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The Sculpture is Never Finished: An Interview with Vincent Fecteau

It’s unlikely that Vincent Fecteau’s Untitled (2010) sculpture is seen the same way twice. It hangs on a peg in the gallery’s wall so that the two-sided work can be shown as occasionally reversed and rotated. With each adjustment to its display, the viewer’s discovery of the object is slightly different, exposed to new aspects […]

Vincent Fecteau. Untitled, 2010, Walker Art Center

It’s unlikely that Vincent Fecteau’s Untitled (2010) sculpture is seen the same way twice. It hangs on a peg in the gallery’s wall so that the two-sided work can be shown as occasionally reversed and rotated. With each adjustment to its display, the viewer’s discovery of the object is slightly different, exposed to new aspects of its variegated surface, imperfect acrylic paint layers of uneasy hues, traces of papier mâché infrastructure, and range of casted shadows on the flat wall behind it. While Fecteau worked on this series of what he’s referred to as “360-degree sculptures,” each awkward wall-mounted shape consisted of an arduous exercise in not only confronting the limitations of sculpture but also in determining the state of completion for these challenging and indefinitive works.

In a recent interview, Fecteau discusses his sculptural practice. He talks about the development of his work in the Walker’s collection, what he’s working on now (an exhibition of his newest pieces just opened at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin), and the exciting impossibility of making art.

Brooke Kellaway: What’s your process of invention?

Vincent Fecteau: Well, it’s basically always the same each time I begin a new work. I start with a particular gesture, or thought, or idea, and then change it over and over again until I find a place where it surprises me, where it doesn’t quite rest. I feel like I’m always trying to figure out the same thing but each time I approach it from a slightly different direction. I can’t define whatthat thing is. It’s a feeling or a sound or a song. Maybe its a kind of mood.

I think about art as a place where meaning coalesces, or maybe it could be described in terms of energy. I imagine an artwork as a fire that people gather around.

Kellaway: Why do you gravitate towards depicting it in the way you do?

Fecteau: All of the decisions are based on limitations, either personal or material. It often just comes down to what’s practical.  I do what I can with what I have. For me, these kinds of decisions are not of major conceptual significance but just one part of the bigger problem of making “art.”

I think fundamentally making “art” is an attempt at finding meaning or some sort of truth. To me, “art” is an ideal. It’s not an actual object. Objects can be evidence of an aspiration to “art” but I think “art,” as a concept, is something bigger. It’s truth. It’s beyond museums and galleries and even artists. It’s out of our reach. How we use our limited means to try and approach this truth can be very moving.

I know it sounds kind of idealized. And I know it’s hard to reconcile that with these very specific things that I make, because they have specific shapes, and they have specific colors. And they function in that way but on a deeper level I think of them as attempts at something impossible.

Works from Vincent Fecteau’s series, Untitled, 2010. Images: Marcus Leith / Courtesy Greengrassi

Kellaway: Yet to some extent they are in this constant process and energy. You can rotate them and you can reverse them. You are able to move around them and see them differently.

Fecteau: For me, that’s what makes sculpture, in particular, so exciting. It exists as a real thing. It has a very specific, finite form. But the way we move around it and the way it interacts with our bodies, our vision, is not finite. It’s always a shock, after working on these things for a long time, to see them photographed. When I see the photographs, I think: “That’s not what I made.” I recognize the photograph as having a relationship to the thing I made, but it’s a two dimensional still image of something much more spatially complex. When you move, your eyes move constantly. You never see something the way a still image does. Sculpture resists being captured or understood photographically, and that’s very exciting to me.

For these pieces, one of which the Walker has, I had the idea to try and make sculptures that had no top or bottom or front or back. It was a conceptual problem, but of course there were physical limitations. It had to hang somehow and of course there was gravity. Usually I end up finding the work kind of embarrassing.

It’s difficult to accept that these things are basically not what I wanted them to be. Of course I start with the fantasy, the hope, that they will really get there is time — but what I end up with, is at best, evidence of a decent attempt. I never feel like, “This is the piece. This really works.”

Kellaway: Because the art itself isn’t a finished work.

Fecteau: It’s evidence of a desire, maybe. I think there is so much work out there that feels satisfied with being formally rigorous or conceptually smart. But for me, that usually doesn’t feel like enough. I think “art” should aspire to be more than that.

Let’s face it, making art is practically impossible. If you look back in time and realize how few things actually hold on, it’s humbling. I find it helpful to start with the assumption that art is a virtual impossibility. Despite that fact, or because of it, amazing things can happen.

Kellaway: Of your work in the Walker’s collection, how did you ultimately come to decisions on shape and color?

Fecteau: When I decided that these particular pieces would hang on the wall, I realized they should be two-sided. But how would they be displayed? And if they would hang from the wall, how?  Each problem leads to a solution that creates another problem. The same process happens with color. Often it starts with a particular obsession. For this group I was obsessed with pink and purple.

Vincent Fecteau. Untitled, 2010, Walker Art Center

Kellaway: Why pink and purple?

Fecteau: Well, I think that they’re kind of horrible together. They are very unserious colors.

I love looking at another artist’s work and thinking, “Oh, did that person really think that those colors should be next to each other?” It’s about communicating something in very subtle ways. To me, that’s the best. “Did they really mean to do that, or was that a mistake? No, they must have meant that.” It’s so exciting, because I feel like I’m being invited into their thought process. I can feel the construction of the work, and it starts to open up.

So, I end up painting them all pink and purple, and it’s a disaster. I can’t make it work. My partner comes to the studio and says, “Oh, it’s like the Catholic advent wreath.” Which had never occured to me, but of course was blatantly obvious. It was a nightmare! [Laughs] So, then I change everything. That too looks “wrong”: the pieces lean toward a particular reference or emphasize part of the form too much. It’s this back and forth thing. And at certain points it comes down to a thought like, “What’s really ugly with the lavender color?” “Well there’s this rust color…” Then I paint it rust colored and then, “Maybe it should be a little redder” and then I put in a little red…

Kellaway: When you then arrive at this complicated, perhaps a bit disturbing, unresolved shape and color, is that an exciting place to leave it because it is in that provocative state?

Fecteau: Yeah, usually that’s when I know a piece is finished — although it never really feels so confidently finished. It feels like I can’t think of the next thing to do. It sort of settles in and doesn’t irritate me anymore.

Kellaway: Then, after making this series, what curiosities or interests led to the works that followed?

Fecteau: These pieces were really difficult.  Just the engineering, the logistics of getting them to hang properly from both sides was very complicated. The engineering of the piece started dictating the form and interestingly forced certain decisions and results I wouldn’t have come to on my own.

The size and complexity of form required so much labor that I actually at one point was hiring someone just to help me papier mâché. There is no internal structure. They are just layers and layers of papier mâché. After I finished them I swore off papier mâché. I wanted to find a way to move through ideas quicker.

I don’t know much about sculptural materials so I went to talk to a few people and decided to try plasteline clay, which is an oil-based clay that doesn’t dry. I got lots of this clay and started building some forms. I really enjoyed it.

Before I knew it a year had gone by and I was still working on the same four forms. The clay was so malleable and offered very little resistance. Every day I could completely change each one.

Eventually I realized that this could go on forever and at a certain point I needed to stop and change material. I had molds made of the clay originals and had them cast into plaster. When I brought them to the mold maker I had a very strong suspicion that they weren’t done. And when I got the plaster forms back I was sure of it. They weren’t right and needed something.

Vincent Fecteau. Untitled, 2011. Installation view of 2012 Whitney Biennial. Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins.

So I started using this stuff called Magic Sculpt, which is a two-part epoxy resin clay. I added onto the plaster forms and changed them again. I realize now, that the material I work with needs to offer a kind of resistance and that the final piece has to be worked on directly by me. I’m not that interested in the whole fabricating process.

Now I’m working on these pieces using expandable foam. The problem with straight papier mâché is that it requires a huge amount of labor just to get a big enough form to edit and cut down. Just building the initial form can take a month or more. This foam is amazing because I can build a volume and carve it, add more volume, and carve that, over and over again, within days as opposed to months. I’m thinking that I’ll be able to get the pieces to a certain point with the foam and then use papier mâché to cover and fine tune the forms.

Works in progress in Vincent Fecteau’s studio. Image: Brooke Kellaway

Kellaway: Do you ever experiment with completely different materials?

Fecteau:  No. I often have these fantasies that I’ll draw or do something completely different, but when I start working I get pretty focused or obsessed and I’m really only interested in the matter at hand.

Kellaway: Have you made works intended for a certain space, in thinking about what the experience of the object might be in a specific setting?

Fecteau:  I don’t really think about that much. I am not that interested in installation. There are ways of making the experience of viewing the objects more optimal, like better lighting, or whatever. But that feels more like marketing to me, it’s not the thing. For me it’s all about the object.

Kellaway: And that energy that the object itself is imbued with.

Fecteau:  Or I hope it’s imbued with. Actually I’m not even sure if that’s correct. I think my hope is that it points to the existence of that energy. Objects, in the end, are just a bunch of materials, but I think they can contain this sense that there is something more.

Works in progress in Vincent Fecteau’s studio. Photo: Brooke Kellaway

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