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The Interior ‘Information Architecture’ of Ann Toebbe

Detail from “Second Marriage, Madison Park” by Ann Toebbe

“The descriptions of architectural diagram methods are numerous, which is not really surprising since they fall within the jargon of the everyday activities of one of the most ancient, richest, and noble of all the arts—architecture,” wrote B. Martin Pedersen in Graphis Diagram: The Graphic Visualization of Quantitative Information, Procedures, and Data (1988). “There are design studies that incorporate a loosely defined form almost bordering on the picturesque, and in addition there are the diagrammatic representations of views, cross-sections, perspectives, floor plans, layouts and location guides.”

The book’s next pages show meticulously and elegantly detailed exploded views and floor plans of civic buildings, museums, opera houses, and office towers commissioned by cities, architectural offices, and real estate developers. Among the many innovators in graphic design featured in this and other books on diagrammatic graphics are Joel Katz, Nigel Holmes, Edward Tufte, Richard Saul Wurman, and Massimo Vignelli, who branded the term ‘information architect.’

For a graphic designer, it’s always an exciting challenge to be commissioned to design a map, a plan, a two-dimensional view of a client’s envisioned three-dimensional project. And yet, working for a client with the public as audience, the mandate is to be clear, accurate, not to interpret or distort the information in any way.

A few weeks ago, I came across an art review in the Art & Design column of The New York Times that featured a floor plan conceived with an entirely different kind of intent and perspective: “Second Wife,” by Ann Toebbe showed a collage made from cut paper and gouache that is currently in a solo exhibition at the Monya Rowe Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side.

Writes Times reviewer Roberta Smith: “Ms. Toebbe’s focus [is on] the homes created or dispersed as she and those around her marry or divorce and remarry… A weird architectural family tree unfolds. As with her previous efforts, both craft and details boggle the mind. So does trying to decipher everything, since each space is depicted from five orientations—that is, from above with each wall in elevation, like a pop-up dollhouse. Which way’s up? Spatial tensions become entwined with emotional histories that we can only imagine but that are invariably told from conflicting perspectives.”

I was intrigued by what seemed to be the perfect intersection of graphic design and fine art. As soon as enough snow was cleared, I made my way to a street on the Lower East Side where I used to buy discount baby clothes and upholstery fabrics. You can still peek into hole-in-the wall shops and glimpse bearded Orthodox men in black hats surrounded by stacked boxes of merchandise, but many of the narrow spaces are now galleries, cafés, and boutiques displaying ‘curated’ objects and clothing or high-end embroidered silks from the runway shows. Yet the neighborhood vibe feels genuine, human, affordable—like this is the part of New York City where art is being made.

On the white walls of the Monya Rowe gallery are eight pictures, ranging from 16 x 20″ to 38 x 45″, each worthy of a very close look. You are inside someone’s home, but viewing it from the perspective of a dream. The edges of the cut papers are visible and, like the varied perspectives, give the work a multidimensional feeling (that really can’t be captured in a JPEG). Most striking is the artist’s rendering of the surfaces: the tiles, flooring, area rugs, curtain and upholstery fabrics; the views out the windows; and the observation and rendering in miniature of each setting’s objects: light fixtures, houseplants, dishes, toys, plumbing fixtures, kitchen appliances—down to blenders and coffee grinders—the art work and books, lots and lots of books.

I was eager to contact the artist and find out how she works, and Ann Toebbe, who lives in Chicago, graciously consented to this interview for Imprint:

Q: The title of the show is “Remarried,” and it’s evident that your work emanates from the changes in relationships in your family. It’s interesting that you’ve been inspired by divorce and remarriage.

A: My ideas are really about personal life events or anecdotes that seem interesting, funny, coincidental, or odd enough to paint. I’m not specifically interested in the theme of divorce. It is a part of my married life; my husband is divorced and his parents are divorced, all with children. It’s complicated. My husband also happens to be a divorce lawyer, so inevitably we talk about couples getting divorced. My parents have been married for 42 years, and they’ve been my muses for numerous artworks. I did a figurative series in 2011 for a show called “The Inheritance,” based on an unpleasant situation in my parents’ lives. I used a lot of craft materials in those pieces: yarn, lace, felt—and I’m interested in using more found materials in future work.

Q: Please tell us about your process and materials.

A: First, I quick-sketch. Then I make a precise architectural layout with a ruler and a lot of measuring. I transfer this drawing onto a wood panel or gesso-primed paper. In the final work I paint the interior’s walls, then decide whether I’ll paint other architectural elements and furniture, or if they’ll be cut out of paper. It usually makes sense for the objects in the background to be painted directly on the panel, like the carpet and scenes out the windows. If using collage, I draw all the objects, lamps, tables, on separate papers, then trace them in reverse onto the back of painted paper. One object can be traced from several sheets of colored paper. Then there are items like the furry rug in “Second Marriage–Madison Park” made of yarn. It’s sort of an elaborate process, but it’s efficient.

Q: What kinds of papers do you use? And is there a special glue so the tiny pieces don’t peel off the panels?

A: I buy pads of white archival drawing paper and large rolls of photo backdrop paper. I make the colored paper for the collage elements by taping paper to the floor and painting it. Recently, I’ve been creating decorative patterned and textured paper by using sponges, rollers, towels, and screens. In terms of found paper I’ve occasionally used my two young daughters’ many paintings and drawings. Cut up, these make really great curtains, blankets, pillows, dishes, vases, bedspreads and so on. I use YES glue, a water-based, archival adhesive; it’s called a stick-flat glue and it does the job.

Q: Do you use a T-square and triangle for the straight lines?

A: I use a variety of straight edges. A T-square for sure, and I have templates for circles and ovals, and a variety of hole punchers.

Q: Can we back up for a moment? Can you briefly describe your art education?

A: I grew up in Cincinnati without any connection to the arts. My parents appreciate art, but we didn’t go to museums or anything like that. They encouraged me to go to art school, and I went to The Cleveland Institute of Art from 1992-’97 and received a BFA in sculpture. After undergrad, I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for about five years, when I worked as an art handler in galleries and museums and hung out with a lot of artists and around contemporary art. In 2002, I moved to New Haven, CT, for grad school. I received an MFA in painting from Yale University in 2004.

Q: How did you make the transition from sculpture and painting to collage?

As an undergrad, I liked the machismo of the sculpture department. I was attracted to being tough, to welding, casting, using the wood shop, wearing coveralls, but, really, I should have been painting. When I moved to Brooklyn, my small studio space and friendship with painters led me to paint. I discovered collage working for the contemporary artist Arturo Herrera, and I’ve always loved Picasso’s cubist collages. Cutting and painting paper makes studio work more fun and physical, and so far I’ve liked how it works in my painted images

I hope this question doesn’t sound naïve, but how long does it take you to make one picture?

A: It really depends on my deadlines. When pressed for time, I’m working 30 to 40 hours a week, and each piece takes three to four weeks. During crunch times, I work on two pieces at a time. One is in the drawing stage while I’m painting and cutting and gluing paper on another. If time is less of an issue, I tend to work slowly on one piece at a time and don’t worry how long it will take to finish.

Q: I’m not sure if graphic designers and illustrators can relate to fine artists having deadlines.

A: When an artist is established, meaning you have a gallery or even several galleries, and eventually museum or other projects, there are exhibition deadlines. It depends on the artist and the type of work. In my case, I need about a year to finish an exhibition of eight to ten pieces.

Q: Having spent so much time with these interior spaces, do you ever have the urge to knock down a wall or rearrange furniture—for real?

A: Most of the interiors I’ve done were pretty chaotic. The spaces were or are inhabited by people who don’t have the interest or means to articulate their rooms with any sense of design. I like these patchwork spaces, and I’m not interested in interior design. I’m more of a journalist, a storyteller, capturing what’s there and interpreting it from my own point of view.

Q: There are people who paint ‘home portraits’ of, say, mansions in Scarsdale. Stepping out on a limb here, I wonder if you would you do commissioned interior portraits with fabric samples from the upholstery and curtains? Or even art-directed illustrations, say, for real estate brochures or ad campaigns?

A: Those sound like interesting kinds of challenges. I’m open to everything, but would have to do it without the input of the owners. I’d have to meet the people, find out about their lives, and visit again without them being there. Something would have to click or the image would feel empty. In other words, I’d have to care about the space.

Q: Understood. How is the Lower East Side working for you as a venue? And how did you find your gallery?

A: It seems like the Chelsea galleries are more museum-like now and the smaller galleries can’t afford the rent there. The Lower East Side is grungier, lower-key, cooler. Like all artists, I shopped my work around. There’s a lot of networking involved in getting a gallery and a show. Especially for my kind of work, which is quiet, labor-intensive, painstaking, and not trendy.

Q: And you’re making a living. Speaking of trendy, there might be a kind of envy for what certain fine artists are getting at auction, and a feeling that many artists are just scrambling to figure out the next big thing collectors will buy. “Rows of multicolor dots for $20 million? I could do that in ten minutes.”

A: You have to remember that auctions are a secondary market. The artist sold the work first at a gallery, and got 50% of the price. In later sales, all the income goes to the auction house. Yes, I’m making a living, but not a great one—yet. I do get occasional grants, and teach. Being an artist is always a difficult choice. And it might take ten minutes on the computer. My background is in sculpture and collage, and I am all analog. I’m 40 and just getting my first shows in New York. These things—both doing the work and getting the recognition for it—take time.

Monya Rowe Gallery is located at 34 Orchard Street between Hester and Canal in New York City. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 12 – 6 pm. “Remarried” closes February 22.

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