A few years ago, Phoebe Washburn arrived every day at the loading dock of the Barnes & Noble bookstore near her Brooklyn studio to trawl through its discarded boxes. After a few months, she recalls, the workers asked her, “You’re still packing your house? You haven’t moved yet?” No, Washburn told them, she wasn’t moving—she was hoarding the cardboard for her work.
Washburn’s sprawling landscapes of detritus have made her, at age 34, one of the country’s most closely watched young artists. The critical attention has won her a coveted spot in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, opening in March. “She’s able to incorporate such a range of experiences in one work,” says Biennial cocurator Shamim Momin. “You can see it as a sculpture, as a painting, as a living environment that changes. And your relationship to it constantly shifts as you walk through it.”
Since that early cardboard period, Washburn has moved on to newsprint and scrap wood, but what her massive, room-size architectural sculptures all share is that they’re built from the scavenged bits of the urban world in which she lives. She prizes the castoff and mass-produced—the pencils, crates and day-old newspapers that none of us much cares about—and then sorts, layers and transforms them into what she calls “spectacles of environments.”
“I’m not interested in art with a capital A,” says Washburn, who considers the beginning of a work to be the moment she decides to bring the trash we dump outside back indoors for a second look. “This concept that art gets made only after you step inside a studio that’s completely steeled off from the real world feels very artificial to me.”
Washburn’s magpie inventiveness is everywhere on view in her studio, which calls to mind a high school science project gone awry. A cavernous space, it’s jammed with fish tanks, conveyor belts, wood scraps and power tools. In a corner, tropical water lilies from a recent work are growing in a makeshift pond. Much of it Washburn has carted herself during her daily commute from her Manhattan apartment near the Bowery.
But there’s no hint of the bag lady in Washburn. A plain- spoken, unassuming beauty, she has startling gray eyes and pale coloring, which are set off by the gray hoodie she’s wearing today. As she gives a tour of her projects in progress, she apologizes for the obstacle course. “Sometimes I find myself working in the oddest places in here,” she says. Washburn laboriously builds up her works onsite, regularly reusing materials from previous shows as well as the stuff left behind in the gallery space. As a result, she’s never certain how they’ll come out. “I think because my work is so much about process and about what I learn along the way, it makes sense to go through it the hard, slow way.”