In the early 1990s, when Paul Sietsema was figuring out what sort of artist he might be, he picked up crushed cigarette packs and other castoffs on the sidewalks of San Francisco, made meticulous facsimiles of them and put his creations where he found the originals.
"I liked having a show along a sidewalk with something that I had invested in, but that nobody would notice," he says, leaning out of a chair that occupies one of the few uncovered spots on the floor of his cluttered studio in a commercial district of Silver Lake. "Or if they did, they wouldn't know what to do with it. They would have no idea why something like that would exist."
The 39-year-old artist has added layers of conceptual depth and technical complexity to his work since 1996, when he enrolled in UCLA's New Genres graduate program and began studying with Charles Ray, Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy. And with solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and de Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam and works in the 55th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and the 5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, not to mention an exhibition coming up next spring at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Sietsema's days as an anonymous stealth artist are over.
But his sensibility is what it was. Although he has evolved into a conceptual sculptor and filmmaker who explores the shifting nature of perception and photographic representation, he still turns out labor-intensive work that's steeped in mystery. Where he once replicated the ordinary stuff of today with considerable precision, he now fabricates "antiquities" that conjure up an obscure yesterday.
"It's supposed to be outside time," Sietsema, soft-spoken and intensely engaged with his work, says of his recent work. "I'm asserting something I've made that doesn't actually match anything else on the planet one-to-one. The way it's placed in time is completely ambiguous."
Sietsema grew up in Orange County and spent untold hours collecting butterflies and, by his account, "watching television way too much." He likes Los Angeles partly because it's easy to "check out" and concentrate on his work, he says, but he's strategically plugged into the international art scene. He's represented by L.A.'s prestigious Regen Projects, and his works are in collections of such institutions as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Curator Apsara DiQuinzio, who organized SFMoMA's "New Work: Paul Sietsema" -- an exhibition of a film and 20 objects that continues to June 22 -- calls his artistic universe "a layered world that fluctuates between historical periods, material phenomena, documentation and reverie."
The film "Figure 3" looks like an old-fashioned slide show of ancient artifacts, poorly photographed from books. Former art history students of a certain age are likely to find the images familiar, if only in a generic way. But these are not pictures of pictures of historical functional objects.
Using modern utilitarian materials favored by the Post-Minimalists, such as cement, printer's ink and string, Sietsema has fabricated a slew of "old" objects and selected a few -- cracked jars and bowls, pottery shards, crusty coins, a fishing net and harness straps -- for the film. Pictured from various angles, they seem to float in an equivocal time and place. But with the help of wall text and DiQuinzio's essay in the exhibition brochure, the artist has created a murky historical context for the filmed objects and some of the pieces on display, suggesting that they are remnants of some island culture that flourished before Western exploration and colonization.
Much is left to viewers' imaginations, but the display of 20 handmade objects offers clues to Sietsema's conceptual framework and painstaking craftsmanship. Sculptural "gourds," fashioned of cement and epoxy in a process that entails casting, breaking the cast artworks and putting them back together, are similar to the filmed jars. Drawings of barely legible pages of text come from a diary-like travelogue that the artist has concocted from writings by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, Belgian poet Henri Michaux, German art historian Wilhelm Worringer and other authors. One drawing, "The Famous Last Words," resembles a huge, slightly crumpled photographic negative. But Sietsema has fashioned it of ink on folded paper, using a hand-cut stencil for the text.
The workmanship is mind-boggling. But isn't it terribly tedious?
"Not to me," Sietsema says. "It's kind of nice work. You work with your hands; that's what I want to do. When I'm putting a project together, it's slowly evolving on its own in my head. So it's a way of occupying yourself, so that the ideas have a natural progression instead of being forced. I have given myself that freedom. My projects take a long time, three or four years. In 10 years, I have put out three projects. I don't know if I will continue to do that. But most of what's in the film is really fun stuff to make."
His work isn't easy to explain, though.
"I started with the artifacts and looking at island cultures," he says of the film. "You are struck by what people do with materials and how what they make is completely guided by available materials." But his version of the artifacts is equally grounded in Post-Minimalists' preference for nontraditional materials and the processes and visual effects of photography.
As for the travelogue, it's "a mishmash of things," he says. "I was looking at colonialist countries that were picking up objects from the islands. I was looking at colonialists and their relation to island culture in the 17th and 18th centuries as a way of thinking about photographic appropriation and that sort of thing -- as a metaphor for the appropriation of culture that destroys the culture or the creation of images and ideas that destroy the original." The invented story is also about ethnographers who journey to an island and become absorbed in its culture, he says.
All of which is a big change from the period when Sietsema arrived at UCLA determined to reproduce the two things he had to buy to move to L.A.: a pair of running shoes and a used car. The idea was to avoid making Modernist art objects and to work between the boundaries of art and functional objects.
"I think it cost me about $500 in materials to make shoes that sold for $60 at the time," he says. "It took me a month of pretty serious work. I worked the leather and nylon and sewed all the logos. The soles were made of different types of rubber I had to pour. I wore the shoes for a while, but they were very uncomfortable. The soles were way too heavy."
He gave up the notion of making a full-size car when he heard that Ray was planning a comparable project.
"It felt weird," Sietsema says, "thinking your ideas are original and then having your teachers doing similar things. Mine was different, but I ended up making a tiny version of my car, limited only by what my eyes and hands could do. I wasn't using a magnifier or anything like that. It's probably part of the reason I wear glasses now. For me, there was something about being able to put your car in your pocket. When I showed it in San Francisco, I put it in the glove compartment of my car and drove it up there." "I also did this performance thing where I cut my own hair and then glued it on my face as a beard as a way of creating the image of an artist, like Van Gogh or Brancusi," Sietsema says. "But then I heard that Eleanor Antin had cut a friend's hair and glued it on her face. There's nothing you can do that's original.
"There's a collective subconscious thing, where a lot of people are doing the same thing at the same time," he says. "That made me want to enter into a process that was a little more articulated, to have so many elements that it would be impossible to make a simple gesture that had been done before. I was finding myself, but also figuring out my work. I became embroiled in a long process to avoid repeating gestures. That's where the work I'm doing now comes from."