Jenn Figg is the latest artist here on Life. A California native whose sculptures investigate boundaries and the space in between, Jenn currently resides in Richmond Va, where she is a PhD student at Virginia Commonwealth Universities Media Art and Text Program. Jenn's work had been in numerous exhibitions including Santa Barbara Contemporary Art Forum, Santa Barbara,The Arts Center, Carpinteria, CA, Gallery 25, Fresno, Silah Gallery, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara among numerous other venues. Jenn talks about her sculptures as well as her investigations into new media and boundary spaces in the latest interview.
1. Your work transforms the materials, which include jellybeans, salt, and a lot of other unexpected things. Why have you chosen to utilize these seemingly mundane things in your sculpture and what do they impart to the viewer for you?
My work stems from an intuitive process, so when I have an idea of what the whole might look like, I need to find its constitutive parts. A lot of time is spent photographing objects or prowling in hardware, secondhand, or candy stores. There is an element of surprise in the transformed material, the vacillations between the subject / object function to bring new associations. Weed whacker cord is seen as sour candy rope, yarn becomes a trifle, and tarred monofilament translates as grass. The physicality of the object goes beyond surface and form.
The material always already has symbolic and metaphoric allusions (associated narrative) that are both inherent and imposed. Through juxtaposing and configuring various of these known objects, I have the means to explore some of the boundaries of these common understandings. Not only am I interested in the boundaries of our common understanding; I am enchanted by the conceptual place between the boundaries.
This space I call the purlieu. The word was originally used in old English Forest Law and coined by John Manwood in 1665. It is the place between the forest and the city, which is neither forest nor city – a place without a designator. The purlieu was thus a borderland, a social space of overlapping and conflicting jurisdiction. The purlieu, which came to derogatorily denote any of a place’s outlying parts, is the hidden—existing at the point of overlap, being neither one thing nor another—nor not one thing nor another। Until the purlieu becomes a center of designation, it remains hidden. And that’s the place I’m hooked on – I keep seeing it. My latest work aims to draw attention to these conceptual boundaries, crossings, demilitarized zones, even an area of zombies…
2. There is a meticulous attention to detail in your work. How does the process and methods in your work relate to the final piece?
Surface detail totally fascinates me, informed by my past textile design experience. I did and still wish to knit! Anyway, the ‘depth of surface’ – it is more than skin deep. That is where I want to go, so the materials I choose feed into that mode of thinking.
I consider surface as constituted of layers of texture, color, form, and object that make meaning. One of the questions I ask is, ‘Wherein the veneer resides the unexplored or unknown?’ In pulling attention to surface it is a recognition that the things that are hidden are not in the back of a closet or even in the darkest recesses of the mind…the things that are the most difficult to see are sitting right on the surface. I relate this to Poe’s classic, The Purloined Letter. People often look to others to tell them about themselves. One of the aims of my work is to draw attention to and highlight the surfaces of the ordinary, drawing out the mysteries there. A certain mystery for me is the perfection of a craft, and as I am inherently imperfect, well…how are things made?
There was a point when both the labor and the time involved to create the work became part of the overriding narrative informing the final piece – I am thinking specifically of Fashioning Eden (Sowing Machine)। Every individual strand was cut, rolled in tar and silicon carbide grit, and adhered to make the grass bed। That seemed important at the time. Currently I am deemphasizing fabrication. I used to think that I was process oriented…again relating to weaving (winding a warp and threading a loom, etc.) As my work has progressed and I have needed outside help to complete it, my hand is not the only one involved and the physicality of making seems processually less connected. So now, the layers of process and method within the piece relate only laterally.
3. There is this feeling to your work of play, and of whimsy. How did you develop that?
Whimsy is something that I do not purposefully try to achieve. With Fabulous Fibonacci I was aiming toward a craft aesthetic, blending bright yarn with candy and an obsessive counting, something that could go on and on infinitely. The counting, sorting, and stacking of the yarn balls was completely absorbing; they became little delicacies, needing lacy doilies. Relating back to your previous question of process and methods, the yarn mounds were a labor of love, and the time played an operative role in this work. The counting of hundreds of yarn balls and silver dragees reminded me of measuring ingredients when cooking, and the seeming endlessness of that endeavor. So I serve them up for visual consumption…
For some of the topographies, like those in the shelf series, the camera lens defines the point of entry, creating the geographic margins and forcing scale। A small shelf, seen through the mechanical eye, is established as a candy forest – where we meet the growths at eye level, and the whole becomes quite playful। Initially, my interest in seeing the details drove me, photographing purely as documentation – since so much of my work is made of ephemeral materials. Then it became something else altogether, more of an interest in the composition and object, a change from the mass to the singular. It needed a different take.
4. Your piece, Foundation, is changed by the viewer as they enter the space of the sculpture. How important to the piece is that interaction and what does it mean to you and for the viewer?
I assume that we are talking about people who are actually interested in experiencing the work in the first place? The viewer cannot be forced to do / see anything, but they can be guided.
Let me explain a bit. Within Foundation was a corridor, delineated by the mass of objects on either side. For a short time, people walked around the outside of the work, but a few walked through. Suddenly it became crowded, and then people began to slide underneath it. There was no way to control the viewpoint – people were walking through, lying underneath, and sitting inside it. After the opening it needed many repairs! I hadn’t expected that level of interaction.
When the viewer entered the work, Foundation ceased to be a discreet object – albeit a large object – situated in the center of the space. Instead it became a dynamic landscape, subtly altering the center of gravity, as the ‘ground’ had risen from the feet to the thigh. Also, the individual objects were barbed, and they caught on clothing, so when they released and swung back they would bump other pieces and set off a chain reaction. This brought to the viewer a body awareness, a sense of their own physicality in relationship to their surroundings. That mindfulness brings another level of meaning to the work. Foundation was never still because of air currents, but with people shifting within it the triggered kinetic motion was more exaggerated.
That sense of the self and the body moving through a space either physically or psychologically is important to me, but for this particular installation, it was not crucial। Fashioning Eden (Sowing Machine) was a work that is user-activated, with a hand crank, an absurdist piece of machinery. But there are enough clues, such as a kneeling pad and protective (if fanciful) gloves to imply that the handle could be turned and that the grass would move. If the viewer physically engages the work then they, in turn, become a performance for others, and this crosses some sort of passive audience boundary.
5. You have this very distinct aesthetic, which seems to employ chaos and control to create an environment. How did you develop that?
Much of my earlier work developed from a place of repetition of action and form। The making of the work was actually meditative for me, and I was told that others experienced a calm state of mind when watching the kinetic work from that time. Seed grew out of that space. It was placed in rows and spaced exactly, but since each strand bent differently, the sculpture rose up into a chaotic jumble, a total texture. Nature has an intrinsic order, and I was using plants as a departure point. I continue to depict nature, but with different sensibilities.
6. What are you working on now?
I am investigating garden spaces through substituted and pantomimed nature. These landscapes are in the form of digital collages at this point, a mixture of photographs of real life object and my sculptural work, which then is manipulated. I look at them as particular fictionlands – depicting a boundaried hovering between our first- and second- life, and hinting at those darker places that are quite ordinary.
This new work is exciting – I am venturing into a different type of dimensional representation, using digital effects for imaging and printing, and also using a paper-doll concept for the forms. My next project is to build small tableaux, using some projection and possibly peepholes to further guide the viewpoint within the composition. Much of my inspiration comes from contemporary gamescapes, and their theatricality. There is more of the hidden in there – what is offstage? I keep asking…
Top Ten Influences
My artist and philosopher friends. they always inspire me.
All those movies I saw when I was a kid, like the original Star Wars trilogy, Poltergeist (plus other scary ones like Hellraiser, the Freddie Series, and Aliens) Bladerunner, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, more recently, Werner Herzog's films, Pedro Almodovar's films, The Matrix...
The poets Pablo Neruda and Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke and Emily Dickinson
Eva Hesse, Roxy Paine, Tara Donovan, Judy Pfaff, Kiki Smith, Marnie Weber, Felix Gonzales-Torres
The authors Ian McEwan and Paul Auster and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Margaret Atwood and Umberto Eco
The photographers Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams, Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman
The designers Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames and Junichi Arai
List of Works
1. Candy Grass 2007, wood, monofilament, paint, adhesive, candy
2. Fashioning Eden, detail 2006, wood, monofilament, tar, silicon carbide grit, various metal parts
3. Fabulous Fibonacci, wood, yarn, candy, adhesive, paint, doilies, 2006
4. Foundation 2005, screening, silicon carbide grit, thread, adhesive, sand, salt
5. Foundation, detail 2005
6. Seed, monofilament, wax, wood, 2005
7. it's always winter outside Never-Never land, composite digital image, light box, 2008
8. Mold / Moulding, 2007, 'oops' paint