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Interview: Madison Donnelly


User Centered by Madison Donnelly


1) Could you introduce yourself? Where did you go to school? When did you decide to become an artist?


I'm Madison Donnelly from Salt Lake City. I painted throughout my childhood and thought I might become a painter or printmaker… and until a few years ago I was pouring most of my energy into music. I’ve kind of phased that out now and am trying to give my art practice the time and space it deserves in my life. Making art makes me happier than making music.


In 2013 I was majoring in art at the University of Utah and was dreading a particular required 3D art class, but I quickly found that sculpture was my favorite format because of it’s lack of limits… I also grew up building things with my mom, so it felt very natural to think in three dimensions. I graduated from the University of Utah’s BFA Sculpture program in 2018 and will earn my MFA in Sculpture from Yale in 2023.


Bath by Madison Donnelly


2) If you could summarize your art in just five sentences, how would you describe your art?


How about four?


I create art in a fruitless search for an unmediated self. My work examines the discomfort that arises when familiar objects fail to perform in expected ways. Through domestic objects like beds, baths and chairs, I create a dissonance between the impulse to place one’s body inside the sculpture and the sculpture’s refusal to accommodate the viewer’s desire. My sculptures are uncanny and withhold the function their forms suggest they might deliver.


Bathhouse by Madison Donnelly


3) Is your art about challenging our preconceived notions about the world, objects, and people? What kind of challenge does your art and the way of thinking and perceiving that your art entails pose to the oppressive dominant power structures in today's world?


I hope my work helps viewers consider a familiar object or idea in a new light… I hope it helps to deconstruct the objects and materials around us and their origins, impressions and impact on our psyches, world, and physical space. What feels immovable in our world that is actually another human-made construct? What do we need to reassess and uproot in 2021? What beliefs have we accepted that we can become conscious of and reject?


Some themes that run through my work like home, domestic space, housing and stability are intrinsically linked to the the most solid memory of any ‘place’ I can remember, my childhood home. My upbringing is saturated with memories of fixing, upgrading, working on and renovating our house in Salt Lake. The threat of losing it always hovered, but the house was a pillar of stability for us in our otherwise chaotic lives and had deep significance to me, my mom and brother. In 2009 as a result of the recession and subprime mortgage crisis, we lost our house to Ocwen mortgage and it was sold in short sale. It lined up with other events that made it a traumatic time for my family, but the house, its significance, fear of losing it, and all my memories building with my mom in the garage influence my work.


My material pallet is all pulled from memories of building with my mom, or picking through a trash pile in front of someone’s house to see what we could resell. My politics are nebulous anti-capitalist, but are formed by my lived experiences, especially in connection to housing and stability, so in that way the work feels inherently political and emotional to me. What frameworks through which we perceive, respond to, and categorize objects need to be dissolved or reworked?


Bed Three by Madison Donnelly


4) Art by definition has been said to be without practical use. How do the conflicting elements and concepts in your art create new meanings and ideas while eliminating practical use?


I think a lot of my sculptures are jokes about that… here is a designed practical object like a chair made unusable by something like a wedge of bricks. Is it now a sculpture? At what moment did it become sculpture? Is it a stupid object? Why did someone even go to the trouble to make this? Hoping to reflect seemingly immovable truths as fluid and bendable.


5) Why did you choose sculpture and installation as your primary medium of expression? What pulls you towards these kinds of media rather than more traditional modes, for example?


Sculpture connected my upbringing to my artmaking... my mom was a self-employed carpenter. A different part of our house was always under construction, and my brother and I learned to do all of it. Sometimes we made our house payment by refinishing old furniture and other strange items we pulled off of the street and listing them on craigslist. Even as punishment, my brother and I stripped and sanded old furniture, and scrubbed old hardware clean with a wire brush and turpentine. My mom instilled a very serious work ethic in us, but also the belief that I could learn to do anything myself… I think this ends up influencing my work in its materiality and trade processes (masonry/upholstery/tiling). I naturally think in three dimensions, so once I tried sculpture it was the only option for me.


Slide by Madison Donnelly


6) What are some of the concepts and styles of modernism that still influence your art? For example, the Bath House could be interpreted to have a kind of female sexual organ-like interior with its pink cushioning. Would this be more of a homage to Feminism rather than Surrealism or vice versa? Or both?


It never feels like a purposeful homage, and it can be hard for me to pin point exact influence. I was looking at a lot of surrealist sculpture like Hans Bellmer, minimalist and post-minimalist sculpture like Donald Judd and Rachel Whiteread, also Stanley Kubrick, 80s bathroom design books, and probably a lot more.


All of my work deals with femininity and being socialized as a woman in America in the 90s, although that wasn’t necessarily the intent with this piece… I was brought up with a very confusing expectation of what it means to be a woman. I have a super butch single mom who is outspokenly anti-feminist. Truly the only thing she loves more than Dr. Phil and gender roles is power tools. She is an enigma. I think that contradiction comes up a lot in my work, however, the uncanniness, polarity, and familiar unfamiliar were what motivated me most with Bath House.


Tapestry by Madison Donnelly


7) Is there a spirit of Environmentalism in your art, including the piece that is titled, "Trash bags?" Or is it purely a conceptual play with materials and fixed notions?


I think it’s difficult to separate environmentalism from any plastic object so yes, I hope the object’s latent pollution is a layer in how an audience might consider it. Repurposing and upcycling objects was ubiquitous in my upbringing, so I think it naturally comes through in my work and how I think about the world.


8) Is the material permanence or the impermanence of the work that you create important to you? Or are you more concerned with conveying an idea rather than producing a product?


In the past, so much of the joy I get from artmaking is having a physical manifestation of the hours of complex, tedious work I pour into a sculpture. But sometimes it feels like I’m creating more future trash, so my feelings on that are changing. I am trying out more in the digital realm and creating less tangible junk, maybe I’m more concerned with the idea now than an object.


Trash Bags by Madison Donnelly


9) Who are some of your favorite artists that inspire your work?


Alicja Kwade has inspired me immensely the past few years. Also Anne Wu, Anna Uddenberg, Stella Zhong, and Zsofia Keresztes.


A huge part of my visual language was informed by the children’s book ‘Dragon Feathers’ illustrated by Olga Dugina and Andrei Dugin. Google it to see a lot of bagpipe/animal hybrids.


Whole Chair by Madison Donnelly


10) Where do you see your art practice headed in the next 5 years? What are your dreams and goals for the future?


I had a pretty clear dream at the beginning of 2020, but that of course has changed completely in the past year and a half. I am not sure what comes after graduation right now… but I know that having a self-serving career and/or teaching in higher ed isn’t going to be enough for me. I’m hoping to study with Keller Easterling at Yale, an architecture professor and writer. She wrote a book called ‘Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World’ that really challenges how we think about infrastructure and it’s interplay. Also the always-developing online discourse about post-capitalist futures I hope will inspire tangible ways to help facilitate the enormous shift our society is on the brink of.

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