Elizabeth Jaeger is an artist breaking away from the pack of shiny young things with life-sized porcelain and plaster sculptures, equally playful and funereal, coy and confrontational. In January 2012 she founded Peradam publishing group with Sam Cate-Gumpert, producing an array of coveted editions and artists’ books. This fall she will teach “Show And Tell, a Sculpture Forum” at the free experimental art school B.H.Q.F.U. Her first solo show opens this month (six-thirty, October 10 – November 9, 2014) at Jack Hanley, transforming the gallery into a spare Modernist loft occupied by skeptical greyhounds. Jaeger recently met with Jarrett Earnest to discuss Luxury and Death in life-sized sculpture and world news.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Why don’t we start by talking about the overall vision or structure of this exhibition and how you conceived of it.
Elizabeth Jaeger: My overall structure started with a few basic premises and questions. First, I wanted to challenge myself and not make any figures of women. I wanted to think of a new way to talk about things that are of the body without being the body itself, and I started thinking about things that could function as mirrors. I also asked myself three questions: “what is fear?”; “what do you make when you have nothing left to prove?”; and “what is this particular feeling I have of reading the news?” I started working on the show in January at my parents’ house, overwhelmed with anxiety and guilt about a friend passing away, war, disease, hunger in the world, while also enjoying my fairly privileged life—in my warm home at my parents house eating my mom’s zucchini soup. The three questions really conflated in that moment—“What is this fear of reconciling world guilt with my own private life, and how do I share these feelings in public and then in private?”
Rail: To step back for a little context: most of your work before this show was life-size female figures. How did you start making figurative sculptures and why did you decide you didn’t want to make any more figures?
Jaeger: The idea for the figures started while I was bored out of my mind living in an all-girls dormitory in France. I wanted to make something that was impressive, unlike the quaint watercolors I was making, something that you would encounter physically with your body while also addressing it as an aesthetic piece. I became obsessed with the idea of making something as big as myself.
Thinking further back, in college I made a weird life-sized man out of felt. My boyfriend at the time was like “you’re replacing me” and I was like “no way man, that’s crazy,” but I dumped him about a week later. Eventually the sculpture migrated to the living room and then to the closet, and I was over the whole thing. I was obviously just replacing him—subconsciously. So that’s where I started.
I began feeling hesitant to make more female plaster figures when someone said to me: “Oh, I get it. You’re like that female artist’s model that makes sculptures of female models.” Bummer. I’m trying to make work that exists in an indefinable place, an ontologically ambiguous place where people are like “what the fuck!”—so the second someone gives it some crude definition, I’m bored.
Rail: The sculpture “Serving Vessels” (2013) confronts those issues. Can you explain the back story?
Jaeger: I let this artist photograph me as a favor and the image ended up completely different than how he presented his idea to me. After seeing the image, I told him that I was uncomfortable with it and would prefer he didn’t use it. He basically told me to fuck off, posted it online, and then tried to pull this bullshit that I implicitly agreed to his rights to the image in that I posed for the photograph. Douche-alert!—and false. So the sculpture came out of a of no, actually fuck you feeling. I’m going to take your misogynist photograph of me, reclaim it, and make it a layered piece, which is exactly what I did. It’s a self-portrait but via the lens of an asshole.
Rail: That accounts for the intense psychology: aggressive and funereal.
Jaeger: I was pissed: the photograph looked like a centerfold car ad. That was the basis of my discomfort—it was boring and flagrantly sexist. It looked like I was served up on a platter: me, painted silver on a silver medical table, when he had assured me I would be obscured. I felt robbed and it felt unwholesome. As a response, in “Serving Vessel” I surround the sculpture with all these degraded vessels I made, like a gallon of milk, but charred, used.
Rail: When that person said you were the artist’s model making art about artists’ models it hit a nerve because at some point that did relate to what you were working out. Where does that trace back to?
Jaeger: The comment was annoying because it was reducing my work to something basic and implied that I was first a model and then started to make art from those experiences. Which would be fine, but is simply not the case. I got into modeling as an experiment as I was making the first set of figures. The figures were about the performance of the photograph—how women contort their bodies into arbitrary directions for what looks “good” in an image. I then found an agency and went for it. The agency told me to lose 10 pounds and I just said, “Yes, I’m going to lose 10 pounds in one month and see what that is like.” I’ve never dieted before or since, but I did it. I only ate raw veggies, freaked out my friends, flew to New York, met with all the agencies, was rained on, got the flu, thought I was dying, quit, ate some bagels, and kept making work. It hit a nerve because it robbed me of my agency, where I’ve been consciously choosing topics I’m working through and seek out experiences that could potentially inform my work.
Rail: How did that inform the way you were thinking of poses in your sculptures?
Jaeger: I had a hunch and it was confirmed. I was thinking of the way you pose with a culturally prescribed idea of a front and a back and an open and closed view—a women’s body in terms of power dynamics. I was mostly shocked by how cliché this particular agency behaved; they were like “stick your neck out, head up, open your eyes wide, square your shoulders, suck your stomach in, and lean slightly to the left.” It was like, “oh duh, I know this from movies and middle school.” It informed my sculptures in that it was a surreal experience and now I know I don’t need to try that again.
Rail: One of the things that interests me is your relationship to anatomy: the body as a sign, but also as a physical thing. Your sculptures instantly make sense emotionally and psychologically but they don’t cohere anatomically.
Jaeger: I don’t think about anatomy—it feels too medical, too defined, and halts the gesture of the body. S-T-A-T-I-C. I started by trying to make what it felt like to do a pose, versus what my intestines and bones might be doing. The sculptures relate directly to my drawings, which are very gestural and about this seductive, languid movement. Everything is a sign for something rather than talking about what it is materially—a body with no organs, if you will. The only thing I care about “materially” is getting the message across with the least amount of distractions.
Rail: The furniture has a very different feeling. How did you first approach it?
Jaeger: Once as a teen I got really stoned and realized the world was designed for humans. Dumb, but it’s something we all take for granted—doorways were made by somebody to fit an idea of what an average human size is. I think of furniture that way, as the imprint of the body and also suggestive of a shared psychological vibe—we pick the furniture that mirrors our personality.
Rail: The two tower pieces in particular remind me of Louise Bourgeois’s drawings and early sculptures, where she was dealing with the house as a figure. But your sculptures also remind me of the Giacomettis that have a deeply nasty aspect: metal cages and plaster forms caught inside. It’s dark. All the furniture is gun metal, black marble, blackened ceramics. I like the roughness of your welded joints—they show you that someone made them by hand, which industrial furniture is always trying to hide.
Jaeger: They feel very sensual. The whole show is meant to be vibrating a portrait of a person who could live there—and that person is probably a little dark.
Rail: How did you start making the dogs?
Jaeger: I was really thinking about what it feels like to read the news; I felt so helpless and guilty and these horrible things are happening and I’m not doing anything. I’m not sure I actually want to, and I don’t know how. Once as a teen I blew up at my mother and our family dog puked: reading the news felt like being that domesticated dog—“whoa, horrible conflict; damn, so nauseous now.” Where you’re helpless and waiting for someone to tell you what’s right, but you don’t know who it is and you’re just stuck in the reality that you’re in.
Rail: The breed of dog is specific: there is something about greyhounds that looks like drawings. What did you find changed in trying to create “psychology” in a sculpture of a dog versus a sculpture of a human being?
Jaeger: I picked greyhounds because they are anxious. They are thought to be the first dogs—they appear throughout art history, beginning with Salukis from Ancient Egyptian tombs. Today, American greyhounds are raised to race, a consequence of which is that they fear anything and everything aside from other greyhounds, their kennels, and racetracks. American greyhounds can never be left off leash because literally anything aside from those three familiar things can send them darting off at 40 miles per hour. Their skin rips all the time and they break their bones just running around and they are spooked by strangers. I liked that as an illustration of our contemporary condition: being alive and terrified of terrorists, cancer, thieves, rapists, the economy, the opposite sex, etc. The psychology I was attracted to is built into the breed—so I picked it.
Rail: In terms of the way you created their faces did you have experiments of trying to make a dog face register the feeling of being frightened?
Jaeger: Yeah, I made them out of clay, in which you smoosh a lump around for countless hours until you can say “it looks skeptical!” then you stop touching it. I was trying to do things with their postures—how they are leaning away, their heads are pulling back, and their ears are back.
Rail: Do you envision people walking into the gallery and feeling fear or anxiety?
Jaeger: I want people to walk into the gallery and feel totally impotent: think something along the lines of “something is wrong in this room and I don’t know what it is—maybe it’s … me?!”
Rail: I would read that as having something to do with being in a commercial art gallery in New York in 2014, about what it means to show art right now in this financial and critical climate. Is that reading too much into it? To compare an Elizabeth Jaeger dog to a Jeff Koons dog—they seem to relate, opposing takes on luxury.
Jaeger: Fucked luxury. When Jack asked me to do a show in his gallery, I realized I’ve never had a show in a truly commercial space before. I was so terrified by the idea of this river flowing through the gallery of different artists and their ideas. It felt fucked up that there is a show every month that gets erased and the room becomes a new liminal space for someone else to do a show. How can you make anything worthwhile in a space that everyone is so familiar with? How can you make anything special in a place where people know exactly how to walk through to get upstairs and get a beer? There is nothing that pushes people back. It’s only your work that can catch them off guard, but viewers are conditioned to be ready for that too. Furthermore, it’s a weird thing that I am making things that neither I, nor any of my friends, can afford. I’m acutely aware of what a freak show it is to present work in a gallery.
Rail: This show also seems to relate to the kind of Modernism where there is a belief that design will change our way of life. There was a huge amount of aspiration in those design objects that had ideological programs. None of that actually worked out—
Jaeger: I’m paranoid that we are back in the 1950s. What were the main staples of a ’50s reality? A nuclear family, optimism, and everything had to be pleasant and entertaining. And think about the art world: it’s very entertaining and nobody is talking about anything at all. It’s all very glamorous: things that can be put over your sofa as decoration. Do you feel this way?
Rail: Yes; what is weird is the impulse many young/current art-world people seem to have, in wanting to be “professional” and a drive to be “normal.” I’m not an artist living in New York because I want to live in the suburbs! So why is it that everyone is making art celebrating the aesthetics of the suburbs?
Jaeger: I recently worked for a furniture fair. Part of my job was gleaning contact information from different interior designers’ websites. It was so crazy because I kept finding art made by people I knew in the back of these interior decorating photos. I look at this art all the time through an “art lens,” alone and glorified in a white room, and I was shocked to see it in a way I never had, like “oh wow here’s a beautiful room, wait a minute, isn’t that my friend’s painting on the wall, behind the lamp?”
Rail: A lot of the work being made now, especially some abstract painting, seems actually about design. It’s about looking good on a screen, in a photograph, in interior design, and not being in an art museum. It’s just a different thing. So is this also behind what you were thinking about for this show?
Jaeger: I was working on this show when I did that job—five 10-hour days in a row of looking at interior design websites—how does that not inform your work?
Rail: When I saw “Serving Vessels” at Interstate last year I wrote to you and said, “I think all life-sized figurative sculpture is intrinsically linked with death” and you wrote back, “Yes, I think so.” Does this show relate to mortality too?
Jaeger: I think it talks to mortality in the sense that it confronts you. Something miniature you look into, something monumental is representative, but something that is your size is something you have to confront. In terms of death, halfway through making this work I remembered a story I had read as a child, Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles (1950), and I realized I was inadvertently remaking that story.
The chapter tells the story of an empty robotic house on Mars. Despite it being empty, the house goes through all of its daily functions, including feeding the abandoned dog. From the beginning, things are starting to fail but the house keeps trying to function as normal. Waffles are made for no one. When the food runs out, the dog dies, but is routinely cleaned by robotic mice. But then there are too many things failing all at once—the house catches fire, but there is no more water to put it out. As the house burns, it still struggles to keep its routine. When it comes to putting the children to sleep, the house plays a recording of this poem by Sara Teasdale:
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
The poem and the story are about life going on in the absence of humans. It really scared me as a young child, the idea that this family died and there was no one there to mourn. It’s equivalent to those Andy Warhol crash photographs. I’ve always been horrified by the idea that you could get into a fatal car accident where everyone dies but the radio keeps playing Michael Jackson, or, like, the Beatles. It’s that same feeling.
Our community had a friend die about a year ago and I was asked to do this show around the same time. I felt like this work really came out of the fact that I peripherally knew this person was using and I didn’t do anything heroic about it. I told a couple people but didn’t intervene directly, I wasn’t sure how to, so naïve. I think a lot of us felt impotent after that, trying to figure out how we let this person go. I don’t know if it’s directly related to my show but a lot of this work was trying to reconcile that type of loss—people just disappearing from your life. When someone’s using you can feel them fading from your reality, at least in retrospect—you hold that with you, the lack of whatever you didn’t do that could have changed that path.
Rail: Did you see that Paul McCarthy show at the uptown Hauser & Wirth of the body casts? The thing that is interesting about figurative work is that it is an object that displaces space in a way we intuitively know is a human body but there is some intangible thing that makes it not a human body; it’s not that it’s plastic instead of meat—I feel like the closer the replication, the more desperate we are to see the things that make it not a human body.
Jaeger: For me it was a human body. I touched it, I feel like everyone touched it. It’s like death in the sense that the body is that person, even though the person isn’t there, and I felt like that sculpture was that person too, that actress on that table. It functions the same. Like Jordan Wolfson’s sex witch at David Zwirner—that fucked witch woman had an effect on the viewer as if she was a real fucked witch in lingerie, forced to perform by an artist. It’s basically the same.
Rail: What about Wolfson as a straight, white, rich boy who feels able to make a sculpture that replicates those power dynamics, of a stripper-as-an-object, which you don’t feel comfortable making? Doesn’t that relate to gender dynamics in your work in an important way?
Jaeger: But I did do that for a long time: the naked sexy woman in the gallery. I think those female sculptures I made are fucked up. If Jordan Wolfson is woman-hating, so am I. Mika Rottenberg has suggested, “You fuck in the way you’ve been fucked” but what right do I have to make that work? I’ve never done sexy nudes—I don’t know what it’s like. It’s all projections. Striving to understand something you’re not sure you understand at all. I’m aware that I’m engaged in power and gender dynamics, but I also don’t know what the hell is going on—I project complicated binaries to understand my own. A sculpture is an object which is irrevocably a part of the world, so it can be and not be at the same time. Because it occupies the same plane and space as the viewer, it is, as a basis, as complicated and hypocritical as everything else. You can make a sculpture that is and is not, simultaneously. Language is made of binaries, sculpture can exist between.
Rail: What about when it was a surrogate for you on a table?
Jaeger: That was harder. That was not sexy. That piece functioned very differently than a lot of my other work because very few elements were imaginary. It was a replica—staring into the image to understand how other people see me. And all the fucked up ways in which they see me.
Rail: I’m interested in your sculptures as a series of displacements: like replacing your ex-boyfriend, now the dogs and furniture are replacing the figures.
Jaeger: Right, the sculptures started as performances because it seemed a lot easier to make them perform in my place rather than do it myself. Plus it solved my problem with performance in that forcing people to watch feels fascist to me. With sculptures however, you can come and go as you please. They are performative, but they are displacements in that I wanted to talk about something, so I got a sculpture to do it. Now it’s almost like the sculpture is too distracting, so I want to make a sculpture for the sculpture—and make everyone so uncomfortable that they just turn around and leave.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.