Friday, January 18, 2013

A visit to Deborah Pohl’s studio by Sydney Chastain-Chapman

On the evening of Nov. 13th, I paid a visit to Deborah Pohl at her studio in the Neumann Leather building, a studio building in Hoboken, NJ. As fellow Hoboken residents, we spent the first part of the visit discussing our experiences during Hurricane Sandy. Deborah’s story was much more dramatic than mine, including a rescue by the National Guard. But I was relieved to hear that like me, neither her studio nor her apartment were damaged by the flooding. This was actually the second visit I paid to Deborah’s studio, having gone there during the summer of 2012, along with Anna Lise Jensen, for a very enjoyable, informal studio visit/ lunch hangout. So it was interesting to revisit work that I had seen at the summer visit, and to see the progress Deborah has made in the meantime.
Her primary recent focus has been on ‘the Pill Project’, which she started in conjunction with a Hoboken arts event by the same name, which was a benefit to support womens’ reproductive rights. For this event in the summer of 2012, Deborah started producing small “pills”, i.e. drawings, that she sold at the series of evening benefits, with the profits all going to Planned Parenthood. After the benefit was over, Deborah decided to continue her Pill Project, with the idea of exhibiting the pills as a large collection at the next tART exhibition, and allowing the public to purchase the pills individually, with the proceeds again going to support reproductive rights.

Despite all the interesting social-political aspects of the project, I was most struck by the dazzling visual array of the pills as a group, and loved the chance to spend time with this large collection of tiny drawings (several hundred), to slowly notice the subtle and not-so-subtle differences amid the grouping. The pill drawings are all circular shapes, done in a variety of media and colors. Some are on plain white-paper backgrounds, and some have painted or drawn backgrounds. A few are even collages. Intrigued by Deborah’s process and formal decisions, I brought up those aspects of the work, and that constituted most of our conversation. Deborah said that when she initially began making the pills, she was drawing them to look like more-realistic pill capsules, and even tried making small pill sculptures. This flexibility and willingness to try whatever material and form fit the idea seems typical of Deborah, whose body of work includes realistic witty still-life paintings, abstract works, and various forms of social engagement and performance. But as she experimented with making the pills, she realized the simpler format of the circular shape on a square background was preferable. I agreed, since seeing the group of pills definitely made me think of medicine and birth control pills in particular, but also a number of other more universal ideas, such as a galaxy of planets, or a group of cells.

We talked about Damien Hirst’s pill representations, and Deborah noted that his pill paintings are very regimented and almost manufactured, since his assistants do the painting, whereas her pill project is much more organic, allowing for new ideas and ways of making to come in along the way. We also talked about how working on a collection of small works on paper (something I’ve also done) is a great project to do when you’re busy with other things. Deborah is currently working and also getting a graduate degree, so the pill project has helped her sustain her studio practice in a manageable way during a busy time.

I’m very glad I had a chance to see this work develop over the course of a few months, and that the public will have a chance to view it again at the upcoming tART exhibition, and to participate in the important exchange of buying pill artworks to support womens’ reproductive rights.