I often feel relaxed and optimistic wandering around the younger art fairs such as Sunday in London, Liste in Basel, and NADA in New York. There’s a palpable sense of opportunity and possibility that I don’t find at the large, established fairs, and I don’t believe that has to do only with the size of my budget! I think it reflects the entrepreneurial spirit of the younger gallerists and their willingness to be nimble and to take risks. It was at NADA this year that I first discovered Rachel Foullon, whose enormous workman’s collar, Dickie, immediately caught my eye and drew me into Halsey McKay, her gallery where I met director Hilary Schaffner. Foullon’s Dickie had a majesterial quality due to the scale and its iconic presentation on a high scaffold of stained pine wood positioned well above eye level. The pink and green washed-out stains suggested the blood and sweat of a hard-working farmer and the pleats in the collar gave the piece a formal nobility.
Inside the booth were other works by Rachel: a pair of wall sculptures, called Cruel Radiance (Scythes-Couple), beautifully constructed of antique scythes, burnished stainless steel metal and hand-dyed linen in a shade of blue that was a perfect counterbalance to the dark brown wood of the tools and reflective shine of the polished steel. These were also quite large – larger than practical for a truly functional piece of work equipment, yet clearly connected to a former or imagined purpose. The irregular wash of blue added a painterly quality to the work and also reinforced the human touch associated with farm tools and manual labor.
Draping, pleating, and folding, around and in between frames, or hung from wooden pegs, the fabrics and materials in each of Rachel’s works had a strong compositional presence. I liked the way the work felt distinctly American through its references to a pre industrial homesteading past, but also in the pragmatism and simplicity of construction and display.
Given how rooted in American culture these works felt, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to know how Rachel would fare back in the UK at Launch Pad. How would she respond to a brief that asked her to consider a wholly different context? It was fortuitous timing, because Hilary and Rachel had only days earlier been talking about the challenge and desirability of working within a specifically domestic setting. Rachel was already in a mindset that was eager to experiment with a different language.
My next encounter with Rachel was in her studio in Brooklyn. I learned more about her practice and her work ethic that is rooted, like the pioneering homesteaders from whom she seems to draw inspiration, in acceptance and gratitude for an interdependent community. She acknowledges the contributions of her husband Ian Cooper, also a sculptor, and his father, an eminent fabricator of Donald Judd’s sculptures, her assistant whose dressmaking skills are frequently required, and other artists whose studios and living spaces are in the same building. The dying of heavy upholstery linen, a time consuming and labor-intensive exercise, for example, was a process of trial and error. Rachel described how so much of what she does, to meticulous perfection, is a process of learning as she goes, absorbing the expertise of others and solving problems as they arise. She has developed a shorthand way of communicating with the fabricators of her work; everyone has a vested interest in realizing the common goal of a well-executed work. This practical ingenuity also struck me as particularly American. We discussed whether we were both being overly romantic, falling victim to the myth of American pragmatism and “can do” spirit, or whether these were qualities that actually do – or did – play a role in American culture.
When I asked Rachel to think about a new piece, we agreed that the timing was tight to include a site visit before the actual residency that would occur around Frieze in mid October. So the “recce” ended up being a virtual tour on FaceTime. As she pointed out, seeing the space of my house literally through my eyes, was an interesting experience in itself, and probably did contribute to her choice of site, the large wall of the mezzanine. I gave her measurements and dimensions, and a summer of phone and email exchanges, sketches and photos of her source material led to the eventual appearance of Choker.
Choker is a departure for Rachel. Constructed of laser-cut steel and heavy curtain velvet, it uses a completely different material language from one that drew on the homespun and humble. The choice of elements manages to capture both the decorum/decoration and the strictness/restriction of the Victorian culture, presented here as a lace-collared, velvet neck bow. Choker is beguiling. She (we decided Choker was female) takes on different personae depending on the time of day, the shadows she casts on the wall behind her, and the presence or lack of other furniture nearby. At night she rules the house imperiously with an austere and formal gravitas, and in the daytime, with sunshine pouring through the room, she has a coquettish, playful demeanour. Living with Choker has meant taking in a boarder with a very big personality.