It’s been nearly seven months now since Heather Hart and I came to the Fine Arts Work Center as Visual Arts Fellows. And seven months since we initially had the privilege of meeting Janelle Iglesias, artist and visual arts coordinator at FAWC. Same amount of time spent producing, thinking about, talking about, and looking at each other’s work. Approaching the end of our stay here, we’ve found it increasingly pertinent to get one of these conversations down on tape. The following is a conversation from Janelle’s studio discussing some central ideas driving her work.
Mike Calway-Fagen: Janelle, The book I gave you to check out, Vibrant Matter, has a very particular and important relationship to your art work. Can you talk a little about the book and your work?
Janelle Iglesias: I just started reading it, but it made me think of something I read somewhere else recently and now have up on my studio wall… one of the hieroglyphs for the word for sculpture in ancient Egyptian translates as someone who “makes something live”…I think my work is most successful when it begins with play and actually activates something inside a material/object.
MCF: That’s really interesting because Vibrant Matter makes a very potent semantic distinction between what an object is and what a thing is and to label something an object is to laminate, sterilize, and attempt to control it. To talk about a thing is to really disrupt the traditional hierarchal subject-object relationship and to think about things as not static, as heaving, streaming, and unsettled—having a potential.
JI: I’m not only confronting objects but these things confront me as well.
Heather Hart: So things have identities is what you’re saying? Bill Brown’s essay Thing Theory, describes the personality of things.
JI: I want to read that. Things totally have identities…I’m constantly learning and thinking about this… In the very beginning of Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett quotes W.J.T Mitchell defining this distinction:
“…Things, on the other hand,…[signal] the moment when an object becomes the other, when the sardine can looks back, when the mute idol speaks, when the subject experiences the object as uncanny and feels the need for what Foucault calls “the metaphysics of the object” or, more exactly, a metaphysics of that never objectifiable depth that objects rise up from toward our superficial knowledge.”
MCF: To reference the uncanny as a concept that you have a relationship with, but feel completely unfamiliar to, essentially says that you can never completely control something.
JI: I think both of us [Mike and Janelle] have a huge relationship to playing with objects in a way that make super familiar things unfamiliar, and uncanny experience is a major part of that.
HH: A part of the scaffold underpinning what makes a thing controllable is frame of reference—a necessity of framing and need to shift one thing onto something already absorbed into consciousness. We think we understand the new thing because it’s already held and digested…but we’re wrong.
MCF: The shift that involves our attempt to corral and control. Things defy our need for the human echo. These things are outside of us and have an empowered identity that is completely self contained, that is within itself and unreachable (and unbreachable) to us. Instead of something that we project onto the object, the object speaks for itself and has an internal and essential agency.
JI: There’s also a sense that the things we are surrounded by continue to be more and more disposable, less and less valuable, more and more controlled—and for this reason I think the discipline of sculpture is extremely timely. Sculpture infuses materials and things with a kind of vibrancy that really is cause for pause. To wait and see. To consider.
My mom grew up in a hand-built farmhouse where so many things were handmade. So much of the clothing she wore was hand-knit. I’m so curious about having this kind of relationship to things around you, rather than the environment I grew up in, where so much was mass-produced. There were a ton of 99-cent stores within a 10 block radius.
MCF: Recognizing that things are involved in infinitely expansive cycles that you’re complicit with but are also out of reach. Things have stopping points: For instance, a material is acquired, processed, used to manufacture something, used, passed on, thrown away, and enters another cycle, etc. But its life doesn’t stop even after you’ve lost all physical touch with it. So objects are constantly involved in this stream of things and artist(s) pop up to intimately, albeit briefly, involve themselves in a temporary fate that will eventually fade into the same entropic process.
Janelle, can you talk about these cycles and a sense of cause and effect in your work? There is a kind of chronological progression that seems to give your work an unsettled animation. It feels like your work is positively unresolved…in the sense that they’re dynamic and moving, but are definitely finished works.
JI: A lot of my work deals with momentary motion and the quiet gesturing of objects, materials, and activities towards each other. I have two branches of work. One utilizes installation strategies with specific arrangements of things in relation to each other, how they fit together and create senses of motion, and the other direction is discrete objects that feel more like bodies rather than mechanized systems, energies, or ecosystems. The installations are treated more as micro-environments and the singular sculptures occupy space similarly to a body in frozen animation which is heightened by simple material additions where one object is asked to lean towards another. It’s a bit of an experiment in object behavior. Through these slight interventions, a sculpture can become friendly, aggressive, lazy, or erect. It’s basic, but I think sculpture is so effective and provocative because it evokes such a strong affective space.
HH: That’s intriguing particularly because my practice utilizes a social or relational platform to formulate affective space. Can you clarify some of the language you are using, particularly the question of whether the work makes the viewer feel a certain way versus the work is that way? In other words, what presence does sculpture have? Does it have an identity wholly separate, equal to, or maybe even greater than that of its beholder?
JI: I go back and forth asking myself the same question. I vacillate between trying to evoke new meanings through alteration or attempting to magnify a pre-existing and fundamental quality of a material. Either way, the outcome extends beyond its physical boundaries so I do believe that the sculptures are nearly (if not actually) conscious, approaching a sort of vibrancy.
MCF: That’s why considering the work as bodies or characters makes a lot of sense. It’s almost like dressing a child for school.
JI: Yes, these outer qualities and postures communicate so much to a viewer.
HH: There is a kind of magnetism of personalities and a vibrational exchange that happens between the human body and the sculptural body.
JI: It’s communication without language, and empathy through sight and spacial relationships.Then with the installation work or micro-environments, I want to create networks where they didn’t previously exist. It’s a lot like composing music with layers of drumbeats and vocals; the way they align, diverge, and disintegrate creates a composition. So essentially I’m searching for a harmonics of objects.
MCF: Object harmonics is a lovely and poignant thing to bring up in the larger context of relationship development and empathic space that you’ve been talking about—being able, as a viewer, to live simultaneously in your own body, in the body of others, and in the bodies of things and space.
…Would y’all mind if I played a song?
JI and HH: Wow! What is that?
HH: Mike, you’ve forgotten that that’s actually a question we were wanting to discuss: Is there particular music you might align your practice with?
JI: I’ve always envied how immediately music affects us and have always driven at a visual language that’s equally as transformative. I have a crush on the way music can do that.
MCF: Maybe we’re all just failed musicians. My brother is an especially amazing musician. He’s a self-taught banjo, guitar, harmonica player, and song writer.
HH: So what was that music?
MCF: It’s called Sacred Harp which is a traditional style of Southern devotional music. The harmony results from the tenor’s efforts which, and I’m speculating here, is unique to music because most harmony’s are based on the higher and lower tones. The music never really seems to quite resolve itself, as there’s a particular unsettled cadence and breathing pattern and rhythm.
Janelle, are you aware of Duende?
JI: I was first introduced to Garcia Lorca’s concept of Duende in grad school. It describes a specific but ineffable quality that was originally talked about in reference to Flamenco Dancing. It is transformative. It’s a sparking passion, an oomph, that particular beyond-human but bodily series of sensations that one has the potential to be moved to. I think that maybe as artists that may be a central drive.
MCF: I don’t think so! I think that only good artists are trying to achieve such a lofty goal. I think attempting to achieve Duende is as much a point of departure as it is a destination. I think it goes back to things and objects and the kind of middleness of the subject-object relationship—a liminal state.
I feel like a good deal of our conversation has danced around this topic. It’s the same way people try and describe “soul.” Duende can be clunkily described as goosebump inducing, physiological and emotional responses to phenomena that are virtually indescribable. For my own practice, search(ing) has become a central driving force. And I’m thinking about the titles used to distinguish or characterize an artist’s art making. I refer to my own work as a kind of Search Based Practice that could be described as trying to touch that feeling.
There is a strong current in contemporary art to engage research strategies, and while I think this is vital to understand the complexities and interrelated nature of all issues, it makes little sense as a designation for particular art expressions or practices that result in the curation and exhibition of information. To distinguish Research Practices seems like a misdirected attempt to over-organize, and arrogant swats at control. I realize this is a pretty divisive statement and recognize that it isn’t at all correct but I do feel like it underscores the general hubris of human animals.
JI: You can have an analytical research-motivated process that weaves in and out of your practice. That’s where it fits in for me at least. It’s a challenge to move from one direction of research to another with the physical projects amounting to the questions between. It also makes me think of a puppet show I did at Skowhegan where we started it off using the preface to Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. She wrties about Kafka’s short story, The Top. In the story, there is a philosopher captivated by watching children spinning tops. He has this belief that if he is able to understand how it works he will then be able to understand all things… But when he picks the top up in mid-spin and as it lays lifeless in his hand, he realizes that the delight is in this sort of suspended hope of understanding.
HH: And play is absolutely vital to expansive thought and formulating new possibilities. It’s ultimately less about winning or solutions but about variations and unthought-of questions.
MCF: Janelle, you started out as a ceramicist, can you tell us a bit about your progression?
JI: Working with ceramics allowed for unlimited possibilities. It is this most basic material and your hands, and it can become anything. You have a choice to work with how the clay behaves, how to dance with it, or to control it and manipulate it through sheer force.
MCF: Like tenderizing meat?
JI: Sure. It’s a material that responds to body language that accepts the forces you impart on it. It captures every insecurity and hesitation as well. There are also so many clichés associated with ceramics that I had a working list of. This list became an immediate Darwinian test for things I could not make. So therein lies the beauty with clay; it is a material that is so expansive but is exceedingly difficult to navigate the world of cliché.
HH: Strange all the crossovers—I’m constantly thinking about conceptual limitations and clichés in thinking about identity politics.
MCF: What about humor? Some of your titles are funny, they’re pseudo serious—
JI: Kitsch is part of the sculptural canon, particularly when you’re looking at found objects and cultural artifacts. I think also that play and absurdity go hand in hand and that exploring the absurd can be revelatory of truth.
MCF: Sure. Humor has been a strategy to digest grief and trauma across many cultures.
HH: What tools or materials you find yourself going back to or planning production around?
JI: I keep going back to things that fold because, practically, they are easier to transport and are adaptable for installations. They are also animated in that they physically expand and contract giving them actual movement or the potential for movement. Umbrellas are a prime example. I love the sophistication of the mechanism but I also love their usage in Surrealism as symbols and just how the same design has been employed for centuries. I’m also really drawn to shells. My early ceramic work dealt with making objects that resonated the same way that shells did…now they turn up now in installations paired with other objects. I think of them as these portals into a sort of beautiful wonder. They are poetic space within themselves.
MCF: The shell is a bivalve and symmetrical in its construction and function, similar to the umbrella that has the same qualities. They both vibrate with potential energy as the umbrella and clamshell could spring open and into action at any moment. So “potential” is similar to “speculative” in that they are both about almosts.
HH: Which goes back to what I was saying earlier about identity.
MCF: Yeah, which makes me wonder about fantasy as another kind of almost that resonates within your work. I guess I’m not necessarily thinking about fantasy as fantastical but fantasy as projecting into the unknown and the queer slippages you utilize between the natural and unnatural.
For instance, in Knismesis & Gargalisis, the elements stretch out to virtually touch one another. There is an instability and unresolved nature that seems solidified and frozen in time.
JI: There are often touches or rubs or elements reaching. They’re thinking about connecting and maybe even tickling each other or waiting to push off. There is also an exchange between natural and unnatural processes whether it’s a hunk of foam that’s been sculpted by ebbing tides or a branch I’ve sawed into bits. I’m constantly collecting things and placing them around my studio, noticing new potentials for arrangements and relationships with each new addition or alteration. I’m watching for the rawness or cooked-ness of objects, that unnatural and natural become so close at times.
Objecthood has a kind of equilibrium: All things human-made or natural have the same internal stuffs and are connected in some way. This means there are no hierarchies and each thing is inextricably woven into the next in a vast network of relationships. Jeanette Winterson talks about how a good deal of wrongs stem from people believing they’re not connected to others or the world around them. The more distance that’s created from this web the more harm is perpetrated. She says that being a creative is so vital because it involves an imaginative force that invents connections that weren’t previously recognized and defies learned separative habits.
Mike Calway-Fagen hails from Nashville, Tennessee and received a BFA from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and an MFA from the University of California in San Diego. He has attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, residencies at Sculpture Space in Utica, NY and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, NE among others. He has received awards from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, The Hamiltonian Fellowship, and the state of Tennessee. His work has been reviewed in publications including Art Papers and World Sculpture Magazine. He also curates and has put together exhibitions in Miami, FL, San Diego, CA, Nashville, TN, and Athens, GA. Mike has exhibited in solo and group shows at museums, galleries, and project spaces here in the states and abroad and is represented by Gazelli Art in London, UK.
Janelle Iglesias was born in New York City. She received her BA in Cultural Anthropology from Emory University in 2002, an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006, and was a resident of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2009. Janelle maintains an individual practice as well as a frequent collaboration with her sister, Lisa, as Las Hermanas Iglesias. Her individual work has been featured in group shows at El Museo del Barrio, The Queens Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park and SmackMellon. She is currently represented by Larissa Goldston Gallery in New York. Janelle is the recipient of Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, a NYFA Fellowship in Sculpture and a Jerome Foundation Travel Grant through which she will be traveling to Western Papua to research Bowerbirds later this year. She has been an artist in residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Vermont Studio Center, Sculpture Space, Smack Mellon and LMCC’s Workspace program. A former Fine Arts Work Center Fellow, Iglesias currently lives and works in Provincetown, MA.
Born in Seattle, Heather Hart was an artist in residence at Skowhegan, Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, Santa Fe Art Institute, and the Whitney ISP. She received grants from Harvestworks, the Jerome Foundation, and a fellowship from NYFA. Her work has been included in a variety of publications and exhibited worldwide including at Socrates Sculpture Park; the Studio Museum in Harlem; Art in General; Rush Arts Gallery; the Museum of Arts and Crafts, in Japan; Portland Art Center; and the Brooklyn Museum. She studied at Cornish College of the Arts and Princeton University and received an MFA from Rutgers University. She lives in Brooklyn and is currently a Visual Arts Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.