Tanya Brodsky

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I grew up surrounded by the late-stage decay of modernist architecture in Soviet Ukraine. The landscape around me was rife with structures planned top-down for use by, and for the betterment of, the populace. The clean, modern design of railings, fences and playground equipment had become co-opted for hanging out laundry, sun-curing fish, and drying out liquor bottles for sale to the recycler. High-rise construction sites in my neighborhood stood abandoned for months, governed by lapses in state funding, with architectural elements installed (or not) at sporadic intervals. Towering pre-fab walls, lacking the staircases and landings that would permit their navigation, sported brand new banisters, doors opened onto multi-story drops.

When I was ten, my family immigrated to the Midwest. In my memories, a notable part of this experience was a stark shift in the way that people around me moved through, and utilized spaces. American structures held different intensities of control than those I was used to in Ukraine: the flimsy velvet rope at the bank controlled the shape of the queue; the edges of a concrete slab delineated a neighbor’s inviolable patio space. In the last several years, these themes have entered my work as a means of examining the ways in which elements of the built environment serve as tangible manifestations of social structures and modes of behavior.

My graduate thesis exhibition, Friends & Family, featured abstracted versions of railings, fences and barricades, re-created to absurd scales, installed out of reach for practical use, and punctuated by resin casts of draped undergarments and drying fish. The linear forms of the sculptures came to function as a drawing in space, as much as discrete three-dimensional objects. Viewed from different vantage points, their lines and curves overlapped, and flattened perspectivally to reveal new compositions.

Recently, my work has evolved to incorporate salvaged architectural elements like window security bars, fences and gates: structures that fascinate me as demarcations of boundaries, objects bearing a force of suggestion. Chain link fencing on the side of a road, so-called gentrification fences, and ornate wrought iron enclosures, for example, communicate widely different messages about the types of action meant to be deterred, the exertion required to breach each structure, as well as the postulated desires and identities of the inhabitants and passers-by. Window security bars simultaneously signal the safety of those within and the maleficence of those without. The removal of security bars prior to putting a house on the market signifies not an actual drop in neighborhood crime, but a kind of wishful projection through a cosmetic representation of safety. In their shifting meaning through use, misuse and discardment, these objects enter the realm of language.

Displacement and functional failure reveal sculptural properties within utilitarian structures, qualities often obscured by their own utility. In a kaleidoscopic de- and re-coupling of meaning and form, backing a car into a fence can reveal a fluidity of form concealed within the properly functioning object. Working with found materials has altered my process, allowing the history and material logic of each object to co-create its final form. Accidents, marks of use, and attempts at alteration of the objects prior to their coming into my possession are left largely unaltered, and often serve as points of departure for my own interventions.

Humor emerges in my work as a way of problematizing the social implications of familiar surroundings. I look for ways of subverting the intended function of each object, or of making it perform this function to an absurd end. Failure of the utilitarian object to relate to architecture in its intended way, as well as its failure to support, guide or control the body, reveals a pathos and humor that speaks to both the object’s original environment, the exhibition space that it now occupies, and the bodies that it encounters. Here, the embodied memory and expectation of navigating the built environment, as well as the mores of viewing sculpture in a gallery, serve as set-up to the physical humor of each object’s transformation.

Humor functions, additionally, to address the issues of gender and access to resources within the history of Minimalism. While many of the formal properties of my work stand in conversation with Minimalism, I am nevertheless highly conscious of the gendered history of this, and of many other movements within sculpture. Material choices are often positioned as a form of man-splaining: large, heavy objects carry the weight of their own permanence, a record of the physicality that formed them. The monolithic and the impersonal have long been ascribed to male artists, while the presence of the ephemeral or disposable tends to be viewed as feminizing, personal in an embarrassing way. Within my work, objects like balloons, candles, socks, hardware store chains, and bicycle kick-stands appear as a way of shifting the economy of materials. These elements engage with the industrially finished steel structures, often overtaking the visual plane, if only for a limited time. Allusions to transgression, sexuality and sentimentality serve as a foil to the clean minimal forms of the architectural elements. The body, with its flaws and embarrassments, emerges as a specter in opposition to structures that are meant to normalize and safeguard it.

In the summer of 2018, I will begin work on two public art projects. The first, Privacies Infrastructure, is an installation for the Los Angeles-based experimental architecture and performance non-profit, Materials & Applications, curated by Aurora Tang and Jia Gu. The project addresses questions of privacy within the residential landscape of Los Angeles. It focuses on spatial devices used to create privacy and delineate boundaries: structures simultaneously protective, discreet, and, at times ominous. Installed on a now vacant site of a razed apartment building across the street from Echo Park lake, my work will include several structures that resemble fences and gates, positioned to simultaneously restrict navigation through, and create new paths for exploring the site and remnants of the building’s foundation. The second project, to be installed in late 2018, is a work commissioned by the City of West Hollywood as part of their Art on the Outside program. While still in the early planning stages, it will consist of several large-scale sculptures that incorporate abstracted forms based on the Soviet playground equipment that I, and many members of West Hollywood’s Eastern European community, grew up with.