Mark Mennin talks about the geological, historical, and technical aspects of stone sculpture.
Tracey Hummer: What determines your choice of materials?
Mark Mennin: Stone is the easiest thing for me to project an idea in. I have periods when I model, and cast in iron, or something else, but whenever I come back to stone the process suddenly becomes easier, because I'm thinking in a softer material. I do my own carving, and the reductive process is the way I conceive things. I spent four years copying Greek statues for some people in Texas, which was great because you get comfortable with the material. The quarry process has also become important to me. I like the superstructure of the drill shank marks or the way something breaks after it's been blasted. Jackhammer marks do what a chisel mark or a brushstroke does. Earlier when I was just a chipper or a carver I still felt compelled to show every part of the process somehow. There would always be a tooth chisel mark, a flat chisel mark, a point chisel mark, a natural break, and a highly polished area. All that would somehow end up being in a carving. Even in working on a fountain, I wanted cuts from the wire saw to show. They were very figurative things in the beginning. Donatello's reliefs grab me more than anything else in art history. They take advantage of the pictorial and the tactile. The face of a cliff is similar to that, even along the highways, in the drill-blasted splits along highway cuts. There's a quarry in New Milford that's white marble, and they're letting me do spontaneous relief carvings on some of the quarry walls. Another factor in working with stone is that the more geology you read into something, the smaller you feel.
Mark Mennin: "In Testudo - The Miners" (detail), 1994. Brazilian blue granite and iron, 42 x 30 x 7.5 cm.
Hummer: How did you begin working with stone?
Mennin: I was a ceramist first, and I worked with Toshiko Takaezu. She's the mother-bee of ceramics now, but her work might as well be in stone. It doesn't matter what her work is in anymore. And that's sort of been an aspiration in my use of stone, to not have it matter that it is stone. As far as the image or the conceptual side goes, you need the highest possible level of artisanry so that practical things don't matter because you're in control. If you're in control of the practical things, they won't be getting control of you, so your piece won't be all about lamination or construction or splitting because that's just not enough. When you're in control of the stone there's a lot more spontaneity. I hate hearing about "my struggle with the material." It's good to show a struggle, but it's also good not to have your conceptual side compromised by your inability to use the material. I think when an artist gives a model to artisans to execute as a full-scale piece, it might as well be cast in bronze. The artist's entire soul is not in the piece. When artists translate an idea from something else into stone, there's something not quite whole about the work. That's why I don't like the casting process as much, because it's a secondhand idea by the time you get the final material.
Hummer: How did you make the transition from ceramics to stone?
Mennin: I always wanted to be a carver, because of the mystique of stone. I had a rock collection when I was five years old, and I took a few geology classes in college. Working with stone seemed like one of the greatest achievements that you could strive for it doesn't have that mystique for me anymore. But even when I was involved with ceramics, I had stone in the back of my mind. Stone has so many marvels. I'm making house forms now in stone, they're rusty on the outside and green on the inside. They're houses without roofs and provide no shelter. There's a lot of carving on the inside and a lot of work on the outside.
Mark Mennin, "Le Muy", France, 1994. Photo: Barbara Vaughn.
Hummer: Are these freestanding, outdoor pieces?
Mennin: Yes, they're like doghouses without roofs. I want sculpture to have a detailed infrastructure that you can experience up close, like the detail of Michelangelo's Moses: you can't see that arm and not touch it. That's what marveling at a detail is: great carving is something you see as a whole but you also notice particular things. I made an attempt to "unstone" myself, about six years ago, but it didn't really work because I still kept tying stone in with the steel, like in one piece that used red stone and patinaed steel. And the stone was still, after all, the protagonist material, even though it was the smallest component. Stone forces you to have an understanding of the sciences, geology and biology, and you must know history. And I think even a conceptual piece needs to be backed up with the best possible execution, because art is communication. You have to have a geological knowledge there's more history in stone than in any other sculptural material. It's important to at least be aware of ideas that have already been expressed, but also not to try to be innovative for the sake of innovation. So there's the history side, the artisanal side, and the science side. Man's intervention with stone mimics geology: a split or a break is the same thing that happens when a chip comes off, and grinding is like erosion, and sandblasting is like a couple of centuries of sand going against an Egyptian granite head. It's our puny little intervention a lot of things, like the little drawing on the fountain that I made, are supposed to be puny and the big gesture is in the construction. There are a lot of little ironies with stone. I'm very nomadic and it may be the wrong material to be nomadic in. Larger projects don't have to have an entirely different sensibility than a small object you can hold in your hand. Whether you're grinding something with a nine-inch grinder or you are carving it down, the same thing is happening, and both processes can benefit from the knowledge of the other. And you will be more delicate in your grinding where you have to and you'll be more brutal with the other things. There are healthy balances. You don't have to get bogged down by the materiality of stone. It offers you a diverse palette, with the color of the stone, how it is manipulated, how much it is filed or chiseled. There is a red stone that is purple when it's finished with up to 100-grit sandpaper, then when you take it to a high polish it's red again. The task is to make these large architectural or geological objects organic and on a human scale. In smaller-scale sculpture, the interest is more conceptual. It's more literal in an architectural context. If something has enough historical baggage, like stone does, you have to be a bit of a heretic to do something interesting with it rather than a clich . But there are inherent ironies to a material; that's why pillows fascinate me, or the softness of a nose it's a different aspiration than Bernini's trying to make stone into flesh. It's interesting just to make it into something else. There can be a soft wetness in something that's carved. All the noses I've carved, by the way, are broken, like my own. Broken noses are more interesting than perfect noses. Less perfect stone is more interesting than perfect stone for me as well. As a found object ethic I couldn't conceive of buying a perfect square somewhere and paying for it by the pound. Nothing is more terrifying to me than a blank canvas or a perfect square. I've always taken the garbage away from quarries. Maybe it's an American thing to find junk and reconstitute it, recycle its meaning. I was always fascinated by the fact that when you are in a quarry town, whether it's Italy or upstate New York, the cheapest building material is the local stone you'll see houses of white marble in the village of Colonatta because it's cheaper than brick. And every diner near a quarry in New York has green granite counter tops. Of course at the end of the day in a quarry you go into a diner or a bar, and there it is again!
Mark Mennin, "Nocturne", 1996. White marble, white onyx, black marble, and iron, 139.7 x 50.8 x 17.8 cm.
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