Curatorial Text

SANDRA MUSS – What will you leave behind?

By Amalia Caputo

“What will you leave behind?” reads a neon sign on an old, rusty iron door, recovered and later intervened by artist Sandra Muss (New York, 1949). Her latest works incorporate a wide array of materials and strategies, including the re-purposing of discarded construction paraphernalia such as doors, skylights, wooden pieces, natural debris, portals and trays; tapping into the material and the value found in its layers of history; scavenging for natural objects in her surroundings; and interventions on human-made objects.

To enter an artist’s studio is quite a privilege, as it sheds light to further understanding how an artist approaches their work, their rhythms and processes. In Sandra Muss’s case, we not only learn about her approach to artmaking, but experience live how she weaves pieces into time, working in multiple formats and media simultaneously. For instance, she intervenes a painting by adding a metallic antique clock cover to a large rusty door that has been left out in the elements to weather “in collaboration” with the artist, or appends a piece of a photograph and a feather onto a painting. Intuition and emotion are the main forces that drive a career that spans almost 20 years.

Regardless of the object, Sandra Muss´s general approach to art making is that of a painter exposed to a white canvas. Every “canvas” — be it an old door, a piece of acrylic skylight or a baker’s tray — becomes something else when it is intervened with a piece from her collection of natural objects such as feathers, seeds or shells or other industrial “refuse,” culminating in bi- and three-dimensional abstract volumetric collages that might grow into large scale sculptures and site-specific installations. Her works become points of departure for kicking off intense dialogues about materiality, emotions, combinations, chance and thought. The process of every piece is a reflection on time: the time that elapses and causes the materials she encounters to become “discarded;” the time she takes to find materials; the time that the materials are being “worked on;” and the time she takes to begin, start and finish a piece. Ultimately, her work encompasses the times of our lives, our human and natural lives, and the process of making, discarding, finding, gathering and creating.

In the past decade, Muss’s works have grown larger and her practice less bound by tradition, building tri-dimensional objects and site-specific installations that challenge a conventional comprehension of what painting is. Yet, in her mind, her approach to the tri-dimensional and the spatial is still considered “painting.” Because of her ample understanding of the medium as a whole, Muss’s oeuvre is a direct challenge to the traditional (modernist) way of viewing the practice of art, reflecting in her studio the possibility of free experimentation and mutability. She is simultaneously openly engaged to painting’s broadest meaning yet unfettered from its functionality.

In her current works, Sandra Muss explores the relationship between landscape and architecture through exercises in painting, installations and sculptures. Her two-dimensional collages and assemblages have grown into full-sized sculptures that reflect her understanding of the world as a united entity in which all differences are welcome. Her approach to art is both spiritual and adventurous as seen, for example, in one of her most recent pieces –still a work in progress— which depicts a Corinthian column’s capital and shaft holding about thirty discarded bakery trays that were previously used for leavening bread, are placed in a way that creates an illuminated rhythmical sequence, distributing dim light onto the empty corners. Seen from above, the shape of the corners of the overlapped trays forms a multi-pointed star that could be Jewish, Muslim or Christian in origin. Another oversized rusted door that has been exposed to years of inclement weather holds antique clock covers, also rusted, creating a perfect abstract assemblage that evokes the purity of geometrical forms, in this case, the squares and abstract shapes, along with the half circles.

In general, her practice draws from a variety of sources inspired by nature and spiritual forces and include everything from traditional art materials to recovered, rusted architectural objects, and natural elements such as rocks, leaves, moss, feathers and shells. She combines traditional painting and collage methods with unusual materials to produce complex installations that include neon signs and, recently, incorporate acoustic features. Muss works in both, bi- and tri-dimensional surfaces to connect these imaginary portals or thresholds that enable humans to enter metaphorically into other spaces or dimensions. Mainly interested in the circulation and human intervention in nature, her practice revolves specifically around an imprecise yet firm connection between the sacredness of nature and the humanistic, spiritual experience. These opposite combinations are reflected in works that often juxtapose opposite ideas such as the human-made versus the natural, permanence and impermanence, and as an undercurrent, the passage of time.

In a span of two decades, Muss has produced a significant body of work that embodies her intuitive yet consistent choice of specific techniques and materials. Inspired by the readings of C.S. Lewis, and her fascination with nature, on the one hand, and influenced by the legacy of being the child of two Holocaust survivors, on the other, Muss’s work has delved into diverse shapes and forms that fluctuate between painting and sculpture, dwelling on everything human and its impermanence.  Her practice oscillates from intimate, “open air” paintings made with oil pastels on paper, to capturing the sensuous essence of the immediate gaze of a landscape to envisioning monumental steel door portals that engage physically in a multi-sensorial experience by incorporating sound and lights all within the parameters of a strong emotional milieu.

As a whole, the poiesis of her multifaceted works draws from a profound concern with the environmental problems we face today, evidenced by her penchant for caring and reutilizing materials that already exist. Muss reenacts the action of giving life to a dead object, granting newly found materials a second chance, a sublimated life that elevates them from the scrap heap to art.  While the original concept may have had its origins in the Arte Povera movement, in Muss’s case, it´s more of a process akin to alchemy where the transformation occurs with every empty canvas, found object, gathered seed, shell or coral she encounters. Hers is a very personal and intimate gesture of creation that happens at first in the scavenging and finally in the studio, metamorphosing like an insect when cocooning. The works while in the studio become open-ended platforms for reflection and engagement that speak to our natural inclination and desire for rituals, magical encounters, inspiration and serendipity.

Earlier works

Her earlier paintings and bi-dimensional works are comprised of bold, splattered and gestural paintings that belong to the tradition of expressionist abstractionism inherited from her major influences, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Snyder, Gerhard Richter and Sam Francis. Muss, a consummate traveler, works her pieces with a combination of plein air and hard-core expressionism. Her splattered and gestural paintings reflect emotional and psychological experiences along with attachment to the experience of color and texture.

Works on paper and small canvases are the product of both her walks and wanderings through the woods of her home in the Berkshires and during her travels. She works ‘plein air’ with oil pastels and draws what immediately catches her attention and triggers her reaction, focusing more in the direct emotion of the act of contemplating than on the translation to a real depiction or narrative of what is being observed. Bold, active lines of energy, abstract masses of color and gesture reunite in their bi-dimensionality complex relationships between thought, experience and gaze, the individual and nature. The end result of these assemblages with densely-painted surfaces, textured collages, installations with natural and human elements are aligned with her keen interest in nature, ecology and conservation and are a vivid expression of the one-on-one relationship Muss establishes with her surroundings.

Collages, and assemblages

Beginning sometime between 2010 and 2012, her increasing experimentation with materials progressively gave way from gestural paintings to bi-dimensional collages, capturing the sempiternal flux of life in our world.  Many of her works incorporate neon lights, sometimes just illuminating part of the sculptures or assemblages, but other time s as repositories of phrases and language. In her Light series (2014-2016), Muss recovers rusted hospital stretchers, metal and wood doors from construction structures and intervenes them with painting, photographs, nails and ultimately, words displayed on neon lights such as MAMA, OH MY GOD, HELP, BEAUTIFUL, etc.  Neon in her work is an element that brings us back to our present, as a contemporary reminder of our current times. Also, her use of neon likely stems from the immediate thought that arises from every act association with the intervention of the doors, emulating, in parallel, the unconscious and the surrealistic processes of free association.

Making sense of the world we live in by employing already-made resources is one of the starting points strategies that Muss departs from her approach to assemblages. In her studio, like in a recycling warehouse, one can find not only construction debris but all kinds of materials from the natural world: shells, seeds, dried algae, autumn leaves, all piled up into their own categories. These are the diverse mediums that Muss incorporates into her creations, each one hinting at a new narrative: marine life, woods and human, in coexistence.

Another example of this association between materials and images are the medium-format resin based layered light boxes that are made from repurposed discarded skylights she found at a junkyard, converted by her into back lit poetic layered intervened landscapes while at the same time she explores the life of objects. Also, the concept of light and landscape, rooted in the daily act of looking throughout the window are along time play an important role in bringing together things from the past and present in a single plane. 

At her studio, Muss transitions intuitively from building sculptural assemblies to adding yet another layer of paint and gestures to very large-scale canvases, through the use of oil, oil sticks, thick brushes, and inserts, gluing objects and creating collages of natural materials and debris, rendering visual landscapes that result in very energetic and gestural constructs of an abstract modality.

Site-specific installations and large-scale sculptures

In recent years, Muss has delved into tri-dimensional works with a particular force, offering a louder counterbalance to her previous, more meditative and intimate paintings and collages. As mentioned before, her work has progressively grown in scale, using discarded construction materials and industrial manufacturing detritus found in dumpsters, combining them with natural elements such as shrubs, shells, tree barks, paintings, photographs, and feathers. Through the process, Muss has also developed a body of work that is abstract in nature but one that uses the figurative presence and repurposing of discarded materials, directly addressing the waste and environmental concerns and issues that plague our modern world.  In addition, she is producing from scratch sculptures, such as her series, Portals: Dream of Flight (2018) is a site-specific large-format installation that was shown recently in the gardens of the Belmond San Michele Palazzo in Fiesole, Florence, Italy. The works consist of a set of three, tall cylindrical mirror totems contained inside the oxidized patterns of dragonfly or cicada “wings,” cut out such that they reflect not only the intricate natural shape of the perfect geometrical marvel that nature provides us, but also creates a double and triple mirrored scenario, suggesting new spaces of interconnectedness between the human and the natural forces. To Muss these pieces are a “metaphorical representation of our path in the world” through which she is intentionally expressing the way the natural and the human blend in a mirrored experience, a shared, indivisible journey in which we mirror and are mirrored.

The exploration by Muss of the complex ideas of the metaphorical and the metaphysical through immersive, dreamy and strangely beautiful portals mark a conceptual boundary between the real and the unreal, an intimate expression of the connection between the body and the mind. Muss creates these poetic thresholds to experience her path through life and plumb its depths. Then by allowing the spectator to cross these entryways, or walk through her large outdoor sculptures, she fosters meditation about objects that grant access to other realities and dreamlike experiences, thereby granting a life of their own to the sculpture as they become a new part of our physical world. The gesture of “placing them objects” in the outside world triggers in the viewer an opportunity to reflect on the sentient material world that surrounds them and the subjective contemplation of nature in a singular, complex experience.

Muss has recently conceived a series of seven large-scale door sculptures

(UNTITLED), 2019, made out of rusted industrial doors intervened with neon lights, which have been envisioned mostly for installation in public places. These doors series intend to open towards landscaped areas, permitting the viewer to cross a threshold that elicits thoughts about doors that open and close throughout life and the paths we encounter in the process. Recently, she has begun incorporating sound design by working in collaboration with composers who help her produce a more fine-tuned statement on the concept of “thresholds,” an ever-present notion throughout her works.

These above-mentioned pieces followed her first installation of Portals (2017), a similar work rooted in mirror-based, totemic sculpture, this time, with mirrors wrapped in rusted wire frames and natural vines, installed at the sculpture garden of the Kreeger Museum Contemporary Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. For this earlier work, Muss built seven steel-mirrored columns, six upright as trees and one lying down. Each steel column is wrapped with rusted wire resembling vines. The mirrors inside the wire reflect the surrounding woods and create a parallel natural world inside each sculpture, questioning the notion of human perception, reality and nature itself. Also, as in all of her work, there is a strong reflection on the passage of time and the human legacy. Through her installation, we can develop a strong and intimate bond with the surrounding trees and foliage, and at the same time with ourselves, revealing both the beauty and richness of the natural world as the background for our lives, while also projecting ourselves into the human-caused devastation of nature, resources and life. This large-scale staged installation explores humankind’s potential to perceive the natural world at two different scales, one vast (nature) and one small (human scale), thereby opening the possibilities to reflect on the eternal, the vulnerable, and the multiple dimensions of observable universes that coexist. In times when forests are burning in the Amazon and Africa, these works speak loudly to the importance of re-thinking the perspective of our human-made objects as being something that can affect, modify and shift our perception of things beyond our immediate reality.

One can say that the entirety of Muss’s art practice is inspired by the simple act of observing and listening to her surroundings, waiting for the “Eureka moment” in which whatever her gaze captures sparks an idea that will become a work of art. Her practice inherently requires a slow process of attention, learning and reflection that balances the perception of the material and the subjective worlds we live in, and opens possibilities for grasping an understanding of the world through a poetic gaze, while granting access to realities far beyond our mundane perception, while, at the same time, being a part of it. Such is the case of the Permutations series (2015-2016), a group of back lit large-scale pieces created using recovered construction doors with overlapped metal panes, combined with natural elements such as woods and tree barks, paper and sea objects. The story lines of her sculptural pieces are subtle narratives, unlike the act of walking through a portal—a physical experience—, and more like hidden and subjective stories perceived by the viewer. In her latest works, Muss has also incorporated sound, allowing the experience to grow even more in the public’s mind. Many questions arise: How did these doors get here? Whose Doors, are they?  What are these sounds and where do they come from?

Ideas of mythical creatures living in a world parallel to ours, or visions of sculptures that trigger a double material-subjective possibility are some of the challenges that the artist explores with the viewer. We connect with objects that are well-known — construction debris, doors, windows, cots — with something very emotional and less concrete, causing us to reflect on the emotion that objects and our experience with them trigger in our lives.

The immersive doors and thresholds, these portals, point to our domesticity, our home, the place where we belong. They explore how we, by the act of entering nature, are entering into our hearth, our childhood memories, and our place of identity. The woods where the installation is set becomes the backyard, a known place where we belong, returning to an anthropocentric moment in which nature is the background of everything human.

Muss´s urge to redefine, or even reinvent reality and work with this fixed idea of breaking through portals, “becoming free,” comes from the deep set feeling of anxiety caused by the consequence of her parents being Holocaust survivors. You cannot easily escape from historical traumas of that magnitude from one generation to the next, and this backdrop has permeated a large portion of her foundation as an artist. Another interesting aspect is the fact that neither her paintings nor her sculptural works lend themselves to quick interpretation. One needs to spend time with them in order to develop — in an analogical, photographic way — the whole coming from the parts. Her pieces work as additions, through palimpsests and layering, rather than pure embellishment or simplistic views. Any painting or installation by Muss may seem at first as abstract, but progressively it begins revealing itself, allowing the viewer to find things, actions, movement, objects, trees, rivers and even faces, entering into virtual or real spaces. So, the poignant question she formulates What will you leave behind? can be better understood as more of a philosophical approach to art making, in her case, that leave us with the pertinent reflection of the reality of the times in which we live. In the midst of the major environmental and geopolitical shifts and crises that the world is facing now, Muss’ oeuvre foments a vigorous conversation into the recovery of the most pure, simplest way to capture both, the fragility and the strength of humanity and nature.

About the author:

Amalia Caputo is a Venezuelan/American visual artist, art historian and writer. She carries a BA in art history from Universidad Central de Venezuela, and an MA from New York University and the International Center of Photography in the fields of art theory and photography. Her professional experience within the art world includes museum and curatorial work, writing and publishing. As an artist, her work deals mostly with photography, womanhood, memory, the body and the construction of archives. Lives and works in Miami since 2003.

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