jessica stockholder

New York City, 1990

Klaus Ottmann: What are the most important issues in your work?

Jessica Stockholder: My work developed through the process of making site-specific installations — site-specific sometimes in very specific ways but also just by virtue of being “art” in a room; there’s at least that much going on between the work and its context; after all, paintings don’t hang on trees. In all of the work I place something I make in relationship to what’s already there. With installations it’s the building, the architecture, or you might say it’s the place that I work on top of; with the smaller pieces I work on top of or in relation to stuff that I collect.
I don’t see a dichotomy between formalism and something else. Form and formal relations are important because they mean something; their meaning grows out of our experiences as physical mortal beings of a particular scale in relationship to the world as we find it and make it. I don’t buy that formalism is meaningless.

Ottmann: Is there a particular aesthetic involved when you look for materials?

Stockholder: It doesn’t matter what I use. It can be anything. What’s interesting is how what I’m doing combines with the stuff I use, but then it’s not entirely true to say that. I also choose things for particular reasons, though not according to a particular aesthetic. More often I avoid the development of a cohesive look that will too powerfully direct the work in only one direction. A lot of people have written about my work in terms of junk. That I sometimes use junk doesn’t seem of central importance to me. I use all kinds of things, old and new. Much of the stuff I use could be found in your living room.

Ottmann: There is that danger of junk becoming “art” by itself, without the artist adding meaning.

Stockholder: I rely on that tendency to aestheticize as I do on chance and happenstance. What’s exciting is how the more clearly structured, more formal, more pictorial side of the work meets the more chaotic — sometimes very clearly and logically, then bleeding off in all kinds of directions.
I see it as a mesh of Kaprow, Tinguely, and the surrealists on the one hand, using chaos and chance and making systems out of happenings; and on the other hand, meshing that kind of thinking with formal painting and minimalism. John Cage’s thinking also had a lot of influence.

Ottmann: Are there other influences that you would like to mention?

Stockholder: I studied with Mowry Baden in Victoria [British Columbia]. He’s a sculptor with a large appreciation for painting; he addressed my work from both points of view. That’s part of how I got where I am.

Ottmann: How did painting come to the work?

Stockholder: I started as a painter and I never stopped making paintings. And still, part of what interests me is a pictorial way of looking at things. Viewing through pictures is part of our experience of the world, an experience that happens to be often associated with art.
Standing in front of one of my pieces, its size is important in relationship to your size, you feel how heavy it is or what the light is like in the room, and all that kind of information is seen in relation to the pictorial structure in the work. The thing cues you to measure one side against the other, trying to balance it as you would a picture, and for me, looking at things in a pictorial way includes a distancing where the thing that’s pictured is far away and a little static, unchanging, without time. This distancing is exaggerated by the “art” status of the work, which brings with it a feeling of preciousness and the feeling that the work is somehow removed from or above human life. These qualities are seductive and they make me angry. So I place the pictorial in a context where it’s always being poked at. The picture never stands — it’s always getting the rug pulled out from under it.
I also love color; and color hasn’t been dealt with much in sculpture.

Ottmann: Do you relate more closely to an American or European painting tradition?

Stockholder: I relate more to an American tradition, though probably to both. Matisse, Cézanne, and the cubists certainly are important to me. I also feel a strong affinity to Clifford Still, Frank Stella, the hard-edge New York School painting, and minimalism, as well as Richard Serra.

Ottmann: When did you decide to make smaller, site-independent objects?

Stockholder: When I moved here I had no studio. I was working in my apartment. It didn’t make sense to build installations there, and I didn’t want to have to find a show in order to be able to make my work. So I started to make objects. The first one I made had a light pointed at the wall making a circle of color. The light uses electricity, which is happening in time; although the work is static, the light gives it a sense of happening. Also, there’s color on the piece and color on the wall from the light; the color on the wall from the light is kind of ephemeral, and it’s not physically attached to the piece, but the two things, the piece and the wall need each other to be a complete thing. So though I was making an object, it broke down a little bit. It wasn’t isolated unto itself.
I also like that the smaller pieces are physically easier, more in my control. And I can work out ideas that I later use in installations.

Ottmann: Could you say something about how meaning is generated in your work?

Stockholder: My work often arrives in the world like an idea arrives in your mind. You don’t quite know where it came from or when it got put together, nevertheless, it’s possible to take it apart and see that it has an internal logic. I’m trying to get closer to thinking processes as they exist before the idea is fully formed. The various parts of my work are multivalent as are the various parts of dreams. At best, there are many ways to put the pieces together.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.