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Artist Talk with Michael Ashkin

Published: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 14:02

Artist Michael Ashkin gave a lecture at the Weatherspoon Art Museum about his evolution as an artist throughout time.

Ashkin is currently an assistant professor and the Director of Graduate Studies at Cornell University in New York. His work has been shown internationally, including the Tsingou in London, Seguin in Paris, Secession in Vienna, and the 1997 Whitney Biennial in New York. He was also a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.

Although he didn’t consider himself an artist then, Ashkin really began making art unwittingly, while photographing his 1978 trip to Iran. After developing the film at home, he realized almost all the pictures he took focused on the desolate landscape as seen through a bus window. Sometime later, he went to art school and began making menacing sculptures that were meant to disrupt or disturb the landscape, while towering over anyone passing by.

But, he found that when removed from the studio and placed in an environment, they lost all of their impact, blending seamlessly with the roads, bridges, and skyscrapers of the industrialized cityscape.

After studying Jeff Wall – an artist who stages elaborate and complex situations and photographs them as if they were stills of a movie – he decided that if he created his own miniature landscapes he could manipulate them as needed, instead of trying to disrupt what was already out there. He began with a piece based off of “Wall’s Eviction,” which was essentially a small, fictional and dramatic “slice of life” staged with model railroad pieces.

His work for many years was a refinement of this technique, at first replacing the figure with cars and then removing the literary titles towards the end creating table-top tableaus that suggested isolation and eternity. “With every man made structure there’s an implied sense of longing,” which he tried to capture with this work.

In this same period, he began experimenting with video installations. His first major piece in the medium was “Proof Range,” which consisted of three videos of an abandoned weapon testing facility near the Jersey Shore.

The viewer could not see all three screens at once, so if they tried to focus on one screen, something would distract them in the other two. He also experimented with a series of 133 photographs, arranged in a compacted 7 by 19 matrix, of the New Jersey Meadowlands.

With these and his final works in alienated dioramas, (one of the last of which was an enormous desertscape where some unspecified catastrophe existed in the center, which the viewer could not quite see), he always seemed to be working towards a similar idea: trying to get close to something (like art, truth, or beauty) but never quite making it. “Untitled” (where each new sunrise promises only the continuation of yesterday), one of his most recent works, is almost the definitive example of this idea, where an entire room has been transformed into a miniature pastoral setting and an entire village lies away in the corner far off from the viewer so that it can only ever be understood as something vague and far away.

And really, this idea seems to be what drives Ashkin as an artist. He talked far, far longer than the allotted time, as if, even after all these years and all the lectures he has given, he was still wrestling with the very ideas which got him interested in art in the first place.

For someone of his stature, he seemed far too modest, often calling his earlier work either embarrassing or not something he wished to do again, indicating that it was an approach that worked for awhile, but ultimately never paid off. Whatever was true art to him seemed just like that isolated cardboard village: something he can sense is out there, but can never get close enough to see.

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