Carla Edwards uses symbols, such as flags, stanchions, and saints as materials to examine and critique the use of these images’ traditional iconic roles as representations of power. Her solo show Soonest Mended is now on view at Field Projects Gallery. We emailed back and forth about her sculptural practice in general, her use of these symbols and her thoughts and relationship to resistance, ritual, and chance.
Rachel Frank: Describe the process of making your flag pieces. Do you find this process symbolic and/or meditative or more of an act of resistance or protest?
Carla Edwards: It is all of these things. The act of working with the flag is absolutely rooted in protest for me; it is also about the devotion of labor, and color. The composition, color, and ritual customs associated with the American flag are so fixed. I want to uproot that a bit. There is nothing fixed or universal about the experience of citizenship; it’s very murky. My process in some ways reflects that –it is incredibly intuitive– and I leave things purposefully open to a lot of variables so that I can never really get the same effect twice. The flags are dyed often many times, bleached and heated to varying temperatures in what I can only describe as a cauldron. It’s a little witchy, a little alchemical.
RF: Because of the bleaching and re-dyeing of the flag in your work, Jasper Johns’ post-war era White Flag comes to mind as well as of course, David Hammonds’ African-American Flag which recolors the flag in Garvey colors. Do you think of your work as being in conversation with these artists and if so, how?
CE: Johns’ and Hammonds’ approach the flag as a subject under very different terms, conceptually and materially they are just such different artists. But I think at the heart of White Flag, and African-American Flag, is a conversation acknowledging the American flag as a symbol of power, and a desire to subvert or address that power through color. In that respect, I would say my work is definitely in conversation with those artists. Before I began working with the flag I definitely considered these artists and thought, how can I have this conversation and do something different. For me, the physical act of deconstructing and rebuilding the material takes it a step beyond color reassignment.
RF: Many of the artists best known for reinterpreting the American flag are male artists, yet a woman– Betsy Ross is credited with making the first American flag. Because your work also seems to draw from traditional quilting techniques associated historically with women, labor, and “folk art”, is taking ownership over this history or elevating this art form significant for you?
CE: It is true many of the artists best known for being artists are men.
I certainly don’t want to take ownership over anyone’s history nor do I think that quilt making or folk art needs my elevation. There is no shortage of masters in both genres whose work is incredibly inspiring to me. Quilters are very precise in their geometry, technique and symmetry and I am in awe of that skill. But I’m not invested in perfect lines and construction with this work; my relationship to the flag is messy. I think if a legit quilter took a look at my handy work they would be horrified.
RF: Differing from artists that have used or reinterpreted the American flag, your pieces become more abstract with the recognizable symbols of the stars removed. Only the stripe bars and bands of color remain to anchor the work more in the tradition of Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism. Can you talk a little bit about the deconstruction and recreation the flag into an abstract color field? Is the removal of symbols and keeping just the stripes or bars important for the work?
CE: That is usually the first question I’m asked once people realize that they are looking at American flags. Where are the stars? They really crave that whole complete picture. Once I tell them, “don’t worry, I’ve got bins” they seem relieved. The American flag is such a ubiquitous image and symbol, so removing the stars is a very conscious decision on my part. I want people to have the opportunity to enter the work first through color and hopefully, the other actions I’ve taken can unfold more slowly from there.
RF: In Re-rope, the ropes connecting the stanchions have grown knotted and tangled, and with the addition of the colored wax, the traditional barrier transforms into something more visceral, internal, or even sinister. Do you think of the rope more as transforming into an outside entity or more as a physical manifestation, a reaction to ideas of barriers, exclusivity, and/or power… or something else?
CE: I’ve been thinking a lot about the conundrum of power, its inherent tension. Primarily the tension that arises out of powerlessness and how that tension can be incredibly generative. Finding oneself in a position of power or powerlessness is so tenuous and slippery because it can turn on a dime. In some ways power is about perception, I suppose Re-rope is a manifestation of that.
RF: I also wanted to talk about ritual with your work. I was thinking about the encaustic technique you used in Re-rope. Can you talk about the act of heating, painting, and transforming wax– a material linked to candles, religious ceremony, and alchemy– and your relationship to ritual in general? You spoke a little about changing the traditional ritual customs– maybe you could elaborate on that further.
CE: I was drawn to encaustic as this really ancient and direct way of working with pure pigments. Once the pigments fuse with the hot wax and rope it becomes a sort unruly candle that is suspended in time. I like that the sculpture has the possibility of igniting. Destruction, fire and renewal are really present for me in this body of work. In the same way that a wildfire rolls through a forest as a precursor to new growth or any kind of ritual burning of herbs or objects where something is destroyed or released.
When I spoke about uprooting ritual customs before, I was mainly referring to the elaborate ritual around flag handling, display and its relationship to protest, about how the very specific rules outlined in things like the Flag Code rub up against symbolic speech. You mentioned before quilt making, or folk art as related to this notion of women’s work and class: I’m interested in how intersectional symbolic speech can fold into a tradition of protest actions taken with the flag.
RF: I was thinking about the idea of chance with your work– particularly in regards to both the original St. Michael figure offered to you at Socrates that either purposely or by chance had its wings and weapons removed and St. Michael’s foot that became disconnected in the casting process. Also, in the act of bleaching and dyeing the flags, there seems to be a lot of chance in how the dyes cling to certain areas and create their own accidental mark making. Do you find this embrace or adaptation of chance significant?
CE: Absolutely, it’s the material asserting itself in a way that I find really exciting. I have my ideas about how things should go, but so does iron. Materially, I know the reason behind why that shin didn’t connect. I could have recast the figure for an exact replica of the original, but it’s so much more interesting that this other thing happened. I remember looking at the original statue and the tension between these two figures, the power struggle, it was really visceral for me. I could simultaneously put myself in both positions, the inept saint and the wretched devil. The flaw or the materials response in the casting evaporated that tension and subverted that power dynamic.
RF: Thank you for talking with me.
Carla Edwards solo show Soonest Mended, curated by Jacob Rhodes is on view at Field Projects Gallery until February 25th.
Interview by Rachel Frank