Curated by Lilly Wei
September 8 – October 15, 2005
Opening Reception: Thursday, September 8, 6-8pm
Karl Jensen was born in Texas in 1964. He received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Rice University in 1989 and a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Hunter College in 1994. His work has been shown recently at the Drawing Center in SoHo, and in the
Working in Brooklyn
exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. He has also earned a number of public art commissions including a current collaborative project for a footbridge in Phoenix, Arizona.
Jensen is also an architect, and is a partner in the firm of Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects in London, England. Their work has been widely exhibited in Europe, including the Royal Academy in London and the Architekturemuseum in Basel, Switzerland.
Jensen has received awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Architectural League of New York. His work as both an artist and an architect has been reviewed in Art in America, Architectural Record, The New York Times and The Village Voice. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes for several publications in the United States and abroad. A frequent contributor to Art in America, she is a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific. She has also been the essayist for many exhibition catalogues and brochures on contemporary art. Wei has served on numerous advisory panels and review committees, including the Pew Fellowship awards and is a member of several boards, including the International Association of Art Critics (AICA/USA), Art in General, and Art Omi, an international artist residency program. She has been a guest lecturer and visiting critic at art institutions nationally and internationally. One of her most recent large-scale curatorial projects was the exhibition, The Invisible Thread, Spirit of Buddhism in Contemporary Art, at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Staten Island, New York which was part of The Buddhist Project, a consortium of exhibitions and programs exploring Buddhist influence in contemporary American culture. She was also a curator of the first International Biennale of Lodz in Poland. Wei has an M.A. in art history from Columbia University.
IN CONVERSATION: KARL JENSEN AND LILLY WEI
Lilly Wei: Let's talk about your latest project, the one for this show. Is it sculpture or architecture or something else? I just saw a show in Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum called Thing. I liked the title because it underlines the difficulty of knowing what to call much of the hybridized work we see today. Is it painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, new media, design, installation? Often a combination of several disciplines, from the two-dimensional to the three, from still to moving, from silent to sound, much contemporary has defied traditional categories in its search for more complicated resolutions that may more closely reflect our culture. Calling them "thing" might be a way to begin to think about these combines, these new genres, the new objecthood. What do you think? Your work might be a "thing" too. Wasn't there a horror movie called The Thing?
Karl Jensen: I do want to combine a variety of media. Partly for the sake of expanding the range of what is acceptable (to me, at least), partly because there are so many possible combinations that can create beauty and tension and partly because I want to try different things and I hate feeling that I can't. As a maker, categories like painter or sculptor come at me from the outside; they're of no concern to me. Like other artists, I'm just doing what feels right. Sometimes that means a Gothic cathedral or a P-51 Mustang or a Tlingit rattle and then it's like: "I want to make that!" Actually, someone recently asked me if I was working on another monster, which I loved because she recognized the aggressive aspect of the urge to put something out into the public and say, "here, deal with THIS." My work is deliberately not installational. I dislike the term. It's just another pigeonhole. I am interested in questioning context, as installation does, and I increasingly see that it is crucial to define that context in addition to the piece to be placed within it. A cathedral materializes context as a sort of crystallization of the world according to the church. Although there's no single thing today with the kind of primacy the church historically enjoyed, it doesn't mean you give up the chance to define the context yourself.
LW: How would you describe this new piece? How is it made? What is it made of?
KJ: Hmm… well it's a kind of a bud that has flowered.
LW: And flowered some more and then some more. Is there an iconography? I see a kind of jumble between pop and baroque, the botanic and the geometric, the grotesque and the beautiful, the contemporary and the historical, a cornucopia of the overabundant, a deliberate confusion, the American dream pumped up, American largesse gone awry...
KJ: Yeah, keep going! You once likened Pulpit to a "jukebox destined for a late night revival tent" which I though was great. It made me think of the Royal Nonesuch put on by the King and the Duke inHuckleberry Finn. I love those guys. They were bawdy and brazen and so alive in their shameless opportunism. At the most general level, the piece is about America. The vegetal character of the piece somehow reflects my reaction to the country that is, for better or worse, very much in the business of being. Living, dying, creating, destroying. It's not something that I would first associate with the beauty of a flower. It's more like an irrepressible weed. But a weed does have its own kind of scrappy beauty. Its force is also a destructive force. I think vitality is what I'm trying to get at which is ironic because it started out as a sarcophagus!
LW: How does this work differ from some of your recent projects such as Pulpit, which was the first major work of yours that I had seen and which I thought was fabulous?
KJ: In Pulpit, I worked from a pre-existing type (a pulpit) and used it as an armature to experiment from. There was a platform, stair and canopy: it was pretty simple to work with. This piece actually started out as a sarcophagus, as I said.
LW: Why did you change it?
KJ: Partly because I was afraid that the method of working from a pre-existing type would become a crutch. I also realized I wasn't as pessimistic as I thought. The sarcophagus was about mourning. It was a reaction to the policies of the current administration. But after a certain point it no longer felt right. The whiff of defeat was too strong. It felt indulgent. I was better off projecting what I felt, the good as well as the bad. So then what? You look around and what do you see? The foxes are guarding the chicken coop. It's free-market economics as social policy (aka the law of the jungle). How surprised can we pretend to be? It's part of the national genome, the part that's always seen America as some libertarian arcadia. We've always been just that close to a deal with the devil.
KJ: Yeah, it's definitely related. The title is part of a line in Moby Dick. I like how it frames the question of right and wrong in a way that undercuts the simple answer. We believe stealing is wrong. But is it wrong to steal from the devil? I don't think the answer is an easy one.
LW: You are also an architect. How does that influence and affect your sculptural work? Do you think of the two practices as distinct or are they interchangeable? Does one feed the other?
KJ: For better or worse, I think I've always approached my art as if it were architecture. One result of this is a strong tendency to want to have everything figured out before I start. But it's a frustrating way to make art and I expend a lot of energy fighting this tendency. Increasingly, I try to play things more loosely but architecture was my training and remains a profession so it's been a hard thing to shake. For me, the two practices are interchangeable because the concerns are largely the same. For example, the language of steelwork in my pieces stems from traditional architectural concerns about the interplay between material, fabrication and form. The steelwork in this piece is intentionally shaggy in character. I do this in part because the shagginess mimics so many natural forms that I love. But it's also meant to serve as a counterpoint to the conceptual rigor of the system I've developed in response to these architectural traditions. It may add nothing to the viewer's experience to say that the entire steel construction was contiguous, cut from a single sheet of material. But that construction is the basis of its design and the source of its visual language. The dense visual patterning just happens to be the result of a game I've created for myself.
LW: There seems to be a trend lately toward very intricate, labor-intensive work, the decorative as discourse. Your work seems part of that trend. Why does it appeal to you? What is the psychology of little pieces, of the cumulative?
KJ: Well, for me, it's first a reaction against the suffocating reductivism of minimalism. For years I'd look at something like an Islamic pattern or a Gothic vault and regret the fact that they were something that was no longer permissible to make. It was looking at these things through modernist strictures that dominated my training in architecture school. And then at some point my internal prohibition against such things gave way. At one level, this is what Pulpit was about. I actually forced myself to choose the more excessive and ornate route whenever I found myself facing a new decision in its development. It didn't always make for the best decision but it definitely helped to expand my range. Also, intricacy and decoration are visually generous and appeal to the viewer. This kind of ornamentation is an expression of love for what I do. That it's time-consuming means it's just more time spent being in love. And I think if you really connect with a piece, that feeling is palpable and requited.
LW: Is what you envisioned what you have achieved? Is that possible?
KJ: No, I never really do, which is always bothersome. There's this thing inside of me that I want to get out. And I'm convinced that I know what it is though my mind's eye doesn't even know what it looks like. It makes no difference that this insistence lacks a credible basis, it remains all the same. But there's always the next piece.