“Cloth, string, and rope are such expressive materials for me.”
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
“Stephen Althouse (b. 1948) fabricated his early sculptures out of wood, leather, and forged metal to resemble farming implements. Later, rather than making sculptures from raw materials, he began collecting already made objects which he loosely assembled together to create new artwork. He transitioned from sculptor to photographer when he discovered that once a piece was assembled, he could use photography as a tool to capture and control the perception of his work. Althouse continues to approach his work as a sculptor, assembling and enshrouding tools, artifacts, clothing, and even weapons into a unique pictorial dialect. He further manipulates the scene with lighting, camera and computer work, and increased scale to create his larger-than-life minimalist compositions.” —Artist’s Bio
Jaeger: Your photographs, appearing in our last issue, feature black and white images of tools, artifacts, and textiles. Where do you find the materials to create these photographs? Could you talk about your artistic choice to depict these implements?
Althouse: I choose tools and artifacts that have special personal meaning or posses an inexplicable magic. It’s a slow, deliberate, and heartfelt process finding those objects. Sometimes I see the implement in my mind first and then go about finding it, such as in “Knot III” (Horse Armor) and “Rusted Maille.” In those cases, I eventually located the objects housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the curator generously permitted me to photograph for a day when the museum was closed to the public. It is rare for me to work and shoot on location. I usually return home with my found objects to work with them in my studio.
I’ve traveled abroad looking for particular objects, and once even went to a specific Mexican town to have artifacts made for me. Other times, I’ll unexpectedly discover an implement with which I have an instant connection, similar to a distinct smell or a musical tune that can trigger an emotional feeling or memory. I often spontaneously find these while traveling, at flea markets, or, more recently, borrowed from Amish friends.
Jaeger: Could you talk about your artistic choice to depict these implements?
Althouse: I like using artifacts as metaphors to expand rather than constrict possibilities for interpretation and to heighten mystery in my work. An example of this is my choice of the crown in “Rusted Crown.”
For some, the crown may connote authoritarianism, material wealth, opulence, exploitation, exclusiveness, and injustice. Yet this same object may conjure virtuous qualities such as benevolence, justice, protection, dignity, honor, and nobleness. It is an antonym of itself.
Moreover, the crown is not made from precious materials, but out of steel. The rusted crown is a contradiction: it is fabricated from materials of the common person—the steel of the scythe and the shovel. This crown is not about pampered royalty. Rather, it may bestow an affirmation of the inherently noble virtues, though often imperfect and rusty, that I believe to be in all of us.
Combined with the crown is a piece of white cloth. The cloth has such spiritual and mystical inferences and it hangs in an anthropomorphic expression of outstretched arms. It is also a paradox. The cloth articulates piety, purity, and joy, but it also conveys the suffering and sacrifice of being bound and drawn apart.
Jaeger: Many of your photographs have been digitally manipulated to include secret codes in Braille, Latin, medieval German, and Pennsylvania Dutch (just to name a few). Why did you decide to include codes in your work?
Althouse: My first use of Braille was in 1969 as part of an early painting where I sculpted three-dimensional Braille onto the surface. Often, the written word, when included in a piece of artwork, carries a tremendous, almost overpowering weight. The viewer will invariably focus upon and read the word(s), and then those words will direct how the viewer interprets the piece of art. I believe that words would limit the interpretations of my work and would remove the mystery that I feel in each piece. So, for various personal and philosophical reasons, I’ve chosen Braille and specific languages or dialects to make my words unreadable.
Jaeger: What is the technical process of incorporating these codes?
Althouse: Prior to 2000 it was difficult to add words into my art because I would have to craft them into my assemblage before I photographed it. I sometimes would carve Braille words into the wooden subjects or emboss them on cloth or paper. At the start of the millennium, as the scale of my work increased past the limitations of darkroom printing, I began experimenting with large-scale digital inkjet printing. To prepare for digital printing, I scan and digitize my film, which then provides further opportunities to digitally manipulate my images (with Photoshop). In this way, I can digitally add words and Braille after shooting the photograph, and I can meld the words onto most surfaces.
Jaeger: In addition to secret codes, one intriguing manipulation of found objects in your work is through the use of textiles and rope. Can you talk about how and why this became a compositional choice in “Wheel I”?
Althouse: Cloth, string, and rope are such expressive materials for me. As a young adult living in Spain, I frequented the Prado in Madrid and was struck by the mystical and spiritual qualities possessed by white cloth depicted in many of the religious paintings. These early influences hibernated in my subconscious and surfaced in my work during the late 1990s when I created a series of images entitled Shrouds depicting white cloth completely covering my artifacts. During and after the Shrouds series, white cloth became an integral element in many of my pieces. It successfully expresses an inherent spirituality or sacredness.
In “Wheel I” there are essentially two objects: a wooden wheel symmetrically placed against a piece of white cloth with untied cloth strips on its corners. It was created while I mourned the sudden accidental death of my friend who was the local Amish religious and community leader. The cloth was a fitting choice because of its spiritual, sacred, and shroud-like implications. However, in contrast to the cloth in “Rusted Crown” with its smooth graceful folds, the cloth in “Wheel I” is agitated and not at rest. Rope, string, reins, and cloth strips imply many things, such as support (“Ladder,” “Rusted Crown”), binding restraint, control, and servitude (“Knot III”).
Jaeger: Why do you choose to portray your images in black and white?
Althouse: Color seems so “everyday,” and its absence amplifies mystery. I’ve eliminated color in my attempt to focus upon specific objects as metaphors of the human experience, to elevate their stature, and to express the mystery and sacredness that I may feel about them.
Jaeger: You studied sculpture for both your Bachelor (University of Miami, Florida) and Master of Fine Arts Degrees (Virginia Commonwealth University). However, over the years you have transitioned from sculpture to photography. Could you tell us about this transition?
Althouse: My approach to making art hasn’t changed much since I began as a sculptor. I still start with an idea or mental image and work on it with various methods to make it into a visual reality. The fundamental transition was my change from crafting sculptures from raw materials, such as wood and metal, to creating assemblages out of found objects.
I gradually realized that certain found objects had qualities that elicited significant personal meaning, similar to, and perhaps more successfully than the sculptures that I had been making. I began seeing found objects in my mind that spoke to me. I searched for them, sometimes assembling them together, and I considered this process to be an alternative creation of sculpture.
However as excited as I was about these new pieces, I felt that they lacked some sort of formalizing element. As was standard practice with all of my previous artwork, I took 35mm photographic color slide documents of these pieces. I found that the camera allowed me to carefully compose the object within a rectangular field, and I could adjust the lighting to alter emotional aspects of the pieces. The tiny photographic slide documents were the formalizing element I was searching for. I took this further by photographing with larger film to produce large photographic prints that I presented as the finished pieces. With printing, I could eliminate color (as described above), and reclaim the control and manipulation of scale that I had temporarily lost with my three-dimensional found object sculptures.
Jaeger: Multiple curators have noted a connection between your photographs and an investigation of warfare. Could you talk more about this trope in the pieces that appeared in The Woven Tale Press?
Althouse: Two images that appeared in The Woven Tale Press, “Knot III” and “Rusted Maille,” address war. “Knot III” depicts a piece of medieval armor used to protect a horse’s head and neck when the rider was engaged in battle. The armor is an implement of war and presented larger-than-life as an eight-foot print. I attempted to give the armor emotive expression and to render the inanimate object as a giant non-thinking animal with insect-like eyes. Ironically, I find the expression in its eyes very poignant. I feel pity as I would for anyone or anything enslaved in an iron mask and controlled with a steel bit against its will.
It is a fair assumption that most people around the globe think negatively about war; however, humankind seems to be perpetually involved with it. So I feel that this piece is about us and the incongruity of the human race: our aversion to war while we are paradoxically in complete servitude to it. Rather than presenting an obvious and already established singular idea, such as “war is bad,” I prefer to create this image as a reminder of the enigmas of our species. However, in a rare instance of overt expression, I added a barely noticeable metaphor in an attempt to disable the war machine and render useless the mechanism controlling the reluctant captive: I tied a knot in the reins.
This image is an extreme close up of a two-inch, square, rusted remnant of chain-maille resting upon a small piece of cloth and enlarged to 3 x 5 feet. Chain-maille in larger sheets was used to protect the body in battle and was standard in European, Middle Eastern, and Asian warfare for centuries. Maille represents a major part of who we are, crossing all cultures throughout history and into the future. Although the maille I used is a small and easily overlooked scrap, the extreme scale of the print monumentalizes it and it can’t go unnoticed.
Jaeger: You also write that part of the compositional goals in your photography is to transform your subjects into relics. Can you talk about this? Why is this transformation important to you?
Althouse: The tools, artifacts, and implements that I use are carefully chosen and very special to me, even though some may be old, mundane, or broken. They speak to me about my life and they affirm my feelings about our species. Each one somehow expresses mysteries and questions, and these can be amplified through my art. Removing the object out of its day-to-day context, floating it symmetrically within a black void, removing color, and enlarging it to an overpowering scale transform it into a powerful and revered relic. This transformation is so important, because without it much of the mystery and spirituality that I feel within my work would dissipate. I wish that I could show you the originals.
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