To begin our annual series of Q&As with artists selected for this summer’s All Florida exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, we’re starting with the best – at least according to juror Valerie Cassel Oliver. Vanessa Diaz, a Boynton Beach sculptor of found materials, took home the prestigious Best in Show prize for “The Offering.” This intriguing contraption, placed in the dead center of the exhibition, was refashioned in 2012 from portions of a tufted chair, table, mirror frame, bed finials, light fixture and string.
Beguiling in its possibilities and radical in its manipulation of material, “The Offering” suggests a rebirth, generating a wholly new object out of the discarded detritus of so many living rooms. There is a hint of mad genius in Diaz’s final products – the sense that a grand tinkerer’s most ambitious works have finally been realized – and whether they can be used for good or evil is in the eye of the beholder. (To see more of Diaz’s work, visit vdiazart.com.)
When did you first “discover,” if that’s the appropriate word, that furniture could be your medium of choice?
Diaz: For the past few years, my work has been influenced by the materials and objects used to customize and modify a living space. I am interested in what we collect, display, relocate with, the continual cycle of rearranging these things, and evidence of use that accumulate on objects. I started using furniture about a year ago, initially as a support system for these large tent-like structures that I was making with textiles. In the process of dismantling sections of furniture, I became more aware of the formal qualities of the wood, upholstery, hardware, interior components, and isolated shapes in the pieces.
Were you trained as a more traditional, brush-to-canvas artist? And did you have to learn things like carpentry and woodworking when you began this pursuit?
I graduated from Florida Atlantic University about 3 years ago with a BFA in painting. At the time, I made sculptural forms of shaped canvas, heavily coated with paint, which extended off the walls and often utilized existing architecture as a support. I am currently seeking an MFA at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Because the direction of my “paintings” were three dimensional, I decided to focus on sculpture rather than painting and have been working in the wood shop for the past two years.
Is the oldness of a given piece – the fact that it has a history – vital to what you do? Could you raid an IKEA for materials, in other words, and still produce art?
Evidence of use on a piece of furniture is appealing to me. I like to see the marks made by repetitive behaviors and habits, such as armrests worn down, scratches, repaired areas, painted surfaces. My process involves dismantling and retaining specific forms; in the case of used furniture it is an attempt to conceal damage and to repurpose. I look at an object or piece of furniture and break it down into separate shapes; it is somewhat relative to dissecting something and laying out all the pieces. I then selectively choose forms that fit together in a way that could provoke an uncanny experience. I want the viewer to see the combination of objects appearing to belong together, and experience uncertainty in how to approach the piece. I feel that this could be done with new furniture, but as of now, I enjoy the hunt to find pieces with some history.
The day I visited the museum, I heard more than one person say that “The Offering” suggests a guillotine or some other medieval torture device. Was that your intention?
With "The Offering," I was thinking about personal territories; the idea of space and objects within the home being simultaneously inviting, but also remaining private. My intention was to create a compressed form that represents an inviting environment, with an underlying element of threat. I see this experience as similar to being in someone’s private space, and cautiously or politely navigating that person’s territory.
I left the exhibition still unsure of what I actually thought of your piece, and what it said to me … but at the time, I couldn’t stop staring at it. Is it a complement to you that your work is dense enough for people to ponder it for an extended period of time, rather than achieve a snap judgment?
Artwork should be somewhat of a challenge. It is a fragmented reflection of intuition, history, and concept rendered in a language of its own. Artists spend months making and editing their work before exposing a piece to the public, and it is a great compliment for a viewer to engage and show appreciation for a piece.
Has your art-making process changed the way you feel about the furniture with which we surround ourselves in our daily lives?
I pay close attention to the objects and furnishings that people live with to understand how these items dictate our habits and tastes, and to expose various levels of privacy. I like the idea of compressing environments, and when I am in someone’s home, I often think of ways to combine their furniture together. I also notice objects and furnishings that one considers valuable, for various reasons – either family history or of high quality artisanship –and how these things are restricted from use. I would love to make a piece based on a person or family’s collected furniture, out of pieces that they have selected to remove from functionality and consider more precious than other furniture. The work would question the value that is placed on the pure or original form of an object, but also change the experience that one has with that thing. I believe that the act of customizing is a method of claiming territory and reflects personal identity, which is so prevalent in our living spaces.