We are currently living through tumultuous, dark times and the objects and installations I create are an attempt to offer a refuge, a reminder of the vastness of the unknown and the realness of magic and mystery in our ordinary lives. I want to question and confront the boundaries of our understanding of ourselves and the world around us through unusual forms that are simultaneously recognizable and enigmatic, evoking curiosity, unease and wonder. My intention is to encourage inquisitiveness and the impulse to investigate and explore rather than blind acceptance and complacency. These works are layered and subversive, challenging notions of beauty by integrating unsettling imagery of raw organs or real human hair with undeniably lush and seductive forms and surfaces. I also often play with balance and fragility in these works, allowing them to appear to either be on the brink of collapse or mid-awakening, reflecting our own experiences of resilience and despondency.
Interview with Sasha Reibstein
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Sasha. What was your initial exposure to art or art-making growing up in Philadelphia? When did you begin to identify as an artist?
Philadelphia was an amazing city to grow up in—surrounded by the vast landscape of public art and graffiti throughout the city. I believe these surfaces covered in countless layers of paint and grime have had a strong influence on my aesthetic. Still today I crave surfaces that are dense with information and layered in mysterious ways. I was also a child of the 1980s and was obsessed with glam aesthetic and all of the associated fashion and music. These were my earliest experiences with visual language and the lavishness and absurdity of the hair, clothing and behavior was exhilarating to me. I absolutely loved it all. I think this allowed me to express myself artistically from a very young age and as I grew older, my interests transformed from a focus on music and fashion to interest in other forms of visual expression, most specifically in drawing and sculpture.
You’re currently based in San Diego. Has the rich history of ceramic artists from California (or those prominent right now), been a source of inspiration for you? Or if not, who are some of your artistic influences?
It’s been really interesting relocating from the East Coast to California, in particular as someone working in the field of ceramics. As an educator, I delight in sharing California’s rich history of ceramic artists and its rightful recognition as the birthplace of contemporary American ceramics with my students. I am inspired in particular by the irreverent Clayton Bailey who is still making incredible work as well as the late Ken Price whose sensual forms and surfaces I am deeply attracted to. Other inspirations outside of ceramics and California include my friend and mentor, HC Liang as well as Chiam Soutine, Tony Oursler, David Shrigley, Urs Fischer, Matt Wedel and Cassils.
Can you tell us about your current studio and what an ideal day is like for you?
I absolutely love my studio. It is comprised of several garages attached together under our house, totaling about 1,500 square feet. One of its best features is that the main workspace has garage doors on two sides, both opening to our back yard. With Southern California weather on my side, I am able to work year round in a space that is private yet full of fresh air, sunlight and plant life, where I can regularly expand my workspace into our driveway on one side as needed for working with concrete, plaster or spray paint and on the other side I can take a few steps outside to stretch and enjoy our yard and garden to keep my body from locking up during long days filled with repetitive actions. My ideal day is waking up with my kids, getting them out the door and sitting down for a full breakfast before heading down to the studio where I will work for the next 8–10 hours with little interruption. Listening to hour-long podcasts is helpful to mark the time and give me regular intervals to move around, stretch and change positions for a few moments before resuming working again. My kids are finally both in daycare/school and I have juggled my teaching load to maximize my days in the studio so I am getting more and more days like this.
You seem to have a highly motivated and productive studio routine. How do you maintain this consistent level of engagement?
I get asked this a lot and the answer is that I need it. I am absolutely my happiest when I am engaged in an active studio practice. Making is how I process the world around me and the physical activity, discovery and experimentation that happens in the studio keeps me intellectually and emotionally invigorated and balanced. It has gotten harder and harder as I now have two young kids, a husband who is also an artist and heavy teaching and curatorial loads but I try to keep a focus on my priorities to ensure that my engagement in the studio never gets pushed to the wayside. I’ve also gotten to the point that my exhibition commitments are heavy enough that taking time off is non-optional and I take advantage of this demand to force myself into the studio whenever possible. I currently have 1–3 long days a week in the studio during the semester and during winter and summer breaks that expands to 5 days a week. I have dedicated evenings and weekends to being completely focused on my family and by setting up a stricter schedule of work/family time I am finding a balance that has allowed me to feel fulfilled and engaged on all fronts.
Throughout your work you combine ceramics with a wide range of other media, including crystal growths, flock, hair, glitter, resin, and concrete. What is the significance of these materials for you?
Some of these materials hold more significance than others. Primarily I am looking to create objects and surfaces that dazzle and mystify so I pull from a wide range of materials to create surfaces that are dense and layered. Some materials, such as hair and crystals hold more specific significance however. For the most part, the hair I use is real and often mine, the usage of which was originally inspired by Victorian mourning jewelry. The first pieces with hair were about loss and therefore its usage was very specific and sentimental. Crystals hold a less personal but more ubiquitous value. I love the idea of a sculpture that is alive, as the crystals in my work are grown onto the forms and will continue to very slightly change in color and quality over decades. In addition, crystals are known for their healing and/or spiritual properties so they bring with them a whole host of feelings and beliefs that are quite powerful for some people. One of the materials I am most infatuated with is glitter, about which Caity Weaver wrote a fantastic article for the NY Times in which she theorizes that even people who don’t like glitter like glitter because of our primitive instinct to seek out the glimmering sparkle of fresh water.
I love this idea. I’d like to say that my usage comes from an interest in taking advantage of this intellectual understanding but alas, I am merely a victim of glitter’s lure myself. It is just so damn sparkly. Mix that with my 80s upbringing and I’m toast, I just can’t get enough.
You cultivate these crystal growths on ceramic armatures using sodium borate, copper sulfate, or alum. What roles do research and experimentation play in your process?
Research and experimentation play a huge role in my practice. It is part of what keeps me engaged and is what makes my practice so fulfilling. A big part of my initial draw to ceramics was in its ability to transform magically, in surprising ways. Even with extensive research and planning there are always elements that are out of our control that can impact the final result. I am always searching for this collaboration with a material, whether ceramic, crystal or otherwise.
In the past you’ve worked from observation of anatomical models. What other source material or natural forms are you referencing?
It’s been interesting, while I was living on the East Coast, where I was raised and educated, my work was very harsh, angular, gritty. Now that I have been in California for over a decade my references have gotten much more organic, soft, fluid. Now that I spend so much more time outside, I am looking at all natural life – human bodies inside and out, flora, fauna, bacteria. Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature is always nearby and with the internet it is so easy to fall into a wormhole researching just about anything so I am able to get tons of source material quickly. In the past few years I have also spent a lot of time look at vanitas painting and post-mortem photography as I search to capture some of the intensity of those highly charged images.
Can you elaborate on the relationship of your work to memento mori traditions and your tendency to pair the attractive with the grotesque?
My interest in the memento mori tradition came at a point in my life when I was struggling with some deep experiences of loss and mourning. After the subsequent birth of my daughter 2 years ago, the interest has shifted to being more focused on the ephemeral nature of life and happiness. My children bring so much joy to my everyday life that it has been a pretty dramatic shift to my mindset in the studio which has been heavily reflected in the work. The playfulness that they inspire is also infectious and so it has become much easier for me to lean into beauty and create sensual, attractive forms. I resist completely giving in to this impulse however as while I am interested in the simple power of the sublime, I am still more drawn to transgressive darkness. Beauty often feels boring to me so there has to be something else there to give the work teeth and the tension that arises when you have imagery that is both attractive and grotesque at the same time is very interesting to me. While I do want my work to be an escape, I don’t want it to be an easy one. It is important to remember, darkness is always around the corner.
The works exhibited in Extra-Ordinary Collusion at the San Diego Art Institute were large scale, while your other works are often much smaller. How do you determine what scale is appropriate for each series?
It’s all about the relationship to our bodies. I ask myself if I want the work to be immersive and overwhelming or instead if it should be intimate and precious. I greatly prefer large works but started working on the smaller scale when I began traveling frequently for residencies. I would spend a month abroad working, the time frame of which didn’t allow for making larger works as well as considering the difficulty and expense of shipping internationally. In addition, smaller works allow me to work through ideas quickly, encouraging my ability to research and experiment with a much broader range of materials and ideas than my larger works, which often take months to finish.
I know you usually fire a piece between three to five times in order to achieve the desired layering of colors. Can you talk more in depth about your glazing and firing process?
I am obsessed with layered surfaces so I spend a lot of time ensuring the end result of my glazing isn’t flat. The majority of this process is done through layering underglazes and then taking advantage of several variations of clear glaze—some that are more matte and others glossier and most importantly a variation of opacity to create more depth.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
It depends on the piece. Usually because of the type of processes I am using there is a pretty linear set of steps needed to complete the piece. For some works, however, the answer is much more nebulous and I can honestly say for the works are forever open to evolution. I usually achieve the result I am looking for and consider it complete but often I will go back to a piece, even after it has been exhibited several times and I’ll then add a base or enclosure. Or if it is sectional, I will take it apart and build new sections to replace the old ones, completely re-envisioning the work. Sometimes I will just re-work the surface, adding encaustic or flock or resin layers on top of glaze. At the end of the day the most concrete way I know a piece is done is when it is sold and out of my hands to alter more. Until then, nothing is safe.
You state that your works “serve as Rorschachs, inviting the viewer to project their own perceptions and experiences onto the work, informing their interpretation.” What ideas or intentions do you most hope will be recognized by the viewer?
This varies greatly from work to work and series to series. Some works are very personal and abstract and for these my hope is that the viewer can relate through drawing on their own emotional experiences. My more recent work is more intuitive, yet also more representational and my intention is to give the viewer enough signifiers to start to build a narrative but to require them to draw their own conclusions connecting the dots. Most of all I want viewers to have a guttural, emotional response to the work rather than an intellectual or analytical one.
Does your work have any connection to our current environmental crisis, either as a means of confrontation or escape?
Some of the most sublime experiences of my life have involved interactions with landscape and nature. These moments are almost always experienced when I am alone – feeling the vastness of a vibrant, gritty and busy cityscape, driving alone through the open roads of a gorgeous mountain terrain in Montana or breathing in the air and humidity along the cliffs of Northern California’s coastline. While I am frequently asked if my works are responding to environmental issues, and I do care deeply about these concerns, those ideas are not prominent in my thought process when developing work. My use of natural forms and terrains is an attempt to capture some of that feeling, a sense of awe and wonder. My intent is to then offer an alternate experience, an escape from reality where things can appear more brilliant and magical.
You often collaborate with others, including works created in response to conversations with scientist Beverly Emerson of the Salk Institute or large scale installations with your husband, who is also an artist. How have these collaborations shifted your perspective or way of working?
I have a love/hate relationship with collaboration. I usually hate it throughout the process but the end result and the lasting effects are exceptionally fulfilling. My work with Beverly Emerson in particular was very challenging both in its conception as well as in the physicality of creating my largest works to date. It is very hard for me to try to marry my own interests and vision with external ideas and this challenge forces me to broaden the type of work I am making and really hone in on what is fundamentally important to me about both my process and the ideas I am trying to communicate. Without fail, after each collaboration I swear I will never do it again, a conviction that slowly erodes in the following months and years as I see how those ideas have introduced new, exciting directions into my work. And while I still don’t seek out collaborations, I now more readily accept them as I am approached as I realize the pain does come with some gain and it is well worth it.
You’re currently Head of the Ceramics Program at Palomar College, where you’ve been a professor since 2006. How has your experience as an educator guided or impacted your own artistic development?
Becoming an educator has felt like the most natural thing in the world to me. My father is a Professor at Wharton in Philly so I grew up spending a lot of time on the campus at UPenn and even began assisting in his classes when I was 14. This infused in me an enthusiasm for education that hasn’t waned to this day. While I could easily not leave the studio nor my house for days at a time, teaching has forced me to consistently engage with the outside world and to be able to do it in a way where I am exposed to new perspectives and given the opportunity to be an agent of real change and good in my student’s lives. This gives me a positive balance to my studio practice, forcing me outside my own head and by helping students’ navigate their understanding both of the material and their unique point of view, my own understanding and perspective are broadened as well.
For the past two years you also served as Director of Palomar’s Boehm Gallery. How would you describe your approach to organizing and installing exhibitions?
I have been curating since 2010 and it has become a big part of my career. While not always the case, I often begin with a pool of artists that I am intrigued by and then begin to draw out common threads, trying to identify both the commonalities and differences in why I am drawn to their work and through that I develop themes and flesh out exhibitions, researching to find additional artists that will complement and add to the original grouping. I try to take into consideration the venue and audience but even more so, I have recently become very concerned with making sure the exhibitions I organize are reflective of current social issues and instigate dialogue through artists and art works that challenge traditional perspectives or approaches.
What are the best exhibitions you’ve visited over the past year or so?
Having two very young children hasn’t allowed me to get out as much as I would like but I have still gotten to see a few really inspiring exhibitions. I loved Kelsey Brook’s work at his most recent exhibition, Fibonacci, Waveforms and Capsid Symmetries at Quint Projects. BC to BC at the San Diego Art Institute, while inconsistent as a whole, had some of my favorite moments of the year as well – in particular a living room installation created to house both Clayton Bailey’s Blob Creature and a screening of Allison Schulnik’s Eager. I came back several times to see that living room, it felt like a time capsule from the 70s and those works together gave me the chills and thrills.
Can you share some non-visual works of art—from literature, music, or film—that are important to you?Both literature and music are very important to me. There have been many literary journeys that have challenged and moved me that have ended up being very formative experiences. As an adolescent Charles Bukowski really helped me embrace an outsider status and approach the world with a fuck all attitude. Linda Barry’s graphic novels demonstrated a vulnerability and rawness that I strongly identified with. Say a Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad were also very influential novels that I read and re-read absorbing their many layers and nuances. To this day I still fuel my time in the studio with podcasts and audio books that keep me entertained while spending days upon days carving repetitive details. Some of the best stuff I’ve listened to in the past few years are Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. While the news is so dark and stressful nowadays, I find humor to be a welcome respite and something that keeps me energized and motivated in the studio.
Music has also been a huge influence in my life. I was heavily into punk and industrial music as I came of age and became absorbed in that community and lifestyle. Bands like Husker Du, Joy Division, Stiff Little Fingers and Skinny Puppy were the soundtrack of my life and the DIY approach of punk culture was a wonderful start to my interest in combining low and high brow materials together in unconventional way and approaching art making in a way that was simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable. Above all, this influence allowed me to be unapologetic in my passion and vision and to embrace life for all of its crudeness alongside its beauty.
Do you own artwork or maintain any other collections? Are there qualities that you tend to seek out or appreciate in other artists’ work?
My husband and I are avid collectors and quite proud of the depth and breadth of our collection. The diversity of the work we collect is vast though the majority of it has been made by friends and colleagues we have met in our community or through work and travel. I am particularly drawn to work that is intense, weird, often dark or “ugly” and/or confrontational. I love work that makes me feel uncomfortable and challenges the viewer such as Vicki Walsh’s haunting portraits, Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s bold feminist works or PANCA’s raw illustrations and graffiti.
What are you working on right now? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, residencies, curatorial projects, or other news you’d like to share?
I am currently working on a commission for the next exhibition at the San Diego International Airport, Forces of Nature. For it I am creating three large works that are exploring San Diego’s regional landscape through a surrealist perspective. Each work will be presented in a vitrine as if a miniature universe trapped in a snow globe. I will also have work featured in several national exhibitions in upcoming months including at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, MT, the Anderson Center in Red Wing, MN, the Clay Studio in Philadelphia, PA and the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, CA.
To find out more about Sasha and her work, check out her website.