Around 2006, the Portland, Oregon-based sculptor Jenene Nagy quit making small, tactile sculptures. Since then, she’s begun communicating in decidedly bigger and broader gestures, creating built environments that respond to the architecture of the spaces that house them. In much of the work, sprawling swathes of bright color exist as a combination of painting and sculpture: What begins as a flat “painting” on the wall extends into the gallery’s exhibition space. The raw two-by-fours she uses to construct these props are always at least partially visible. They conjure storefront facades and theater sets: Sites of illusion, which, importantly, cop to their own artifice under the slightest scrutiny. For Tidal, which was displayed at Disjecta last month, Nagy unleashed her most ambitious work yet: an enormous pink form that cascades from the space’s unfinished rafters, swooping into the exhibition space like a wave.
A few days after Tidal closed, I asked Jenene to talk about the piece, the direction it marks in her development, and what she has planned for the upcoming group show Portland2010: A Biennial of Contemporary Art.
ArtSlant: Tell me about how you conceive of your installations. Specifically, how much does the space influence the design? Are you reacting to specific conditions or do you have a fairly clear vision before working in the space?
Jenene Nagy: The space is very, very influential. It has more of an influence on the work than anything else, but, having said that, the work is not site-specific. I know very little before I start. For Tidal, I knew that I wanted it to be pink and I wanted to use the rafters [in Disjecta]. But it differs from piece to piece. When I made “s/plit” [at the Portland Art Museum, 2008], [then curator] Jen Gately was anxious to have a concrete idea of what I would be doing. She wanted drawings and models. It was very difficult for me to work like that, since I work to my scale and sightline and rely so much on intuition. When I’m in a space, I make a move and then respond to it, so it’s very important for me to be in the space. A drawing is just a drawing. In the end, I had to create a model for “s/plit.” I actually used [PortlandState University’s] Autzen Gallery, since it happened to be winter break, and built a to-scale model of the piece that would be shown at the museum.
In terms of planning, I typically think of what I want the piece to do. For instance, for a piece I did in Ohio called Echo, I wanted the work to call attention to a particular aspect of the gallery—specifically, that it had lots of windows. So I knew I wanted my work to be about being seen from the outside, so that, when you were in the gallery, you just saw the backside of the structure, lots of drywall. As I said, with "Tidal,” I knew I wanted to emphasize the rafters. At Disjecta, people work so hard to draw attention away from the rafters. Some people hang work low. I think it’s the best part about the space, so I wanted to direct attention to it.
AS: You are very deliberate to not conceal the means of the works’ construction. Why is this important?
JN: The work is always calling attention to its own falsehood, while inviting a viewer to go to another place with it. When I talk about the work, I most often return to the illustration of going to a play. You see the stage and the set and it’s clearly not a castle. It’s painted plywood or cardboard. But you’ve paid your money and you want the experience, in spite of that. I want my work to trigger a psychological and bodily experience with art, while remaining aware of its falseness. The materials I use—drywall, two-by-fours—are the same materials used in construction. They’re everywhere, but as non-entities; they’re invisible. But really these materials affect how we move through space more than any others.
AS: For me, Tidal wasn’t as interested in creating an illusion or sense of artifice. It seemed like you were more concerned with simply asserting a physical presence. It’s BIG.
JN: I really think it will be a transitional piece. It’s only been 48 hours since it came down and I’ve got another show very near on the horizon, so there are a lot of decisions I’m rethinking. Tidal got way more formal than my previous work, which is a direct result of teaching and talking to students about form and color and how they impact space. But yes, I certainly wanted to go big. And now I want to again. It’s so challenging, but I feel like I only got a taste.
AS: The first works of yours I saw were small sculptures made from things like house paint, foam, and push pins. They were all about the details—the porous texture of the foam, the smooth-edged pools of paint.
JN: I think that work is completely linked. On the one hand, it was a product of circumstance. I had a tiny studio space, so I had to reconsider how to engage the issues of space I was interested in without actually having any space to work in. That’s when I became interested in maps and architectural models. I started using the color palette of maps: pastels, pinks, and tans. No matter where you are, those are the colors used on maps. It’s a universal visual language that I wanted to borrow from. For materials, I started scrapping together what I had. Coincidentally, it was the kind of refuse that exists all around us and refers to divisions of space and containment. Styrofoam dividers in a computer box, for example.
The change came when I met [Portland, Oregon-based artist] Avantika Bawa. She encouraged me to pare it down and wondered why I had to use something like a tree to talk about landscape. Ever since, I’ve been trying to reduce. Tidal only had two elements: color and light. Whatever issues I have with it now, I’m satisfied with that degree of reduction.
AS: What do you have planned for your contribution to Portland2010?
JN: It’s going to be sort of a follow-up to Tidal and a really immediate chance to tend to the issues I had with the last piece. It’ll be big and site-specific and use the same pink from Tidal, but I’m going to get rid of the tidiness and fuck it up a little, try to make it look crumpled like paper. I don’t know if I’ll formally address it as a sequel, but my brain’s there right now since it’s so fresh. I just think this work needs another shot at life.
- John Motley
Jenene Nagy’s Tidal was exhibited at Disjecta Art Center in Portland, Oregon, from January 22nd to February 28th. Her work will be included in the upcoming Portland2010: A Biennial of Contemporary Art, which opens at sites across the city on March 13th.