A SECOND-YEAR MFA student in Cornell’s Department of Art, San Diego native Robert Andrade attempts to make his work as clear as possible in order to spark a communication with the viewer. A self-professed idea-driven artist, his concepts and resulting works draw heavily from Foucault, Duchamp, Ashkin, and minimalism. Here he talks about his new work up at Mann Library, the ideas that drive him as an artist, and what life is like in graduate school at Cornell.
Ithaca Post: Tell me about your background and how you became interested in art.
Robert Andrade: I became interested in art shortly after I started college, but I’ve always been around people who made things – I come from a family of tradesmen – so I’ve always been around woodshops and metal shops. My uncle and grandfather had me helping out since I was a kid. I didn’t start taking a direction towards art until I was a sophomore in college. This led me to art school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for undergraduate, and that’s when I became more serious about what I was doing.
IP: Why did you move to Ithaca?
RA: After finishing art school, I decided a university rather than another art school would be my next step. I decided to come to Cornell because I already had the art school experience and after being in art school you become inundated with art and discussions surrounding it, everything is about art and the academics aren’t as important, so my reason to come to Cornell was so that I could focus on my academics more and on my own work at the same time.
IP: What is your main interest as an artist?
RA: Ideas. I’m just trying to get ideas out there and see what form they’ll take, which isn’t ever really certain. The material will always follow my idea, and I’m trying to create a dialogue of some sort. I’m not really trying to create anything beautiful, but rather I want people to have a discussion about what I’m doing or question what I’m doing or ask themselves questions when they look at the work. That becomes much more interesting to me, because that’s what I look for when I look at work – the most interesting art to me is the work that makes me ask questions rather than just giving everything to me.
IP: Can you name an example of this, for instance, in the new work at Mann Library?
RA: Like most starting out, I was very naïve. I went to a Minimalism retrospective in LA and was completely blown away. Before then I didn’t know art could exist in this way. I guess one reason my work has consistently maintained a minimal aesthetic is because of the impact the reductive quality had on me early on. In regards to not only (A) TOPOS, but also most of my work, it’s always very reductive in the way that it looks, but I don’t think that the overall reasoning in my work has anything to do with minimalism per se, but instead about making work that is really clear. I’m trying to be as concise as possible to communicate that most effectively.
IP: Describe the Mann Library piece.
RA: The work is titled (A) TOPOS. It is an installation on the 2nd floor of Mann Library, in between book stacks and a study area, acting as a gallery space between two functioning library spaces. It is 29 feet by 29 feet with very tall ceilings. I built a raised floor over the existing floor and built benches around a center structure which is 8 feet tall. The whole thing is painted white with small patches of green. The work is in fact there to be used. One can walk on it and sit on the benches, but it is designed intentionally uncomfortable.
IP: What’s it made out of?
RA: Common construction materials: wood, sheetrock, and paint.
IP: Where do you get the ideas for your work?
RA: I used to get ideas from other artists’ work – mainly contemporary artists – doing research on other artists and looking at what they do and saying ‘oh, I like that, maybe I’ll try that,’ and kind of picking and choosing. Now, my ideas generate more from how I experience or see others experience a form of dominance within an everyday context. I also do an extensive amount of research and reading. This is where the ideas begin to really solidify.
IP: Who are some of the influences who come to mind?
RA: My biggest influences are other artists, theorists and philosophers. The writings of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben are very influential to me. They are the ones I’ve been reading the most and have gotten me to really think about the ways that power is a part of our daily lives. As far as artists go, I’m influenced by Sam Durant, Don Judd, Smithson of course, Michael Ashkin, and if you want to go further back, I was always influenced by Marcel Duchamp, more so in terms of the way he was thinking about things … the way he approaches things has always been interesting to me, just doing something completely unexpected and really subverting the ordinary idea of what art can be. Lately I’ve also been reading a lot of biopolitical texts.
IP: Has this changed or developed in your work since finishing art school?
RA: As I’ve been working on art more seriously, I have become much more interested in getting my ideas from everyday situations and the things I see that prohibit one’s experiences—the things that effect the social as a whole –and to show the underlying power structures within our everyday lives, how they affect us on levels we’re not really certain about or that we’re even aware of.
IP: What themes were you working with in the Mann Library piece?
RA: I was doing research on architecture and landscape architecture, urban planning, and also the idea of ideal cities. I was trying to combine them in a way that would express a common thread that they share, which is a form of control. They’re all built around controlling something, whereas landscape architecture is trying to control the natural environment by manipulating nature as rational controllable decorative environment. Similarly, architecture in that way is about controlling space and the way people walk through it, or the way people move, or stay still within it.
I feel that urban planning has the highest potential for controlling people’s living conditions, such as where housing is built, which infrastructures get built and how these elements meet or don’t met the needs of the individuals who will be using them on a daily basis . This, I feel, is part of everybody’s life.
IP: There is a strong minimalist aesthetic in your work, and I would argue there is also specific reference to post-minimalism or Earth Art, especially thinking about ‘Ruined State(s),’ the site-specific outdoor piece you created this summer at DDart Enterprises. (The work consisted of five cement squares resembling a sidewalk, each square containing an imprint of a map depicting the ancient city of Rome. The piece is designed to weather, crack and become ruins. ) How do you see your work as departing from these movements?
RA: History is a big component within the work especially in Ruined State(s). I’m always using the aesthetic of what the past artists were doing in some way, but I’m also always trying to implement some element of the social as well, and that’s where I think my work takes a different turn, because I’m always trying to show not only what was going on in a historical context, but also what is going on in the present, how there are similarities between the past and the present.
IP: To what extent do you consider your work as being about perception?
RA: I don’t think my work is about perception in a phenomenological sense, but I do think that most work is about the way the artist perceives, but as far as how I’m seeing things or reacting to things, or the way my body is reacting to what is in front of me, I don’t think my work has anything directly to do with that at all.
IP: More about concept than experience?
RA: Yes, very conceptual, and as I have often been told, very coded, which I am ok with. I am interested in the experiential qualities as well, just not on the level of say, some of the Light and Space artists are.
IP: How much of the outcome of your work is left to chance?
RA: For the most part, very little. I try to really plan things out, so every aspect of it is highly thought out. I try to consider every implication and there are occasions when things happen on accident, but it’s up to me to decide whether I want to keep them or not. Even the accidents get a lot of consideration as to whether or not they remain in the final work or get taken out in the end.
IP: Can you offer an example?
RA: Yes, like in Ruined State(s), there are some things I can’t control completely. Actually with that piece most things are left to chance, because chance was built into this work. The actual construction of the piece was all very calculated, it was built to look a certain way and oriented for the space it’s in, but then after that, whatever happens outdoors with the elements is the main aspect in this work. I want it to become destroyed or taken over by the environment it is place in. I never think that the most successful accidents are by chance. I think that they’re something, as the maker, you’re consciously thinking about when you’re really thinking about the work all the time …something happens, and it’s as if it is meant to happen that way. I don’t consider this to be truly an accident, there is something else going on there that maybe you didn’t pick up on while you were making it, or you were too invested in the work to really think about it. But I never think of chance as being part of my work, I see chance as being more of an expressive kind of gesture, and I’m not into that expressive gesture within my work.
IP: How do you see these two, larger-scaled recent pieces as fitting into the development of your work as an artist?
RA: Most of the work I’ve made is along the lines of the (A) TOPOS and Ruined State(s), but on a smaller scale. I mean, the themes and materials I work with for the most part been relatively consistent. Being in graduate school has given me the opportunity to work larger because I have time to really focus on large projects. I started off making smaller works but I’ve come to work larger only because I’m able to right now. I don’t think that the scale is always the main importance; it’s just that I’m trying to work differently within my practice. It is very important to explore new ways of working. Before making Ruined State(s), I had never done an outdoor piece, and before doing (A) TOPOS I’ve never done such a large-scale work indoors. So I’m always trying to do something different within my practice to see what ideas it will generate. There is also a level of stress that I work well under, not knowing if things are going to actually work out. I am very conscious of the possibility of failing. But I would much rather fail trying to do something ambitious than to repeat something that is very safe and contained.
IP: Name an idea/movement/text you currently find culturally tantalizing.
RA: I don’t know if it’s a movement exactly, but a lot of Italian philosophers are currently discussing the idea of ‘The Commons.’ They’re trying to rethink the idea of communism and what that means, and what it means to act as a community. It’s really interesting to me because it is a hot topic everyone is discussing and trying to figure out how it can be used by trying to create a new paradigm of some sort. It is really interesting to see it taking shape and not know where it’s going. It’s also interesting to me because it does tie into my work, in terms of the idea of community and talking about the social and our experiences with power.
IP: Are there other projects on the horizon we should be on the lookout for?
RA: Nothing is certain yet, but I’m beginning to think about my final thesis exhibition, which is scheduled for May 2011.
(A) TOPOS, the large-scaled sculptural installation, will be on display on the 2nd floor of Mann Library at Cornell University through November 12th. Ruined State(s) is on view by appointment by calling 715.404.9472.