His moment of Zen
MICHAEL MOTLEY’S RETURN TO SCULPTURE
Michael Motley’s sculptural exhibit Drawn to the Wall 2 opens at Patina Gallery
If you are familiar with Michael Motley, chances are you know him as a two- and three-dimensional designer whose skills are sought by gallerists, artists, museums, publishers of art books and monographs, and other businesses and organizations connected to the arts. Maybe you caught him at Collected Works on June 29 in conversation with photographer Cira Crowell, whose book 108 Visions: Ladakh During the Kalachakra was designed by Motley. His firm, Michael Motley: Divergent Design for the Creative Community, has worked with some of Santa Fe’s most prominent cultural mainstays: SITE Santa Fe, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and Santa Fe Pro Musica, among them. But Motley is also a sculptor, a practice he abandoned more than a decade ago. Although he’s found design work to be an outlet for creative expression, in 2014 he returned to his sculptural craft. Motley is one of three artists in Patina Gallery’s Drawn to the Wall 2: The Medium Is the Message, part of an ongoing series of exhibitions featuring guest artists. The other two artists in the show are Isolde Kille and Seth Anderson, who both work in mixed media. Drawn to the
Wall 2 represents the largest showing of Motley’s works since his return to the studio. His minimalist black sculptures, sinuous and branch-like, appear partly organic and partly constructed. Motley met with Pasatiempo to discuss his sculpture and reengagement with his artistic practice.
Pasatiempo: I was talking to [gallery director] Ivan Barnett, and we agreed that you’re the go-to guy for design work in Santa Fe.
Michael Motley: Yeah. Pretty much. I used to be torn between what I consider commercial art and fine art. I figured out a way to make a living in the arts by working with artists, museums, and galleries. I really like working on books and catalogs, things like that. It keeps me working with artists and keeps me in the art world.
Pasa: I recently spoke with Brendan Connell about the book Radius published on his father, John Connell: Works, 1965-2009. He told me the book was one of your designs.
Motley: Yeah. That was quite a project. I shared a studio with John for a while. He was very influential to me on a lot of levels. He was relentlessly working. Certain artists just get out of bed in the morning and they make stuff. John approached making art similarly to some Japanese potters. They make 100 pots, paint them, and fire them. After firing, they’ll go through and throw half of them away. My process is different. It takes longer. I can’t work at that pitch but I find it inspirational.
Pasa: The pieces in Drawn to the Wall have a quality like a handdrawn line. They look like branches, but are they actually metal?
Motley: They’re made from juniper roots mostly. I live out in Nambé. I find them in the arroyos. They’re wrapped mostly with a one-inch, nonsterile gauze. It creates a different surface which I then seal. I put on black gesso with graphite and wax to get that metallic finish. That’s the essential process. Most of them are improvisational works. I use Russian olive and cottonwood — different trees I find around where I live — but the juniper is pretty special. The root has done the drawing for me in a certain way. I love the fact that these roots are moving their way underground, looking for water, going around rocks, and kind of mapping the terrain themselves.
Pasa: They have titles like Zen Lesson and Floating World, which are drawn from Eastern traditions. Are there other influences at work?
Motley: I look at a lot of tribal art, ancient art, things like that. I’ve studied Japanese aesthetics for a really long time. I try to respect those sources. Sometimes I’ll see a piece of work by someone and think, “That’s a mask from West Africa,” but it’s not. It’s somebody’s interpretation of it. I try not to appropriate too blatantly but rather let the spirit of it inform. With Zen aesthetics, it’s a philosophical approach. My work can relate to Arte Povera and other contemporary art movements. When I look at Anselm Kiefer’s sculptures, or even Cy Twombly’s sculptures, there’s a certain kind of visceral quality there, and they’re also quite beautiful.
Pasa: Like other artists in this exhibit series, you don’t have stable gallery representation, but you did have steady representation at a number of galleries before you stopped sculpting.
Motley: I started in the early ’80s and then maybe 10 or 12 years ago is when I stopped. I used to show with Arlene LewAllen right next door. I had a couple of shows there and then Arlene died, and the gallery kind of went through an upheaval. I pulled out and stopped making work. Pasa: What prompted you to give it up?
Motley: If you’re in the art world, sometimes you just know too much; you see how it functions. I just started to question the whole structure of the market. You’re making stuff for the walls of the people who can afford it: people who have big houses, or people who have second or third houses. At least, structurally, that’s how the market is here. I couldn’t motivate myself to get back at it. I used to say, “I’m not sure if the world needs any more art, but I think it really needs artists.” People with an artistic background need to train their skill set on bigger issues than making stuff for people’s walls. That might have been part of my pulling back.
Pasa: For the past several years your focus has been on design projects. What caused you to return to making sculpture?
Motley: It’s a happy convergence of accidents that got me back in the studio. Axle Contemporary asked me if I wanted to be in the show they did out at the wetlands last fall. So I did that. Then when Axle had the show at Peters Projects in February, they said, “Do you want to be in it?” And then Ivan called and I thought, “I guess it’s time to get back in there.”
Pasa: In the Patina show you’re paired with two other artists. Seth Anderson’s pieces, in particular, seem to resonate with yours, even though you work in different mediums.
Motley: They’re beautiful works. Ivan sent an email to me that said, “Well, I hung the show and your work is in dialogue.” I thought, “Oh, man. What does that mean? But I trust Ivan. He makes it work. I used to show at the Okun Gallery. Okun dealt with a lot of high-end craft: Robert Turner, a potter, and really well-known basket-makers who were essentially making sculptures, not necessarily functional baskets. Tom Joyce and I were the sculptors in there. I found that people who loved craft understood my work. They just got it on a certain level. So we’ll see what happens here.”
Michael Motley: left to right, Snare 4;
Rivulet 3; Rivulet 2; opposite page, Obsidian River 2; all mixed media, all 2015