Alice Combs, Tropaion, 2015, partly covered by one of her patchwork crazy quilts. Photograph: Christopher Squier.

“Footnotes” is a new project by Christopher Squier, re: studio visits and artist interviews. It examines the detritus and milieu of artists’ studios as an alternative approach to discussions of process, reference and inspiration, alongside the physical spaces devoted to working. Initially, I photograph elements of the artist’s studio which draw my interest, avoiding finished work. Subsequently, the interview takes each of these photographs as a point of departure for our conversation.

Alice Combs, is a San Francisco-based artist and a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) MFA program in Painting. Combs uses everyday materials like human hair, blueprints and discarded wrappers, manipulated through repetitive and laborious processes, to create assemblage drawings and sculpture to address the biological and aspirational bases of individual and collective action. Combs’ work ranges from abject reminders of our internal body via Victorian diseases or the gastrointestinal tract to failed attempts at an imagined ideal in her painting striving to achieve the form of her gymnastics trophy (shown, hidden beneath a blanket, above) or her hopeful proposal to retain room for artists in San Francisco by burrowing underground. Her studio is located in the building of Hella Slingshots in Bayview. 

Her work is currently exhibited at Root Division as part of Bizarre Bazaar, an exhibition curated by Michael Arcega on the unexpected connections between commerce, the fetish commodity, and the collapse that is often built into the dystopic capitalist system. Bizarre Bazaar will be on view through August 17th.

Broken chalk hand found in Combs’ studio. Photograph: Christopher Squier.

CS:   In relation to some of the finished work I saw in your studio, it was clear that this was a test piece you were using to experiment with new materials and processes. The role of experiments and mistakes is an important aspect of the art process for me, and it has sometimes drastically changed the final work. 

What directions were you initially imagining for this piece, and are there versions of what this might have been that you still feel attached to?

AC:   I was imagining just stretching a glove over a big block of chalk, then putting acupuncture needles in the “hand” according to some chart. Turns out, chalk is pretty breakable, so a big block never survived the attempts to engulf it in a glove. I thought, what the heck, I’ll just break it down all the way once it’s in the glove. The crumbled chalk also provided better support for the needles. 

In this experiment, the needles are placed according to a hand-acupuncture chart I got off the internet and considered memories that maybe needed healing/resolution and places on my body I associated with those memories. I thought the end result of this exercise looked a bit too anemic and unreadable on multiple levels, so my next thought was to simply cover the hand in needles. 

At times, I feel like my entire body/soul needs healing … and I think that is a more readable sentiment and kind of humorous. Serendipitously, after a month, the glove started breaking down, and the fact that it is filled with white gymnastics chalk becomes more apparent. 

I’m also wondering if I can make latex gloves for other body parts...the only body parts you can easily buy gloves for are hands and penises. What about feet? Entire arms/legs? Heads? I feel like “body condom” was a comedy sketch I’ve seen somewhere, haha! Before I settled on using glue to make “sweat-bead” tips of the needles, I experimented with soldering onto them. The solder didn’t stick very well, and wasn’t giving the shininess I’d hoped for, but I’m still attached to the idea of learning/experimenting with metalwork and acupunture needles.

CS:   It seems like you prefer to use everyday and non-art materials in many of your projects. What, specifically, are these needles for, and how do you think about sourcing tools or materials when you’re not using traditional art materials?

AC:   The needles are for acupuncture. As far as sourcing materials, I really enjoy the challenge of altering the things we think we know, and how weird the everyday can be. Although I sometimes get criticism for using obviously-thrift-store materials, I still sometimes use them because (a) as an eco-conscious artist, the less I can support the manufacture of “new” materials, the better and (b) used things have whole other life stories before I decided to use them for a weird-ass art project, and those unwritten stories add something intangible.

Printed acupuncture chart found in Combs’ studio. Photograph: Christopher Squier.

CS:   This acupuncture reference chart reminds me of a work our artist-in-residence Adelita Husni-Bey presented at Kadist. The work focused on tracking the location of bodily pain caused by the system of Capitalism, in an attempt to provide diagnoses. You took part in one of her performative check-ups. If you don’t mind sharing, what was your diagnosis, and have you thought about her piece in relation to your work or practice since then?

Adelita Husni-Bey. Part of the exhibition Movement-Break, detail view of installation at Kadist Foundation, 2016. Results of encounters on pain held with participants. Ink and pen on medical paper. Photograph courtesy of Husni-Bey.

Adelita Husni-Bey. Part of the exhibition Movement-Break, detail view of installation at Kadist Foundation, 2016. Results of encounters on pain held with participants. Ink and pen on medical paper. Photograph courtesy of Husni-Bey.

AC:   Unfortunately, due in equal parts to my thick-headedness and an ambiguously-worded email, I was never able to participate in the diagnosis checkup, but I did do the preliminary consult she held at the opening. I remember telling her that my wrists and face hurt, and she marked on the outline of my body those areas. Wrists hurt from my job as a framer, using a staple-gun too much and not ergonomically.

My face hurts sometimes, especially when I’m doing yoga, and I realize the muscles in my face feel exhausted probably due to my people-pleasing nature. I unconsciously smile or laugh when I’m uncomfortable … come to think of it, I’ve laughed inappropriately through a few painful conversations, mostly to put the other person at ease. I’ll cry alone later.

Oh woman, I definitely have an art-crush on Adelita’s work at Kadist. It really opened up a new lens through which I can look at my own work. Connecting specific pains to the larger project of Capitalism is so smart, and I think is maybe the missing link of why many young athletes strive for unrealistic goals. I was so surprised that she wasn’t an athlete herself. American Capitalism blames the individual for their own shortcomings and pain, so I end up blaming myself for getting injured when I was a gymnast or not being good enough at that sport (or in all other things, ha!).

Adelita’s work with de-individualizing pain caused by our participation in Capitalism is pretty revolutionary to me because it shines a light on a force that aims to keep itself invisible. I had never considered its role in shaping my desires. Now, I think about this question all the time: what if everything I desire is just a manifestation of external desires? The inversion of internal and external desires was something I wanted to represent with the glove/chalk/acupuncture needle project, and in upcoming projects.

Poster found in Combs’ studio. Photograph: Christopher Squier.

CS:    For something completely different, this poster of Cleo-Cat-Tra is really fun, but I also think it’s a good note on your character, in the best ways. How do absurdity and humor play into your work?

AC:    Haha!—it has everything you could ever want in art! Puns, cats, gold, and Blake Jensen (I guess he’s a famous cat sculptor??). I find a ton of absurdity in objects produced for the sole purpose of collecting them. Like, why? How did the world come to this?

For me, a lot of humor comes out of misinterpreting unspoken rules. In a few different projects, a misinterpretation becomes the impetus for me to develop a technique or process that speaks to that misinterpretation. Art is great at alerting us to rules we weren’t even aware we abide by. And it can be really funny when suddenly those rules are violated.

Athletic trophy found in Combs’ studio. Photograph: Christopher Squier.

CS:   What is the role of athleticism, including your experiences as a gymnast, within your work?

AC:   I’m sure I’m like many athletes in my experience of having sensation-motion dreams even years after doing a sport. It is somewhat impossible to communicate that experience … you get closer with GoPro cameras, but the actual bodily experience of how gravity acts on you from one moment to the next—suddenly I’m weightless and suddenly I have twice my weight—I have not really found the right words. It seems like something art could tackle, though.

I think athletics at a young age is a mixed bag. For instance, I think gymnastics (and genetics) set me up to be physically healthy for a lifetime, but in other ways, it was unhealthy. I think the question of why I felt compelled to do the sport in the first place is the most interesting, and is a question that I try to ask in my work.

In the trophy self-portrait work [Tropaion, the image shown at the beginning of this article], I wonder … am I actually good at anything or am I just a good, tolerant mimic? Most of gymnastics comes down to who is the best mimic of actions others have given certain values. It’s a paradox I think that identity can sometimes be found in the disciplined copying of things. Am I upholding an oppressive system that includes athletics or am I pushing against it?

CS:   You told me you had to cover up this piece (Tropaion) because you were tired of looking at it. Why was that, and do you think the space restrictions for artists (holding onto artwork in our studios) causes our past work to dictate our future directions, or even, in a way, to haunt us?

AC:   I looked at it for about two months straight while I was painting it, but now when I look back at it, it’s like amnesia, I don’t remember exactly how it came about. And I get lost looking at it because it’s shiny (haha!), or looking at the areas I’d maybe change, thinking about how to make them better. It’s just too distracting. Is distracting the same as haunting?

Yeah, I think having past work physically next to new things you’re working on has to dictate each other, but I think it can be useful rather than restricting. Because I have diverse modes of working, having my old work all in one place can help me see larger themes that connect these modes. I guess I could just turn it around, but I like having part of it sticking out as a subconscious reminder.

Side note: the blanket covering the painting was also one I occasionally slept under in the grad studios, and is made from t-shirts I had in high school.

Shadows in Combs’ studio on a portion of the blueprints used in her piece Plan Backup The … Photograph: Christopher Squier.

CS:    I’ve been trying to avoid photographing completed work for this studio visit, but I really like this piece. The hole-punched paper is a fragment of a work shown at Embark Gallery recently and is, I think, a blueprint of a gallery and concert venue that closed its doors in the Mission district this past year.

Your proposal with this work was to tunnel underneath the former gallery to create enough space for a new, subterranean gallery, making room for the new and old San Franciscos side-by-side. At Embark, you were exhibiting the work for the second time and adapted it to its new location by punching the holes in the blueprints of the space.

Having recently graduated, we both know a lot of people struggling to find studio spaces, exhibitions, and ways to stay in San Francisco. In addition to thinking of your studio as a space for labor and storage, if you were to think of it as an exhibition space (meant, at least, for yourself as an audience), how would you imagine a future version of this piece, with its references to dispersal and relocation?

AC:    Ooh, I like that way of thinking about a studio! And, it is an exhibition space where the viewer (me or my studio-mate Hadar) expects things to change in non-prescribed ways.  

Hm, I don’t know if I want to do another version of that piece. I’d have to talk to Txutxo, who gave me permission to use the blueprints. He’s a printmaker now working on this awesome project Undercover, giving custom-made blankets/ponchos to homeless people downtown. I think it’s time to move on.  

Yeah, it is such a struggle all the time. Time and space are the limiting factors of doing good art ... ugh. I think about all the projects I could be doing if I didn’t have a day job and was somehow still financially secure. How much good art never comes into existence because artists aren’t financially supported?

I feel lucky to have a shared studio space and a few exhibitions, but I definitely want more. A lot of our cohort have begun to make their own opportunities, opening galleries, and starting their own publications, like this one. That is really exciting to me, and I try to support these efforts whenever I can.

Combs’ studio at the Hella Slingshots building in Bayview. Photograph: Christopher Squier.

Christopher Squier is a sculptural- and digitally-based artist living in San Francisco. He recently completed the SFAI + Kadist Curatorial Fellowship and graduated with an MFA in Sculpture from SFAI. Squier is currently completing a residency in Trondheim, Norway.