Corporeal Constructions: A conversation on body and space in an art practice

colorful art obscuring people

Sometimes, a space is just a space. Other times, it’s in conversation with what occupies it — a shifting amalgam of light and lines and openness, subject to who and what interacts with it. Artists Lindsay Preston Zappas and Sarah Jones are two Los Angeles-based artists with exhibitions on view this summer, both with a deft ability to play with the spaces they’re in.

Jones’ Tangle — Abyss hangs in the Lobby of Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles through September, while Zappas’ solo exhibition, I Forgot My Shoes, is being shown at the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (BICA) in Buffalo, New York. Here, the two caught up about their current exhibitions, how the body is used to activate both of their practices and their shared love of frenetic pattern and weaving.

Sarah Jones: I’m browsing through the images of your show that’s up right now at BICA. I really love the way you installed in the windows of the doors.

Lindsay Preston Zappas: Oh thank you! That was the biggest photo that I’ve ever done. I didn’t think much of it until we put it up, and it was larger than life!

SJ: I love the conglomeration of different bodies and the way you can’t totally understand what all is happening.

LPZ: Yeah totally… my photography always involves the body, but I allowed myself to get a bit more abstract with that piece, so it’s two images of my weavings interacting with a figure, but the images are flipped and turned upside down. The butt turns into a pregnant belly based on the orientation. And then, at the opening,  we also had performers hidden behind my weavings with hands and arms exposed, doing subtle movements. So that reinforced the fracturing of the body.

SJ: It sort of feels like a billboard but is also quite abstract. How did you decide to activate that part of the building?

LPZ: The space is in a retrofitted garage with roll-up doors (it used to be an auto shop), and the doors are often rolled up during open hours, so the doors are a part of the building that are often activated. I installed the piece on the window panes of the roll-up doors. During the opening, at one point the door was rolled up just a couple feet, and people walking up said they could see fragmented feet of the people inside the show, so it really worked well with the idea of segmented and fragmented bodies that I use in my work. I definitely was thinking about the billboard aspect as well. BICA is a newer space and in an area that gets some foot traffic, so I wanted to change it up a little and get people’s attention who may not know about the space.

SJ: Wow I can totally picture the feet scuttling about beneath the door with the images above. I love moments like that in an exhibition, they’re so perfect that you can’t plan for them!

LPZ: It’s interesting with your work too that you’ve installed similar elements in various orientations at different galleries—they have to adapt to each new space.

Lindsay Preston Zappas, Mirrored Body for a Window. Digital Print on Adhesive Vinyl. Image courtesy of the artist and the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

I love how the installation is unfixed, there is no optimum vantage point and it shifts as you experience it. Lines and forms overlap in ways that cannot be fully controlled.

SJ: Yes! Each time I create an installation it responds to the quality of the space. The chance to put work into the Ace was an interesting challenge because it’s not a blank, pristine space. The United Artists Building was constructed in the 1920s and I chose to work in the Lobby that has a romantic character to it. As visitors enter, they’re greeted with a swirling mass of organic forms that are suspended just barely out of reach. They’re forced to walk beneath it to get to their rooms. It’s the first time I’ve installed where people can only be beneath the work. It’s a cool vantage point to play with — the act of glancing up echoes the experience of looking up to the sky or up at a massive tree. 

Part of what makes me so drawn to your work is the palpable sense of playfulness, the sense that the protagonists are experimenting or exploring the world you’ve staged for them. That’s how I want my viewer to feel when experiencing my installations.

Sarah Jones, Tangle at the A+D Museum Los Angeles. Photo: Jim Simmons, Courtesy Rios Clementi Hale Studios.

LPZ: Right. Oh that’s interesting. Often my work involves a figure, that the viewer can project onto, into the world that is created. In the photographs, the figures interact with pattern and objects, but the body is always present. I never use the figure’s head or face, and in this way keep the body somewhat anonymous, and more open to the viewer to project themselves into the scene. But, you are creating environments that the viewer enters into and actually enacts in the first person — what kind of experience do you hope that they have?

Lindsay Preston Zappas, I Forgot My Shoes at Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (performance documentation).  Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

SJ: The experience I want people to have is almost hard to put words to. It’s most rewarding to see people sort of staggering around with huge smiles, sometimes people laugh, or stand looking puzzled. Kids typically get a big bang out of my work — which I think a lot of artists wouldn’t be thrilled to talk about it, but I find it incredibly validating. They’re able to connect directly to the sensation of pleasure, joy and curiosity that for adults can be hard to access. I often feel that the installation is not really complete or active until there is someone walking through it. Someone steps in, and suddenly it’s transformed into a dynamic environment as they move through it.

LPZ: One thing I get really excited about in my work (mostly when creating sets and photographing), are the subtle moments that can occur between prop and body. The way that the figure’s movements can create compositional choices with the objects surrounding it, without even planning it. These little compositional surprises can occur, and the camera is there to capture that improvisation.  I can see that also occurring in your spaces — the overlaps and shifting compositions — as you walk through.

SJ: Totally! For me I love how the installation is unfixed, there is no optimum vantage point and it shifts as you experience it. Lines and forms overlap in ways that cannot be fully controlled. When I install them, all the decisions are made on site as to where each piece will be positioned. It’s very intuitive and I enjoy leaning into the lack of control. Because they are suspended, the sculptures change in orientation throughout the day.

LPZ: Right! Often I am the model in my own work, so I am running back and forth between posing and interacting with the props and looking in the camera to see how its going. I often know what I am looking for, but there is no way to be fully outside of your own body to direct it, so much of it is left to chance.

I also wanted to ask you about pattern, because that is an element in both of our work, although I think it is perhaps coming from different angles. Where does your interest in pattern and repetition come from?

SJ: I’ve thought about that overlap we share as well. For me pattern is a way to conjure a sensation of abundance, a way to evoke a frenetic energy, a sense of lawlessness… I’m also interested in non-repeating patterns —fields of form and color that amalgamate together but consist of unique elements.

Sarah Jones. Detail of Tangle. Image courtesy of the artist. 

LPZ: Interesting, so you are thinking of it as emanating from a personal human/frenetic place? To create a visual experience?

SJ: Perhaps. It’s more that I think of pattern as a way to invigorate a bodily sensation for myself and the viewer. It seems to tap into something biologically hardwired.

Sarah Jones, Tangle – Abyss at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LPZ: I think about nature with your work, and was surprised that that wasn’t the first thing you mentioned. But I guess as humans, we are part of nature and those ingrained natural forms and patterns. That same internal energy.

SJ: For sure! Everything originates in the natural world for me right now. I’m drawn to existing patterns in nature, particularly ones that are so outrageous and exuberant that they are hard to wrap your head around. The installation at the Ace is very aquatic, very submarine. Together all of the sculptures create a dense pattern that is riffing on what might be seen on a coral reef, the abundance of similar yet individual life forms bustling together. 

How are you thinking about pattern in your work? And color as well?

LPZ: I think about pattern and color more from the vantage point of fashion and adornment — thinking about how the decoration of the body has changed over time and how that information flows through culture. For instance, how camouflage can start in nature, move to military clothing, and then be co-opted by the fashion industry. I am also thinking about consumerism and the role that objects (and fashion/pattern/color) have in creating and defining identity.

Lindsay Preston Zappas, I Forgot My Shoes at Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (installation view). Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

SJ: I love that about the camouflage — I can see traces of that reference in your show with the spotted patterns against vibrant color.

LPZ: I think we are both big fans of animal prints. 

SJ: Yeah totally! So, do you think of pattern as a skin? A way of augmenting what we project about who we are and what we stand for?

LPZ: Yeah definitely — but I do like how you talked about it as a frenetic energy. I think overtime I’ve allowed my own hand to come into the work to create more intuitive patterns and connections. So, the work is starting to feel more personal in that way and less external. In the BICA show, I was doing a lot of watercolor on paper, and started to shift that technique to wood as a way to make the frames for the weavings and photographs in the exhibition. The result was so sexy and intriguing that those wood pieces, along with a set of stools that I made for the show, became the props in the photographs. So in this way, the process itself was involved in guiding the pattern-making and props.

SJ: To shift a bit. We really bonded over weaving, even though it’s not a process I’m currently using in my work — it’s a process that I’m enthralled with. Tell me about how you started weaving.

LPZ: I started weaving in 2016 when I was up in Portland for a semester as a graduate instructor-in-residence at Oregon College of Art and Craft, (a small craft college which unfortunately recently closed). I’ve been interested in weaving and fiber for a long time, but the time I had there (and a huge loom room), allowed me the space to learn and experiment. I learned on a floor loom, but was using a lot of tapestry techniques and shoving pieces of paintings and leather in there as well. I really enjoy being a novice with things… in that you adapt to the tools and methods in ways that others who have more skill in the technique might not (all of the hard-core fiber students thought I was crazy). That’s often how I approach sculpture as well. Very wabi-sabi

In the past, sculpture has been the thing in my work that has interacted with the figure, often plywood sculptural forms, but weaving has come in to replace those in the recent work. In the BICA  show, the weavings are titled Weaving for a Body because I’m interested in that activation, and implication of the body (both my body having made the thing, but also the performative element of the work once it’s on view).

About six months ago, when I bought my first loom I called you up to reteach me — and re-trigger the crazy process of warping.

SJ: Weaving is such a physical process, you’re using so much strength in your body to operate a large floor loom (which is a giant tool). It’s very much a sculptural technique. It’s incredible as a technique to unite disparate materials, textures, color and also as a way to take useless scraps and render them useful again as a textile.

LPZ: Totally! Yeah it’s very physical. My work also always oscillates from dimensional to flat, and weavings are both 2D and 3D. I love how a weaving can compress information — thinking about the comparisons between a photoshop collage and a woven tapestry is really exciting to me.

SJ: What is so pleasurable as a viewer with your weavings is all the different materials you incorporate. They are exuberant, unruly, unapologetic. You can explore them the way one would a topographical map — there is so much detail, unexpected tactility.

LPZ: Right! And for this show having the performers retread those same pathways that I had used to create the weavings was also really an exciting moment of closing a loop. Weaving is funny because it can so easily feel cheesy or outdated, but I am also really into learning those techniques and patterns. In a way that maybe collapses past and present… compressing traditional techniques with the language of a digital screen.

SJ: In your work the figures caress and prod the weaving the way we do our screen as well.

LPZ: Ha! I remember when I first started weaving, I was a little bit shocked how much it fit in with other ideas and techniques I was already doing (a lot of sculptural work, alongside photography and digital manipulation in Photoshop). How did you start weaving?

SJ: My first introduction to weaving was with the artist Anne Wilson who would later be my advisor in grad school. I worked with her to produce a sculpture/performance she did in Houston called Walking the Warp at the Contemporary Arts Museum there. Over the course of several weeks, we made a brilliantly colored warp on a gigantic stainless steel warping board. In my graduate program at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, I was in the fiber and material studies department, but really avoided the craft at the time. There was too much pressure around it. It wasn’t until moving to LA that I picked up the process and sort of taught myself, with the encouragement of another amazing LA-based artist — Christy Matson. As a sculptor, I can get obsessive about learning a new technique and indulging in the materiality of a craft. I still weave and have a loom set up in the studio, but haven’t yet figured out how to incorporate it into my work. Sometimes working inside of rectangles or borders can stress me out a bit!

LPZ: In grad school, people used to always say (in the sculpture department) that my work was too “frontal.” I kept getting that critique again and again. And then one day I thought…”Hell yeah, it’s frontal,” and realized that was something that I could really own and work off of. I think a lot about that particular vantage point. It’s interesting that that is your fear— being limited dimensionally.

SJ: Yes I know, it’s kind of an absurd but huge fear creatively and personally — the perception of restrictions or boundaries. That’s part of why I enjoy working in different mediums and processes, I want to be free to follow ideas and attractions.

LPZ: But materials can be restrictive as well. You have to mold them and they don’t always agree with you.

SJ: That’s a good point. The materials I’m working with in the installations are paper clay and paper mache — they can only be refined to a certain extent. But I find that limitation to be exciting. The paper stays always looking a bit doughy and soft. 

I’m curious about how being in LA has shaped us both creatively. The effervescence of the city has had a huge impact on me and the agency I have. It sort of feels like anything is possible and there’s space to test things out. The community is very supportive.

LPZ: Yeah totally! I’m from California, so I’m maybe more at home here with the light and space, but it’s interesting what an effect that has on people’s work… that feeling of openness.

SJ: Yes there is the influence of the landscape, but also the influence of the culture.

LPZ: I think the landscape though also influences the culture, the openness the community has, as you said. That openness allowed me to start my art magazine Carla (Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles) in 2015, and it was welcomed straight into the art community here, which was really amazing (as someone who had only been in LA 2 years when I started the magazine). The reception and space that I felt was open to me felt unique to this city. I don’t think it would have been the same response in New York for instance.

SJ: At this point, it’s hard to imagine LA without Carla! The publication has amplified the level of conversation in the city, and also done a lot to cultivate a sense of community. I really admire how fearless you’ve been in launching such a bold project. What are you working on right now? What’s next?

LPZ: I’m definitely excited to get back to the loom and start weaving again after my show closes. I am also curating a show called Biomorphism and the Body that opens in October at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I’m also the new Arts Correspondent for KCRW and am doing on-air segments and a weekly newsletter, so that’s been keeping me busy as the fall season ramps up. And you have another show coming up as well, right?

SJ: I’m participating in the third edition of Object Permanence at Casa Perfect here in LA, opening late September. It’s a quarterly group show curated by Emma Holland Denvir and Leah Ring that highlights the intersection of sculpture and design.

Header Image: Lindsay Preston Zappas, Painted Props (Hand Symbols). Digital photograph in painted plywood artist frame, 31 x 41 inches, Edition of 3. Image courtesy of the artist and the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

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