Interview with Shanti Grumbine

Art in time of conflict is not for the faint of conviction. For its makers, it can be leveraged for communication, catharsis, or an attempt at clarity; Brooklyn-based artist Shanti Grumbine engages with all three. She cuts found text and images in reconsideration of the boundaries between absence and presence—between profane and sacred content. Her drawings, prints, and collages make hay of what remains from the material’s original consumption. She neglects no inquiry, sourcing hymns from religious scripts, patterns from antiquated textiles, and most recently, coverage of global political discord in the New York Times. What results are deconstructed presentations of a text’s individual parts, both physical and lyrical.

Shanti Grumbine. Zero, 2014; De-acidified New York Times newspaper, jade glue; 22 x 24 in.

Shanti Grumbine. Zero, 2014; de-acidified New York Times newspaper, jade glue; 22 x 24 in.

Ashley Stull Meyers: We met during your residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and your studio immediately gave the sense of how interested you are in detritus. Your process seems conceptually connected to ephemera and the craft of remaking. How did that begin, and what’s your investment in it?

Shanti Grumbine: My interest in cast-off or found materials started when I was young, influenced by my mother, who was an artist. When I was sixteen, I began working with linoleum tiles that had been pulled up from the floor at Simon’s Rock College, where I went to school. I liked knowing what my substrate would be—a repeated grid—and I got to know the material nature of the tiles. For a while I saved my tea bags, emptying the tea and replacing it with small objects, sewn lines, text, and images…again, a gridded accumulation. It was a type of diary, replacing the daily ritual of drinking tea with the ritual of documenting. Now I work with certain materials for a long time, like the plastic New York Times newspaper sleeves that my subscription comes in. I began making textiles with them at the Bemis. I guess it’s a bit of an anti-capitalist gesture, to spend time with detritus.

It’s also a nod toward the longevity of an object—its shifting narrative role in the physical world. I started to keep the eraser filings when I was working on Names of the Dead because they looked like ashes; I display them with the thin strips of removed text below the redacted newspaper pages. Uncoupled from its original function and value, detritus becomes something freed from its place within language and is, as a result, full of suggestion and possibility.

Shanti Grumbine. In Formation Drawing #10, 2013; ink on found graph paper; 11 x8.5 in.

Shanti Grumbine. In Formation Drawing #10, 2013; ink on found graph paper; 11 x8.5 in.

ASM: Tell me about your decision to work with the New York Times. Why that publication? Does its coverage of conflict speak to you in a different way than other news outlets?

SG: I began working with the New York Times in 2011. To read a newspaper meant reaching out beyond one’s own limited world, shifting one’s internal focus outward. Reading a newspaper was a gesture that kept us all on the same page, literally. For example, if you read interviews with Felix González-Torres, he urges artists to read the New York Times as a way of becoming generally informed. The idea of the newspaper originally comes from a very democratic gesture of accessibility—a vehicle of and for the commons. My use of the New York Times is fraught with conflicting desires, commemorations, and criticisms.

As for conflict, I’m not so much focusing on specific conflict necessarily, but the way power dynamics are born and maintained through language within cultural systems and communication formats. I’m focusing on slowly breaking down or transforming a structure like a newspaper in order to create new modes of visual and metaphorical messages. I was drawn to the New York Times because of its international reach, availability, and reputation for journalistic excellence.

Shanti Grumbine. Selection from “Kenosis”, Ukrainian Leader Strains to Maintain Grip, February 20, 2014, A9, 2014, de-acidified New York Times page, 22 x 12 in.

Shanti Grumbine. Selection from Kenosis, Ukrainian Leader Strains to Maintain Grip, February 20, 2014, A9, 2014; de-acidified New York Times page; 22 x 12 in.

ASM: You reemploy the negative cuts from the NYT as stencils for prints. In the spirit of that, let’s talk about ghosts. The redacted space in your prints is often just a teaser for the way those components will be reintroduced in other areas—but the initial act of “cutting away” is visceral. You remove words and names from one context with the intention of making them visible in another. Do you operate on the tenet that the absence of something is even stronger than its presence?

SG: What immediately comes to mind is Heidegger’s idea of “under erasure,” developed further by Derrida when he talks about the “trace.” A word is crossed out and left visible within a text, and the idea is that it’s inadequate but necessary. In my work it became a type of emptying—a gesture that came from feeling so overwhelmed by not just the conflict and tragedy in the world, but the vast amounts of information available. I used an X-Acto knife and an electric eraser. Because of the structure of the newspaper and the nature of the ink, I couldn’t remove everything. There was residue that remained after the erasure and bits of text left above and below each excision. I think you can even still read most of the text if you try, so this idea of “under erasure” really resonates with me. Silence or absence becomes the reverberation of what was there before. So much postmodern writing deals with the idea of absence as presence—Blanchot’s reconsiderations of Orpheus and the Siren’s Song. And long before deconstruction, there was Plato’s allegory of the cave, which introduced this longing for an essence that is always just out of reach and a realization that our world is made up of simulations, shadows, and ghosts. I think it’s interesting to apply these poetic concepts to journalism and readership. The newest body of newspaper cuts, called Zeroing, deals with this type of cutting away and reinserting of the text to create a formal and visually emotional vocabulary, commentary, and commemoration.

Shanti Grumbine. Persephone, April 2, 2013, A1, 2015; basswood dowels, anodized die, pigment print, mirrors, wood panel, 22 x 29 in.

Shanti Grumbine. Persephone, April 2, 2013, A1, 2015; basswood dowels, anodized die, pigment print, mirrors, wood panel; 22 x 29 in.

ASM: Your most recent work is titled Persephone. What’s your relationship to apocrypha and mythology?

SG: My interest in mythology is mostly with the idea of the underworld—it’s representative of an essential space that we come from and return to but can’t access in life. The goal of journalism is to discover and present an objective truth—which is an impossible task. In my wall relief series, Looking Awry, I create hundreds of handmade square pixels using cut-up digital prints that are fixed to the ends of varying lengths of square dowels on a panel. Rearranging the image, I reference the aesthetic of a corrupted digital file and riff on the political corruption behind each conflict.

And yes, the relationship of images to words is certainly a historical one. A newspaper is set up like an illuminated Bible—even the advertisements become peripheral illustrations of the text, and the text forms a loaded relationship with the advertisements.

Shanti Grumbine. Kenotic Score Drawing #5, 2012; ink on found graph paper, 11 x 8.5 in.

Shanti Grumbine. Kenotic Score Drawing #5, 2012; ink on found graph paper; 11 x 8.5 in.

ASM: You have a series of drawings titled In Formation. Can you tell me about your interest in how geometric lines and forms communicate complex information?

SG: I love that you are asking about the In Formation drawings. This series began as a sketch for a print project called Score, where I was translating the form of redacted newspaper articles into plainchant scores. I wanted to transform one system of information (the redacted newspaper page) into another (a musical score), relying on the similarity of their visual components. The rectangular headlines and pull quotes were interpreted as Medieval square notes, while a red four-line staff served to dictate tonality. I wanted to see what the pages would look like lined up, how the staff would look and if it could function as musical notation, so I drew the newspaper score on graph paper. But the act of drawing took on a life of its own. I isolated the elements of the drawing, stripping them away step by step, both degrading the symbol and transforming it. This informed the way I then worked back into the actual newspaper. I guess I like to go with that type of curiosity, of taking something apart as a way of knowing it better and then allowing it to become something else.

Shanti Grumbine will be a resident at Vermont Studio Center in March 2015.