The Body’s Invisible Labor

I used to forget I had a body. 
I was invisible to myself. I had an idea of who I was, held in my mind, and I could not see the parts of me that were different from the idea. It was like living in a glass case. 

Then chronic injury and personal loss broke me. I could no longer be the person I imagined. My body asserted itself with pain and immobility, filled my head with fog, and forced me to come to terms with reality. Merely acknowledging my body wasn’t enough. The clouds did not lift until I learned to live in it.

This made me curious about the invisibility of bodies in art and furniture. Picture frames are invisible. You look right through them, looking for the idea carried by the image inside. You don’t see the body, the wood, glass, and hardware that gives the image a home to live in. The labor and architecture of that body is hidden in plain sight.

I strive to make these bodies visible, giving them opportunities to flex and explore on their own terms. I repurpose the traditional vocabulary of picture frames, giving each material new jobs to play with. They are shaped by the labor they are built to perform, but are now free to express themselves in new ways.

You too have a body shaped by labor. These empty frames are curious about you, but they will not remember you. You can only know each other during this moment, mutually present, as long as you both are looking.

Picture frames are often ignored.

The taut wire strung over a nail, the paper that allows humidity to reach equilibrium, the miter joints holding everything together—the work of a picture frame is invisible labor.  How can I reveal and celebrate it? 

When I was a kid, I watched gymnastics goofing around after the Olympics. I remembered seeing a man who normally competed on rings taking a tumbling pass, hurling himself through the air with unbelievable strength. He riled up the crowd, flexed after each pass. He had the casual confidence of a virtuoso who was off the clock.

Years later, I wondered if I could do the same with picture frames. Could I place the materials and mechanisms of picture frames into new, impractical circumstances? How might a picture frame flex its muscles if it no longer had an image to protect?

Two Sisters
was one such experiment, a rotation of materials: a thin wood frame becomes wire, wire becomes thread, and a nail through canvas becomes a nail through a wood shaving.

At this stage I was primarily focused on the body of the frame, the wood. It felt analogous to my own body. Metal was different, harsh and slippery. When I cut metal and left a sharp edge that later cut me, it felt cold, forceful. When I cut wood and left a rough edge that later gave me a splinter or even a gouge, it felt somehow more forgivable. Where metal felt designed, wood just felt like itself.

The Swimmers
I was not sure the role of the wall in all this. The wall felt like a canvas, obvious and unassuming. I wondered what it would feel like for picture frames to disappear into the wall, somehow drawing more attention to themselves as they retreated from the outside world. 

To answer that question, I made The Swimmers.

All my sculptures include a kind of puzzle, a mechanical question. For this piece, once the composition was set, the question was how both how to cut it and mount it. 

The extremely sharp angles where it meets the wall required odd jigs to cut and custom hardware to hold. 

I never found a mounting solution that felt permanent enough. The wood is just too thin to conceal anything practical. 

Maybe I’ll make a larger version one day, one destined for a longer life.

I am often drawn to precarity. Much as I value a stable home, stable relationships, and healthy rhythms in my life, I always wonder about the razor’s edge. How much strain or tension can a body hold? Where will it break first?

Samson is a piece under incredible strain. After hanging, the thin columns are wedged between the upper and lower joists. The turnbuckle in the center is cranked hard, causing the columns to bend inward. 

Samson is unstable. Without the wall behind it, it would twist and collapse. The wall is not just a place to hang the frame. It is a part of the frame’s structure, albeit temporarily.

The bending columns are inspired by a technique in chairmaking. When using hand tools to make a chair, it’s hard to make everything perfectly square, and in fact it’s not even helpful. 
Some chairmakers will cheat the inside edges of each leg, creating a slight bow in the side rails. This concave bow actually adds strength to the structure. 

When wood is under the right kind of tension, it gets stronger. 
But if the structure cannot handle that tension, or if the forces are out of balance, the body will collapse.

This inner tension is usually invisible.

The wooden parts of a frame are not the only parts under tension. When a canvas is properly stretched, its tension helps hold its supporting structure together. It reminds me of how walls are made: a wooden structure with a mudded (gessoed?) sheet of drywall stapled to the outside.

Is there a way the canvas can still have a supporting role without having to be under such incredible tension?

In Girl, an hourglass-shaped picture frame is cinched at the waist by raw canvas. A running stitch tied at the back makes the canvas into a skirt. The string is tied in a loop to hold the whole thing together. The low center of gravity causes the whole frame to swing forward. It looks best hung high.

Girl’s hips, waist, and shoulders are proportioned after Venus. The hips of the frame are hidden beneath the skirt.

The wood and the canvas are organic materials. They feel stable and grounding. The wire or string has a strange role, a mediator for the body. But what about glass? The glass, even more than a bare canvas, tells you where to look. It is an eye, a lens. To me glass represents the world of ideas.

But glass is physical too. The most ephemeral thoughts still live in a brain, in a head, in a body.

With Leap, I started to investigate how glass can be a kind of connective tissue. I drilled holes in the glass and threaded cut wood though them, creating an illusion of continuity. It looked like the glass was cutting through the wood, but actually it was the wood that was penetrating the glass.

A hidden nail lifts Leap from the bottom. A second nail with a length of picture wire allows the structure to swing to the left. The overall effect makes it look like it is jumping away from its mounting point.
Archer extended the tension of Samson while giving glass some weight. A long, thin strip of pine has a slot cut in it, just large enough to admit a glass triangle. 

The glass acts as ballast: the bow of the pine strip is due both to the tension in the copper picture wire and the weight of the glass. The bowed shape narrows the effective width of the slot, lifting the glass.

Would the glass triangle slip through the slot if the strip weren’t under tension? I forget.

Glass as structure is taken to an alarming extreme with Guillotine. Two miter-cut angles, secured with V-nails, meet on a rough-cut sheet of glass. They are fastened to the glass using brass screws and pads made of raw canvas. The outer angle is suspended in the air, its weight held by the glass itself. All this is mounted to the wall using a single brass bracket. An eyescrew in the upper left yanks the structure towards it with a picture wire. It is under tension, but it clearly cannot hold the weight of the thing on its own.

This hung above my bedroom doorway for years, a constant threat. It never fell.

Although canvas and glass rarely appear together in paintings, I wanted to see how they interact. I was also interested in seeing if I could make a canvas staple out of picture wire. From these questions arose a one-sided canvas, Monopod.

The glass is not helping. A hole has been ground through it, right where the staple penetrates the wood. The brass wire, cushioned by canvas, holds up the glass sheet.

Still, the glass would fall and twist if it weren’t supported on the left. An angled notch in the wood, backed by a little piece of cut brass, keeps the glass from swinging on its wire pivot.

Finally, there is a hidden screw supporting the wooden leg on the left, nestled inside a keyhole slot. This allows the picture wire to hold the sculpture up from just one side. 

Without such tricks, picture wire can only ever draw a shape. I try to break that symmetry and create tension.

A chair is a frame for the body.