Outlooks - Luke Stettner Storm King Art Center
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb
  • Luke Stettner at the Storm King Art Center thumb

MAY 16 – NOVEMBER 29, 2015

Spanning from Storm King’s South Fields to the second floor of the Museum Building, Outlooks: Luke Stettner presents a new site-specific commission entitled a,b,moon,d. Prior to creating the work’s outdoor component—a series of sculptural trenches arranged over an eighty-foot-square expanse—Stettner studied photographs of archaeological digs and aerial diagrams of ancient architectural complexes, and observed how their geometric forms recall pictographic languages and codes. (The title a,b,moon,d extends this interest in writing and glyphs, inspired by a small child’s confusion of the letter “C” with a crescent moon.) Taken by the many fallen trees he came across while walking Storm King’s grounds, Stettner filled his trenches with biochar, a soil-enhancing, wood-based charcoal that he produced, in a carbon-negative manner called pyrolysis, in collaboration with a small farm in Vermont. Through this sculptural use of one of the earliest, most rudimentary drawing materials, Stettner blurs the line between installation and drawing.

The work’s indoor component features a grouping of photographs and a sculpture that Stettner built on-site from concrete and discarded mobile phones. Some of the photographs were taken by him, while others were collected from books and scanned, removing the halftones. After making inkjet prints of these images, Stettner re-photographed them with 35mm film and developed them onto gelatin silver paper to create material equivalency between all the images. The subjects of the photographs, removed from their origins, have become anonymous and unidentifiable—contributing to the sense that Stettner’s project has tapped into an irretrievable past.

Luke Stettner is the third artist to participate in the Outlooks series, which invites one emerging or mid-career artist each year to create a temporary work of art specifically for Storm King’s site. This installation is organized by Curator Nora Lawrence.

Outlooks: Luke Stettner is made possible by generous lead support from Roberta and Steven Denning and the Ohnell Charitable Lead Trust. Additional support is provided by James Alefantis and Samuels Creative & Co., LLC. Special thanks to the Ace Hotel and Kate Werble Gallery, New York. Support for education-related programming is provided by the Charina Endowment Fund and Sidney E. Frank Foundation, and artist talks are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

With thanks to Storm King Art Center’s installation team, led by Mike Seaman and including Joel Longinott, Armando Ocampo, Mike Odynsky, and Howard Seaman, as well as Storm King’s entire staff. Thanks as well to David Collens, Theresa Choi, and Mary Ann Carter in Storm King’s curatorial department.

The artist would like to extend a very special thank you to Carmen Winant.

Photography by RAVA Films, Theresa Choi, and Luke Stettner


Nora Lawrence: Tell me about the project you are doing for Storm King's Outlooks program this year.

Luke Stettner: There's an outdoor piece made of biochar, and in Gallery Nine, in the Museum Building, I'll be showing a series of photographs and a group of concrete sculptures. So, the exhibition is made up of three discrete works of art, but each supports the other to become one single piece.

Lawrence: How do you feel the interior and the exterior relate?

Stettner: I'm very interested in how we study and interpret human history through images, or image-making. Charcoal is a fundamental drawing tool—a material we have been using for thousands of years to enact and re-perform historical events, just like we do with photography nowadays. We used it to make simple marks and gestures, to purify and fertilize our water and soil, and on and on. It's the remaining ash content of wood. It's a beautiful and dramatic change in form. A lot of the photographs in the exhibition depict a primitive history when charcoal was basic and elemental but essential. When I was hiking through the Mojave Desert I came across camps with small extinguished fire pits. I used that burnt wood to make drawings on the sides of large granite rocks, and then I photographed them. Those are in the exhibition. I like to think the connection is inherent, but that's for other people to really decide. I'm still working it out for myself.

Lawrence: The sculpture that you have inside takes a look at a very different part of human history.

Stettner: It does. It's a far more recent history. The pieces are made from concrete and discarded mobile phones. I dug small holes in the ground here at Storm King and poured the concrete directly in. As it was drying, I pushed the phones into the surface and let them cure. After a couple of days I dug the pieces up out of the ground.

Lawrence: Can you talk about the project's title?

Stettner: When we were driving up to Storm King one morning, you were telling me a story about your son, Blaise, who is a toddler and just learning the alphabet. He said to you, “A, b, moon, d.” He simply mistook the shape of the letter c for a crescent moon, but he accidentally made a beautifully discerning mistake. It reminded me of an August Plinth poem or a concrete poem, where the meaning is visualized through its composition on the page.

I knew right when you said it that it would be the title for the show. I'm always interested in how one thing can be mistaken for something else. As we get older, we unlearn or unfeel those sorts of things.

Lawrence: The outdoor piece seems to reference, on a large scale, something architectural, but were you thinking of anything pictographic, as well? It leads me back to “a, b, moon, d,” or concrete poetry.

Stettner: When I was taking photographs in the Mojave Desert and around Joshua Tree National Park for the indoor galleries, I was coming across a lot of things that looked like petroglyphs. I wasn't sure because I wasn't walking or hiking on demarcated trails—there weren't signs. I couldn't tell whether I was looking at something that was occurring naturally because of erosion—from the wind, the rain, the sun-or if it was something that had been drawn by primitive people.

Lawrence: Or more recently.

Stettner: Exactly. There were those cases, too. I also took photographs in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio, near to where I live, where there was a lot of recent graffiti. The marks and scratches were less discernable and the time stamp less distinct in the photograph than in person. The camera can sometimes have an uncanny ability to make things less clear.

Lawrence: You were talking about this blurring of the line between something created recently or in the past, or by one person versus by nature. I'm reminded of the process by which you made these photographs, and the ways in which you manipulated them or changed them to help blur those types of lines. Can you speak about that process and why you did it?

Stettner: There were a couple of steps. I set out first to make the photographs in Joshua Tree and the Mojave Desert. I spent about six days out there looking for very specific conditions, characteristics, and phenomena. I photographed everything on 35mm film with a Nikon F3. When I returned to Ohio, I took the film back to the darkroom to be processed and made contact sheets. I then went to the library and started looking through books to see if I could find relationships between the images I had taken and images that were already out in the world.

I flagged the images I considered using, and brought the library books home. From there I scanned all the images onto my computer. I removed all the visible half tone through a process of descreening. Then I printed them out using an ink-jet printer and rephotographed those prints onto 35mm film using a copy stand. I repeated that process with many of my own photographs: first I scanned the negatives, made prints using an ink-jet printer, and rephotographed them back to 35mm negatives. From there I printed them all out on matte fiber paper in the darkroom. After a lot of trial and error, I found this to be the only way to create a material equivalence, at least technically, to how the photos were handled and exhibited. It was important to me that the different technology or printing processes not distract the viewer. Ultimately, this makes how they were made and who took which photographs more difficult to identify.

Lawrence: That process then helps all of the photographs, whether they are yours or not, to become one in a new sense.

Stettner: Yes, in a sense it flattens them out. They become one cohesive collection.

Lawrence: Could you speak a little bit more about the outdoor piece?

Stettner: The way the outdoor piece came together in the end was really through looking at a lot of different images—mostly photographs and architectural drawings—I found in archeological journals and books on excavation sites and ancient cities. I think of the outdoor installation as a drawing. It started out as graphite sketches on paper, and then I started working on the computer. It was easier to envision the piece aerially rather than in physical space—the proportions were so large I couldn't make sketches to scale. Even installed here at Storm King the piece is very much a drawing. It's what I imagine a charcoal drawing would look like through a magnifying glass. It barely rises above ground—all the char is recessed six inches below the surface. So much of the dimension of the work is hidden. It's only when you are inside the piece that you feel the scale of it and really appreciate the unique qualities of the material. When the char is drying in the sun after it rains, you can hear it crackling and popping. That kind of observation can only be made when you are close up.

Lawrence: You say you were looking at architectural drawings and other images as you were thinking of the outdoor component. Could you talk more about this?

Stettner: I had been culling all of these books at the library. During the process, I came across a lot of elevation drawings and aerial drawings of architectural sites—specifically burial chambers, crypts, cemeteries, temples, pyramids, things like that. There is a lot of symmetry in how those drawings are composed, and I was finding a correlation between those images and what I was laying out on the computer for the outdoor piece.

Lawrence: Can you talk about what will happen with the surrounding area?

Stettner: The grass around the piece will continue to grow throughout the six months of the exhibition, but we will leave the 80-by-80-foot area of the piece mowed. The idea is to enclose the drawing—the trenches—in grass, so again, you get those different experiences of the piece: elevated views from Museum Hill, and then, when you're at ground level, that experience of just seeing the vertical posts and walking into the piece through these pathways that we're going to make in the grass. The biggest differences between my previous work and the work I'm making for Storm King are scale, duration, environmental conditions, support staff, and access. I have never had the opportunity to make and exhibit a piece that will change relative to the environment it's in. And having a few thousand people experience the piece in a single day is incredible!

One thing that I'm looking forward to seeing, which is unpredictable in a lot of ways, and exciting, is how the piece evolves and changes over the six or seven months that it will be up as the seasons change. There are the grasses growing around the piece and enclosing the piece-it will take several months to get to that point. There are the trees changing, as well—the leaves changing color and shedding. Then the starkness as the grass starts to dry out, the stark blackness and gray, slate quality of the charcoal against that changing landscape. The piece will really change and evolve with the landscape.

Lawrence: When you were first approached about working at Storm King, what were your impressions of the place, and how did you feel that Storm King and your artistic practice might be able to fit together?

Stettner: I'd been to Storm King several times before you asked me to send over a proposal. I was also very familiar with the landscape, being from the Northeast and having grown up only 35 miles away. I knew I wanted to work directly with the ground somehow, using it as a material—an actual material, not just a pedestal for the work to sit on. There were certain practicalities that I hadn't been faced with before as an artist—simple things like public safety. So I had to take that into account when proposing or adapting my ideas. During the many visits I made to Storm King before starting to install, I had noticed a lot of fallen trees. Once you're looking for them, you notice them everywhere in forests. I had been photographing fallen trees for years and thought that I could somehow work with that as a material. The three vertical posts that are part of the piece were taken from Storm King's property: a locust, a pine, and a sugar maple. They run on a different axis from the trenches. That's the most direct reference to the location.

Lawrence: Are you considering the trees as beacons?

Stettner: Yes, in a way they're like totems, beacons, or landmarks. When I started laying the piece out on the computer, I was thinking of the circles, or the trees, as a surrogate to an upright pillar or column, much like you would see in an architectural drawing. The column is always rendered as a circle. When you see the piece aerially, it should register that way. The posts will also project shadows across the drawing. I like to think of them as crude sundials.

I chose that specific location because it's open and exposed to a lot of the natural elements that are pushing through Storm King—the wind and the sun. You can't really find any refuge from that. There are also these amazing views of the south field from Museum Hill. It's only one of two views like that, and it was important that visitors be able to see the piece from a higher vantage point.

Lawrence: With the outdoor piece, you talk about the possibility of its being interpreted in a particular way, or misinterpreted. Could you elaborate a little bit on what you mean?

Stettner: There's an elevated vantage point from Museum Hill. From that perspective, you may recognize a grammar that would have a likeness to, say, an architectural drawing, a Kazimir Malevich painting, or a coded system. If you were standing level with the piece and approaching it from a distance, you wouldn't necessarily see the charcoal trenches at all. You would just be able to see the vertical posts. My hope is that the posts attract visitors into the piece, at which point there would be an element of discovery. The third perspective would be the aerial view, which is how I plotted the piece out on the computer. But we can only view the work this way through photographic documentation.

Lawrence: You're working with a small scale biochar producer, in Vermont, and this person, Michael Low, has been kind enough to make the biochar as much as possible to your specifications. Can you express what you're going for?

Stettner: Michael Low has been really wonderful to work with, in part because he's very hands on. He produces all the char himself from start to finish. He logs himself. He helps to transport the wood from the forest back to the farm, where he does all of the magic in his charcoal kiln. Then he packs and builds the crates. The only thing he doesn't do is ship the biochar. It's been really great to work with him because it's really a small operation. Because of that, we were able to talk regularly. He would send me images as he was pulling pieces from the unit, so I could anticipate the scale of the material. He's customized the feed stock going in as best he could. There is consistency to the stock. The wood is put into the retort unit, which is essentially a wood kiln. It's heated to 500 degrees Celsius, a process called pyrolysis. It chemically and physically transforms the wood to biochar. Farmers are using biochar for soil rejuvenation. It filters out toxins.

Lawrence: This in itself, as I understand it, is an ancient procedure.

Stettner: Yes. The difference in Michael's case is it's carbon negative. The way they used to make the biochar was by smoldering, which produced a lot of smoke and significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

Lawrence: We had talked at different points throughout our planning about what might happen next with the biochar.

Stettner: Because the biochar has these specific properties that relate to soil rejuvenation and there is this interest now with small farmers who are using the material and making the material themselves, the hope is that we can reuse the material. That was one thing that I wanted to be really mindful of in making this piece: that we weren't wasting any material in producing the work, and that it wasn't going to go sit in storage somewhere as some large, cumbersome sculpture. A lot of it will get donated to local farms. I will also use some of the char as a drawing material.

Lawrence: Can you discuss any ways in which your work relates to earth art of the 1970s?

Stettner: I was looking at a lot of books, as I had said, and one name kept coming up, this archaeologist named Robert Heizer. There was one book specifically, which was a book of rock art from the Southwestern region of the United States. Heizer was an archaeologist who was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. It turns out that his son is the artist Michael Heizer, and I had been looking at a lot of Michael's work as inspiration for this piece.

Lawrence: So it was a coincidence that you were reading his father?

Stettner: It was a total coincidence. I didn't know Michael Heizer's father was an archaeologist.

I had been looking at the library here at Storm King. I had taken this book, Sculpture in Reverse, by Michael Heizer and brought it back to George House [on-site]. At one point, I even had asked you to make copies of the entire book, because it's rare and really expensive. But I later found it in Ohio and checked it out. I then discovered the Robert Heizer books. And it was through those books that I ended up going to the Southwest to photograph—he has really detailed instructions on how to photograph rock art, as well as where to find it.

Lawrence: His instructions are based on archaeological principles?

Stettner: Yeah. He even gives instructions on how to outline the petroglyphs so that you're not damaging them, because they're not always visible, or at least not clearly visible. They're usually really subtle, and you probably are walking by them when you're hiking in those areas all the time and not noticing them.

Some of the images in the exhibition, they're like legitimate petroglyphs that were drawn and carved into the rock. I can't be certain, but they resemble a lot of the ones that I was finding identified in the books as specific to certain cultures and tribes in those regions.

Then some of them, I'm actually drawing. Those are quick and gestural, they're just lines that I'm drawing on the rock.

Lawrence: Were others naturally created? There's one I'm thinking of that's a thin, white line that seems to come from a rock below.

Stettner: That's geological layering. A different rock that's been worn away that's showing all of those strains and layers and veins. Then there are others, too, where I think it's chemical, where the rainwater that may have some acid in it is mixing with a chemical in the rock that's then baking in the sun, and that turns it black. There are some where there'll be indentations in the rock that have these black halos around them or lines made in them. Those are accidental drawings in the landscape.

Lawrence: It seems like that's a thread that runs through other pieces or projects you've done. I'm thinking of something like William Carlos Williams on view with an imprint of a placenta, this mixture of high and low. But also, taking from the known and taking from the unknown and bringing them together.

Stettner: Right, that's true. I made one sculpture that is really a funerary urn that holds my father's ashes. The actual containers are Heller nesting plates, which were part of my family's collection of items. The original funerary urn had been made out of marble. I pulverized that into a powder and have made various pieces using the material. The placenta piece was made by really close friends of mine. They had recently had a baby and made this incredible drawing using the placenta to make an impression print that resembles a fetus. It's a beautiful drawing.

Lawrence: What are your prior experiences with Storm King?

Stettner: If my memory serves me well (which it usually doesn't), I first came to Storm King when I was in high school, with a girlfriend. I had driven by Storm King many, many times while going up to the Catskills on the Thruway, but I'm pretty sure I first came here as a teenager. As I said earlier, I grew up about 35 miles from here and had spent a lot of time hiking in Bear Mountain as a kid.

Lawrence: Have any artists in the Storm King collection been of particular influence for you?

Stettner: There are definitely artists here who have influenced my work. Barbara Hepworth, Louise Nevelson, Dennis Oppenheim—a lot of artists. Regarding Hepworth, it's interesting: there are photographs in the exhibition that remind me so much of her sculpture. I see her work out in the world all the time. Isamu Noguchi's Momo Taro piece, also; I'm not working directly from it, but there are clear relationships, for sure.