The Partial World
A Profile of Michael Ashkin, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art
Michael Ashkin never intended to become an artist. After earning his master's degree in Middle Eastern languages, he spent a number of years teaching Arabic and Hebrew at Brooklyn College, but it barely paid the bills. So he left academia for Wall Street, where one of his jobs was at Salomon Brothers, writing computer programs to reverse engineer their competitors' mortgage-backed securities.
"It was ugly, that whole business I was involved in," says Ashkin, talking in his studio at The Foundry. "I was smart enough to do the job I was doing, but I knew my future was limited, because I didn't want to be a trader, and I didn't have the personality to be a salesman. At one job, I had an office on the 60th floor of the World Trade Center, and I used to look out the window, across the river, and wonder what was out there. I hated working there, really hated it, and I started making art as a way to find some kind of meaning to my life."
With the help of a friend, who donated his old, half-empty paint tubes, Ashkin bought some canvas and started painting. Before long, he'd turned his Manhattan apartment into an artist's studio, throwing away his furniture to make room for artwork. For three years, he took night painting classes at the School of Visual Arts, and even though he doesn't think much of those early works — "They're bad," he says, "but I had a good time making them" — when he applied to the Art Institute of Chicago for an M.F.A., they were more than enough to get him accepted into the program.
Twenty-five years later, he's the chair of Cornell's Department of Art.
On one wall of his studio, Ashkin has hung an array of spray paintings that are still too new to have a title. Because they're painted in grainy, soft-focus black and white, are mostly images of architectural forms, and are small enough to fit inside a picture frame, they look like photographs.
They're not. If you get close enough — a few inches away from their cardboard surfaces — you can see the edge of the paint as it curled around Ashkin's template. You can see that the forms are too abstracted to be real, and that they're not images of buildings at all. They're two or three or four generations removed — images of models of buildings, or images of photographs of models of buildings, or images of templates of photographs of nearly empty fields that once held buildings, now become wasteland.
"I feel like I'm constructing photographs out of paint, reverse engineering them," says Ashkin, pointing to an image that was once a New Jersey apartment building with balconies jutting out like teeth on the edge of a saw. "For example, this one came from a cardboard sculpture I made of a tower, based on a photograph I'd shot in Long Branch. I took a photograph of that sculpture, made a template based on that photograph, and spray-painted onto cardboard using that template. I'm using light and dark, and there's something about the way the spray paint falls on the cardboard that resembles photography, and it's still basically the perspectival view of photography, the way it sees the world. But I painted it."
Stepping back, he talks about "this weird interrelationship between painting, photography, sculpture, and text that's been ongoing in my work," which is reflected around him in the studio, almost all of it in the monochrome brown of industrial cardboard or the black and white of 1950s photography. In the beginning, Ashkin was a photographer, taking pictures as a teenager in Rumson, New Jersey, a town best known as a turn-of-the-century summer home for New York industrialists. In grad school at Columbia studying Middle Eastern languages, he converted his bathroom into a darkroom, back in the days of developer, fixer, and stop baths, but by the time Ashkin reached Chicago, he was focused solely on paintings.
That changed as soon as he graduated, when he switched to sculpture, starting with a small wooden rowboat that sits at the top of a tall ladder, waiting for the coming flood. To support the sculptures, in search of details he couldn't otherwise see, Ashkin turned back to photography, shooting the models as close-up as he could, and reigniting his interest in landscape photography. Later, with his book Garden State, he showed his wanderings through the Meadowlands, exploring the world he'd seen from his 60th-floor window and capturing the stark, gray drama of abandoned landfills and long-forgotten industrial debris.
"From here, I see surfaces, not even objects," he writes in the text, facing an image of a dry creek bed with car parts in the foreground and power lines in the back. "I retain my mobility, my shifting viewpoint, my ever-changing story, perhaps even my potential. Yet I see only a partial world, and a partial world reveals no truth. I remain isolated, distant from God's infinite quiet."
The photos fed the sculptures, which grew into vast, miniature cardboard cities, tabletop models of construction sites, fortresses, desert outposts, pipelines, and power lines, then grew again, until they were big enough to fill a whole room with tiny cardboard boxes. In Adjnabistan, named after the Farsi word for stranger or other, Ashkin built a refugee camp with block after block of abandoned shipping containers, perfectly ordered and perfectly desolate; in Hiding places are many, escape only one, he created a sprawling, unplanned squatter city, viewed from above, its shanty rooftops open to the air.
Success came early, allowing Ashkin to keep working, and hasn't stopped, with pieces at the Arp Museum, the Berardo Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, Documenta 11, PS 122, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, Secession, the Whitney Biennial, and the Weatherspoon Art Museum. After the birth of his child, Ashkin returned to teaching, arriving at Cornell as an assistant professor in 2006, directing graduate studies for four years, and winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009 and the Watts Prize for Teaching Excellence in 2007 and 2011.
In a 2010 solo exhibition at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, he showed a new collection of marginalized landscapes in a range of media. In Centralia, projected onto the museum facade, a fixedposition video camera captured the comings and goings of trucks outside a coal mine in Pennsylvania, where a fire has been burning steadily since 1962. With the sculpture Wall (Western Sahara), mounted like a frieze on one wall of the gallery, he reimagined the desert landscape of southeastern Morocco, where a fortified 2,700-kilometer sand berm runs alongside the longest minefield in the world. Then, returning to the black-and-white New Jersey of his youth, Long Branch — published last fall by Ithaca's A-Jump Books — used offcenter, vertical landscapes to document the destruction of a working-class beachfront community, dismantled in the name of eminent domain.
"There's a certain apocalyptic element to everything I do; you can't avoid that," says Ashkin. "I don't know what the common thread is, but it has something to do with escape from a bad situation to a better one, with this modulation between optimism and pessimism. Things are really bleak in most of my work, but it's like looking in the face of a cataclysm and still imagining a way out."
By Kenny Berkowitz