Althea Fultz

Commentary by Kascha Semonovitch

In a small gallery room lit by a red-filtered light, Althea Fultz sketched a little world from found and sculpted objects: a small yellow piano, giant metal flowers, a “cemetery” of tiny objects sat on an off-kilter body-sized platform. To enter the installation, visitors crossed an elevated platform into the small gallery. Fultz sealed the visitor into a little world: “I brought down the ceiling quite significantly with a giant piece of Tyvek, and I made these little seams within the bigger contexts…so it’s a little world.” This little world, shown in the CMA building, was the result of a year’s work producing objects from ceramic, metal, wood, paint and found objects.

Rather than plan out the installation ahead of time, she crafted a range of objects that she wanted to have available. These objects are a sort of vocabulary with which she drafts a visual poem. She said that ahead of time she only had a rough vision: “I was going to have a road. There was going to be a cemetery. There were going to be flowers. Those were the things that I knew. Then I had a list of things…a sort of symbology…the interrelationships that I wanted to have the opportunity to make in the gallery. So to make all those objects so that in case I wanted them they were there.” She made all the material specifically for this show, and she had been amassing the collection of objects for months: “It has happened over the course of a year, but it was for this show. So it was very long in the making. Just to get all the pieces done. I had a list of everything I wanted to make and just fulfilled that.”

However she approaches the work, the end result of her process is a place. She explained that the process itself is flexible: “Sometimes I start with this sort of substrata like a base to give myself permission to move up from that and make things. And sometimes I start with the things that have happened so to speak and work down to the place they happened at. It doesn’t really matter which way it goes…It just often turns into a place…”

She describes the installation as like a town square, emptied of inhabitants and activity. Town squares have been significant for Fultz personally: “I think one of the more important places to me was a town Square in Portugal in the town of Juárez in the mountains. There’s a medieval town in Italy called Chiusdino that was also very important to me, especially in the early morning.” In addition, growing up, she spent a lot of time near old Adobe Presidio in Santa Barbara.

Significant places evoke an emotional response. But a place, by nature, does not tell a clear narrative or dictate a truth. In all her work, Fultz resists reducing the piece’s meaning to a single, verbally expressible truth: “In my work, I don’t try to bridge the gap between crystalized meaning or articulated meaning and the object because to do so would be to make people ignore the object and believe the inaccurate meaning…It sounds accurate because it’s with words and we think words are accurate though they’re not actually.”

She requires a collection because one object cannot express the multiplicity of meaning: “I don’t expect any particular object to make the whole case. It’s kind of like triangulating around the truth of what you’re saying. There’s this quote by Pablo Neruda that I use in my thesis: ‘Truth is a rabbit in the bush. You can point to the bush and say somewhere in there is a rabbit. But you don’t just know where the rabbit is.’ So… it’s like I know this thing I’m talking about emotionally, in my sensibility, but I can’t give you the words for it. And even if I could I probably wouldn’t. Because…words are so concrete that you believe that you now understand it and you probably don’t.” 

During the past year, in addition to amassing the objects for the final installation, Fultz worked in pen and ink and etching. She describes one of the drawing projects this way: “I carried this old book with me everywhere. It was blank. It was a prototype for some publication. And I just drew on the pages…and I had twice as many as these.…This sort of continual, meeting my own thoughts in drawings, earned me a lot of imagery, I think. Personal experiences you run into symbols and stuff and you can keep reiterating that until it becomes more than it was or concretizes it.” 

For her, the process is similar whether she is sketching in objects, pen or printing ink. Work in metal or ceramic or ink have a similar function, she explains: “[they are all] a way to move forward, and talk, communicate a lot. They’re kind of all in some ways the same activity. I do this rough drawing and then I fill it in later and it becomes like this density. And some I just never get to and they stay sketches. But that’s what I do with sculpture too. And that’s what I do with ideas too. I have a vague idea and then I start tunneling into areas of it, filling in little corners of it.” Before beginning at UW, she sculpted minute ceramic pieces and assembled them into tiny worlds. As with the large installations, she made more objects than she needed and selected from them for the final product. At UW, Fultz turned toward larger-scale worlds. After school, what will she make? “Something small!” she says.

When I asked what artists she loved, she mentioned a diverse group, ranging across history and media, from ancient Etruscan ceramics to contemporary cartoons: “I really like Miro. He’s probably the person that if I get tired I look at to move me along,” she said. And “at the Louvre in the basement area…there’s all that ancient Minoan stuff, and there’s those three giant vases…those are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. If I’m feeling low those are my juice….I also really like Will Steig.…He was a cartoonist for the New Yorker. When I grew up we had that big volume of all the New Yorker cartoons.”

In On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin described the progress of history as like an angel flying backward, facing an onslaught of debris: “the storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.” Benjamin envisions history as driven by material detritus. In Fultz’s work, we face detritus of a history — but a dream history, a psychological history. She entices the viewer into a private world, circumscribed within the public sphere. I asked her what, if anything, she saw as the social and/or public responsibility of the artist. She replied: “I don’t think it’s that much different than any other kind of person I think you have to live out your individuality in the world in a way that benefits the world. I have to find a way to do that so that I don’t cause more suffering than is necessary, including within myself. Some suffering is necessary though. Give Self and everyone the opportunity of finding out who we are in the world genuinely. Otherwise, what’s the point of being individual.”