Panya Clark Espinal

A Conversation with Panya Clark Espinal

This interview between Marnie Fleming and Panya Clark Espinal appears in The Visitor, a catalogue published by Oakville Galleries, Oakville, Canada

Marnie Fleming Your new work seems to have its origins in an element of a much earlier work—the hummingbird suitcase in Research and Discovery (1988). Would you agree?

Panya Clark Espinal There are visual connections with the hummingbird suitcase because it contained a tray which was divided up into compartments and had been custom-made to house a scientist’s collection of birds. But when I think about the connection between this work and the previous work, I think about it really being more about desire. Research and Discovery came out of looking at National Geographic magazine and being seduced by objects that have been hand-made by people and then documented by the exoticizing medium of the magazine. With these new works the initial seed also came from looking at a magazine, this time it happened to be Martha Stewart Living. It was about seeing this world where things were idyllic and beautiful and custom-made to suit a particular purpose. Other aspects unique to Martha Stewart Living interested me as well, but to me that’s the primary connection to my earlier work.

MF Today your containers or repositories are empty. What accounts for this difference and what is important to you now in working with various kinds of containers?

PCE Initially my intention was to take an armoire and create compartmentalized trays or shelves to house some kind of activity in. I thought about having all my mosaic materials and tools in it, so all these jars of coloured glass and things would find a place in the container. This is what the original article in Martha Stewart Living was about; making secret rooms by taking large containers—like wardrobes—and changing them to house a collection or activity. When I started working on them, I realized right away that they were much more interesting when they were empty. Somehow, just the configuration of the compartments would trigger a notion in the viewer as to what might be kept in the compartments. Each viewer would come to the piece and fill that space for themselves. As the work developed I also became interested in different kinds of containers and the various designs each would trigger.

MF There is also the sense of surprise when you open them up and the initial guesswork of “what am I going to find?”

PCE The sense of anticipation and emptiness is a new direction in my work. A few years ago I recognized a desire within myself to develop a parallel practice to my site-specific and installation work that was studio-based. I felt that working on an ongoing series of pieces would give me the opportunity to develop my ideas more autonomously from the exhibiting process. As well, I was anticipating that I would be going through some lifestyle changes.

MF Well, when I first saw the hatbox piece you were pregnant. Would this be pushing the ideas of “expectation” and “anticipation” too far?

PCE Certainly I think the ideas of anticipation and emptiness and waiting—and knowing that there is something that is going to be filled—and not really knowing what that was going to be, or how it was going to operate in my life, has a lot to do with it. Also I found that once I went into the studio, it was challenging to face the “blank canvas” in front of me, but I recognized I could make up my own parameters. I ended up with these containers and they became my sites. They set the rules. So in a way, I’m still creating site-specific work. It just happens to be a site that is contained in a moveable object. It seems that is the only way I can work.

MF And yet you’ve talked to me about the Gairloch estate—now a gallery but once a home—as appealing to you as a site in which to exhibit your work.

PCE Yes, it appeals to me. A big part of it is that the objects are domestically scaled and are themselves domestic objects. I didn’t think it would serve the art well to exhibit it in an institutional space that would dwarf the objects. I just think the architectural elements will suit these particular pieces.

MF It seems to me that there is an architectural structure to the interiors of the new work. When you showed me the maquettes for these pieces they could have just as easily been grand architectural models. Have you been influenced by architecture?

PCE Well, I was raised by two architects! There was a lot ot planning things out on graph paper. My parents renovated their home themselves and were into many creative endeavours. It all had an influence on me.

MF Are there any artists with whom you feel an affinity?

PCE I always strike out with that question. While I have respect for many artists—especially those who are uniquely obsessive!—my own inspiration comes from other things. That can be something like magazines, as I have mentioned, or utilitarian things—such as displays, industrial processes and such. I try not to think about what other artists have done.

MF What criteria or qualities do you look for in selecting your containers?

PCE Well, most of them are from antique markets. I especially looked for containers that were rough, dark, worn, and not at all fancy in terms of their construction. I knew that I wanted the interiors I fabricated to feel clean and luminous against the exterior. When I opened them up I wanted to see if any ideas were triggered by just looking. Then I would ask—is it interesting enough? Is it unique? Is there something that draws me to this object?

MF I find there is almost an op-art sensibility to the interiors of your containers. What are some of your considerations with shape and colour?

PCE Initially I was determined not to do anything tricky or illusionistic with the pieces because this is what some of my other work is about and I wanted to avoid that. Especially with the earlier pieces, like the hatbox which I call Witness, I had to remind myself to keep it simple, open and fresh—not to overcomplicate it. Then, as I went along, I weakened to the point that, with Tart, I got a little over the top! Eventually I found that each container began to assume its own personality and they became like portraits of people.

MF Hence the names you’ve given them?

PCE Yes, the titles introduce a notion of these things being about roles people play, not only personality traits but the way in which they relate to others. I also think of the containers being like bodies and the interiors being descriptions of an aspect of ones spirit or soul. There are different ways in which the interiors could have been configured, so it is as though each container is being visited by an aspect of itself.

MF Have you ever had any doubts about what you are doing?

PCE Sometimes I show the work to those who are not accustomed to looking at contemporary art and I am sure they are thinking, “Why would someone do this?” They ask if I am going to put something in them and are a little bewildered when I say no. They want them to be filled up. I guess I sometimes have doubts about how effective they are going to be as art works. However, my feeling is that if I don’t have these doubts then I am not taking risks in the work.

MF Surely your doubts are what Martha calls “…a good thing!” Can I ask you about the process of making the pieces? You mentioned earlier that graph paper was important.

PCE Yes. I would buy these wonky containers and then when I got home and measured them, I would inevitably find they weren’t square or even. I would consider the shape of the container, how many divisions I would have, and how deep those divisions would be—then it became mathematics—designing something on paper. With every container I would fabricate a model out of foamcore or cardboard and fit them into the actual containers to see what they would look like. At this point I would either scrap the models, adjust them or be happy. With some there was a lot of re-working that took place and with others they just fell magically into place. The cupboard, or Diva, was like that.

MF Systems, particularly those dealing in network storage or archival technology, are becoming critical to our work-a-day world. Is this something that you think about with this work?

PCE I think it is completely relevant. In our society there is an over abundance of stuff and information. We all feel out of control when things are stacking up around us. I also think the whole Martha Stewart thing is an over-the-top obsessive way of fashioning your life so that everything has its place—so that you have control over this abundance. My pieces are largely about this. Ultimately, I have found relief in the emptiness and have enjoyed the potential it implies.

Marnie Fleming, 2001