwork curated by Katie Caron; interview conducted by Katie Caron and John Cotter