Barbara Siegel and The Birth of New Authors

by Mira Dayal

The death of the author has traditionally been placed in a trajectory towards the birth of the spectator, and then towards the life of experience. For Barbara Siegel, the trajectory has led elsewhere: towards the births of new authors in workers who “produce” the pieces in tandem with the artist. The resulting works are not collaborative in the traditional sense, where it is implied that two or more artists fused together their ideas to create something ensemble. Instead, Siegel finds people–in The New York Times, a botanical garden, or the construction site next door–with whom she can learn. Their relationship becomes symbiotic, and from that exchange, the artist is able to keep her hand in the work while allowing for the fingerprints of others. Urban Road Kill at A.I.R. Gallery showcases Siegel’s latest oeuvre.

unnamed‘Urban Road Kill,’ Installation, A.I.R. Gallery, 2015  Photo: Jeanette May

When she says, “I’ve always worked with found materials,” the artist refers not only to objects but also to people and their experiences. “I find somebody whose life or work is quite different from mine but interesting to me in a personal way,” Siegel continues. “The work is kind of a riff on their lives.” In the past, she has engaged with this type of social research on everyone from Bea Muller, the “Sea Queen” who invited Siegel to spend the day with her on the QE2 cruise ship she called home, to Sid Waxman, a horticulturalist whose obituary inspired the artist to create multimedia works (including a pinecone-shaped pillow containing pine oil) honoring his life and research.


‘Flat Dustpan,” 2014, Charcoal, charcoal powder, and charcoal pencil on paper. Photo: Jeanette May

This turn to the Other, to the non-artist, is not new. What is perhaps new is the fact that these people are not merely exterior research subjects or inspiration for work outside of an aesthetic regime. Ralph Di Donato, whose work in construction is an essential component of Urban Road Kill, was at first merely a friend, “because he was on the site all the time… both of us just liked each other… I started this project, which was to draw this collection that I had of objects that had been run over by cars and trucks.” Beginning with the dustpan, the artist’s first road kill acquisition, Siegel recorded the beauty and stories of each flattened item in her collection. The root of apparent disutility in each component evolved into its sole purpose in Siegel’s hands. As her friendship with Di Donato continued, Siegel began to see how one trade paralleled the other–processes of creation and destruction resulted in objects that were useful to someone–and asked him to be a part of her exhibition.

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‘Siegel in Conversation with Ralph Di Donato,’ 2015. artist book, 24 x 18″ edition of 10, digitally printed, hand cut, hand stamped and hand sewn, 7 3/4 ” x 5 1/2″ Photo: Jeanette May

In the literal sense, Ralph Di Donato does appear in Urban Road Kill–photographs of him with the pieces he flattened for Barbara Siegel are hung just inside the gallery entrance and their email correspondence is part of an artist’s book available for reading. What removes Siegel’s work from the realm of intrusion, of treatment of the work’s subjects as merely subjects, is the fact that Di Donato became an artist for Siegel and produced objects alongside Siegel. In this relationship of production, he is taken from the realm of Other into that of the artist. Contrary to the show’s title, the exhibition is about birth–construction.

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‘Ralph Di Donato with antique miner’s helmet,’ 2015, digital photo, 7 x 5″. Photo courtesy of the artist.


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