Working at the intersection of painting and sculpture, Jessica Stockholder’s site-specific installations – most recently Color Jam (2012), which engulfed a city block last summer in Chicago’s Loop – climb walls, poke through windows, and slyly redefine the spaces that contain them. Her smaller-scale studio works fuse bits of furniture and household items with punctuating daubs of color. She combines chaos with formality, humor with elegy, pleasure with thinking. Stockholder has exhibited worldwide; we spoke at her studio at the University of Chicago. – Jude Stewart
THE BELIEVER: Where did you start with this piece?
JS: Studio work always seems to grow one work from another. This piece is a response to another piece I made with wire, a smaller wall piece.
I like that wire is such a readily available, insubstantial material that you can manipulate. I’m using it to draw in space, to carve out volumes in space that start to feel palpable. It’s both a framing mechanism and a drawing tool.
Then I was trying to figure out what kind of attachment system to use. I used these copper flashing pieces that are curved. I thought I could find some off-the-shelf crimping material, and I couldn’t.
BLVR: Yeah, or twist-ties or something.
JS: Twist-ties weren’t going to do it. These needed to stick to the material.
BLVR: Are these structurally important?
JS: Oh yeah, they’re holding it all together.
BLVR: Then I won’t pull one off.
JS: [Smiles] Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend that.
BLVR: Any other reason you chose copper?
JS: Yes. I’ve been thinking about nature-culture recently – well, I don’t really like the simplicity of that dichotomy. But there’s something about materials like copper, woods, stone, trees, shells. You walk outside and these materials are part of the world before we touched anything. There’s a feeling of pleasure that many of us have in materials that have some presence before us, like clay and wood and copper.
Yet the plastic bottle in this piece – it’s made from oil. It’s also part of the world before we touched anything; it’s just as natural as the copper is.
And you know, I really love plastic. There are different kinds of pleasure embedded in that material.
Q: What do you like about plastic?
A: It’s a kind of fantasy material. It’s completely malleable. In this work, all of these pieces of plastic are formed by molds in factories. Somebody invented the mold, most often to imitate some other material that came before it. So the plastic bottle mold looks like old glass bottles. And this piece of plastic –
Q: It looks like a crisper lid, in a refrigerator.
A: Yeah, it could be something like that. All of these textures and details on it, they’re entirely invented. It’s not like its form came from some quality of the material that dictates how we work it.
Q: Right, it’s totally obedient.
A: And plastic is very, very inexpensive and very present – it’s everywhere.
I haven’t used bright color in this work so much, but plastic does hold incredible, intense color. Here I’m enjoying it as a material that’s both here and not-here. It’s got this transparency, so it’s shiny like this pink material is shiny and iridescent. But the mesh has a different shine to it.
[Pointing to a Dasani label next to the plastic bottle] This is new for me –I don’t tend to leave the labels of things on. I also left words in the label that came on the stepstool.
I liked the quality of the paper this bottle was wrapped in: its plasticky-ness, its shininess, how it’s moving with these other materials.
BLVR: Why did you decide to attach the work to the wall?
JS: I started as a painter, and the work has not really stopped being painting. It’s just incorporated a lot of space and material into the picture-making activity.
I’m also interested in the immediacy of experience in relationship to the thing. In this case, it’s tied to this white wall in my studio, but it can be moved to many other white walls in other places. But it can’t be fixed against a tree – it wouldn’t function. It really needs this plane behind it. These planes and volumes of color, they flatten out against the wall. That’s what coheres the work; that’s what I’m engaged in, that kind of flattening which involves a certain stillness.
When the thing flattens and becomes a picture on a wall, it also gets removed from time. Moving around it, you experience it more dimensionally – that experience is part of time. Even though this could be against many walls, it’s on this wall, right now. There’s a kind of immediacy that takes place in time that matters to me. Whereas picture-making seems to be about an imagination of timelessness. We never can step outside of time, although I wish we could.
Q: How did you decide on this work’s scale?
A: In the studio I don’t make huge things. I work alone in the studio, so almost all of what I bring in here I can handle myself.
I’d like to make more of these smaller, more condensed pieces. I’d like to get more practical and not spew all this big, ungainly stuff into the world, because then I have to keep them somewhere, or else sell them. And if they don’t sell, it’s just hanging around in the world and you have to do something with it.
But [studio works] grow into this scale pretty easily. It’s a body scale, but it’s also up higher on the wall away from the body. So I’m trying to engage the scale of the room a bit.
BLVR: You often use super-bright colors in your works. Why did you choose these colors?
JS: Color is one of my starting points. I mean, I love color – it’s why I make work at all.
In this piece, the color all comes from that bottle; that was the starting point. The bottle is green, and it’s also transparent, so the colors are riffing on that green and growing from it. And then the pink mesh is a complement to the green; the green-yellow paint is a complement to the purple paint down there, which kicks the yellow up a notch. The pink mesh does the same to the green: it makes it more vibrant.
But I never have a firm answer to that question. I could’ve used hundreds of different greens, and many different purples. How and why I arrive at the ones I do, there’s no way to put words to it.
I also like how there’s an illusion of volume and space embedded in color. Here this green paint has an illusion of space, a feeling that’s quite distinct from the stepladder it’s painted on. Even though this is just paint, it’s a skin over the stepladder. That for me is a kind of fiction.
BLVR: What’s this part? [pointing to a flat plane attached to the stepladder leg]
JS: That’s a flat piece of linoleum with an adhesive back that I bought at an odd-lots store. I just liked the color of it. That enters back into the color question. That material is a really weird, nondescript.
BLVR: Yeah, it’s scaly. The closer you get, the more creepy and interesting it becomes.
JS: It’s beige, skin-colored. If you go to Walmart or the hardware store, the shelves are full of things in this color range: beige, taupe, gray, light brown. It’s supposed to disappear and not be offensive.
There’s something horribly ugly and really attractive at the same time about those colors. If you put that taupe next to this green paint, the green’s afterimage reflects a little red onto it and it starts to get buzzy and sharp. Yet it’s much different when it’s next to the yellow woodgrain. Even though I haven’t brought myself to make something that’s all beige and taupe and gray, I enjoy pulling those colors into what I do.
BLVR: As a writer, I have certain go-to words I use over and over. Do you have go-to materials?
JS: That’s an interesting comparison. I don’t think there are as many materials in the world as there are words.
I use paint all the time, and in the last ten years or so I use a lot of plastic. I use furniture a lot. But I don’t feel that way about materials that I use. I feel that way more about how I use them.
BLVR: It’s more like go-to gestures.
JS: Yes. I think the geometric structure of the paint I use is a way of orchestrating paint and shape I use over and over again. That might be analogous to using a word over and over. It serves me that those hard edges are related, and equivalent to, the hard edges of an object – the ladder.
On the other hand, I try to bring in more complicated qualities of what paint can do. So here we have more translucent paint, and the brush-markings and the drips. I try to let the paint evoke expression and motion, more than a flat, geometrically bounded piece of paint can do.
Q: What was the last gesture you made on this work?
A: I’m not sure. It might have been the green paint on the wires, extending the green from the fabric to the wires. And it might have been these yellow-green drips on the ladder. It could be either of those.
Q: I just realized there’s another way I could have phrased that, but it’s also another question: how do you know a work is done?
A: That is a different question. I don’t think there’s any single finished point for a work. It’s done when something’s happening with the work that feels like a balanced, coherent disharmony. That’s one way to say it. And where if I keep working on it, to discover and struggle with new problems, I’ll obliterate the ones I was working on. I could keep working on it, but it’d become something different. And I value what’s here, at the moment.
Jude Stewart writes about design and culture for Slate, the Believer, Fast Company, and Print, among other publications. Her first book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color is available from Bloomsbury on 9/17/13. Follow her on Twitter @joodstew.