Reynolds Gallery, Richmond VA
January 10 - February 15, 2014
Amanda Dalla Villa Adams recently conducted an email interview with Siemon Allen discussing his exhibition at Reynolds Gallery. Her review of the exhibition is featured in the critic pics at ArtForum.com.

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams: What is the relationship between the newer studio-based pieces and the older/reworked ideas associated with the comics, woven film strips, and stamps? (I understand that these are all new works made specifically for "Exhibition")

Siemon Allen: My goal for the exhibition was to use it as an opportunity to explore a fragmented and experimental combination of new and old ideas. In varied degrees all the works on this show return to or reference earlier projects. My first exhibition (at the ICA in Johannesburg) after leaving art school in 1993 included many of the eclectic and personal themes explored in Exhibition: the model houses, stamps and other collected artifacts, and woven work (not to mention an audio artifact from my CD collection). At that time I was interested in ideas of display, presentation and ownership and perhaps it is not a far leap to see those ideas extend into “exhibition” here.

The studio-based pieces likewise reference this early body of work from my first exhibition. That early work included a series of small scale models of houses or spaces I had lived in. I returned again to that work in 1999 when I build a half-scale model of my parent’s home in South Africa in cardboard at Gallery 400 in Chicago during a residency there. At that time I was quite interested in the idea of the room-within-a-room, an installation theme that returns often in my other work (see the Stamps installation and others.) The Gallery 400 exhibition was called House and it in turn became the subject of another later piece titled Gallery in which I made a smaller scale model of both Gallery 400 and the installation. For the model piece Exhibition in this current show I returned to many of these themes by exploring the merging of a model of the current exhibition space with my current studio and home. More information on the "room-within-the-room" concept can be viewed at my website.

The Queen stamp piece was originally conceived of in 2007 but only executed in late 2013. Initially it was simply a side project to keep my mind off the Makeba! collection project I was working on at that time. Certainly Queen could also be viewed as a by-product of the larger South African stamp collection project — after all while sifting out the South African stamps, these queen (or Machin) stamps were some of the notable that remained after sorting. Of course, it is significant that, while all the queen stamps were produced in the UK they were all sent on envelopes to (and therefore collected in) South Africa. So on the face it may appear that the Queen work seems like a fresh departure, it is however indelibly linked to the other earlier projects.

Studio (the large floating print) is probably the most recent of all the pieces but it too has roots in earlier work for example the large-scale scan enlargements I made of records in 2009 and 2010. At that time I was already experimenting with scanning other materials and objects in high detail and also had the notion to shift to different surfaces. I scanned my studio floor and enlarged the image by about 1000%. The effect, like in the Records prints, is to bring the viewer closer to the surface, something akin to a microscopic view.

La Grande Illusion continues a long path of woven film works that I have explored since art school. Here I repurposed an original 16 mm copy of Jean Renoir's classic 1937 anti-war film: La Grande Illusion. I have appropriated 16 mm film a number of times in previous works, but this is only the second using a high profile named film. The first was Hitchcock's The Birds, made in South Africa in 2008. The woven VHS pieces go all the way back to my first exhibition at the ICA in Johannesburg in 1993 followed by the large-scale installation La Jetée I installed at the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997.

Naglegioen II is a reworking of a piece I first exhibited at Fusebox in Washington DC in 2004. The first version consisted entirely of Xerox enlargements of an Afrikaans photo-comic from the 1970s. With this new version I chose to scan the original comic thus retaining much of the aged sepia tone of the paper. This approach gives the work the effect of being dipped in urine. Like the Tintin work, Land of Black Gold, that accompanied the original version of Naglegioen, the speech bubbles here have all been erased.

ADVA: Are Studio and Exhibition in progress or finished works? If in progress, in what direction do you see these works evolving? (Julia Monroe at Reynolds Gallery mentioned that the model could be architecturally expanded to include more exhibition spaces. How large might the model become?)

SA: Exhibition (the model piece), at the moment, consists of three merged replicas of actual spaces that I am currently working or living in, each at slightly different scales: 1) Reynolds Gallery, 2) my studio and 3) my home. The Reynolds Gallery model includes small scale versions of the artwork I presented in the actual exhibition, while the studio and home models included real-scale drawings I had made last year. (Practically I used the Reynolds model to site the show.) My goal is to continue adding to the work many of my previous and possible future exhibition spaces with other living spaces as well. Each of the spaces might include exact replicas of the artwork that I showed or plan to show there but I am hoping to mix it up and may diverge from that approach by including artwork ideas that differ from the real world spaces. This may include fictional future work that may never come to fruition in the actual space. Ultimately this model installation would expand like an irrational apartment block filling the exhibition space until many of the central spaces become inaccessible and only the outer spaces allow for viewer engagement.

Studio at Reynolds Gallery is an extract of the full work. It is about about two thirds the size of the original scan of my studio floor. I would eventually like to show the full work. I am also considering expanding the project to scanning additional floors and surfaces, perhaps including some sites with particular social content.

ADVA: Could you expand more on the slippage that happens with Studio? Specifically, I am thinking about its relationship between painting/sculpture, flat/raised surface, aesthetic object/topographical map, studio/exhibition space.

SA: Though trained as a sculptor, I have always been interested in merging 3D and 2D practices (mostly without paint). Some of my works, like the woven pieces, simultaneously reference painting as well as film, but I always take care to include the depth dimension, no matter how slight it may be. The woven pieces are particularly complex: are they a collection of photographs, minimalist paintings, representations of films or simply craft objects like hanging carpets?

Likewise Studio, has similar slippages. Can it be viewed as image of object? Is it a photograph, and if so, does a scanner constitute a camera? With this new work, I am interested in how this seemingly simple idea can generate such a rich body of references. On one level it just a small fragment of a Richmond floor, but magnified in scale all the mundane details, bits of tape, dog hair, burn marks all become curious and engaging documents of a history of layered activities. The work also references a topography and two feet of floor space becomes a large scale map similar to those seen in Google earth. The “plane” is a studio floor but it could also be a battlefield, it is both micro and macro, local and global.

Conceptually I am also interested in the idea that Studio references the historical moment when Jackson Pollock shifted his practice to the floor. Unlike Pollock though I am returning this document of actions to the floor. The large-scale print captures historical actions, (mine, my friends, previous owners) that have serendipitously built up over many years on this surface (my studio used to be a paint shop in the 1960s here in Richmond, VA). As a South African artist coming to the United States I have always viewed the Abstract-Expressionists and the scale of their work as quintessentially American. In many ways the scale of my works, the Stamps, the Newspapers, Studio, are ways that I acknowledge and deal with this American context. It is unlikely that I would have made similar work in South Africa.

ADVA: Is there any relationship between the works in "Exhibition" and the database you are composing of South African music? Because the database mimics the language of an historical archive, do you see yourself as both a historian and artist?

SA: There are some very slim connections between these new works and the archive of South African music. On one level this new work is a mental break from that larger endeavor. But the idea of say an archive of UK stamps sent to South Africa, or the appropriation of an apartheid-era Afrikaans photo-comic, or even a repurposed historical anti-war film, do suggest, in my mind, some elliptical connections to the larger archive project. Probably the most obvious connection, though, is that I am planning to include a miniature version of the Labels curtain (the installation that developed out of the South African Audio Archive currently on show at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town) in one of the model spaces.