My arrival at the Broad Center at UCLA is rushed; there has been traffic, to no one's surprise, on the 405, and Westwood is bustling at the lunch hour with students, shoppers, and medical professionals. The Broad Center is a white building with long glass panels, and doors propped open to the gallery where I first encountered Noa Kaplan's exhibit, "Pollen."
We meet on the second floor balcony. She has been waiting, looking out over the sculpture garden with a coffee in hand, her small frame in a coat, scarf, leggings, and boots-the east coast attire of a recent Yale alumna. But Noa Kaplan is a California native who studied humanities at Yale before switching to art. She began by drawing and painting portraits of objects and machines, and was then accepted into the Design Media Arts MFA program at UCLA where she is under the mentorship of artist Jennifer
Steinkamp. Kaplan's work is minimalist, symbolic, and startlingly beautiful. Her piece "Pollen," recently shown in the UCLA Design Arts Media MFA Fall Show was arresting in its balance and simplicity: a magnified grain of pollen onto which honey drizzled and pooled at a languid pace.
She offers me a tour of the facilities: a small, concrete space littered with past projects and old models adjoined to the "fab lab," or fabrication lab where the Design Media Arts students have access to heavy machinery and modeling computers. Kaplan points out the Modela MDX-40, the machine on which she computer-generated a 3-D model of a pollen grain. She explains that she ran tests in scale and in material, using plaster and foam before settling on urethane for her flawless pollen grain.
R: How did you come up with the idea for "Pollen"?
N: All of my work deals with scale. There is so much complexity and symbolism, and large cyclical, mythological ideas that can be uncovered in the structure of everyday objects around us. Most of the time we don't look at those objects with care. I start by looking at the structure and then researching the methods of production behind that material and object, along with different associations. I use scale but also light and framing to focus the viewer on those things. So much goes into it. It's still kind of mysterious to me the way that it comes out the way that it does.
R: You mentioned that it took you about two and half months to create "Pollen." Did anyone see it while it was still in process?
N: Yes. I actively showed the people in my community because I think talking about ideas and work is very important in developing what the piece becomes. I also posted process images on my website.
R: "Pollen" is so simple, but it speaks to the relationship between the natural world and artificial mechanics. Were you thinking about all of the analogies and metaphors in that first stage? Do you find that after you've created something, there's meaning there that you didn't intend?
N: I think that is inevitable when you create something fairly minimalist and symbolic, especially because I focus on the formal qualities of it. I was thinking about modes of production and sexual procreation, but it wasn't central for me though it became central for viewers, which I thought was really interesting. I choose to leave my work open to a certain degree. I know that not all artists do that, but within a center range of ideas, as long as people think about production and the relationship between micro- and macro-forms, then I'm happy with that interpretation.
R: Something I really appreciate about "Pollen" is that it made me feel that the creator put a lot of work and thought into it and then, with such control, pared it down into something very distilled.
N: I think that word distilled is perfect. If you're able to distill an idea as a maker, that's what you hope to do, not in a way that simplifies or reduces it but captures the core of it.
R: Who would you say are major influences in your work?
N: Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen-he made the giant spoon with the cherry in Minneapolis, and the binocular building in Los Angeles. These two artists have two bodies of work: they take small, inconsequential objects and they make them into these massive monuments, so you can see these objects in a different scale. It changes your perception of how the object exists in space, and also serves as a cultural sign. Tara Donovan is amazing. She takes everyday objects like cups or straws that you can find at the Dollar Store, and then accumulates millions of them and makes huge abstract system installations that are breathtaking. It changes your expectations for these worthless materials.
R: Would you say that changing expectations and perception are really central in your work?
N: Definitely, and through scale. Another really important influential piece in my work is "The Powers of Ten" by Charles and Ray Eames. Those are, for my scale projects, the artists that relate to how I think about my work. I love how Joseph Beuys uses symbolism and different materials to create symbolic form. And Matthew Barney in a similar way.
R: What is it about the mundane that attracts you?
N: Art in a way can be come spectacle, but instead of having to create a spectacle, it's really interesting to be able to find that degree of awareness or mystification in something that seems boring, or that you would never expect to find that in. We could all do that at any moment if we needed to-really look at something deeply and have a moment of freedom from whatever systems or ways of thinking we're generally trapped in. It's really freeing to do that every once in a while.
R: What makes good art?
N: When I'm looking at art, something is great if it changes my mind or my way of thinking about something so I usually don't look for work that enforces my current way of thinking. I want a break from that. It's harder to say from a maker's point of view because it's so intuitive when you know that something is working that you've made.
R: What are you working on now?
N: I'm looking at dust particles under the microscope and isolating the kinds of structures and materials, and tracing the history of the object to symbols we're familiar with. "Pollen" was really the first part of this larger project that I focused on, but I'm continuing with the other parts now.
R: Thank you so much for meeting with me, Noa.
N: Thank you.
Pollen from Noa Kaplan on Vimeo.