In the Studio – Abigail McNamara

Though we aren’t having an official First Thursday opening tonight, October is host to an exciting project here at Duplex! This week begins the time based installation of Abigail McNamara, we invite viewers to come through during the month to observe the artist at work and the evolution of piece (her schedule will be posted if you want to see her in action). Please mark your calendar on November 6th for the opening reception and to see the completed space!

A few weeks ago we were able to sit down in her studio to discuss her installation at Duplex as well as her previous work.

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Duplex: Tell us a little bit about your background.

Abigail McNamara: I grew up in a little mountain college town, Missoula, MT. When I was eighteen I moved to Portland, and I’ve been here for about six years now. I went to Lewis & Clark College and I took my first art class there as a freshman.

D: Were you an art major at the time?

AMc: No, I was undecided. I remember thinking at 18 that I was too old to become an artist, like my chance had already passed me by. But that wasn’t true, of course. I began by studying drawing. A lot of my work was more representational and figurative, but even at that time I was very interested in nature and the natural world. Depictions of animal and plant life were coming up in much of my work. Pattern and detail were prevalent early on as well. Although my work looks very different today than it did then, I can easily follow the threads of these themes into the sculpture and installation work that I do now.

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D: Tell us a little about the installation at Duplex.

AMc: This one is going to be very different. Everything that I make is time-based in nature; all of my working methods involve these detail-oriented and repetitive tasks. With each new piece I like to make my own craft, something that’s very meditative and regimented. I love getting lost in that process. This piece is going to make that process much more public than it has ever been. If you look at my finished work you can see that it’s very laborious, that it’s one tiny thing building upon another. By inviting people to come in and watch this process over time, that slow expansion of the work will be much more central to this installation. And for me this brings into focus the ideas of growth and decay.

There are a lot more unknowns going into this project because I want to leave space for things to evolve. I want to allow my work and my process to respond to my viewers as well as the architecture of the space. All of the walls in the space are very distinct, so I think I’ll be creating three or four distinct wall drawings. I call them drawings because the first renditions of this idea were done on paper. But they could be anything you want… sculpture, installation, painting, performance. There’s a little bit of everything in this piece.

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D: What materials do you plan on using for the installation?

AMc: It will be almost entirely imitation gold leaf. I’ll also use some joint compound to play with sculpting the wall itself. Much of my work is inspired by my material. That is always a good place to start for me. The materials that I am drawn to have an intense tactility and fragility, which is one reason I chose gold leaf. Gold leaf is also really fun to work with. I love applying it (with adhesive) and then brushing it away to reveal the underlying pattern. There will be a lot of gold dust floating around!

D: What path led you to time-based installation, especially one that was open to the public?

AMc: I started working on the gold leaf drawings on paper about a year and a half ago. I made some of these pieces (from my series All that glitters, 1-12) at a residency called Grin City Collective. I had the opportunity to share them at the end, to get some feedback from other artists. It was mentioned that they seemed trapped by the rectangular page. What would happen if I let it just keep going and followed that sprawl? This inspired me to work on a larger scale. I wanted a space to show the larger drawings, but I knew that the installation component would be so time-consuming. The creation that precedes each piece is so inherent to the way one understands the completed piece; it made sense to share that process with the public.

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D: Speaking of sprawl, you have these patterns that are planned suburban developments, cul-da-sacs and such. Do you have imagery as a base to start with?

AMc: I’m still playing with the exact images I want to use, but there are two facets of this sprawl idea that intrigue me. One is the sprawl patterns that you find in natural growth and life cycles and the other is that inorganic human sprawl. What I find particularly interesting is how those two processes reflect one another. I’m looking for patterns that are straddling that line. Part of illuminating that blurred line has to do with the imagery I use and part of it results from how I apply the pattern to the wall.

Right now I’m looking at maps of suburban sprawl as well as visualizations of data. I’m looking at data on population growth over time. And this one here is a binary code. I’m not knowledgable when it comes to technology & computers, but these patterns are so interesting to me because they are such an important, although nearly invisible, part of my life. I’m researching different ways that data is stored, where it’s stored, and the patterns that emerge from those systems.

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D: In the month of October you will be installing as part of your residency at Duplex. What do you hope for in this first month?

AMc: I hope that people are interested in engaging with me while the work is in process. I think it can be hard to bridge that gap between the working artist and the viewing public, so it would be great if there is a certain group among my audience that is interested in experiencing the evolution of the work.

I anticipate learning from the space and connecting with it in a way that can only result from working in it over a period of time. While the majority of my past work is site-specific, I usually get a look at the space months in advance and then I make something that is intended for that space. And then I’m rushing to install everything in one week, hoping that my initial understanding of the space aligns with the work I’ve created. With this installation I’ll be able to get to know the personalities of the walls, how the light moves through the space, and even how my ideas and moods evolve throughout a month of work. I hope that all of those time-based shifts in thought and understanding come through at the end.

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D: Can you tell us a little bit about this last installation, Ritual 660’, you had at the Portland building?

AMc: Everything that I’ve made in the last few years has a strong relation to pattern and to the ways that humans create patterns. With Ritual 660’ I wanted the installation to relate strongly to the building. One of the ongoing patterns I discovered was the population of the building, the movement of that population and how it changes over time. I observed the building entryway for a day, counting everyone coming and going with a counter in each hand, clicking every time someone came in or out of the building.

photo by Dan Kvitka
photo by Dan Kvitka

D: That’s a pretty public, almost performative piece.

AMc: Yeah, it was. And the install was pretty involved too. People were able to see the piece evolve over the span of a week as they came to and from work. With Ritual 660’ there is a central idea of bodies in motion and bodies in groups, and how those bodies relate to each other within a space. It certainly relates to this installation at Duplex. Ritual 660’ examined these swelling and shrinking movements in one specific building on a specific day, and at Duplex I will be examining similar movements, but on a much broader, macro scale.

See more photos here. 

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