The Muroff-Kotler Visual Arts Gallery at SUNY-Ulster in Stone Ridge will host an opening reception on Friday, September 23 from 5 to 7 p.m. for Steve Clorfeine’s “Correspondence,” a curatorial installation inspired by letters and postcards written to him over a 50-year span. The exhibit will remain on view through Friday, October 21.
“Correspondence” presents the work of 25 artists based in the Hudson Valley who were invited to create a work inspired by letters and postcards provided by Clorfeine, a performing artist, writer and teacher. Carefully saved in shoeboxes, the written pages and images became both Muse and material to transform.
This will be the second iteration of the show first seen at the Westbeth Gallery in New York City last May. Clorfeine describes the show as “an homage to letter-writing, to telling stories, to mutual imagining, to staying in touch. Recently Almanac Weekly’s Sharyn Flanagan spoke with Clorfeine about the exhibit.
How did you come up with this concept?
I’ve been writing letters from about the age of seven or eight, and I saved pretty much every letter I received for the next 50 years. Sometime around age 25, I realized they’d be really good resources for writing projects. Then, about seven years ago when I was moving, clearing out stuff, I burned some of the love letters and then starting making collages.
How did you end up enlisting other people in the project?
After I made two works myself, I brought the idea to five or six visual and performing artist friends and asked them if they’d like to make a piece based on these materials. I spread out hundreds of these letters and postcards and asked them to pick based on whatever attracted them, whether it was the handwriting, an image on a postcard, the color of the paper, whether it was handwritten or typed…at that point I knew I wanted to create an exhibition from this. When I received an offer from the Westbeth Gallery in New York City and saw that it was a 3,000-square-foot space, I realized I’d have to invite more artists.
Were you surprised by what people did with your letters?
Yeah… Most [of the artists] used a specific phrase, or a stamp, but others were inspired by the whole waning of people writing letters to each other and what that means in terms of our imaginative process and how we think about someone else.
Did their work using your life experiences make you think about your own memories differently?
It did. I’d walk around the gallery and see things that I’d never seen before. I’d see a phrase, or recognize the handwriting, and a whole flood of images would come to mind.
Another thing I’ve been working on is this idea that sometimes you get kind of locked in your imagination with a specific photographic image or letter, and it superimposes something on what you might really have felt at that moment. Photographs or letters can cover up things sometimes, and if you’re too dependent on photographic images as what you think happened, is there a way to release oneself from the fixedness of that kind of impression on your memory?
What does this exhibit say about the digital age we live in?
Another thing I’ve been exploring is what happens when you write to someone with your hands, as opposed to sending an e-mail on the computer. Even if you type a letter, you still have to fold it, put it in an envelope, address it, stamp it and put it in the mailbox. And the person has to wait for it and anticipate it coming, or be surprised by its arrival. That person has to take it out of the mailbox and either opens it immediately or takes it somewhere and waits for a particular moment to open it. Immediately they’re thinking about the person who wrote it, because they see the return address or recognize the handwriting. And all these imaginative responses that are going on are really obliterated by e-mail. I’m not really making a political statement overtly about it; I’m making a statement about imagination and how we think about each other and the tactility of memory in that sense, the tactility in correspondence.
I’ve always felt that I really got to know my mom through the many letters we exchanged over the years we lived on opposite coasts. Letters give us time to reveal things that just wouldn’t come up in casual communication.
That’s the reflective part of writing letters. You’re in the present moment of time and space, but your mind is also really thinking about the other person and where they are in that same time and space. You can’t help it; sometimes it’s subconscious, but you have a visual image of that person. You just don’t think that deeply in e-mail, because everything is moving too quickly. And you know that the e-mail is going to move to them instantaneously as well.
A lot of qualities move into letter-writing: the light in the room, where you’re sitting, the pen you’re holding and just what it feels like to move your arm and fingers in that way and seeing the words on the page as you create them. You’re not going through another technology to create the words on the page. There’s also something about handwriting that’s very direct and personal. You look at the handwriting, and the person is right there in front of you. Even if they used a typewriter, you get to know what kind of typewriter they use and what kind of a typist they are.
How have people responded to this project?
People have been very enthusiastic. I was doing a one-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and most of the people there were younger. Quite a few of them were really interested in what I was doing and asked if they could be part of the project. That surprised me. What was interesting, too, was in the exhibit at Westbeth Gallery, I invited people to type out their comments on an old typewriter. Most of the people under age 25 or so had never before put their hands on a typewriter! They were fascinated by it.
Will there be a typewriter at the SUNY-Ulster show?
Yes. And that sound of typing going throughout the gallery adds something to the experience.
You mentioned burning old love letters earlier. You used the ashes to create some of your collages, didn’t you?
Using the ashes was almost accidental… my hands got ashes on them when I was burning some of the letters, and I wiped my hands on a piece of paper and thought, “Wow, that’s interesting.” I made a series of collages where the ashes appear in one way or another; for some I used my hands to spread them on paper, and some are dropped on adhesive paper. With others I used a brush to move them around.
Are you still making pieces based on your correspondence and continuing this train of thought?
I am. I’m still working with collage, and also three-dimensional sculpture.
It was always a long-range vision of something that could go on, never a one-off. I think it’s very significant at this particular time in our culture to have an exhibition like this that raises these kinds of questions.
But also, it just seems to delight people, and that’s the main thing. In the Westbeth Gallery show, people were just delighted to walk around and see what different artists had done with the materials or with the concept. I’m hoping there will be at least one more iteration of “Correspondence” after this.
“Correspondence” opening reception, Friday, September 23, 5-7 p.m., through October 21, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., free, Muroff-Kotler Visual Arts Gallery, Vanderlyn Hall, Room 260, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-5113, www.sunyulster.edu.