Slikwiks, Pennyworts, and Sea Urchins

Phoebe Washburn transforms humble materials into something unexpected and extraordinary.

COMPESHITSTEM—the new deal, installed earlier this year in the Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover, is a larger, more complex version of Tickle the Shitstem, 2008.


Hauling two-by-fours, packs of Gatorade, fish tanks, fluorescent golf balls, and sprouting narcissus bulbs into the Whitney Museum last year to recast a gallery into one of her signature madcap architectural ecosystems, Phoebe Washburn experienced a moment—one she hadn’t planned—in which art and life tangled.

The maintenance staff had placed Slikwiks, flexible gray tubes stuffed with sawdust, under the sills of one of the museum’s trapezoidal windows to soak up condensation during the biennial. “I had brought my own in case there were any leaks in my installation,” says Washburn. She responded by rolling up some pink and blue towels and nestling them in with the museum’s Slikwiks and then incorporated her own into her piece. “It felt very funny and natural, and I loved that the museum, or more specifically the iconic Brutalist building, showed a bit of weakness in that moment.”

Washburn’s ambitions, like her installations, are constantly expanding, and so is the notice her work is attracting. Over the last ten years, her seemingly makeshift assemblages—which have been described by critics as “big rock-candy mountains on stilts,” “heaving tidal waves of urban refuse,” and “high-school science projects gone awry”—have transformed rooms and ramps at museums and galleries worldwide, including the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. More recently Washburn invaded New York’s Zach Feuer Gallery with her Tickle the Shitstem (2008), a Rube Goldbergian apparatus assembled from such materials as neon-tinted sea urchins, pipes, pencils, and pickling jars.

“Things get pulled into the process,” says Washburn. For example, the bright orange golf balls she initially put into the piece because they resembled the stickers she used to cover the pointy tips of screws are now key components of the water-filtration system at the center of more recent installations. These include the larger, more complex version of Tickle the Shitstem that took over the Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover, Germany, in August.

“Phoebe is attracted to pedestrian materials, such as plywood remnants and plastic crates, that most people would classify as trash, and odd little things that you might find in your desk drawer—pencils, binder clips, things you take for granted,” says Elizabeth Dunbar, curator of Arthouse at the Jones Center in Austin, Texas, and former curator of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, where Washburn created a site-specific installation in 2006. “Her lowly materials and haphazard ingenuity in using them are part of what makes Phoebe’s works enticing.”

Washburn’s installation at Zach Feuer was a convoluted system that consumed its by-products. There were used T-shirts being sold at the gallery by the artist and her assistants—initially for $25 and later for $5—that were washed in a machine in the gallery’s back room. Then some of the residual water was channeled into a pond with a working fountain and an array of floating aquatic plants. The remaining water flowed into a yellow plastic barrel and then trickled through a sand-filled water cooler, another barrel, and a series of fish tanks filled with Day-Glo golf balls and pieces of nylon-wrapped charcoal. Now purified, the water was pumped into hoses threaded through the gallery’s rafters and pipes down to a barrel in an adjacent room. From there the water was either dispensed into spray bottles or poured, along with psychedelic undrinkable coloring, into beverage bottles that were also being sold, as souvenirs, for $5 apiece. “I revel in how systems play out, tangle up, and fail,” says the 35-year-old artist. “I like to create problems for myself—and then find solutions.”

Washburn prefers to use wood scraps scavenged from dumpsters and loading docks, or even from her earlier works, than to order custom lumber for new projects. “I’ve taken wood I found on my way to dinner into a restaurant and coat-checked it,” she says. “Used wood has character, a past. It gives me something to work with.” She preserves the nicks and nail holes in the wood, and in the final work she leaves the wires, hoses, and tools exposed. “There are no illusions,” she says. “The process is as important as the end product. The pieces tell the story of their making.”

Among the artists Washburn admires are Dieter Roth and Jason Rhoades, whose art also involves hoarding, sorting, and recontextualizing found objects. “They were walking, living, breathing art machines whose work had incredible momentum yet maintained humor,” she says. While admitting that there may be more reasonable ways to accomplish certain aspects of her own installations, she says she tries not to edit too early in the process, enabling silly things to happen.

Her penchant for quirky pairings, Washburn suspects, came from observing her parents. Her father, an anthropologist and gross-anatomy instructor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and her mother, the owner of a beauty school and a chain of hair salons, are practicing (though not highly observant) Quakers who encouraged her to experiment and approach things on her own terms. “I would spend a Saturday with my mom doing pin curls on a mannequin and then helping my dad in a lab with frozen monkey parts,” she says. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, Washburn spent her early years in Greensboro, North Carolina, and then, after a short family sojourn in Nigeria, moved with her parents and older sister to the outskirts of Philadelphia. “As a kid, I was a little solitary and liked to spend time in my room—rearranging the furniture, caring for my lizards and gerbils. I guess I was pretty geeky,” she says, laughing.

Washburn didn’t develop a strong interest in art until she was an undergraduate at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she found herself drawn increasingly to the art studio. “I very soon realized I couldn’t paint at all,” she says, explaining why she gravitated toward three-dimensional media, glassblowing in particular. “I enjoyed the glassblowing process and learned what it takes to make a big project—the planning, working with a crew of assistants,” she says. “But I couldn’t overcome the restrictions, the preciousness and fragility of the material.”

After graduating with a B.F.A. in 1996, Washburn remained in New Orleans doing odd jobs. Two years later she moved to Philadelphia with her husband, A. J. Bocchino, a fellow artist, pack rat, and baseball fanatic (along with her binders filled with project materials, Washburn has one dedicated to her collection of baseball cards, mostly of the Yankees). Bocchino pursued a master’s degree at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University while Washburn taught at a community center and worked on applications to graduate programs. She enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2000. “I remember struggling with how to get the process going and getting bad midsemester reviews,” she says candidly of her first project, which comprised chunks and shards of plaster stacked and rearranged daily on a shower curtain. “It was lame—a heavy pile of mess. I see the connections now to my work. I don’t start off with a really strict idea of what I want. I have certain ideas, and then problems emerge and I figure out how to resolve them.”

Washburn found herself facing another predicament with her next project, 4,000 Paperback Books (2001). Her first architectural piece, it consisted of a pocketlike alcove she cut into her studio wall and lined with mostly old romance novels mortared together like bricks. “I ended up taking them to a recycling plant in Staten Island,” she says of their disposal once the piece was disassembled. “It made me feel defeated—to bring them there and start over. I had no relationship to them.”

Connecting to her raw materials posed no problem with Between Sweet and Low (2002), her first solo exhibition, staged at New York’s now-defunct LFL Gallery. Former LFL director Zach Feuer had offered Washburn a show right after she graduated from the School of Visual Arts. The swirling mass of collapsed, stacked, and screwed-together recycled cardboard—including some 2,000 misprinted announcement cards for her show—engulfed the space, hovering on two-by-fours above files and desks like “a perfect storm of trash,” as one critic described it. Washburn randomly coated the debris with rejected paint-store tints in pastel shades of pink and green before painstakingly adding them to the sprawling construction. “Painting each piece was a way for me to claim it,” she says. After the show closed, she shipped the cardboard, along with other scraps she had collected, to Rice University Art Gallery in Houston, where she installed a larger version of the piece.

Critical accolades continued with Nothing’s Cutie, installed at LFL in 2004. But while the spectacle of the conglomeration of sawed-wood pieces coated in sugary tones and punctuated by valleys of sawdust generated strong reviews, Washburn was disappointed with the outcome. “There were some beautiful moments,” she admits, “but it lost its sense of form. It trailed off and ended arbitrarily. I was too into the details, the surface.” In building her art on-site, Washburn says, she is more susceptible to making wrong decisions. “I don’t have the luxury of the privacy offered by a studio, where I can tweak and polish.”

Still, surrounded by piles and bins of materials, she does tinker with loosely conceived prototypes in the Chinatown working space she shares with her two cats, Punky and Chicken, and her pet shrimp. Typically dressed in jeans, Birkenstocks, and a plaid madras shirt, her shoulder-length brown hair pulled back in a messy bun, Washburn listens to a continuous track of music, mainly reggae by artists like Peter Tosh and the Congos. “Basically I gorge on one thing for a while and then move on,” she says of the music. “It’s really a weird, almost hypnotic way to listen.” Her tastes run from the hard-core punk band Bad Brains to the Beach Boys. When she’s not making art or combing the beach and city streets for wood scraps, she jams on the guitar and plays in a family band with her father and sister. She also likes to jog, particularly over the Manhattan Bridge.

As the range of her materials expands—from pennywort (an aquatic plant) to plastic ties and pliers—Washburn’s challenges derive as much from logistics as esthetics. When creating It Makes for My Billionaire Status, a 2005 installation at the now-defunct Kantor/Feuer Gallery in Los Angeles, her main worry, she says, was how to keep alive the vegetation growing in shallow troughs dispersed throughout an undulating patchwork of wood planks. “It was the most out-of-control work I ever made,” she says. “I used the plants as a way to create a scenario addressing real-life problems. I had to figure out how to water them, provide light. Mushrooms sprouted. Parts dried. There were slugs and flies. It took on its own life.”

In another effort to make her art as real as possible, Washburn hired gardeners to tend the boxes of sod produced and destroyed in Regulated Fool’s Milk Meadow, staged at the Deutsche Guggenheim two years later. She had them don iPods (to discourage interaction with viewers) and use lockers she had built in the museum’s coat-check room. Visitors followed the progression of the boxes from a greenhouse into a vast oval wood structure whose windows cradled aquariums filled with plants and golf balls. Once inside, they witnessed the boxes of sod being lit, fed, and watered on an 80-foot conveyor belt. The lush specimens eventually made their way, via a dumbwaiter, to the structure’s roof, where, untended, they wilted and died.

The scale, materials, and complexity of Washburn’s major site-specific pieces, priced between $50,000 and $150,000, make them a challenging sell. Typically they are commissioned by museums as temporary installations, with instructions for reinstallation occasionally provided by Washburn. Smaller mixed-media pieces—such as Table for Hippie/Athletes Who Drink Gatorade (2008), the underside of a folding table sporting an array of sea urchins and supporting a golf-ball-filled aquarium, and Baby Brain (2007), an installation of wood planks, aquatic plants, clip-on lamps, and a pond—go for between $10,000 and $20,000.

Washburn’s open-ended and droll titles might appear whimsical, but they are the product, like her works, of an arduous process. “Oftentimes I’ll catch myself saying something in the studio that makes sense and will jot it down in my sketchbook. I play around with the words, turning them over and shuffling them around until something resonates with what I am working on. I keep it loose and funny,” she says. And then she laughs. “I find myself ridiculous.”

Deidre Stein Greben is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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