A conversation with John Greig, Jr.
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with John Greig, Jr.
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
ART SYNC: AN UPSIDE-DOWN WORLD
A conversation with John Greig, Jr.
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain, 2022
Elizabeth Johnson: Does your experience as a welder, cabinet maker, foundry technician, mold maker, and tombstone setter/cutter dovetail with studying at PAFA, and with your art making today?
John Greig Jr.: My basic understanding of various tools or processes certainly has influenced my work, and pushing these abilities drove a portion of my artistic exploration. With Subterranean I’ve been less tool intensive, more direct and simpler. Much of the work is done with just a sanding block and a straight chisel. My building mind still solves technical problems, but the making is more of a playful process.
EJ: Are Constantin Brancusi and Rachel Whiteread important influences?
JG: Whiteread defines a space we roam freely and unconsciously, a space taken for granted until we see our freedom limited by an immovable form. Brancusi’s understanding of how materials converse is a constant touchstone for me. I adore the objects of Ron Nagel, Martin Puryear, and Cy Twombly. After starting this current vein of work, I found Doris Salcedo's beautiful wooden furniture and cement pieces highly engaging. My influences have always been cultural architecture––the structures of Giza, Angkor Wat, Chichen Itza, the Parthenon––and the art and artifacts found within relics, ancient games, tools.
JG: I must mention the books that have influenced Subterranean. The World Without Us is an interesting, scientifically based, speculative read on what would happen if humans suddenly died out. Also, John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, and J. G. Ballard's trio of apocalyptic novels: The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World.
As for contemporary architecture, I am attracted to the work of Tadao Ando and Carlo Scarp. And I can't forget one of my favorites, Walter Pichler, who combines architecture and sculpture as a single work. I like people to imagine that sacred spaces are inaccessible.
EJ: The inaccessible space and emotional mystery of Chillida recalls Bruce Nauman's Tape recorder with tape loop of a scream wrapped in a plastic bag and cast into the center of a concrete block. What artists, historical or contemporary, guide you in this relationship with the invisible?
JG: The wonderful Bruce Nauman piece is an interesting reference. Since traveling in southeast Asia, I've been fascinated with the Buddhist stupas at Bagan, Borobudur, and Thailand. It’s the idea of a buried vitality. Unseen at the center of these beautiful bell shapes is the sacred relic of Buddha's hair, toe, or fingernail––is it there? Does it matter? Nauman's piece and mine destroy the magic and mystery by giving our audience too much to hold and not enough to imagine.
Perhaps Bruce's singular piece doesn't relate to my compromise for this body of work. But he certainly brings me back to thoughts of completely sealing the wooden forms in the casting, a version where the viewers experience the buried form only through a block of cement, drawings and/or their imagination, like we do with the Lighthouse of Alexandria or the Colossus of Rhodes. This train of thought hasn't reached a full expression but it’s a theme that keeps coming round.
EJ: Your drawings are as polished as your sculptures. Do you consider them separate pieces?
JG: Sculptural ideas typically start as a mental image or basic concept. The visualization is usually accurate in structure but inaccurate in proportion and perhaps not congruent with the content. The drawings are a way to work through these various problems. The last few sculptures I started with thumbnail sketches, then more drawings in a simple architectural style of front/side views, and lastly isometric drawing to give an understanding of three-dimensional scale. Most drawings are their own versions of a sculptural idea. A few of the drawings are an end, a finished statement. The Duo drawings are like chapters in an unfinished book, the overarching structure still being built piece by piece.
EJ: Your sculptures remind me of foundations of dams and bridges and cathedrals and pyramids and skyscrapers––utilitarian embodiments of human ambition. Yet the pieces seem smaller than the drawings. Why do you work on a relatively small scale?
JG: I’ve always enjoyed small, intimate work rather than large, more physically present pieces. Architectural models, Fabergé eggs, Netsuke, medieval miniature carvings: they all bring you to a place of imagination, into the world of the mind. You experience them almost immediately internally. When they are representative, they become symbols of what they appear to be, hopefully prompting a narrative that is internal and personal.
Though small work has always attracted me, this decision was also practical, and family related. I have two boys, now 7 and 9, whom I want to be around as much as possible. I want them to see me working on something I am passionate about. I also wanted to quit bringing the noxious dust of metal work home from my larger studio, I wanted pieces that fit in my bag and can be carried from my office/work area at PAFA to my home studio. This portability helps me use the smidges of free time you have when raising a family.
EJ: You mention in your Traction Company site bio that you scale your work to human proportions. The heaviness and certainty of climate change seems connected to human mortality since you use stratification and build tomb-like structures. Are you celebrating human engineering within solid, enduring forms?
JG: I’m not intending to celebrate human logic or achievement. Rather, what nature will achieve little by little, layer by layer.
EJ: Are you looking at nature from the human perspective by referencing geological time, massive amounts of matter and ever-present gravity? Or from nature's point of view by presenting how nature builds and destroys?
JG: Both. My attempt to model nature’s erosion and rebuilding, while thinking of the actions it represents takes place in the physical world of deep time.
EJ: Do you share the sensibilities of Nancy Holt and James Turrell? For instance, A Slow Apocalypse #9 communicates similar awe for natural order.
JG: I enjoy the ancient tradition of land art. It’s communicating with the Earth and its amazing scale directly. Richard Long is wonderful. One of my motives to work at human scale or smaller has been to limit the amount of material and energy used to make an essentially non-functioning object.
EJ: Could working small and referencing geological time point toward unforeseen functional ends? For instance, Robert Smithson never planned for the water around Spiral Jetty to recede because of long-term drought. Today, his piece functions as compelling evidence of climate change.
JG: I do see them functioning as contemplative curiosities of a future world, in the manner of Chinese Gongshi (“scholar's rocks”). Something small is leading us to something huge.
EJ: I read that gypsum is formed by evaporating seawater in prehistoric basins. Thus, your work could claim evaporation, flood, and the effect of gravity through sedimentation as focal processes. Is that why you work with gypsum?
JG: The origin of gypsum is fascinating, almost like it is completing a life cycle being a part of these sculptures. I’m always thinking of the gypsum layers as sedimentary time. These grey layers echo the growth rings of the tree, also seen in layers.
I've made a couple of pieces inspired by erosion. I look particularly at Peruvian adobe temples. I very much enjoyed making these pieces, but they seem too aesthetically different from this series to put in the show, even though there is a strong connection in my mind.
EJ: How did you come to layer graphite and gypsum and plaster and wood? Why choose gypsum over concrete? The blurb from your Abington Art Center Artist Talk back in the spring presents wood as "cut and built,” while the gypsum is "poured in and around it."
JG: The choice of gypsum over concrete was initially just chance. I try to use as many found materials as possible and can usually find discarded materials. I had wanted cement and remembered a lot of abandoned casting plaster, Densite, which sometimes is referred to as “gypsum cement.” The material is easier to cast into intricate molds, takes powdered pigment well and can layer finely. The grey/blue of the graphite and the brown/red of the wood make nice dance partners.
EJ: Working from the perspective that humans are doomed––as witnessed by the current momentum of climate change––do your pieces express hope of a reintegration of man and nature?
JG: I take some comfort to believe that, on this planet, Homo sapiens may die, but nature will abide, with the Sun's permission. The making of Subterranean is largely a touchstone to remind me of my obligation to the environment as an artist and teacher but especially as a parent. I started these small sculptures vaguely meditating on the thoughts of making a home for my family––not an architectural home but a symbol of sanctuary. Opposing the idea of a family haven is this unavoidable environmental threat to everyone, to all families. The sculptures also embody guilt over failed responsibility, which increases our future generations’ distress.
EJ: In the Abington Center blurb, you mentioned “an upside-down world.” In your work, there seems to be a sense of role switching or inversion happening with nature and human engineering. Can you expand on this?
JG: With Subterranean I am always flipping open and solid space, moving through one and into the other. Casting around the wood component makes you visualize the space to be filled and the corresponding temporary mold that fills the space around the future casting.
EJ: Do you dream about exploring or making architectural spaces?
JG: I have dreamt of spaces and made those spaces. I have built strange studio structures when working with Traction Company, but Subterranean is a map for the disappearance of actual space because of time or environmental disaster. I dream of spaces uninhabitable to my children, an upside-down system so ingrained and ubiquitous it is almost impossible to change a trajectory that lands us entombed topsy-turvy, with earth and water settled above our cities and homes.
EJ: Because nature will likely overtake and bury world cultures, who do you imagine will witness or unearth the remains? Will other intelligent life forms evolve from animals that survive? Will they need to learn all over again how to build lasting structures?
JG: Our ascent to possible self-destruction is undeniable and has been since Hiroshima. Who inherits the Earth after our failed stewardship? Please let it be an organism lacking the physical traits to create tools. I've always hoped the dolphins would take over after us: So effortless in finding enough food, playful, and communal. I imagine them becoming so self-aware that they understand and accept the dangers of progress, seeing how it removes you from nature and dampens the connections we have to all things. Their brains will grow so powerful they are able to identify and manage the dangerous evolutionary traits in their fellow aquatic citizens. But what happens on the land? Primates ascend again, dolphin lose out; that is, if history repeats itself every 100-200 million years.
edited by Matthew Crain