Fran Siegel

Artist, San Pedro/LA // April 2012
For me, drawing is a malleable medium with a realm of possibilities for exploring itinerant and transitory subjects. I’m interested in investigating things that aren’t still, such as shifting light and movement.

Fran has a live/work space in San Pedro, a port district of Los Angeles that’s predominately a working class neighborhood with a growing artist community. Both Fran and her husband, artist Danial Nord have studio spaces in the front rooms, and live in a renovated space behind. We arrived late in the afternoon, with Fran’s studio flushed with light, and throughout our visit, as we chatted we watched the light change and move across the white floors and walls, hiding and revealing unexpected details of the space. The room felt alive, especially near the front windows where Fran and I sat while talking— the flow of activity, happening right outside on the sidewalk and street, played out across the panes in continually shifting patterns of shadows. So much of Fran’s work is about this— the ever-changing elements of space, light and atmosphere, and the impressions and insight they enable. Both the projects Fran was working on when we visited- a series of large drawings and sculptural installations- express endlessness and movement, creating an experience and sense of place that is multifaceted, flickering, and often unexpected. During our conversation Fran cited Invisible Cities as a source of inspiration, Italo Calvino’s fragmentary novel which describes unreal, dreamlike cities in precise detail. The book happens to also be a favorite of both Klea’s and mine. I recently returned to the pages of that book, because I knew in Calvino’s words I’d find echoes of Fran’s work, and I did:

When you have forded the river, when you have crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before you the city of Moriana, its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight…its villas all of glass…where the shadows…swim beneath the medusa-shaped chandeliers…From one part to the other, the city seems to continue, in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images.

In Invisible Cities and Fran’s work there is a desire to acknowledge not so much the physical structure of something, but the impressions it brings about, to reveal what might go unseen but not unwitnessed, and to recognize just how unfixed perception is.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I’m an artist. I’m engaged in the studio everyday. I have also been teaching a contemporary approach to drawing at California State University at Long Beach since 2002. Before that I was living in New York City and teaching at Pratt Institute.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
For me, drawing is a malleable medium with a realm of possibilities for exploring itinerant and transitory subjects. I’m interested in investigating things that aren’t still, such as shifting light and movement. I think of my work as identifying the spaces between solids. The resulting hybrid forms exist somewhere in between drawing and light activated environments. My current drawings are massive – collaged and cut paper from drawn and photographic cyanotype segments. I use sunlight to expose the cyanotypes –the negatives are often from drawn layered markings that I’ve made on glass and transparent acetate. This allows me to build up as many different densities that I need in order to obtain a distinctive lightness or darkness. The drawings’ overall value system is derived from aerial photographs that I have been taking of Los Angeles. I use accumulative and subtractive processes. I cut away the paper to use the white of the wall for the lightest value, making the image permeable. Some of the cyanotype segments are from close-ups while others I’ve taken from an airplane— so there’s a huge a difference in vantage points and scale all within one drawing. The process of my work has always been complicated and has required multiple steps.

I’m simultaneously developing a series entitled “Continuum” made from porcelain, paper, lights, and, wire, woven together in various configurations. These circular suspended pieces are accumulated from particles much like the drawings. Stemming from previous site-specific projects that I had created in various environments, I began thinking about making portable installations by forming wire into a state of spatial suspension. I am using white porcelain to create a particle with a different visual weight than the wire, which is also able to alter its direction and form, and creates a visual pause in the line that refers back to the wall. Spanning floor to ceiling, the density shifts from top to bottom. I integrate mirrors and light to magnify and extend the form beyond the physical. While these pieces are not functional they reference the chandelier. I consider them to be spatial volumetric illuminated drawings— in a dark setting they project a drawing of light and shadow into the space. I see my whole project, including the “Overland” drawings, as a series of unfixed positions with multiple viewpoints.

While my educational background contained a more formal view of abstraction that originated from the Bauhaus’ influence at Yale, I’ve been interested in making work that has an abstracted process of distillation. Abstraction for me is an experience perceived through changes in light qualities and found in the approach to physical materials instead of a style of imagery.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel and inspire your work?
Italo Calvino’s writing is quite significant for me, particularly his novel Invisible Cities and Jorge Luis Borge’s collection, Labyrinths. Both authors use minute descriptions to create believable but invented worlds. I love films- especially Nicolas Roeg, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jacque Tati. Cubism and Art Povera remain very important. I have been influenced by artists with expansive practices such as Robert Irwin, Francis Alys, Judy Pfaff, Lucio Fontana, and Wolfgang Laib. Travel has been a big influence on my work, especially during residency fellowships when I can absorb a new place and also make work at the same time.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I have a live/work space that functions really well for me. It keeps things manageable, especially because I teach and travel— I really wouldn’t want to have to contend with multiple locations, with all the back and forth and not having a central place for books and other resources.

In my studio, light is a key factor and I like things white, because I want it to function like a light box. Because my space is on a north south axis the big skylights enable me to observe the path of light throughout the day, which in turn activates or influences the work I’m doing.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Certainly moving to Los Angeles has created a shift. My current work is very much about the ongoing tension between the urban development of LA and its landscape. This is an existential, self-reflexive study— here I am in this city, really wanting to learn more about why it’s not organized, why it has no master plan, and that is sort of autobiographical. My interest in its formlessness also has an autobiographical quality because nomadic wandering imagery is a part of my ancient history.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Expanding the drawing project to study different cities and the influence of their historical layout on socialization. For example I will be working on a project in Siena this June and in Spain in 2013.

What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of being able to function as an artist. Being able to travel and create work makes me feel very good about the life that I’m able to live and that so far I have been able to sustain.

What do you want your work to do?
I’ve had shows where people said they’ve never seen that particular space quite in that way until a piece of mine inhabited it— and that is always my ultimate hope, that my work in some way articulates something about space or light that might not be so readily observed or that people maybe didn’t previously know about.

What advice has influenced you?
I can think of important advice I might give as a teacher: Building things from the inside out is really important and being as innovative as possible and not re-creating work that’s already been made. Also, don’t worry about falling into the confines of particular categories. The best artists and teachers are ones that ask, “What if…”

Also, the commercial world runs only slightly parallel to what happens in the studio, so artists shouldn’t pay too much attention to the commercial build-ups because careers rise and fall in inexplicable ways. So we should just always be making work and ready, and not depend on a gallerist or anyone else to give us the go ahead. The hierarchy of the commercial world does not reflect the hierarchy of the studio world.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I don’t think I will ever feel that way. My work is mobile, and as a person I’m very restless. Of course, I’ve had goals along the way, but as soon as I’ve achieved them I’m looking for what’s next. Now I can visualize exhibiting a three-part installation that includes a site-responsive project, pieces affected by both artificial and natural light conditions, and a roving drawing of a location, within a high visibility museum setting. The scope of my work with place would be best understood in this context.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
“Inside Outside – Outside In” at Lesley Heller, in NYC April 22 – May 25th.
Drawing Project commission for The Art, Design, and Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara opens February 2013.

To see more of Fran’s work: