Emily Silver is an artist and educator living and working in Los Angeles. She received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, NY in 2005 and her MFA from the Pennsylvania State University School of Visual Art in 2008.
This body of work seeks to examine the space between the celebratory, and the tragedy that simultaneously exist in the life of an event. As subject matter I look to funerals, parties, parades, and carnivals, in their finite nature, for the work to be actively a part of these sensual celebratory spaces. The materials hold a metaphor of the ephemeral and the cherished creating objects and videos that play with what is monumental or decorative, comic or tragic, and beg the viewer to reconsider their relationship to these ideas.
Many of the sculptures become part of short animations or photographs that begin to shift our perception of what is real, what is desired, and what is anticipated. This work mashes the individual and group, the celebratory and discarded, the monumental and diminutive. Though these pieces seem overtly playful, there is an under current of the tragic, absurd and unexpected invading these spaces.
Hi Emily! The last time we spoke, you were living in New York! When did you move to Los Angeles? There is always so much talk about which of the two cities is more advantageous for artists—what are your thoughts based on your experiences so far?
Yeah, I moved to LA about 5 ½ years ago. It was an interesting transition, I longed and mourned for NYC for a few years. New York is always a romance, or more like an abusive relationship. Now I am not sure if I would want to live there full time. I love LA—the weather, the people and the landscape are inspiring and provocative.
I would say SPACE is a major difference between LA and NYC—here you have a vast landscape, larger apartments, and perhaps a studio larger than a closet.
I went from having a band saw next to my bed in our Brooklyn apartment to a 1200 square foot studio here in Inglewood. It is getting trendy to move here from New York now, so hopefully prices won’t get too crazy too fast. As for the art scene here, it is booming and much more accessible. Though, if you haven’t graduated from one of the many fabulous grad programs here in SoCal it is a little harder to break in, but not impossible. LA has great programming—including artist talks, workshops and film screenings. The museums and galleries are on point, and you feel like you’re seeing work that’s actually being made right now. NY has become such a museum city—you go, look and learn from the untouchable, you know whose work you’re going to see no matter what time of year it is. Here it is a bit grittier and experimental—neither is better than the other, they just function differently.
In your statement, you talk about the celebratory and tragic nature of events such as parties. I have always been affected by the ephemeral one-time use nature of the commodities and supplies that are created for such events—party hats, balloons, decorations, etc. These items are ultimately created to be used once and then tossed. Is there an element of realization of the wastefulness of our celebratory traditions in your work?
Yes, absolutely. I am interested in giving these ephemeral items a new life, perhaps a more monumental one. What happens when these things are frozen in a moment, right before they hit the floor and are swept up? Why are the idea of them and the purchase of them SO much more loaded than the actual use of them? They become waste before they have even reached their function. What happens when they become or attempt to become permanent? The work is always tossing these ideas around, trying to tackle the celebratory not only conceptually but through material as well.
What is the life span of your sculptures?
That’s a funny question. It depends on if they come back to the studio and how long I look at them for. A lot of the work gets chopped up and repurposed into new sculptures, so often they meet their death through new ideas. On a sales level these are all pretty well made, historically we have seen paper and cardboard last a really long time. I have stayed away from latex and other obvious materials that will deteriorate immediately. These guys will survive with little movement. I like that over time things will change, the paper might yellow etc., it shows aging and lingers on the sadness underlying in the work. I mean, really a lot of the work is talking about death, so it’s ok that they have a lifespan that moves, shifts and changes.
I have always been intrigued by home videos of past events—they are so telling. Did your family shoot a lot of home videos of special occasions when you were growing up? What sparked your interest initially?
I’ve been asked a lot of questions about my work but never this. Ha. I think there was a video camera around a lot when I was really young—my dad was really into his cameras and gadgets. It was never anything we would watch afterwards though. Any photo album we had you would flip through images of events mixed with disgusting pictures of surgeries—my father would photograph surgeries of inside the throat etc., ears and nose. It made you think twice before trying to reminisce. Similarly, my best friend Courtney's mom had their childbirth photos mixed in with the regular family albums.
I think as the youngest of 4 and having a bit of a tumultuous childhood there was often a lot of build up for things with a large family, and then a lot of letdown. My siblings and I have also had a lot of friends or people we knew die tragically at a young age, so death was something I was used to facing. We grew up in a town that every year a young person would die, when we hit about 8th grade you were aware of at least one person from each grade ahead of you. It was and is a strange curse to that town. Always strange ways of dying: meningitis, falling out a window, hit by a truck, thrown out of the back of truck, jumping off a bridge, multiple heroin over doses, motorcycle accident, Iraq war, gun shot, cancer, etc. I worked at a flower shop all through high school in this town, so I would often be arranging and delivering the flowers to these funerals. These were peers that became tales of the town. I think about these people all the time, part of me feels like my work is sometimes memorials to these terrible tragic events.
Later, when we moved to LA I started working at a mortuary, in the on-site flower shop. I spent everyday eating lunch in the cemetery, and hours making work for caskets. Death and the ceremony were my everyday for a while. I loved that job, but I got weird. Charlie (my husband) started to worry about me, because we had just moved here and I was spending my time in the cemetery, not making new friends. So eventually I had to quit, but I think about that job all the time and I still go sit in that cemetery. Cemeteries are beautiful and so loaded. Did you know people abandon pets there? So often I’d see people pull in, unload a birdcage, or open a pet kennel and drive away. I was late coming back from my lunch out there because I was chasing a puppy that was thrown out the side of the car by some dickhead.
You talk about our anticipation of these events, and how they seem so much more exciting in our minds than the reality of the experience. Culturally, where do think this enthusiastic expectation comes from and do you think it wears off as we get older?
Yeah I think it does wear off a bit, or we just become cynical. I think it depends on the event, etc. We have a strong connection to events mostly because we want to create traditions. What family doesn’t want something they repeat in order to mark time and bring people together? (I mostly think it’s dreadful, but I know most people love this shit).
Anticipation is sexy too, people like to imagine how wonderful something is, or live in the past through a great experience. But at face value most of these events are terrible. For example—Christmas (you can insert other holidays here) people like to get shit, presents, etc. That’s fun. But really, flights are expensive, travel is nightmare, people worry if they’ve gotten too fat to see people they haven’t seen in a long time, someone is always an asshole immediately, feelings are hurt because people are over-sensitive during the holidays, and you spend more time recovering financially and emotionally then what you gained from the experience. This all makes me sound like a bitter jerk, but this is not just my truth, it’s many peoples' truth. Major life events bring us together—people that are not usually all together, and there’s a reason why they aren’t “usually” together. Like high school reunions: TERRIBLE. Why? Because high school is actually terrible, so why bring everyone back together to reminisce about awkward bad-decision making time periods in your life? Sorry for the tangent. Sentiment is another reason—but that is another discussion
Your drawings have a distinctly sculptural feel, as if they are plans for the sculptures. Do you see them as blueprints in some way? How does drawing influence your studio practice?
Drawing is a major part of my process. I draw constantly—before, during and after building something. Translating the work between the 2d and 3d helps me figure a lot of things out about the form. It also allows me to add things in each space that couldn’t exist in the other. So there is a space between the drawing and sculpture that I am interested in. The relationship between the drawings and the sculptures are almost like a key, if you look at this plus that you will get this. I see it that way, as if they inform each other.
What is the most important part of your studio practice? How do you get in the zone?
Showing up. You have to show up. When you can’t show up, you bring part of it with you to work on. It is easy to lose yourself to life, get distracted, seduced by paychecks or a vacation, a relationship, etc. So the most important part is to stay focused and show up. I don’t know if there is a zone at this point, it is just part of who I am so I know I have to do it. I say I quit all the time, and then find myself parked outside my studio a few hours later. The struggle is always real.
Are there a few artists that you are looking at currently?
Yes, always looking at people. I have been spending a lot of time looking at Philip Guston at the moment; I’d say he’s this month’s heartthrob. I have been thinking a lot about painting, haven’t done much of that in a long time but it’s on my mind. Also looking at Franz West, Judith Scott, Betty Woodman, Red Grooms and Carroll Dunham. Always loving on Rachel Harrison and The Royal Art Lodge (they are no longer together though). There are so many more.
Thank you for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!
To find out more about Emily and her work check out her website.