5 February - 12 March 2022

February 12
1:00 - 5:00

Pollock Gallery

Mon, Wed, Fri
1:00 - 5:00 

6116 N. Central Expressway
Dallas, Texas 75206

Digital Exhibition Catalog
James Sullivan | Thinking Sculpture

February 5 - March 12 

Opening Reception: February 12, 1-5 p.m.

Exhibition Images

Elizabeth Mead
Immateriality: Requiem for a Material Wrapper
Matthew Whiteneck Filters, Functions
Marius Lehene A Slight Looking Away


James Sullivan Biography




db: Let's start with the basic question about how people might think of a studio being chiefly a place for fabrication or making. I don't sense that you think of your studio in this way.

js: We have a history of images of artists working that has sponsored a myth of what the studio is. For sculpture, we often think of it as a place of manufacture. And certainly we think of it as a place of inspiration. But it is much more a place for thinking, for experimenting, for failing with those experiments, for having things not work out the way that you thought.

I used to have a rule that if I had an idea of something that I wanted to make, I would never be able to make it for three years, because I didn't have the stuff I needed. That is, I didn't have the thoughts or even the sensations that I needed to actually make that idea.  And so, the studio is this place where you set up circumstances so that you can watch them happen.

I tend to keep a full and messy studio. I like to bring a lot of things in, because I like to see things out of the corner of my eye, where I'm really not looking at them straight on. Out of that, lo and behold, objects get made somehow, which is always a little mysterious. The studio is a place of life.

To be able to work with things, you have to be able to see them. You have to to see how you respond to them, to see what I call their 'ordinary life'. That could be in the case of materials or objects that you're working with. In a funny sense, you organize the studio almost by laying things out row by row, by row, but not in an organizational sense. You have to put them in different circumstances to be able to see them. And when I say 'ordinary life', it's how things sit,it's where they want to rest. But it's also other sensations like how they smell. (The studio here often smells of straw and moisture.) It's also how things sound. This studio has a very particular kind of sound, which in a sense lets you know where you are in the space. You can almost navigate by sound and smell. And that's very important to the situation that you're working in.

The studio is a place where you don't just gather things, you gather sensations about things. The evolution of a work, the kind of investigation that it involves, is to slowly organize those sensations. In the process of working, you're often leaving things idle for a long time so that you can actually see where they want to go, what they want to do. You're trying to organize sensations so that you can investigate them, so that you can feel them and feel what they're like. Then you can make decisions about them.

db: With regard to making and remaking of relationships, or setting up a relational exchange - would you say more about that?

js: The psychologist, J.J. Gibson, came up with what he called a theory of affordances: how certain things, interactions, configurations, or relationships, afford, or give an opening for, a type of experience or use. I think about that very much in the studio. If you have a group of objects, if you bring things or materials together, you're then beginning to investigate their relations—essentially their affordances. How they talk to each other, just what you can do with them. Can you stack one on top of the other, but not go the other way? What kinds of relationships get set up? You're trying to capture the relativity of things to other things while you're working. And then you're looking for that opening and trying to jump through that opening.

db: What kind of activations do you see happening in this work?

js: What does it mean to ‘jump through an opening’? That sounds like a bodily action, a performative action. In fact, that's very much one of the things that happens in the studio. Is not just the fact that you're putting object X next to object Y. Maybe you need to walk to the back of the room to be able to do that. Or you have to bend in a certain way, or you do this one action again and again, and again when moving something from here to there. You become very aware of this performative action in relationship to the objects, which is at the work’s core. It's a natural relationship.

I like to think of the idea of 'architectures of the body'. For example, that the stool I'm sitting on requires a certain performance from my body. I can sit on this stool. I can stand on it. I might, if I was able, do a headstand on it, but there are other things that I can’t do with it. So when you're working in the studio, you're also setting up a performance within its space and against the objects that you're thinking about and working with.

There was a point maybe about six or seven years ago, when I was doing work in Lyon, France with a group of students. Working with dancers and choreographers, I finally became aware of how much any activity, like going to the grocery store, was an aspect of performance. It was how you inhabited a space and it was how you inhabit your body.

db: Are you describing making as a performative action?

js: The act of making is a performative act. It's a way of inhabiting both the work and your body. You become increasingly aware of how you are doing this. You structure your actions while you're working as though you're a performer in a certain circumstance. That activates the work and then the work reflects it. We can think of making as a formalization of a performative act. It's a performance of making, but it's also an inhabitation of the work itself.


db: Let's talk about the assembly of objects you refer to as 'collections'? How did you come to this work and how do you actually curate them?

js: Over a long period of time I found that I was collecting things, not in the sense of a curated collection, but rather, I was just picking things up that interested me and I was holding onto them. This started during my time while teaching in Taos, New Mexico each summer for about 20 years. Every morning, early, my colleague and I would take walks. There were maybe three routes we took. On these walks, we would pick up stuff: rocks, pieces of plants, wood. One route was through an old sawmill area, and we would just pick up simple pieces of wood. For ten or fifteen years, we covered the same territory repeatedly, yet each time there would be something that would appear that I had never seen before.

What I found interesting was how something would come to my eye. It was very much a sensation that my eye was actually looking for my hand, because these were mostly things that I wanted to touch or hold. Holding was a way of seeing. There was an interplay of things jumping to my eye so that they could jump into my hand. Over time I accumulated a lot of different things, so I had to put them someplace. I kept them on shelves, or I'd lay them out on the porch, so I could see them. These assemblies were not an organized collection, per se, but rather a history of a place, a history of time, a history of a process - a performance of taking things and moving them from one environment to another.

Collecting is a process where things are noticed by the eye. They're noticed by the eye, based upon all sorts of physical circumstances -- like how tired you are, or the light that day. From the eye, they go to the hand, because the hand wants to feel what the eye sees ... the hardness or softness, the heaviness. Then there is a process of displacement, which we could call kind of 're-siting'. Within that natural site, they were more or less visible. By displacing them, you make them extremely visible—you show them. You bring them into their own, and new terms appear. They begin to talk to and react to other things in a way they couldn't before.

A lot of that re-siting means making 'sub-sites', particularly using normal architectures - like tables, benches, and chairs. If a rock is lying on the ground, and I take that rock and put it on a table, the rock is going to come to a different point of rest on that new site of the table.

What I'm describing may sound a little bit too serious. because, as I lay things out on the table or place them in cabinets, this is a kind of play for me, almost a linguistic play. Each time they are set up, different things would end up next to each other. There was no one organization. And I was also materially altering and remaking objects in this collection. For instance I might have a stone, and then also make that object in sheet brass, folded to look like it, to place beside it. Or I might rebuild the stone in the computer.

When showing objects in a collection, I am also inviting people to play with them, and to be surprised. It is fun to do; interesting to set up; but it is also intriguing once viewers realize that they can move things around too.

For example, you could have two things that seem almost alike, but were totally different. One was heavy, one was light, so that your body would be confused. There is a sense of playful confusion -- a word game played with objects--so you aren’t at all certain what they are anymore. And in the cabinets, each drawer you would open would present a different configuration of play.

db: If we were looking at the drawers right now and I were to ask "What's going on in this drawer?" or "What word game might you be playing here?"

js: Well, we might open a drawer and it's all things I call 'roundish rocks'. When opened, they are instantly quivering and making a certain kind of noise. Yet, there might also be a couple of balls of twine or yarn in there -- roundish things that are more stealthy and quiet when they move around.

Sometimes there is just a strict formal organization of categories, as in: this is all of the stuff that I found that looks like this, or this is 'hard versus soft', or these are things that are shiny. Or there's another drawer of what I call 'stomach mushrooms' which are dried up puffballs that look like stomachs.

There are also drawers that have instructions -- words that were given to me or that I found on a piece of paper, or diagrams I might draw. I refer to these as 'instructions for sculpture'. If you open them, they tell you certain things that describe an object or experience that doesn’t exist, but might. In this way, each drawer would have very different sensations, sometimes more organized, sometimes less.


db: Your work as a sculptor is probably best known, yet you have also been working in graphic media throughout your career.  Just how did printmaking enter your artistic practice?

js: I came to printmaking in the 1990s. Originally, it appeared to me that it might be a bridge between my practice of drawing and my practice of sculpture. In a sense, it was a translation of a drawing onto a metallic surface that you were physically acting upon, that you were shaping and etching. It was extremely appealing and felt very natural, both to how I drew and to how I made sculpture. Ultimately, I came to view printmaking in two different ways, which reflected different aspects of my work.

The first way - which is probably the most original sense of printmaking, is the idea that you are making a reactive arena with acid or other chemical, on a metal surface. It is based on the reaction itself, between the acid and the metal, and not unlike making a patina on a surface. The second way that I began to think of printmaking was in a more analytic form - as a record, or even a residue, of an analytic process in my way of making sculpture.

db: What do you think the significant difference is between what you are calling the ‘reactive’ and the ‘analytic’ methodologies in printmaking, and in what way are these two processes corresponding to, or mutually reinforcing ?

js: Each method reflects a very different way of having an image appear on the plate. The reactive way was parallel to the way that I would model a figure at the time, working in straw and plaster to build up a bundle or mass that would slowly take shape in a form that I was interested in. The way I worked with acids was equally direct and intuitive: through spit bite, where you directly attack a plate with acid; or through sulfur tone, where you much more gently apply a wash of sulfur and oil on the plate. The image would form, over time, within the reaction of chemical and plate, much the way, in my figures, the image would form through the successive layering of material.

When I changed to a more ‘analytic’ method, it was because I was beginning to use certain tools, particularly digital tools, to look at natural forms that I had collected and that I was interested in transforming, particularly in scale. I was interested in translating them into large scale castings. To do this, I had to produce patterns and forms, and I had to have some way of slicing the form into layers, blowing them up in the computer, and then reassembling them. That led to a whole series of linear drawings that were visually quite interesting.  They seemed to afford the opportunity to make a  parallel construction in printmaking, using a photo-etching technique. Once again, I was working  with exactly the same forms and ideas that I was using for sculpture, but with a very different method. In each case, printmaking was an integral part of sculpting--it wasn't something that was separate or secondary. It was a way of working out ideas in a different matrix, in a different method, that were the same ideas that I was trying to work out three dimensionally.

db: How did the analytic prints evolve to be so linear?

js: The first prints that I would refer to as analytic were the series of prints that recorded the making of Bulbous and Loaf, which were two large cast iron pieces. Most recently, it's a process that's been involved in the making of the Red Cut series.

The analysis takes place somewhat procedurally, first from a scanner, which throws a line across a surface--very much like the line of Red Cut. It also reflects the way I manipulate forms in the computer, which gives me this absolute line that I then try to replicate within the printmaking process. I can achieve a very, very precise line, which begins to be less of a line on a surface and more like of a piece of wire floating in space.

There was this constant drive to try and make the line more absolute, to both reveal the form more sculpturally, more analytically, but also in a way to make it more ambiguous and more visually confusing. The absoluteness, the purity of the line, is spatially ambiguous. It's much harder to see the form of the image itself, even at the same time you're convinced that you're dealing with a three dimensional form.


js: I think of this thing that I do in the studio as 'doing sculpture', rather than 'making sculpture'. Doing sculpture involves thinking through things. That means: thinking through materials, thinking through body sensations, thinking through the tools that you use, and thinking through the things that are you.

Sculpture is very specifically a transformative discipline, a transformative act. We could think of it as moving something from one state of being to another.

db: If sculpture fundamentally involves transformation, what is this range or scope? What is being transformed to what?

js:It could be in terms of a material transformation, like the process of molding and casting -- taking something from material X to material Y, which has very different properties and fundamentally changes how it is attached to your body, or to the body of the viewer. There are also transformations of site and circumstance. We've talked a little bit about this idea of displacement, of moving something into an environment where it might be a little uncomfortable. Transformations of scale are also important because we orient ourselves quite differently to size, and behave differently. Transformation on all of these levels is at the heart of what one is doing when one is doing sculpture and allows the viewer to see something anew.

db: Your description of doing sculpture sounds elemental, like the forces of physics or shifting material qualities. Do you think about doing sculpture as a form of physics?

js: We could think of transforming the state of objects in terms of elemental physics, because physics is about how something behaves in the world, it's assembly of forces and how those forces interact. Something is heavily at play in one circumstance and only minor in another.

An idea that I ran into very early, studying elementary mechanics, is idea of the 'free body diagram' - a drawing that would try to identify all the forces, both obvious or not obvious, that act on an object. Just as you know that a rock has weight, the earth has a role to play to hold that weight up. There's a thing called the 'normal force', which is pushing up, which we don't see. The table on which the rock is placed, is an expression of this normal force. That relationship is going to be quite different if the table is made out of steel or if it is upholstered. It's a different articulation of physics.

We could think of physics in terms of forces or a set of resistances. Objects really want to be just as they are. Things want to be just as they are. To move them from one state to the other, you have to be aware of their resistances -- sometimes their resistances to your body, sometimes their resistances to the circumstances of the world. Since birth, we are constantly learning about these resistances, and constantly learning about the materiality of the world and the possibilities of the world. We've been assembling that knowledge. Broadly, that's how we learn about our body. We learn about the world and we learn about our body. All of this is activated in the act of 'doing sculpture'.


db: The word technology might suggest digital or electronic technologies. But there's a longer trajectory that you're talking about here, from primitive, and even the technology of the hand to actual digital or CAD technologies. In addressing your notion of 'tool thinking', how do you think of technologies as both as tools but also as transformative agents of understanding?

js: What I call, 'tool thinking' not just a way of making something, but it's a way of knowing something. The history of sculpture can be seen as successive transformations of technology, not one replacing the other, but stacked on top of each other.

db: How exactly does the tool know the material?

js: Tools have very specific applications to material. For example, the axe knows wood in a very different way than the table saw knows wood. If all one has is an ax, your knowledge of wood is different than if one adds a table saw and vice versa. If we took away the ax and had only the table saw, we wouldn't know anything about the curve of wood, or the importance of grain - that curves were within the realm of wood.

I'm very interested in how a technology, how a tool shapes your knowledge and experience of things. Some technologies I use are incredibly rudimentary-- I'm back there with the cave people. Others, like digital tools and scanners and printers, are extremely sophisticated. Each is a different way of acquiring and transforming information, of moving information from one state to the other. This results in very different objects and experiences and knowledge for me as a sculptor, but also on the part of the viewer.


db:Your work does not seem to 'image' the body, but rather appears more as an imagination or evocation of a body. Perhaps this is about things known internally. Is that so?

js: I like to think that at some point when I was building my figures, I began to think of them from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. If we think about them as an image or as a representation, that way of thinking places you on the outside - on the other side of the surface. Where I would like to place the viewer, where I would actually like to be, is on the inside. What does it feel like to be a body. What does my body remember? And then how does that begin to appear within this process of construction or making?

db: What about the notion of effigy and the idea of memorializing a body?

js: I've always been quite interested in the funerary aspects of sculpture and sculptural practice. One of the things that that led me to the funerary was to conceive of the figure more along the lines of an effigy. An effigy is a stand in. It's a replacement. If we think of the brutal sense of somebody burning an effigy, they're not burning somebody, they're burning a stand-in to which they can show their anger or hatred.My idea of building a figure, particularly in the materials I use was not to make a 'figure-image', but more to make a 'figure-replacement'.

The idea of the effigy, particularly in its cruder forms -- things like scarecrows for example -- also implied a looseness of construction. In that sense the effigy was an armature for experience and an armature for sensation. It wasn't a picture of sensation or a picture of experience, but maybe just a model.

Effigies are often memorials --  at least that’s one of their functions. Memorial is a very interesting word because it suggests something is gone, but it is actually a process of 'enlivening'. To memorialize is to enliven something, it keep it in your mind, in your experience and your world. Even though it may refer to events that are past, or realities that are passed, or even individuals who have passed, they are still right here with you. That's an important function of sculpture -- the enlivening physical presentness of sculpture.

db: Let's talk about construction, about armature and material and the more rudimentary actions and activations involved in doing sculpture.

js: I come out of the tradition of modeling where you are shaping a plastic material, and recording a gesture. Modeling is dependent upon surface and surface manipulation. When I began working in straw and plaster, I wanted much more -- I wanted something to be there in front of me and with me all the time, not just when I was working on it. I didn't want to have to wrap it up, uncover it, and wrap it up again. I wanted it to be right there in my space.

In the way that I work: bundling materials by wrapping them around in armature, the armature becomes the first figure--its base state. The armature sets up the geometry and it sets up the premise of a gesture. It doesn't necessarily describe the gesture, but sets up the premise.

If we set up an armature for a figure that's leaning forward, then in the process of working the figure will respond differently due to its own weight and forces. The lean-forward could be a tentative gesture, almost a frightening gesture, right on the edge, but it also could prompt you gesturally to put its foot out, to help support it. In this way, the armature is propositional. It can't be complete. It can't already describe everything that you might add to it because as you work its basic physics change.

The armature sets up the physics of what you're going to do and, in the process of making you respond to its changing situation. The way that I work I add, but I also do a lot of subtraction. At times, whole sections of things will be cut off and reassembled. And that's part of this response to the proposition of the gesture. And this appearance begins to gain life -- to be likely – as it gets configured and reconfigured, so that it's actually moving, and almost dancing in space.

The construction process also allows the armature to keep reappearing on the surface. There are fragments of an armature that reappear, sticks that come out, parts that are added on, so you can build an armature on top of the figure that already has an armature.  You're reminding the viewer of the internality of the figure. That's an important process.

db: How do the smaller figures or larger fragments relate to this dynamic? How does this relate to questions of scale?

js: The different scales that I use in my work have different roles in describing what it means to have a body, what a body feels like and the sensations of it. The small figures have a very particular role, because they're not 'small figures' in the sense of models-of-something-larger. They are the most propositional of my work, in that they often appear incomplete. The clash between the material gesture and the figurative gesture is at its most extreme. I have the sense that they're literally coming into being in front of your eyes. The small figures seem to form themselves in the way that memory is assembled or the way that we compose a dream from various fragments that somehow becomes likely as a story or event.

In the small figures, this idea of likelihood and livelihood -- something coming into its livelihood -- is very important . And it's one of the things that makes it a very delicate process of working because my mind wants to go further into that livelihood. I want to describe it more fully than I should. One has to wait and look and allow the figure to come into its own being, before you try to force it one way or another.

db: Besides size, what are the significant qualities between the large and small figures?

js: I always build my life-size figures as 'my-size', so that while I am working on them, it is like being in the room, against an Other. It's not that it’s a mirror, but rather, it allows me to feel that body and work on it very tactilely. I sometimes like to work when there's almost no light so that I can't see what I'm working on but I can feel its presence, how it's within my space and how I have to react to it.

The idea of Other as presence is an important aspect of these figures, but it also has to do with the internal dynamic of how we know the body. We don't just know the body in a normal ‘gravitational’ space. We have other sensations, like when we're dreaming or half asleep. We might feel ourselves outside of gravity, almost as though we're floating. Or we might have this sensation of what it means to be inverted -- I don't use the work 'upside down' but rather, inverted --  as a correlate to your world being inverted. As if for some reason, everything is turned over and not right. That's a very uncertain sensation of the world. There is also a bodily sensation in the idea of collapse, or pulling oneself into an almost instinctive protection -- pulling oneself into one's body. The large figures sometimes describe these states, these gestures that are not so much gestures of action, but gestures of feeling.

db: What do you mean when you describe: "holding the body that we know as held."

js:To me, this is one way that we know others: we know the body by how we hold it -- the way that we hold a body where we're not thinking about hands or feet or noses. We know this body as a full thing, as a full sensation of body. My large fragments were always meant to be full, never part. There's nothing incomplete about them. There's nothing that suggests that there needs to be another part. That's an important thing to search for when working: a sensation that something is complete a whole unto itself.

If the figures are materially heterogeneous and constructed, they're also bodily heterogeneous. One figure can contain four or five different fragments that tie to a sensation, or could tie to an action, or even many actions. They are mashed up into what appears to be one thing that is, in actuality, improbable.

This is very much our battle of life. This is how we know ourselves. We know ourselves through fragments of experience. We don't know ourselves through one continuous narration. And we know others through fragments as well. We see their different aspects at different times. We see different sensations. We see how they act when they're confident, when they're afraid, when they're in motion, when they're at rest. And these things are all part of what we know of them, but it needs to be assembled somehow. This is something that I very much wanted to capture in the figures.

We could say that the body is kind of a constant narration of lived life. You see it when you see anyone, at any one time. You're seeing all the way back through this lived life of experience. The question is how do you capture that within a single existing image?