“An Interview with Joe Segal”
University Gallery • University of North Florida • Jacksonville
by Paul Karabinis
Joe Segal earned his BA (Magna Cum Laude) in Visual Arts from Flagler College in St. Augustine where he studied with renowned sculptor Enzo Torcoletti. Segal also studied bronze casting at the Sculpture Center in New York and did an apprenticeship with sculptor Murray Schlam in Melville, New York. Most recently, Segal exhibited at Studio 501 in New York. The work on display is from the past year in which the artist has explored splitting, charring and burning of wood fragments. Segal makes the following comment upon his work: “Sculpture is the intersection of materials and processes. Each, with their properties, redefines the other. As a result of this interaction, the nature of the material used may be liberated or obliterated. The exploration of this relationship between intention and repercussion defines my work.”
Paul Karabinis: Tell me a little about the work on display in the University Gallery.
Joe Segal: I’ve been using a linear element and a circle for a long time…the connotation of something organic [the circle] versus something hard and geometric [the line]. That led to working with the ellipse, which I think of as a perfect form because it is the union of those two elements. I was doing a lot with the ellipse and I started feeling that pieces were becoming overworked and not saying the things I wanted them to. I then started working with the circle and line in the context of a wooden beam. I’m intrigued by beams because they are geometric shapes extracted from an organic form. Most people don’t look at timber that way.
PK: I think of the circle and the line metaphorically. The circle always returns whereas the line always moves away from itself.
JS: Right. There is a difference between a cycle versus a passage. A circle is more introspective kind of symbol. It goes back into itself. A line is not, it is a segment. These elements often symbolize contrasting notions: rational-emotional, male-female, etc.
PK: Your earlier painted works are very clean, cool and formal. The more recent burnt wood pieces seem warmer and more earthy.
JS: The pieces are warmer because the processes that got them to that point are evident. They have been shredded, burned, and scraped, but I don’t look at them and get an agitated feeling. I hope that the effect this work has is not a violent one. The wood has gone through a violent process but has come to a peaceful resolution.
PK: But as manufactured wood, the beams are intended for use in some sort of functional project. They don’t look like what they are at all. They look like you’ve chopped something out of a tree…
JS: (laughing)…which is how they became two by twelves. It’s a bit of returning to what the wood originally was.
PK: The aluminum seems to be the real evidence of the human touch. On the one hand, this work has the look of something that has been found, then affected or modified by you. The added, polished aluminum seems to burst through these organic forms as if it were trying to split the wood apart.
JS: That is the paradox. What is this cold [aluminum] form doing? Is it supporting the piece? Is it shaping the piece? Is it cutting the piece in half? That’s pretty much it. A reminder that the human touch is often a need for order and function. I hope that its presence asks questions.
PK: Why do you torch the wood?
JS: By burning the wood and then scraping it, I’m exploring how the grain reacts. I know the torching seems destructive when you look at it, but that’s really not the intention. There are stronger grains and weaker grains. It is all revealed by cutting, burning and scraping…wiping out and revealing the nature of the wood at the same time.
PK: Tell me about the blue-blackish color of some of these pieces.
JS: I experimented some with powder pigments, but I wasn’t satisfied. I was trying to contrast the warmth of the scupltures with the cold blue color. But with a symmetrical composition and the use of aluminum, the pieces already had a cool tone.
PK: This interview is being conducted in a house you built. You’ve utilized many materials you use to make art, but you’ve made something very functional, and utilitarian with them. Can you comment on the dichotomy between something so functional as the house you built and the essentially abstract nature of your work?
JS: We’re talking about the idea of looking for the utility of objects. The house is an object composed of elements. It’s just grids and right angles and perpendicular lines. And it’s assembled in a way which we use and which we understand. The shapes that we make only have a significance because we use them. They are nothing by themselves except in context. You can look at most things broken down and there’s nothing inherently useful or abstract in anything. People understand what their needs are because they think in very literal terms. They want a big kitchen, a large bedroom; but when you look at pure elements or art, it becomes this other language that artists use but a lot of people don’t understand. If you gave someone a blueprint of a house and asked them to arrange it so that they could have whatever they wanted, they could give it a good shot. But if they were just given lines and told to arrange them so they were pleasing, it’s a different thing. What does a composition have to do? What do those lines have to do just to exist?
PK: I suppose we need to project a function on nonfunctional things. It’s a human tendency.
JS: A sculpture is an object and that’s the way people relate to a three-dimensional thing. A piece of scuplture is in the viewer’s dimension; it’s something they can bump into and touch. Immediately they ask: What does it do? I think that a lot of people want a function from a piece of sculpture because they use objects everyday. You don’t find that with two-dimensional work. People look at two-dimensional work and it’s immediately a new reality. They are entering a different dimension with it.
PK: I’m holding one of the two by twelve beams you’ve used for the work in this show. How do you begin working with such wood?
JS: I start with a chainsaw. But instead of carving the wood, I score and break it. Sometimes strange things happen. It’s a dialog that goes on between wanting to do something with this material and reacting to what the material has to offer. So when I split the wood down the middle, I want to create something symmetrical. But wood has all these fibers and knots, etc. So there is a meeting between symmetry, which is what I want, and asymmetry, which is what the wood has to offer.
PK: What is your agenda in working this way? It seems as if there is something in the wood that you are trying to reveal.
JS: I suppose for anyone that works subtractively – carving – you are getting something out. There is no specific sculpture in this wood. But this piece of wood is going to react to a sculpture being extracted from it. That reaction is examined while I’m working.
PK: I get the feeling that there is a physical and metaphorical struggle between the sculpture and the wood or stone. You’re trying to split it apart from its natural condition to reveal something.
JS: The whole thing is a soul-searching process. Is it an exercise in vanity or am I really looking for something? I have a hard time with my work. Even the simple pieces are difficult. I think the most important part of being a sculptor is the ability to realize your ideas. I guess that’s true with any artist. How do you bring a theory, which can be a very abstract notion into a physical reality? In addition to creating the work, it has to hold together. It has to be constructed, and there are elements that are not always in your control when you are working with natural materials. The concept can be altered by the methods used to define it, but I think that’s an exciting part of the process.
© 1996 Paul Karabinis