Shari Mendelson’s Ancient Forms and Modern Matter
Could you explain the typical, physical process of making your sculptures?
I start by looking at images I have taken of ancient art or drawings that I have made from these photos. I rummage through my collection of plastic bottles looking for the correct convex or concave shape and begin the process of building the form. I then slowly cut and hot-glue pieces of plastic together trying to get a form that captures the essence or spirit of the photo or drawing that I am looking at. It is not a linear process — I cut parts away and add other parts. Sometimes the pieces take on a life of their own and have little to do with the original inspiration, sometime they are very close to the original. All the while I am sketching as I try to understand and figure out the form. When I am happy with the form, I use materials called “Magic-Sculpt’, “Magic-Smooth” and/or layers of pigmented acrylic medium to build up a surface and make everything physically hold together.
Your pieces in the current exhibition are unique in terms of material, yet the average viewer might not know that the sculptures are made of plastic and glue. Is there significance in your use of the everyday material? Do you try to keep the material of your work ambiguous?
I want my pieces to reveal themselves slowly. Although I refer to glass and/or ceramic, I don’t think of my work as trompe l’oeil. But I do enjoy the ambiguity of not knowing exactly what one is looking at. I want the viewer to look closely and have that looking be rewarded by the revelation that what they are looking at is not perhaps what they originally thought. It is not always so evident in photos. I feel like my work is only successful if the material looks transformed. Through the transformation process, our trash turns into a piece (hopefully) of value. This transformation of ideas of value is important to my work. The use of discarded plastic is a political and ethical choice. As an environmentalist, I’m horrified by the amount of trash and disposable plastic that we, as a society, consume and have no proper way of disposing of. I’m not using enough discarded plastic to make a dent in the big picture of our environmental, plastic disaster, but I feel like at least I’m not adding to the problem.
Your pieces in the show clearly resemble forms of specific Ancient Greek vessels, some appear similar to an amphora while others modified forms like loutrophorus. Can you speak about this association with Greek forms? Are the Ancient Greek forms unique to this show, or are they reoccurring in your practice? Do you consider the practical functions embedded in the different forms?
I have been working on this group of vessels, animals and figures for the past ten years. I usually look at Greek forms as well as Roman, and Islamic forms. Usually the pieces that I am looking at are made of glass or terra-cotta. What interests me about these pieces, in addition to their beauty, is what they reveal about the time they were made and that connection to the continuity of the making of objects. The fact that these pieces were usually functional, and now are decorative objects/sculpture, is interesting to me as my materials also start as functional pieces but the materials get transformed into non-functional sculpture. The practical functions of some of the pieces that I’m interested in, such as mold-blown glass forms, were the beginning of glass being used by common people rather than just the elite. I’m interested in those issues of class that the ancient work embodies and depicts. Our plastic bottles, with their embossed patterns closely echo the forms of bottles of the past. There is a wonderful humor and wit to the forms and details of our modern packaging — the details often mimic ancient Greek motifs.
What inspires your work the most?
Whenever I need inspiration, I go to a museum (often the Metropolitan) and wander the halls. Something always jumps out at me and gets me very excited to go back to the studio and get to work.
Your sculptures consider ancient forms, yet they are rendered in, arguably, the most modern material. With this discrepancy, ideas of consumerism and contrasting lifestyles inevitably come to mind. Are there any conscious metaphors or themes in your work?
We are the same as those that came before us. We think we have evolved — perhaps that we are better — but I don’t believe that. We are them (the ancients) and they are us — using the latest technologies, digging our own grave, and being enthralled by beauty.