When I sat down with Rebecca Goldfarb a couple months ago, she helped me navigate some unfamiliar notions of conceptual art. I still feel a little lost some times, but at least I know that when it comes to art, it's not rude to stare.
Bay Area native, Rebecca Goldfarb, has had a curious history with language, no doubt affected by her mother's profession as a poet. She recalls an early experience with homophones:
"We could take the short-cut, but I always called it the 'hare-cut' because of 'The Tortoise and the Hare' and that was the quickest way to go. Then when I actually went to get my hair cut, I would call it 'I got my short cut'"
This playful relationship with language developed in tandem with her creative instincts towards visual expression:
"Language and the visual world were always there [...] I spent a lot of time making cards for my family and for my mom, on birthdays. So these cards would end up a lot of times having this language[-play] mixed in with the card"
At Pitzer College, Goldfarb thrived in the interdisciplinary and creative mode of the school, dual majoring in environmental studies and art:
"I could have done Enigmatology, but I didn't think of it at the time"
While a student, she produced an experimental improv theater group, which naturally involved a lot of creative use of language. During a design class, Goldfarb saw an intriguing photo from a magazine article on glass blowing, which introduced her to the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state:
"I was already interested in glass as this brilliant, seductive material [...] that was the beginning of this... can you say it was an adventure? [Yes,] it was an adventure!"
She convinced a professor to let her study glass and was set up with Jane Marquis. Marquis had studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College and passed on a number of ideas about color and minimalism:
"She worked a lot with just squares of color [...] She would say there's no such thing as contrasting colors - she taught me a lot about color, actually [...] Maybe that's where some of my interest in this very minimal separation of color came from"
After graduating, Goldfarb apprenticed in glass blowing and casting with Reddy Lieb. Lieb had a curious bicycle wheel on the wall of her studio, which was a readymade:
"Maybe I'd heard of Marcel Duchamp before [...] but that was the moment in which I remember it actually resonating with me [...] so somehow this whole world of conceptual art-making opened up"
Following her apprenticeship with Lieb, Goldfarb continued to pursue glass-making at Pilchuck. Incidentally, the experience furthered her growing interest in conceptual art:
"Pilchuck, unexpectedly, was personally a fecund environment for thinking beyond glass (oddly) because I met artists such as Kiki Smith and Maria Porges who were a part of Pilchuck's visiting artist program"
Within conceptual art, Goldfarb became interested the relationship between perception and experience. Surrealism was also particularly influential to Goldfarb:
"Art is so open to interpretation and there are so many ways in which you can approach something [...] You can create a kind of experience [...] that is not based in reality, or references reality in a way that allows you to look at what we call reality [...] I love Surrealism in that way: that it takes things that we would think to be so dissonant in our world as we approach it and puts them together in humorous ways"
To that end, language continued to be a wealth of inspiration. Her early exploration of visual puns, such as a "Standing on Your Soap Box" with wax legs perched on a collection of soap boxes or "Lip Service" using a tea service cart, reflects her own sense of humor:
"I was taking images and language that I was interested in and giving it a new way of looking at it in the physical world [...] I think part of the humor comes from that how you can mix up what you already know and what you know about what you're seeing"
Goldfarb's odyssey had eventually brought her back to the Bay Area, where she would study in the San Francisco Art Institute library. She discovered that, Marcel Duchamp, had given a lecture there and decided to apply for Masters in New Genres:
"I really did want to think and make things that were beyond any one particular material [like glass]. I was interested in making things that were about thinking about things"
"I'd spent two months in Kenya when I was 21 and David's connection to Africa and his meditative yet grounded approach to making art resonated with me. We'd often have tea at his house, 500 Capp, which reveals David's way of working and is also filled with African artifacts. We became great friends and I loved his irreverent sense of humor"
For her latest series, Goldfarb considers this phenomenal consciousness, or that of the raw sensory experience, by displaying a monochromatic field of color. Making some reference to Kazimir Malevich's black squares, Goldfarb's pieces initially appear to be non-represenational:
"I don't think about the color [in terms of classical] emotional responses to color. I think it more has to do with a cognitive response."
However, as a viewer looks closer, the object that Goldfarb has photographed may become apparent, triggering access consciousness to retrieve stored information to name the object:
"I take very ubiquitous objects, everyday objects. It's important actually [that] once you do recognize what the object is within that color field that it's an object that is easy for anyone to wrap their mind around [...] It's important that they're everyday objects because it relates to language in this way - that when there's the moment of identifying, or accessing, what it is that it's a simple thing that's recognizable to most people."
In a way, Goldfarb has always know that there was something funny, and slightly arbitrary, to the words that we use. She has honed in on the mechanics of language and perception to explore how art can expose gaps in visual perception just as a homophone can reveal a gap in language perception:
"What excites me about this work is that there are different ways of seeing the same thing and that it can oscillate back and forth between different ways of seeing. It is about the act of seeing."