The Visual Vocabulary of Drew Goerlitz: The Poetics of Hidden Information

David Powell: What kind of work were you doing at the University of Maryland?

Drew Goerlitz: When I first started Graduate School, I knew that what I was making at the time was aesthetically acceptable, but it wasn’t conceptually at the place I wanted it to be. The actual making of art has always been easy for me.

I was trying to keep in the back of my mind how to feel good about what I was making. I didn’t feel good about it yet, when I initially got into grad school. I was just making shapes and trying to make sense of it, it was just unauthentic work. It was me grasping at other things that I thought I liked in terms of subject matter.

 DP: Was this like 3D design elements and that sort of thing?  

DG: No, I would say I was searching for meaning, more in terms of subject matter, I was grasping for meaning. I think that it wasn’t until I physically told this story about a friend of mine, a sculptor named Michael Richards, who had a studio residency in the Twin Towers during 9/11. He was killed by the plane that struck the tower he was in. This had a profound effect on me. To work through the sadness, I began writing these diary-like drawings and notes. Somebody came into my studio and was reading them while I was out, this breach of space made me smash the paper between steel, because that’s what I do—it was a very vigorous hammering of rivets and steel...building and doing all these actions, physically, as well as mentally, helped me through my grief. I set that thing aside until a sculptor friend immediately said, “this is good art.” I realized that it was this object that was the starting point of my art communicating meaning. Michael was a black man that made artwork about the Tuskegee Airmen. All the work that he made was about himself and planes, sometimes the planes were flying into him. He was on the 92nd floor of the North tower when he got struck by the plane. At that time, he was making art about the Tuskegee Airmen while he was in the residency there. Of all the people who have been transformative in my art making, Michael was the catalyst for me to make the art that I make.

DP: You turned the corner...

DG: I turned the corner, yeah, I was searching for something meaningful and that was a big moment in the world. 

DP: That close knit connection was the turning point of your artistic career. Where did you meet Michael?

DG: I met him at a sculpture park residency in Minnesota.  I helped him build a sculpture that was named Are You Down and the subject was three of him with a bomb strike in the middle of him—totally weird—it’s so weird, you don’t know... 

DP: Yeah, that’s it. It’s not a happy story, but it’s a meaningful story.

DG: So, that’s how I started making the paper work that I made in grad school and into the beginning of my career.

 DP: It seems that the work you began to make there was about information and secrecy, is that accurate?

DG: Yeah, I’d say so.  I think it was a first instinct to hide my personal thoughts but it was also about not judging a book by its cover.  This led me to think more about the facades we put on, dependent on the audience.  We all develop a persona for different situations, whether it’s at work, or social settings...those projections aren’t always entirely genuine. 

DP: On a more pleasant note, I’m curious about how you got those great summers in Switzerland.

DG: In graduate school, there was an opportunity to be in a competition. You had to be nominated for an award through Sculpture magazine. It was the Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award, an important one, so I asked a faculty member to nominate me. It happened and I was chosen. I would say that there were about 1200 entries and it was curated down to about ten awards.  Then you end up in the magazine and in a show that they put together at Grounds for Sculpture. 

Because I won the award at that show, the curator told me that there’s a sculptor in Switzerland that wants to sponsor one student to come over and work. I applied and I got it, so I went to work for this sculptor in Switzerland. I was there for the infancy of their gallery, atelier, and everything in it. That was about 20 years ago, I probably have been over there a dozen times or so.

DP: I would guess in that amount of time you must have become an assistant for part of the day and the rest of the day you have your own workspace there...

DG:  That’s how it began and then later, I was just another gallery artist. They called me the studio chef, that’s how the Swiss pronounce chief.  I was the studio chief and essentially, what they would do is choose new artists every year to come make artwork in that studio and I would work in the studio as well, I also keep everybody in line and keep the studio running.  They showed my work and I have some pieces in really great collections in Europe.  I’ve been a part of shows and at some of the peripheral art fairs of Art Basel multiple times, as well.  I was also in a two-person exhibition during Basel with artist Aung Min Wae from Myanmar, who was a painter. My work echoed the similar forms of his painting.  There were artists in all mediums and from many countries. There are a lot of Chinese artists, Polish artists go there, it’s a broad demographic.

DP: Then were you part of decision making for those programs, as well being part of them?

DG: Definitely, decision by committee though, I would just give recommendations and that was that. It takes a specific kind of person to keep up with their daily drive. The gallery owner is the CEO of 5 corporations, and he shrunk all of his businesses in his in his early 70s. He downsized his businesses, so that he can be moderately retired. He would tell you that you have to come see him at 7:20 in the morning and if you showed up at 7:22 he would be gone, time in Switzerland is important.

DP: Yes, I would think so. Time is money, at least for some people. Well, good things happen, even if some people are both rich or annoying, it’s not all sunshine and daisies. 

Your work there in Europe has strong references to both Greek, and Roman architecture, as well as Gothic German or Swiss buildings. What does this mean for you in terms of the message. What do they symbolize?

DG: I think it’s still the hiding of information.  In my earlier work, all the paper typically was bound—so it was a closed book. I think that that’s just how I saw myself; it is kind of like someone is a closed book, but then when I would tell that to people and they would say, “no you’re super outgoing”. I would reply, “No, that’s a façade.” I had to force it.”

DP: I’m familiar with that myself...

DG: I thought a lot about those European facades. Then when I worked at Notre Dame in Indiana, the whole campus is made up of facades that are supposed to look grand, while really, they’re just everyday building materials, with a veneer that makes you think otherwise.  I had a nonrenewable 2-year contract there. I was happy to return to Europe. The European facades were quite different, being back there, looking at cathedrals all the time, I started to learn about reliquaries a bit more. I think I always knew what they were, but I started doing more research on reliquaries. Saint Peter must have had 47 fingers, because every cathedral has a finger from Saint Peter—just saying. The relic is always in a grandiose façade. Typically, it’s in something that’s super decorative and the relic is almost always you don’t get to see the shriveled-up finger in there, they’re like little caskets. This was beginning to make sense to me. You know that you’re coming to this place to pray to something that you can’t see, as I pondered this more deeply, then I started thinking about the facades of the buildings and how the Gothic cathedrals can fool your eyes, you look at them and you’re thinking, “Wow, look at all that marble, how did they get all that marble–it’s all fake. It’s just stained concrete and plaster, they do paint drips in cement and then as they smooth it out, the veins of pigment look real. A lot of cathedrals are like that, so in a way, it’s like these are fakes too. I decided that I was just going to start making reliquaries—these grand things to hold stupid objects. I built them and they did contain something, but it was about the façade, not the object. When I was in Germany, building a sculpture, the local grocery store actually had Duff beer from The Simpsons. It had this weird red label, just like on tv. I’m thinking, oh man, they have Duff beer, I have to buy this for the reliquary. I built this whole steel sculpture around it. Other reliquaries did contain some funny things, along with my paperwork. There would be notes with drawings, I drew a big penis in there— something stupid. Just having fun.

DP: Duchamp had this little object that he made that had something in it. Nobody knows what’s in it. Not even Duchamp. His patron, Walter Arensburgh, put the noisemaking item in it before the object was sealed. The name of the piece was With Hidden Noise, from 1916. Its structure is a bit like a book press, like with four posts and screws between brass plates. It had a ball of twine that hid the noisemaker inside. It’s meant to be examined. There’s mystery in that.

DG: When I think about that, I always say I teach students visual vocabulary. If you’re a poet, you’re using words to say things in an eloquent way and you’re alluding to things, without necessarily hitting you in the face with it. That’s definitely how I think about making sculptures—how can I allude to what I’m thinking about, sometimes I’m more blatant than others, but I think for the most part I just try and stay fairly poetic with my visual vocabulary so that when you look at those reliquary series pieces, they definitely have forms and features that are similar to cathedrals and then, also with the paper, it’s like just mass quantities of papers, super compressed and really trying to hide information, so I’m always trying to think about how to be poetic and also say what I need to say because that’s what I feel like I should be doing with my art.  You know, you see how as your life changes, your artwork changes too. I get bored and you know I could I make steel and paper objects the rest of my life—I mean I could— but it’s not really interesting to me anymore.  I am curious when I look at an artist’s work and I’m not even going to say the name of an artist, but people just have these formulas and they just repeat the formula over and over and over again and I could repeat that formula for you and I could get it perfect, so if I can do that just by looking at my work and continuing in the same vein, why should I keep making the same thing. 

DP: Really, you know why I think, at least it’s my suspicion and it’s fairly general, I think that gallerists are often wanting consistency from an artist. They don’t want you to jump around from one project to another, but I agree, it gets boring and stale. You don’t want to spend half of your life making the same thing over and over and over. 

DG: Gotcha, and that’s 100% what I see them doing. They’re dealing with a gallery and they’re just doing the same thing all the time and yeah, you can get known for it, if you do it 1000 times, but we become artists to, we make art—not just reproduce shit. You know, we’re not factory workers.

DP: So, we’re explorers.

DG: Yeah, and I think also it’s just healthy to change and that’s why I didn’t really choose to go the gallery route. I want to make and–and hopefully have freedom to make what I want to make, you know. My work has been in flux for three or four years now and now I finally think that I’m getting it figured out.

 DP: I’d like to hear more about your new body of work, it’s getting much funkier than the big steel pieces. I’m sure they have meaning for you. I’d like to hear more about the use of materials and the diverse aspects of these new pieces.

DG: Yes, the big phallus—that work, the red phallus represents the Washington Monument. I made it roughly proportional to the scale of the Monument. That’s what that element is based on. It’s a flaccid Washington Monument, because it’s really about politics, I specifically ordered that red glittery vinyl that they used on diner booths. That’s what I’ve made the phallus out of, it’s a cheesy American diner booth’s glittery vinyl upholstery. 

Everybody keeps saying that it’s a gear at the bottom of that piece, but the form is a slice of the bottom plinth of a column, that would be the Capitol building columns, so if you look at it carefully, you will see at the bottom, a cut out cogged shape of the capitol building’s columns and then the two testicles, carved out of cherry wood. I seem to remember that someone... chopped down a Cherry Tree in our American history. “I cannot tell a lie” is so far from American politics now.  These two large cherry testicles which are being scrunched together with a ratchet strap, which to me just invokes every white man in America. That’s definitely politically driven work and I think that for me, it’s fun making this new work because I can put so much information in there using so many different materials sculpture, probably right around 2004. The NYT critic said about my work, “it’s been done before”, referring to the book press smushing paper.  He was under the impression that I had found a book press and it was a found object sculpture, not one that I fabricated. That’s bullshit.

DP: Yes, that’s very dismissive.

DG: I don’t feel like I need to finish a whole body of work before I exhibit it. I just want to just be able to curate out of my own body of work that I make. I want to be contemplative about it. I want to determine whether it’s strong, or not, you know, it’s still new enough that I’m not positive yet.

DP: How about the other new pieces? I was curious about that Pear piece. What are the materials in that?

DG: The pear was just sitting on a little piece of bronze that was cast. I was just thinking about it like a column and I don’t know...the pear piece for me really is more a classical aesthetic. I think in a sense, I was just playing with combining materials, that that pear is made of bronze it has a graphite finish on it...

I think of the sponge as cleansing. I just think of it as an aspect of the Great Replacement Theory. It’s a form of racism the right uses to scare people. I was just thinking of it as the cleansing of America. The piece is funny, I put a set of truck nuts hanging from the bald eagle. Merica’s got to have a set of truck nuts and I want to twist the screw little bit tighter. I made them blue to complete the red, white and blue patriotic American theme. Merica is the perfect title, as it shows the lack of education in America.  There is probably going to be a lot of new work that’s informed by racism, capitalism, and from mental and economic insecurity. I think there’s a lot of information happening in our world right now. Information that I can use as a resource for new work.

Drew Goerlitz received his BA from The State University of New York at Plattsburgh and his MFA from the University of Maryland. He currently resides in New York where he is an Associate Professor of Sculpture at SUNY Plattsburgh. Goerlitz has had his sculpture and site-specific art featured both nationally and internationally. He works in a wide range of materials, ranging in scale from intimate gallery sculpture to large-scale permanent outdoor commissions.