‘Hybrid Practice’ discusses social and economic contexts of art

When New York-based sculptor, educator and organizer Caroline Woolard gave a talk in Lawrence Hall last Thursday afternoon, a large, industrial ladder was leaning against the wall in the front of the room. Its heavy, dull, gray metal frame contrasted sharply with Woolard’s slim figure, button-down shirt and blazer, making it seem as if the space were under construction. While the ladder was not, in fact, one of her sculptures, as I had initially thought, it had been placed there intentionally and was to become part of her performative talk.

In her introduction for Woolard, Nina Palaez, the assistant curator of public programs at the Williams College Museum of Art, stressed the multiplicity of Woolard’s work. “Her work is not about alternative economies, or about sustainability, or about collaboration, or about economic justice … but it lives those ideas and brings them into being,” she said.

While Woolard does not characterize herself as a protest artist, her sculptures and the work she does outside of making art stress collaboration and work to dismantle oppressive systems such as capitalism, real estate and higher education.

In particular, Woolard’s work intersects with the idea of the “solidarity economy,” in which communities are organized by collaboration between its residents and not-for-profit systems, rather than capitalism. “This talk is about the way that the objects and projects that we make can be aligned with the systems that they move through,” she said.

Along with the actual content of her lecture, Woolard’s  self-reflexive talk had three main emphases: mindfulness, transparency and collaboration. Shortly after introducing herself, Woolard stated outright that if anyone in the audience was feeling disengaged or was hoping to text throughout the lecture, they should leave the room. In return for the audience’s undivided attention, she responded with openness about intimate tidbits of her personal life, including how her experience as a queer woman artist influenced her work.

She even took a vote from her audience as to whether she should emphasize the technical and artistic processes fuelling her work, the feelings behind her artistic process or the economic logistics of her life as an artist. After a two-way tie between the first two categories, Woolard jumped right into the story of how she conceived of and created “Capitoline Wolf,” a 2016 sculpture that was commissioned by Cornell.

“Capitoline Wolf,” based on the ancient legend of the founding of Rome, is a series of interconnected wooden tables with sculpted metal legs and a round metal pendant hanging from the surface that abstractly echoes the shape of a wolf’s body. The sculpture drew equal inspiration from her own experience and overall student life at Cornell. It represents the conflict she had with her mother and brother, who went to Cornell and became a “brother” in a fraternity. The she-wolf is thus representative of an absent, fiercely loving mother figure of the often contentious brotherhood between Cornell men in fraternities, just as the wolf in the legend oversaw the conflicted relationship between Romulus and Remus. A wooden segment of a classical Doric column lays at the foot of the table, representing both a seat and Romulus himself, the brother that survived to found Rome.

A series of water-filled cups that open on the top of the table and distend underneath it represent the she-wolf’s udders. They were designed based on a klepsydra, an ancient timekeeping device that measured time based on the amount of water that evaporated from the cups. “The fierce love that you see in the grimacing face of the she-wolf, with her distended udders, is something that I was repulsed by and seduced into … be aware of the history of the limits of the norms and laws of institutions that govern your imagination,” Woolard said.

After discussing “Capitoline Wolf” in detail, Woolard went into deeper detail about her work as a community builder and lecturer. She drew attention to institutions such as the world of high art, in which works normally cannot be touched in museums, and the fact that art education is often sterilized through a lecture format. “There’s this idea that because I make art, I shouldn’t be able to teach it,” she said.

In the middle of the talk, when Woolard discussed her new obsession with ceiling tiles, she finally used the ladder. Clambering effortlessly to the top, she pried a “tile” from the ceiling’s metal framework that was revealed to be a two-square-foot book filled with schematics that she calmly flipped through while continuing to speak.

From displaying diagrams about the economic philosophy of the “solidarity economy” to listing and naming out loud every artist and craftsman that she collaborated with to fabricate all the sculptures that she designed, Woolard’s talk broke through the stiffness that professional artists and lecturers can sometimes cultivate when talking about art. Despite her desire to end the rigidness of the art world, her talk was neatly organized and ended precisely on time. Woolard is hopeful for the future of her artistic practice, even in today’s fragmented political landscape. “To make a future, we have to imagine it, draw it, debate it, refine it, try it and still desire it … These are the key rules that are necessary for these projects,” she said.

Caroline Woolard’s self-reflexive performance talk emphasized three main themes: mindfulness, transparency and collaboration. Photo courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art

  • Augustine25

    I attended Cornell as a graduate student. I remember being more concerned about the constant ice and snow than the fraternity system.