Peeling Away the Walls: Seth Clark’s Art Builds from Destruction

Interview by: Aleeza Furman

Seth Clark’s Radiant Hall studio in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood is completely filled with his work. As he talks, he points out pieces—the warped wooden grid hanging on the wall, the white dome in the crawl space, the pedestal with its sides peeled away to reveal the scaffolding beneath its surface. Integrated into the space as they are, they seem to manifest out of nowhere when he mentions them. His collages hang on the walls; his sculptures made of jumbled windows cling to corners as though some architecturally inclined wasps set up hives there.

Scraps of paper litter the studio floor, but that’s part of the process for Clark, who prefers detritus over expensive paper when collaging. Clark—like the architect-trained artist Gordon Matta-Clark (no relation)—is fascinated by decay and the history it represents. This shows in both the materials and subject matter he uses. Combining trod-upon scraps with drawing, Clark builds up elaborate architectural structures in states of intentional disrepair.

As he walks around his studio, he discusses how he began to focus on architecture, his relationship with Pittsburgh, and the freedom that comes from taking a sledgehammer to a piece of art.

Aleeza Furman: How did you first get started with collage?

Seth Clark: I started seriously collaging shortly after I graduated from school. I studied graphic design—mainly doing weird typographic stuff, branding and logos, book design, things like that. I was always collaging in college, but I mainly got into it when I moved to Pittsburgh. I didn’t have too much money for art supplies, so I worked with scraps of paper, trash, and weird ephemera I saw around, using old pages of books and posters. I occasionally find odd notes or lists. It’s gross sometimes because the best scraps come right after the rain, when everything is soggy.

It’s funny, nowadays I’ll buy and use a lot of store-bought papers and age them or texture them myself because they’re a lot more archival. But I still find myself picking up scraps occasionally. I’ll buy an eight-dollar sheet of Japanese paper, and it’s so precious, and I’ll just tear it up and destroy it. Still, I can never really recreate these scraps that already have that aged beauty to them.

Collapse XIX. Courtesy of Seth Clark.

a collage piece that resembles a structure made of frames slowing collapsing and decaying, with a variety of textures that give an aged and decaying effect

How did architecture become a central focus of your projects?

I started working during the 2008 housing crisis. That was certainly on my mind. I’ve always been fascinated by architecture and aging buildings, and this already aged paper that I was using served that subject matter really well.

I’m not necessarily trying to put out some overt statement through my work, but architecture is generally the biggest thing we build as human beings. We build it to last, and we often try to build it to last forever. It’s interesting to me to watch how these things are constantly corroding. The second you put up a beam or lay a foundation, it’s immediately deteriorating—something that relates to our human life.

How does living in Pittsburgh influence your work?

I fell in love with Pittsburgh because of its alleyways. Most neighborhoods around here have row houses squished together. In Providence, where I grew up, there aren’t a lot of areas like that. I love the repetitiveness and the closeness of the architecture here. It’s an old steel city; nothing is in great shape. I went to Honolulu years ago, and it’s the newest, freshest city I’ve ever seen. I thought it was just atrocious. There’s nothing interesting about it.

When I first moved to Pittsburgh, I had a job cleaning out old houses. It’s awesome to think of layers of wallpaper and construction when you’re gutting rooms and revealing different building materials. I try to incorporate that history into my work. It’s weird, this relationship that we have to our homes. I’ve never owned one myself, and I can’t wait to one day cut all the holes I want in my house. But that sense of moving, and all the people in the past who have walked through a space or have lived in a space, is fascinating.

I’ve also used the history of the area to influence my work. In the past I’ve pulled from images of the 1889 Johnstown Flood as references. I piece things together and use it as a reference for the larger work. Often with my larger works, I’ll plan digitally in Photoshop and mix and match different houses in a landscape. I’ll take a little window or a door from this house and a roof from another and merge it all together.

Ruins of Cambria Iron Mills from Sone Bridge P.R.R., Johnstown Flood, May 31st 1889. Photo by Histed, Earnest Walter. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

a brick iron mill building, half collapsed, after a flood in 1889. The photo is in black and white, and the building sits among piles of fragments of the building.

Tell me about the process of transitioning from collage work to sculpture.

It’s a pretty natural transition. I work on both things at once, and they play off each other. I’m working on a big collage right now, which is basically just a version of a sculpture I’ve made, so they inform each other. The way I collage is pretty close to the way I sculpt something in wood, either laying little strips of paper down or gluing little pieces of wood down.

The sculpture is pretty new, so it’s fun. I’ll always build little models before I work on something. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing when I’m building things. There’s been a lot of experimenting and figuring things out. I still have a ton to learn about woodworking and architecture and how to keep things from falling apart so easily, especially as I want to build larger and larger sculptures.

You have a lot of sculptures that interact with the gallery space and question what the gallery space means. How do you consider space when you’re constructing something?

I love being able to cut into space and redefine the architecture of it, though I don’t often have the opportunity to do that. One example was in a show, Dissolution, I had at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. Jason Forck and I built a false wall and cracked it and peeled it away to give the idea that the entire structure of the building was made of glass slabs. We even cast some two-by-fours in glass.

Dissolution Exhibition at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, 2016-2017. Courtesy of Seth Clark.

a white gallery wall with the title of the exhibition: Dissolution, in black text. the wall is slightly decayed, with two spots with plaster falling off.

Pedestal piece from Clark’s 2015 Emerging Artist of the Year exhibit at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Courtesy of Seth Clark.

a piece that resembles a pedestal (that artwork is usually placed on), where the white exterior material is being folded back to reveal an inner, rusted metal frame

I also have a series of pedestal pieces that take this really plain object that we’re used to seeing in a really boring context and redefine what structure might lie underneath these white cubes.

I address the space when I redefine it in a playful, curious, and mysterious manner—building passageways, playing with people’s sense of space, or poking little holes in things. I’ve done a few pieces where people have let me cut holes in their homes.

But aside from commissioned work, I mainly show in galleries and white-walled spaces. I am thinking more about opportunities in the realm of public art and the opportunity of working in a park environment or a public space. I’m trying to think larger.

I recently worked with a local architect, Eric Fisher. We were collaborating on a little project together. He approached me after an exhibition one day and said, “Seth, I wonder what one of your paintings would look like if we could walk through it.” So that was the first time I thought about my work on a larger scale, and he did some really awesome renderings. We experimented together, and it was one of the first times I could look underneath one of my paintings—that I could take these more abstracted pieces and see how something would function at the size of an entire building. It would be awesome to work at that scale.

Collaboration between Seth Clark and Eric Fisher for Fairy Tales competition. Courtesy of Fisher ARCHitecture.

a rendering of a gallery space with a floor so reflective that it looks like water, and exposed metal industrial beams on the ceiling that support a glass roof.

Collaboration between Seth Clark and Eric Fisher for Fairy Tales competition. Courtesy of Fisher ARCHitecture.

a rendering of a structure decaying in a green, forest landscape, with the material falling into an adjacent river leaving the metal frame of the structure exposed.

How do you represent decay in your sculpture?

It’s a weird thing, trying to recreate disaster. Sometimes it’s therapeutic. When I’m destroying something in a gallery or museum space, I have to figure out how I can control the outcome. If I take a sledgehammer to something, I want to understand how it will break. The key is building a controllable enough system underneath. I want to learn some software and things, because I love watching videos of renderings or animations where you’re lobbing a little ball into a pile of Jenga bricks and getting a sense of how things would fall apart.

The most fun I’m having right now is with the more physical, performative aspect of breaking things in a gallery setting. I think investigating the way things fall apart is really cool, but it’s tough to put so many hours into a sculpture or work and destroy it. I love seeing the remnants of that destruction on the floor of the space. It has a mysterious quality—we don’t often see things that are falling apart hanging on a wall. I think that’s the most important part of what I’m doing now.

The most fun I’ve had destroying something was with a dome at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that had really been frustrating me. It was just the ugliest thing I’d ever seen when it was whole, and we had been working on it for months to bend all the wood and build things up pretty systematically. I spent so much time on this thing, and hung it up on the wall as a dome itself, and it was just so unsuccessful formally. Every aspect of it was just awful. It was the last thing we hung, and I was just like, “yeah, if it looks good after we totally destroy it, maybe we’ll leave it in the show.” At the time, I was pretty sure it just wasn’t going to work out. But we took a little makeshift sledgehammer to it, and it ended up being one of my favorite pieces in the show.

Clark’s broken dome sculpture. Courtesy of Seth Clark.

a dome on a gallery wall made of wooden sticks - the dome is white and the wood of the sticks is still visible. The dome is broken, half of it hangs from the wall, and some of the material from it lies on the floor below.

Quite a few of my pieces get reincarnated into other ones. Sometimes they’ll sit around for two or three years before I get to them again. I really want to flatten that dome out and try to make it a flat, two-dimensional painting. I do a lot of tests using different plasters or experimenting with spray paint. All of these studies can turn into something else one day.

What sort of impact do you want your work to have?

I’m still trying to figure that out. I want to find a balance, especially getting into more  public works. The larger things get, the more responsibility you have as an artist or architect to make sure it’s useful in a way. I’m still figuring out what type of impact I want to have and how my work can have the most impact.

A visitor looks at Clark’s 2015 Emerging Artist of the Year exhibit at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Courtesy of Seth Clark.

a gallery visitor in a colorful plaid shirt looks up close at one of Clark's artworks - a collage of different materials like roof shingles and window frames

About the author:

Aleeza Furman is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering legal industry-related news. She also works as an editorial assistant with Point Line Projects. She holds a BA in creative writing and studio arts and a certificate in children’s literature from the University of Pittsburgh.

Find Aleeza on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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