Other Investigations: Bill Conger

In this investigation Make Space looks at Peoria based artist Bill Conger. Bill’s lyrical titles and unassuming pieces serve as a recollection of the frailty of love, memory, and time. The sincerity that the pieces are created with amplifies the sense of longing and melancholy, which become increasingly haunting as more time is spent with each piece. In this interview Bill discusses the poetic relationship between his titles and his work, touches on his thoughts on memory and time, as well as his studio practice.

Cruel Other (2008)
Cruel Other (2008)
willing still (2011)
willing still (2011)

Bill, the titles in your work seem to be just as important as the physical pieces themselves. The relationship between the two seems fragile and suggestive. Perhaps, the longer one spends with a particular work, the roles change and the piece starts describing the title. Could you elaborate on this relationship? Also, is this a way for the viewer to enter into your work?

Well I do spend a lot of time on the titles—often more time than on the pieces themselves. I take them very seriously. They are vehicles for both the piece and the viewer. I see the titles as a kind of corridor between the two. Often, I am persuaded to keep a work merely based on how a discovered title happens to interact with it. My meager attempt at poetry is the marriage of the piece with its title—making the simple complex and the complex simple. More recently, I have been trying to continue that poetic relationship with the titles through aspects of description rather than the abstract lyricism I have focused on in past works.

In your earlier work, the 72 series, you made delicate and ephemeral, though very realistic, objects out of silicone and aluminum (popsicles, blades of grass, ice, candles, etc.). You seem to have granted these objects with a strange sense of permanence, while heightening the sense of their impermanence through a representation of them. cruel other (2008) is a double popsicle made out of silicone, best years coming (2008) is a small ½” x 2 candle made out of silicone, acrylic, and wire, and blueberry (2008), ½” diameter, consists of wood, rubber, and acrylic.

I should probably preface by saying that the 72 series takes its name from the year that I was 5. I was really trying in a kind of Proustian way to evoke sublime qualities of memory through the re-creation of signifiers in my past. It’s the age that I became aware of mortality, so I guess doing these pieces was a way to confront death. I used the pieces to viscerally realize queues in my memory that I perceived as markers. So the idea was to physically lock them into place much like in the way they were locked in my memory. They have a perceived impermanance that exists only in our conception of the forms. I purposely replicated subjects which through their own fleeting, alchemical transformations could not exist in a permanent way—leaves, ice, fruit, even light. What became obvious very quickly was to sculpt or physically re-construct these things accentuated their emptiness. No matter how convincing I got the objects to appear, they seemed somewhat catatonic. So the best way, it appeared to me, to deal with the shifting perception of memory was through impermanence.

In your recent work we see these objects exist as themselves. For example, willing still (2011) is two framed Popsicle sticks, small meadows (2011) consists of 69 burned votive candles, and more than ever when it can’t be (2011) is a dried strawberry. Why did you start using actual objects instead of a sculptural representation and how did that start changing/informing your work?

The shift from permanent to less stable materials profoundly changed the information that the pieces announced. In fact, it so changed the work’s direction, I felt I could go back and touch on aspects of the 72 subject matter in a different way. This is why the wood and rubber blueberry from the 72 works manifested into more than ever when it can’t be in which a strawberry has been installed directly to the wall and allowed to dry into its final form. The duel silicone popsicles called cruel other (which intentionally mimicked the one on the 1966 Jan & Dean “Popsicle” album cover) re-emerged as willing still consisting merely of two grape-stained sticks. I love the works from 72 very much, but i feel like the newer amalgamations of those works are much more affecting in terms of ephemerality and existence.

Two pieces that really capture my attention are never bell (2010) and your most recent piece, Ein Shemer orchards, Jerusalem (2011). Could you elaborate on these two pieces in particular?

Thank you. They are 2 of my favorites as well. They are both pieces which occurred at the beginning of what I call “work waves” – pieces that inform mini-bodies of works which follow…breakthrough pieces I guess. Both pieces happened at times when I struggled to encapsulate many things at once, but simply. At one point, I really wanted to merge visual experience with a kind of real-life moment in which the one could subconsciously relate. Never Bell integrated an old broken up museum pedestal with a sadly emptied gin and tonic (lemon left over of course) atop as if one has been involved the ultimate museum faux pas—setting your drink on a pedestal. But I also wanted a fantastical daydream component, which could kind of suspend the viewer between places. I had been using sunsets for a while and I thought it rather redundant so I elected to use one turned on its side. I thought the effect was clunky, unpredictable, and sad— all the things I typically try to achieve in my pieces.

The Ein Shemer Orchards, Jerusalem piece is tricky because it’s a recent work and there hasn’t been alot of time since its making to completely be able to make total sense of it. Essentially, I have been a little obsessed with the concept of personal toiletries and have been paying alot of attention to my own morning motions as they involve preparing for my day. In my bathroom, on a white marble countertop sits a black-glazed Athenian vase, which stays stocked with fresh flowers. One morning while going through my sad little routines, I looked at the vase and saw it doubled with one sitting atop the other as if reflected in a mirror. At times pieces just announce themselves like that. I suppose the piece was in my subconscious for some time and it just kind of bubbled to the surface. The title is even trickier to talk about. As I mentioned earlier, I have been pursuing a poetic relationship with the titles through description, not physical description but a kind of description that enhances the moment so at times the titles are places. I had read earlier that those particular orchards yielded an apple with “low chill fruit.” After resisting the temptation to use “low chill fruit” as a title, I decided to build depth and mystery by just using the name of the orchard itself. A title like this seems to demand that the piece do something somewhat miraculous.

The suggestion of time, especially the passage of time, is a reoccurring attribute in most of your work. In your earlier work there is, perhaps, a sense of desperation. In the endless night (2006) there are six candles hastily taped one on top of the other possibly suggesting a desperate attempt to extend time. Or in still no love again (2007), a smashed wine bottle glued back together, suggests the past can never be the present.

This is an excellent question. The work simply needed to evolve and mature and I felt that despite the fact that I had employed many successful approaches in illustrating desperation. I was relying on the “act” too much—the assorted taping, breaking, gluing in frantic abandon. The subjects themselves were becoming a little redundant, which is ultimately ok. But to expand the work’s vocabulary, I decided move away from some of this distraught frenzy. It forced me to explore other types of subject matter, or at least to approach them differently. For example, flowers in various capacities have entered the work for years, but mostly as dead, or dying, or skeletal recollections of various psychological states. In the Ein Shemer… piece we discussed earlier, the flowers are very much real and alive, but the psychology of the piece is different, not unfamiliar but different. I have also been imposing various aspects of structure into the pieces. The structure varies. At times I use geometry as a foil to the ephemera in the work. The honeycomb geometry in Evening Days is contrasted by the mop-water residue which the grey-green coloration was made. In the piece you mentioned, Numbered Nights, the title and knowledge of it being a tissue dispenser brings an emotional component to the work and humanizes the geometry of the flattened box, all the while holding a fairly compelling composition.

In your new work, time is still prevalent, but the suggestions of extending or recreating it are gone. In small meadows the candles are all half burned, in willing still the popsicle is gone only leaving the stained sticks, and in numbered nights the tissues have been used leaving only the flattened box to be framed. How do you talk about time so poignantly in work that is static and does the suggestion of sentimentality within the objects help facilitate this?

I very much appreciate that you think it is still poignant in the work. To put it as bluntly as I can, the concept of time is the most profound entity in life as I see it. I am really fascinated with the passage of time in all aspects of life. In aging, in what is considered progress, and in documentation. But I am mostly compelled by how time exists in memory, or more to the point, my memory. So I try to retrace the distance between memory and whatever inspired it. Proust was a terrific inspiration in my attempts. But I was involved with the process before my feeble attempt at reading “In Search of Lost Time” which I assure you, was unrealized. What I gained from Proust is simply time is loss. Life is unwinnable despite some interwoven ecstasies.

Could you tell us a bit about your studio practice? Is it a place you make work responding to the material you have there or is it a more contemplative place?

I don’t consider my studio an unusual one but many people tell me it is. The space is divided into two rooms. The smaller of the two is really an office with my materials in it. I keep an ipad, printer and a little portable Bose speaker in this room and spend alot of time there researching and writing. I keep a small table of bits of refuse, which for whatever reason, survive being heaved to the garbage. The table is small because of physical constraint, but I also like the limitation that it imposes on me. The materials, which lie in wait are those which hold potential. I have no room to keep the extraneous stuff. It keeps me continually honing and filtering as new materials get introduced. The bigger room is painted white from floor to ceiling. It’s a functional studio space because I need to see the pieces with as little visual interruption as possible, but most people understand it as a small gallery setting which I suppose I can understand given my years curating. The only items in that room are pieces, which are either recently finished or being worked on.

My practice is religious in terms of schedule but erratic in terms of productivity. I work there 9am until mid afternoon breaking for lunch pretty unfailingly. I don’t work the way I did years ago when I was painting exclusively, you know, keeping the brushes moving all the time. It’s more like preparing for stars to align. Often a piece is triggered by materials so I often just drive or meander around the “outside” world looking for materials and moments to inspire. Weeks may go between pieces and at other times three or four pieces may present themselves in a two-day period. It’s very unpredictable. A good amount of my studio work is staying at the ready.

What do you have going on in 2012 that we should know about!?

I am happy to be kicking off the year as panelist in the First Annual Jackelope Art Conference at Northern Illinois University on January 7, discussing mind and material. I have also been working on an all text publication/artwork entitled “Your Mine” with Wrenwood Press at Drake University, the brainchild of my dear friend Ben Gardner. The book will consist of word “sculptures” I have been working on for about a year. They were inspired by a piece I wrote for Ben’s “Methods of Being” magazine. I recently did a similarly inspired piece for M21 this fall in Austria so the idea to compile these pieces as a book is very exciting. I am currently making work for a couple of two-person shows my friends are pitching. I will be doing a one-person show at Heavy Brow Gallery, a terrific space in Bloomington/Normal, Il in April as well. 

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