image from untitled, 2007, C Print, 17″ x 24″
Sarah Knobel is a photographer working in Washington DC. Her work blends a distressing Middle American adolescent ordinariness with settings and situations of glamor, fashion and fantasy. It’s a mash up that is equally funny and sad. Knobel’s most frequent subject is the self-portrait. And, even though she may appear dressed up, covered in glitter or otherwise ‘in character’, it is very possibly the inclusion of herself in the work that keeps the work from taking a cynical or satirical view of its principle elements.
In anticipation of the exhibit Playful Things (also featuring artists Magda Gluszek, Sharon Shapiro and Christina Vantzou) at the university of Central Missouri’s Gallery of Art, Sarah Knobel was kind enough to answer some questions about her work for us:
Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself.
I was raised in Texas. I went to a Baptist private school until 8th grade. My parents moved us to a border town, Harlingen, TX . There were no private schools in the area, so I got to attend public school. I wore Nirvana t-shirts to fit in with my artsy friends. I was cheerleader for two years and was the town flirt in the school play.
I some how ended up at a Baptist university, Baylor, for one year of college. I joined a sorority and ran seven miles a day so I could be skinny. I dated a boy that all the girls liked whose name was Spencer. When I couldn’t keep up with the running and singing songs at sorority meetings, I moved to Vancouver, BC. I became a lift operator at a local ski resort. Long story short, I ended up and taking some art classes at Emily Carr School of Art. I moved back to Texas and got a BFA at Texas State University and a MFA at the University of Cincinnati. I taught photography for four years at the University of Missouri and became a grouchy professor.
During the Summer of 2008, my husband and I moved to the Washington DC area for him to attend grad school. I have had various jobs since then. I worked for a creepy photographer, was a school portrait photographer and have had various horrible temp jobs. I went back to school and now I am a web programmer and sit at a computer all day long. In conclusion, it is obvious I change my lifestyle and surroundings quite frequently.
image from untitled, 2006, C Print,17″ x 24″
Many of us don’t grow up with art as part of our daily life, especially many of us away from the coasts and our routes into the fine arts are circuitous. Was that your experience? How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this?’
My best friend in high school was the artist, I was not nor did I ever think I could be an artist. I thought you had to draw and paint well, which I couldn’t do. I really didn’t discover that I was and wanted to be an artist until I took classes at Emily Carr. I was so naive about art, especially contemporary art. I didn’t know video, installation art, and performance even existed until I took those classes.
Looking back, I now realize that I was making art back in high school. I was obsessed with making videos and would force my friends to participate. I made this one video where I am Sandi Patty’s obsessed sidekick. If you don’t know who Sandi Patty is, she is a Christian singer that was popular in the eighties and nineties. In my fictitious story, she treats me bad and is secretly a wild woman. I eventually strangle her.
The best scene is where the detective finds me putting lipstick all over my face and holding a picture of Sandi. I die on the electric chair calling Sandi’s name out. I know it sounds horrible and slightly too strange, but it is really one of my best videos I have ever made.
Talk about your creative mulch—that is your daily inspirations, ‘fine’ art & not fine art:
Of course, I love looking at artwork and participating in the art world. But, I am definitely more inspired by popular culture. As a joke, I always say I am watching ‘Sweet Sixteen’, ‘The Real Housewives’ and most recently the ‘Jersey Shore’ for research. But, it is kind of true.
an image from Yellow Wallpaper, 2008, C-Print, 17″ x24″
What is a day in the studio like for you?
Well, my studio is really my apartment, that is currently way too small. I don’t think I have the same studio experience that other artists may have. I don’t have a designated studio space and my whole apartment can be the studio depending on the idea. Usually, I just make a huge mess of the place. For example, the Yellow Wallpaper series required that I put up this hideous wallpaper in my bedroom. It was up for a month, so I could reshoot and work through my ideas. My husband couldn’t wait for that wallpaper to come down. Most of the work is shot in my apartment, I think it is a safe place for me and sometimes wonder if I am afraid to shoot anywhere else.
Please tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told, and something useful that you learned for yourself.
I have had a lot great teachers and friends who have always given me sound advice and words of wisdom. But, I really think a turning point for me and my artwork was when I took classes at NYU during a summer of undergrad. My instructor introduced me to the historic background of photography and self-portraiture, specifically the works of Claude Cahun, Maya Deren and of course Cindy Sherman.
The one thing I have learned is to not give up on the way you work and how you want to work. From my very first photography class, I have always made only self-portraits. In grad school, I would get a lot of criticism for what I was doing. I have to admit it was still somewhat unclear to me about why I was drawn to work this way. My last year of grad school, I actually gave up doing self-portraits and made a series called Television Watchers. Although I do like the idea and it ended up being a cool series; I just wasn’t in to it. I was very bored making it. But, it definitely was easier to defend and explain than any of my other work. I went back to working with self-portraits after that and the more I worked, the more my ideas developed. It is important to listen to criticism, but I try to not let it affect me or my work to the point where I am doing something that I wouldn’t intuitively do.
image from Emoticons, 2008, C-Print, 17″ x 24″
What is the hard part of making art for you?
I think the hardest part has always been figuring out how I can execute these crazy ideas I have in my head. I have limited space and a limited amount of financial resources. I am sure most artist can relate. This usually leads me to come up with creative solutions. But in the mean time is always disappointing when you realize to get your initial idea to work you will need a crane and movie set equipment like Gregory Crewdson.
What is the fun part?
The best part is the actual shooting and being really excited to view the images afterwards. Obviously, the shooting period is a performance for me. As other artists who work with self-portraits may know, it is a strange and sometimes ackward experience being both the photographer and model. I am sure it would be humorous to watch me in some of my shoots run from the camera and get into crazy poses. For my Untitled candy series that I did in 2007, I bought boxes of fruit by the foot, unwrapped them and wrapped them all around me. I couldn’t move my arms or actually even see. I some how got to my living room and took the pictures. My poor camera was sticky for days.
The newest work is really big. What drew you to the large scale?
Well, it is kinda funny that I started creating large pieces after moving into a very small apartment. I have always been interested in making large work and the newer series, My Future is Near, pretty much requires it, since there are so many details of what is going on in the space. I really like the detailed ben-day dots that show up from blowing up scanned magazines so large.
My Future Is Near, 2009, C-Prints, 80″x 70″
The photos and videos depict a decidedly unnatural, often heightened, reality, pretty far from how we’re shown the world in documentary photography or standard portraiture. When and how did you decide that artifice was the way you wanted to work?
It is the only way I know how to work. I have always depicted an artifice and heightened reality in my work , I think it comes natural to me. So much of our culture is about over-heightened reality which has always inspired my work. I think I wouldn’t be making art if I couldn’t work this way.
How comfortable are you with the degree of artifice in the work? Is there any internal debate: is this unnatural enough/is this too unnatural?
In a lot of ways that is what the work is about; our desires and expectations taking over that we end up believing and doing a lot of things that are forced, to the point that it becomes ridiculous. I want the work to show this struggle. For example when you first look at My Future is Near it looks like a sweet and a comfortable place, but upon close inspection one may infer that the girl is delusional and lives in a realm of loneliness and fantasy.
image from Wonder Years, 2005, C Print, 17″ x 24″
Is nostalgia a friend or an enemy?
Well, that is a hard question to answer for me. I really hate that word, but in a lot of ways I have relied on it in my work. In series, such as Wonder Years, I directly look to the past to understand the present. In series like School Portraits, I use nostalgic aesthetics directly. I think I am slowly getting over nostalgia and in my newer work moving away from it. My Future is Near and a new untitled series that I am working on is more likely in the present. But it is really hard to confirm where or when it takes place. The new work is more about transplantation. So to go back to your question, nostalgia is definitely a frienemy.
How much effort is there to maintain some kind of equilibrium between comedy and tragedy?
Good question. Honestly, I don’t really think about this until after shooting. Usually, I come up with an idea and just shoot it. Once I review what is there that is when I decipher this balance of comedy and tragedy in the work. There is a lot of work that I never use because I realize after shooting that it is solely about comedy.
image from School Portraits, 2008, C-Print, 24″ x 30″
Which theme would you say is more relevant to your work, sense of place or sense of self? Or again, is it a matter of finding an equilibrium? I think the immediate reaction to your work has sometimes been to relate it to artists like Cindy Sherman or Nikki Lee, artists principally concerned with identity. On closer inspection, though, it seems like the work may be as much or more about where the individual is located (maybe in a metaphysical sense). The questions raised seem to be concerned with surroundings, cultural assumptions, relationships to others, and the individual’s awareness (or lack of awareness) of her surroundings. It’s not as introspective as those older artists. Am I on target at all?
Wow, you said it better than I could. I have always been linked to Cindy Sherman, which is nice but also very frustrating to me. I think in my earlier work and the School Portraits series I definitely took a similar approach to Sherman’s process. But, for a majority of my work I am not really changing my identity, at least not physically. In fact, I seem to be the same character over and over again. The work is more about our cultural assumptions, expectations, desires and how one deals with these. This is definitely translated in the space and the character’s interaction with the space. My character is always alone trying to artificially connect with something or someone.
Going back to your question, I do think it is about finding an equilibrium between sense of place and sense of self. I still approach identity and sense of self, but maybe not as direct as Nikki Lee or Cindy Sherman. If I was going to be compared to another female artist that works with herself as the subject, I would say Pipilotti Rist and I work in a very similar fashion.
image from School Portraits, 2008, C-Print, 24″ x 30″
How do you think about using color?
The brighter the better. I love color and bright colors not only bring popular culture reference but enhances the artificial presence of the work.
I’m curious about how works develop, is there any sort of brainstorming process you go through equivalent to sketching?
Well, I wish I was in the habit of sketching and writing my ideas down for a new project. I have sketched for a few projects, but the majority of the time I usually just keep track of it in my head. I usually start working on a new idea pretty quickly, get props, prepare the setting and just shoot. This usually results in me re-shooting over and over again until the idea really comes together. Probably a waste of time, but this is the only way I can work. Anytime I write down an idea, I know it is going to change after or during shooting.
image from untitled, 2006, C Print, 17″x 24″
What are you looking lately? What are you listening to? What are you reading?
As far as what I have been looking at, I have been going to a lot of openings and exhibitions in DC. Some of the highlights for me – Nick and Sheila Pye video and photography work; Guido van derWerve’s Nummer Acht video piece – Nummer Acht :everything is going to be alright; and Kimsooja’s video – A Laundry Woman, Yamuna River Delhi.
As far as music, I have been listening to a lot of avant-garde electronic and experimental music. Some would say it is called intellectual dance music, which I think sounds really stupid. I particularly like bands that have a feminine, girlish undertone, such as Telepathe. I also love Tim Hecker’s music, which inspired the latest video I have been working on.
Shamefully, I have to say that I have been taking a break from reading a lot of art theory since I stopped teaching and [have been] reading a lot of books about zombies and vampires. I have no idea why, but I am a little obsessed with zombies right now.
We always ask artists about these three things–reading, listening, looking at. I wonder is there anything else we should be asking about that would tell us more about what inspire and influences you: What are you eating? Where’s the best place for coffee around there? Do you ever see deer in your yard? etc. etc.—-Is there anything else we ought to be asking you about?
I think my new artwork is definitely inspired by me sitting at the computer all day long, being in a tiny apartment and living in a larger city.
All right. Thanks, Sarah!