Visitors to SculptureCenter in Queens might notice a strange melody playing throughout its basement. Twin Peaks–like piano music lingers throughout its darkened halls, only to abruptly give way to a more classical-sounding score and then, briefly, to a sadder arrangement. Who’s controlling that soundtrack, and why is it changing? Artist Sam Anderson told me that the music’s source is an unlikely object: a sculpture in the museum’s courtyard that looks like a pole with two steel triangles atop it. (Eight pool cues, also part of the work, hang on a wall nearby.) When the wind blows against the sculpture, a dial switches the songs. “It’s somewhat a secret,” she said.
Downstairs, where the music plays in shadowy corridors, Anderson has a show of new and recent sculptures of people and animals. Like much of her work, these pieces are squat, unpainted, and endearing things. They depict stock characters—a designer, a father, a historian, Death herself (Anderson thinks Death might be female)—yet they are anything but generic. For Anderson, this group of clay sculptures is an informal community, and it’s brought together by the sculpture outside, which she titled TV (2017), she told me, because she was thinking about how a town could be united by watching a television show.
“The idea of a conceptual community could be many things,” Anderson said as we walked through the show. “It could be an interesting food or an internet community, or a community of people who share a common interest.”
“Or dog lovers!” Ruba Katrib, the show’s curator, who joined us on the walkthrough, suggested.
“Things like that,” Anderson concurred. “Really, I guess it’s a community of works that I have made.”
Over the course of installing the show, Anderson, who is 35, had continually altered her characters’ roles, retitling and rethinking the pieces. But the day I met her and Katrib, it was all finally set in my place. The opening had been the night before, and Anderson was still tired. She had with her two water bottles—“I’m really dehydrated right now!” she said—and she wore sneakers and jeans that had clay residue on them.
Anderson walked us to Center (2017), a work in the arched hallway bisecting SculptureCenter’s basement. The anchor of the show, it’s an assemblage of a cork, a wedding cake topper (from the artist’s own wedding), an orange peel, and other objects, all displayed on elevated squares of glass, and it has a narrative in Anderson’s mind. “This is actually the town square that’s been abstracted,” she said. “It’s based on this narrative that was impossible to recreate, which is [about] this panther that escapes in a town square and is trapped by the surrounding architecture and kiosks. There’s a shallow level of water, and it’s reflected in the water, and it can’t get out.” Around the panther, which is strangely absent, are objects that Anderson collected in her studio over the course of eight months.
“Sam came to the space and had this idea,” Katrib said. “The larger concept was there from the beginning—this idea of community and a town. How that’s evolved has been really interesting. Certain things have been there from the beginning, while others shifted and changed.”
Anderson took us around the basement, where, scattered around its various alcoves, characters from this fictional town mingle. There’s a story behind each sculpture, but in most cases, it would be tough to discern it without having Anderson on hand to explain the backstory. She brought Katrib and me over to E – Number 1 to 11 (2017), several rows of young women who sit on chairs with their legs crossed. “The girl came from a photograph of a girl at Studio 54, which I was obsessed with,” Anderson said. “I repeated it over and over again, to get this feeling I got from the photo.”
Other pieces include a prancing horse and a smallish waitress who stands in front of a video of birds. Anderson said that each work isn’t very specific, but she’s hoping that ambiguity will cause her viewers to remember something personal while looking at them. Each of these characters feels familiar—they are types—and that, for Anderson, is “a way to access a kind of memory for somebody,” Anderson said.
Her interest in narratives, memories, and stock characters grew out of her own past. “I come from Los Angeles and a family who’s been in film. My mother is a character actress,” she said. “She plays the same kinds of roles because she has a certain kind of physicality. She’s always cast as a certain kind of thing. It’s always been interesting, since I was very little, to see her play a maid murder victim in [the television show] Murder, She Wrote. She’ll play a housekeeper or a maid quite frequently, or a waitress or a nurse, and kind of have to build a life around this very limited fringe character that exists to move the story along. It has nothing to do with the protagonists, other than to humor them or to provide a shift in plot.” She paused for a few seconds. “That has a lot to do with it,” she said. “It’s very personal!”