An introduction to Piera Bochner's work

Piera Bochner is a born and raised New York artist whose multi-media studio practice includes, sculpture, photography, drawing, and video, as well as floral arranging and candle making. She is a founding member of the Home Page collective, a group centred around promoting young female identifying makers, and sells her candles in stores like Cafe Forgot and through her Instagram.

Hi Piera, How did you get your start making art? Did you ever consider art school?

Making art is not something I remember ever “starting.” It’s been a part of my world since I was born. Both of my parents are artists and they have always encouraged me to recognise the things around me, the things I make without even realising, as having the potential to be art. I started taking drawing classes every Saturday morning at FIT in New York when I entered high school.  That was when I started taking the things I made seriously. My dad says that the first thing he ever remembers me getting lost and obsessively invested in was the still life drawing assignment for that class. I would work on it every night, erasing, rubbing, shading, until my hands were covered in charcoal. I remember it being such a wonderful outlet for me at that time when I had just switched schools and was adjusting to a completely new environment.

In terms of going to art school, I originally thought I wanted to study art history rather than art. I convinced myself I needed to major in something with a slightly more obvious post-grad career path. Before embarking on this rational course, however, I took a gap year and attended an art program on the Greek island, Paros, where I took painting, drawing, analog and digital photography, printmaking, and classic Greek literature.  That experience changed me to my core and made me realise that art, not art history was what I needed to pursue. Sometimes I wish I had gone on to study at a more concentrated art program, but I am grateful for the well-rounded, and socially conscious education I received at Oberlin.

Do you have any artists or art movements you look up to? To me, your work has a mix of clean minimalism with an irregular textural element.

This body of work stemmed a lot from my fascination with Eva Hesse due to being at Oberlin where her archive is housed, as well as hearing my dad’s stories of being friends with her and seeing the incredible documentary on her that was recently made. Her work embodies for me fascination, obsession, and connection to material and the process of making.  She fit within the male dominated world of minimalism, but through her choice of materials that evoke the bodily she was able to capture a side of minimalism that felt more human, maybe even more feminine.

I was particularly drawn to her usage of the “grotesque” which was brought to my attention in an essay I read in one of her exhibition catalogs. The concept of the grotesque in art was something I became fascinated with while studying abroad in Florence. On the ceiling of the Uffizi museum there were all these frescoes of weird creatures with the beautiful faces of women atop the bodies of strange imaginary animals. I began drawing them every time I saw one and learned that they were derived from paintings on the walls of the unfinished palace of Emperor Nero. The palace was dug up and rediscovered during the Renaissance and led many of the artists of that time to paint these bizarre creatures. They were called grottesche, after the grotto they were found in, and that word transformed into the enduring term, grotesque, which has come to encapsulate all that is strange, repulsive, compelling, and incongruous. It relates to that which intrigues and repels us, and in art this is a common experience viewers have when coming into contact with certain materials, spaces, smells, and other devices artists use to complicate viewership. In my work I try use techniques of the grotesque to simultaneously engage and challenge my audience. It is a concept that isn’t associated with any one movement but has continuously found its way into the work of artists for a very long time, and has definitely found a place within my practice.

Your art uses a multitude of "untraditional" materials in a thoughtful way. Can you go into more detail about your reasoning for some of the materials?

Towards the beginning of this body of work I was mostly drawing figurative studies, but it didn’t feel like me. It felt like an amalgamation of all the artists I had spent time studying and emulating, but I didn’t feel able to channel my voice through my drawings. So I began reducing the use the of imagery and form and began exploring materials in a direct and spontaneous way, slowly putting creative constraints on the materials I used as a means of honing in on what I wanted to produce.

Wax is a material I have always been drawn to. As a kid I would always stick my fingers in the melted pools of wax around those tea lights at restaurants and coat all my fingertips, then let them cool and harden before sticking them back in for more. That was the first material I knew I wanted to work with, and from there I allowed myself to be catholic in my material choices and explore and feel my way through what I wanted to work with. It all began with an idea for a book that would sit on top of a light box and each page would be somewhat transparent, allowing the light to emerge through it in different ways and the action of flipping through the book and changing the order of layers would create new distortions of light. From there I realized I wanted to work both with materials that evoked the bodily, had varying degrees of translucency, and spoke to my obsessive interest in tactility and need to keep my hands busy.

How do you use light in your work?

Light is one of the threads that ties the disparate aspects of my work together. It interacts as a collaborator with the materials I use, becoming a tool of revelation and distortion. I have always been drawn to light’s interaction with surfaces in my photography and drawing, so it was really great to start making things that were not just passively affected by light, but intentional distortions and manipulations of it.

There is a fine line between the idea of "art" and "craft" in which you are blurring even more. Do you think there is a division?

Someone’s craft can be their art and vice versa. Just because an object may have utilitarian value does not make it less art. In fact, in many of the homes of artists I’ve visited, they have collected objects like, for example wood and metal 19th century washboards, and hung them up on the wall in groups as art objects. So their initial purpose is negated and through recontextualization and display they have been ‘elevated’ to the status of an art object. Of course at any moment they could be taken down and their original intent invoked again. The lines between the two are blurred, if not rendered entirely non-existent with this “Duchampian” approach. In my wax pieces I intentionally include a wick, but by hanging them on the wall I make their purpose of being lit and producing light difficult, maybe even dangerous. Candles are utilitarian objects, often sold in the context of being hand-crafted, but I wanted to complicate their position and also save them from their terrible fate. Because once a candle is lit, its function destroys it.

Women artists: let's talk about them. What is your experience being a woman in the art world and what advice would you give to other women hoping to pursue the arts?

I once attended a lecture by the artist Anicka Yi, whose work I very much admire and relate to, and someone asked her about her experience of being both an Asian and a female artist. She said that she didn’t make work about being an Asian woman, but because that is who she is there is no escaping that inherent narrative from playing out in her work. She didn’t necessarily want the discussion of her work to be centred around these aspects of her personhood, but those are unavoidable reference points for the way she sees the world.

My experience of being a woman and an artist thus far has been resisting the crutch of using femininity as the explanation of my work, because using femininity as a vague explanation does not honor the complexity of the human experience. Especially since knitting is a technique I constantly return to I have tried to deepen my engagement with it past the idea that it is in my work solely because I am reclaiming what was was once deemed women's work. Knitting for me is a connection to my grandmother who taught me the technique, it is a source of comfort for my anxious hands, it is about the relaxation of repetition, and the pride of production. I would encourage other female identifying artists to deepen their interrogation as to why they are drawn to making and resist the urge to use femininity as a sole reason, instead turning it into an aspect of a larger whole.

Art movements are hard to detect until after they have happened. What words or themes would you use to describe contemporary art today?

Multi-faceted, expansive, internal, all-consuming, omnipresent, void.

Now that you have graduated university, what's next?

Work, acclimate, create, expand, hone, and enjoy!