Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Jesse Farber

Dune, 2002, oil on canvas, 56" x 44"

JL: It appears that Dune is a foreshadowing of what is to follow. There are very sculptural/modeled elements: the abstracted trees, the carefully crafted blanket, the shadows, and the perspective. Did you use some sort of physical construction to develop these paintings? Had you in fact been working on any other sculptures at the time?

JF: Yes – Dune was painted from what I was calling a “setup.” I made or arranged all the physical objects in the picture, though it was all very makeshift. By this time, I had worked out a system for making paintings which grew out of a collage or pastiche approach to images. For a while, I had been piecing together paintings out of found images, my own doodles, cartoon imagery, and observational painting. At one point, I tried simply setting up all of the things I wanted to use in physical space, making them into a tableau on a studio shelf, instead of on the canvas. Some of what I wanted to put in were cartoon drawings, so I brought those into this world as flat cutouts.

The new approach pretty much guaranteed an overall unity in the paintings, since all of the elements now occupied real space together. I would spend some time drawing the setup from different perspectives, moving objects around, finding the best view. I had complete control over the lighting, the point of view, and the compositional choices, all of which let me add new layers of meaning. I was playing around with materials, having fun and learning a lot. Sometimes a compelling object or material I came across would generate a new setup.

JL: You began strictly as a painter?

JF: I was definitely a painter. The original purpose of making objects and tableaux was so that I could paint what I wanted to. But no, I wasn’t really involved in modernist or postmodernist dialogue about Painting with a capital P. The reasons why these paintings made sense as paintings, not as sculptural scenes, had more to do with the meaning of the scene being mediated through painting. Part of that meaning was knowing that the whole thing was all fabricated, and not necessarily all truthful.

Also, there was something very interesting, almost metaphysical, about painting from my own hand. In Dune, for example, I had made this set of cutout trees, and then a set of “antimatter” trees with atomic-looking symbols replacing the foliage. I had hand-painted those very carefully. Later, I spent hours in the dark looking at them and painting them from observation, learning all of the colors and curves and how light and perspective changed them, even though I knew exactly how I had originally made them. Having built them, I believed they had this ideal Platonic existence, but then I would learn, slowly, over the long hours painting, that the ideal object I thought I had made didn’t really exist! And in the paintings, I was again creating a new Platonic reality which was also a fiction, because I would make everything more neat and perfect than it really was, which ironically made the paintings feel more realistic.

God's Beard, 2004, Styrofoam, wood, latex paint, acrylic, wire, cardboard,
foam rubber, spray foam;
Ramp 48" x 48" x 96", Beard 96" x 120" x 60"

JL: I'm curious if you were looking at contemporary art at all or thinking about the history of painting in any sense. There is a nice mysterious quality to these works that for me, makes them hard to recognize any direct or obvious influences. They are refined plays with traditional still life and landscape. What are some of your early influences for these early paintings, like Dune?

JF: At the time, a couple of artists I was thinking about a lot were Alexander Ross and Thomas Demand. Both of these artists made convincing-looking pictures which gave cues to their fictional content. Ross’ paintings incorporate Photoshop techniques and a map-like construction to remind you of this mediation, and of course he also paints from models. Demand’s photographs are of uncanny paper models, but the material betrays itself – the images have this airless, deadened quality.

In a more general sense, some of the artists who are important to me also worked with the area between figuration, still life, and landscape. Giorgio De Chirico and Yves Tanguy are perhaps two of my biggest influences. Kenny Scharf is also a favorite. Robert Gober is in this universe, too. There’s my cosmology, but in general, I don’t think any of these influences are very direct. I look at a lot of contemporary work, but I’m not sure I could identify a milieu for myself.

JL: How would you describe your transition from painting to sculpture? How important was it for you to leave painting behind as a single means of representation?

JF: I was surprised as anyone that I ended up making sculpture. It was an indirect transition, and it was difficult at the time. I had worked out this wonderful system for making paintings, and I really believed in it. But the bottom line was, once I had perfected this system, I felt trapped in it. It was fun making cartoony drawings of scenes I might make, then constructing different objects, setting them up, playing around with them, moving the lights and my vantage point, figuring out how it all might fit together. But once I had it figured out, I knew I would be confined to sit in that chair and make that painting until it was finished. It started to feel like everything creative stopped when I put the canvas in front of myself.

JL: Did works like Dune become studies of a sort for God's Beard? There is a similar, dynamic movement upward, but of course on a much larger and 3-dimesional scale.

JF: There was a period of transition that lasted most of a year. I was working at the idea of pieces that bridged 2- and 3-dimensional space, assemblages with drawings and objects and cutouts combined, a hybrid space. I was also learning how to make things and getting more comfortable with different materials. God’s Beard finally felt like an arrival – I had created a pictorial space that was similar to that of my paintings, only now the viewer experienced this space from within. I read a lot about architecture and amusement parks around that time.

I think both pieces are mostly about a yearning for transcendence, and both have a sort of subterranean/terrestrial/celestial split in them. God’s Beard is more head-on about it.

Tron Pretzel, 2006, enamel, wood, vinyl, lights, digital print on billboard vinyl;
Pretzel 96" x 72" x 6",
Tron Cookie Basket 72" x 104" x 4"

JL: Tron Pretzel seems like quite a diversion. While you continue to experiment with materials, you have moved away from crafting the works piece by piece. Instead, you have chosen two different images, appropriated and then blown them up. I like the mix of the pop culture reference and the pretzel. How did this work come about?

JF: At the time, I was thinking about looking at the world as if everything in it contained encoded information, some sort of coded message. I had been experiencing this a lot spontaneously – in the crack pattern of a sidewalk, in the dried residue on the bottom of a pot of hot chocolate, and especially when I flipped through images in old cookbooks.

I thought about how knots in rope have been used as code, and then I imagined how one who understood such a code might “read” the knot of a pretzel. Then I found an image of a basket of cookies which seemed also to have that quality of ciphers, as if each cookie could represent a piece of information, arranged to spell out a particular meaning.

In connection with this, I was thinking about the movie TRON, from 1982. In that movie, the programming environment of computers is portrayed as a physical world, in which programs, as characters, live their lives as slaves to a master system. This movie was working with this same idea that I was getting from my experiences, only in reverse; it was positing code as a physical world, instead of looking at the physical world as if it were some sort of code. So in my image of the cookie-cipher basket, the cookies, those bits of code, are emerging from the world of code that is TRON.

I made this big light-up sign with a stylized pretzel image on it broadcasting the pretzel knot-code, and then I had the TRON-cookie basket image printed on billboard vinyl, which I made into a shaped billboard. So the piece ended up being about broadcasting these codes through baked goods, and communicating this through signs, but I also felt like these signs were sort of receiving and transmitting their information to each other. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think the dynamic of this piece was predictive of the smaller pieces that were to follow.

Hero + Villain, 2007, papier mâché, Styrofoam, acrylic paint, digital prints,
museum board, wood, found objects, 22" x 21" x 27"

JL: Lately, you have really been concentrating on the idea of a vortex. You can see it in Dune and it really becomes developed in Hero + Villian. You have moved from these large works to intimate, small scale sculptures. More than any of the works, you have come across a very developed and carefully constructed language. Can you describe you process of constructing these works? What role do your drawing and collages play in them, if any?

I made a deliberate break from the large sculptures for this specific idea I was having about tunnel-shaped works, and I’ve been going on that ever since, for about a year and a half. Hero + Villain is one of those pieces, and the You/It collages are studies for an upcoming one. These are cone-shaped tunnels made out of papier mâchè, painted, with all kind of objects and cutout photographs and so on inside of them, and a photographic backdrop at the end.

I thought of the interior space in these pieces as a metaphor for interior psychic space, the space inside the mind. Tunnels are really common metaphors for the space of visionary experiences, and that was what I was looking to set up. It’s a framework for how symbolic elements could relate to each other, with the vision’s profound spontaneous logic. Formally, these are weird spaces to work inside of, but I think the fact that it feels so unnatural is part of what compels me to keep working on it.

Sticking with this relatively consistent format has freed me up in terms of the images I can use, and somehow the language has just fallen into place. I’m still using lots of imagery from cookbooks, which I am totally fascinated with. The photographs of food are so carefully arranged, and so dense with meaning – it’s like a million little signifiers all set up into tight sculptural arrangements, almost architectural. And there are lots of conventional kinds of images in cookbooks which repeat, and these start to take on special meanings when you see a lot of them. That’s one big source, along with science and nature images, which are often connected either to constructing landscape or serving as quasi-figurative elements. I’ve also incorporated a huge amount of more experimental painting and object-making.

The You/It collages are exciting for me, because there is no real subject in them other than the implied viewer. There are the photographs I took of rocks, and then there is all of this painted stuff. The painted part looks like a physical surface in one place, and like deep space in another, and the rocks set up this portal, but it’s never very clear what is solid and what isn’t, or whether the view is in or out, up or down, outer or inner space. In a way these feel like the most serious things I’ve done, in the sense that they feel mute and eternal.

You/It Collage 3, 2008, acrylic and digital prints on paper, 14" x 17"

Jesse Farber lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of his works here and a video collaboration with Jasmine Justice here.


  1. I just have to say, I'm really into the You/It collages. Sorry for the nerdy question, but does anyone ever ask you about the archival issues that might arise from using digital prints? Have you had any problems with that in the past? Do you care?

  2. Thanks, Jon. I've wondered about the archival issue, too. The paper and inks I use are supposed to last 100 years without fading. This isn't ideal, but it's one of those things in artmaking where I'd rather be able to make the work then get hung up solving a technical problem.

    In the past, working on large sculptures, I often had to throw things away, because I didn't have the resources to store or crate them. So this is a huge step up. It was heartbreaking to trash things I'd put so much into.

  3. Cool. Yeah it totally makes sense not to get hung up about it. I was just curious because I've talked about it with some other people. 100 years should be cool!

  4. Jesse sure paints purdy.

  5. Good stuff. Love the “antimatter” trees.