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Interview with Eliza Fernand
by Jolene Torr

San Francisco, Apr. 2009 - Every now and then you approach a body of work that ignites an uncanny frisson – a symbolic energy just gathers there, a restless ripple in the sea. Eliza Fernand’s hyper-realized world is just that: this bizarre fantasyland, established on dream logic, that hums with a life force all its own. The worlds she creates at first feel alien, but as the shapes reveal themselves (and reveal themselves again and again), they remind us that sometimes we ourselves are the aliens.

Jolene first encountered her solo show, Billow/Ripple, at the Fort Gallery in Oakland. It was opening night, and somehow the gallery accommodated the frenetic mob of people, a frenzy that no doubt was getting a contact high from the energy of Eliza’s pieces.

Her upcoming show will no doubt bubble and spark with that same energy. A collaboration with Sarina Eastman at Abco Artspace in Emeryville, CA, the show will combine installation and performance. Alone, the installation will exist as one piece, but paired with the performance, its meaning will shift. It is this thrill of perception and engagement that makes Fernand such a delightfully exciting artist.

Eliza Fernand, Rainy Collage, fabric on masonite; Courtesy of the artist

Jolene Torr: Something that was really astonishing and refreshing to me about your show was the vibrancy of your materials and how the textures and colors and spatial choices solicited spectator engagement. What is it about this interaction with your pieces that attracts you?

Eliza Fernand: I first started making sculptures when I was a teenager; I had studied photography before that and I had taken to leaving my class and watching the students in the sculpture class while they were working.  I was very attracted to the process, and as soon as I started working sculpturally I felt ecstatic.  I felt like the magic of working in three dimensions is that you are creating a real object that you can reach out and touch--I felt like using my body in this process of transforming material was so important that I wanted to get other people's bodies involved too.  So, I was fully invested in making interactive sculpture; I wanted to extend the physical process that I was involved in out to my viewers.  I was carving wood a lot when I was younger, making abstract forms that were very sensual.  In college I started working with ceramics and fabric, and there was a moment when I thought interactive art was naive.  I didn't want to have to make people touch my art, so I just made it so tactile that it would be palpable when looked at.  I think all of these feelings are present in the billow / ripple show, I still have interactive work, and I have things you are only supposed to touch with your eyes.  I make things that are attractive to me, and I am happy when other people feel it too.

JT: Billow/ripple was this dreamy replica of organic things, it was this illusion of being natural with very synthetic but very tactile textiles and hypercolors. What were you attempting with this juxtaposition?

EF: In this body of work, I feel like I am more literal than I have been in the past.  I used to make much more abstract sculpture, but I think that it was always organic feeling and based in natural forms.  By natural forms I mean forms we find out in the woods, and the forms we find on the outsides and insides of our bodies. I felt like I was working on two planes with this show; one where I was playing with all of the natural phenomena that I am interested in, and another where I was really going wild with the materials I work with.  I would go out and look for fabrics at thrift stores, and find these amazing prints with flowers and clouds and animals, and bring them home and really start playing with them and having fun.  I think the materials I work with say one thing and the subject says another, and I am always interested in juxtaposing dichotomies, but together I hope they make a language that makes sense.

Eliza Fernand, billow / ripple, 2009, Fort Gallery, installation view, Little Houses, ceramic, felt, embroidery floss, fabric, sequins, foam; Courtesy of the artist.


"In my studio I have labeled boxes with pieces of fabric in them--they are sorted into Flowery, Velvety, Sweaty, Stripey, and so on..."

JT: You oscillate between the familiar and the strange and this playful middle-place where they exist. How do you figure your materials relate to this parallel place? What facilitates the decision to choose one texture over another, how is one fabric or pattern more fitting to depict one object than any other?

EF: I work in two ways--I come up with an idea that is fully formed, I can draw it out and make it look just like the drawing, and all of the materials are understood and behave the way I think they will; I also come up with forms by being inspired by a specific material and the way it acts or looks, and then work with what I like about it.  Because I work with recycled fabrics, my color and print palette is fairly limited, on the other hand I am always discovering very exciting things at thrift shops that can spur an entire piece.  In my studio I have labeled boxes with pieces of fabric in them--they are sorted into Flowery, Velvety, Sweaty, Stripey, and so on, so I can choose the right stripe or polka-dot for the task at hand.  I also use these very synthetic craft supplies that can feel kind of alien.  I like to think of my work as surreal, I don't believe in labeling contemporary art with historic terms like Surrealism, but I relate to that movement's ability to trust imagination and work automatically.  I think because a lot of my materials are recycled, I come to a place where recognizable things are transformed into a new reality.  I am making collages out of everyday imagery--cutting up and reorganizing and putting everything I can think of together to make a new image.

JT: I don’t want to sound like a dirty bird, but some of your work, though ceramic or cloth, seemed fleshy and almost phallic. Do you intend to replicate anatomy or mean for this double-meaning?

EF: The erotic undertones in my artwork are something that I have tried to deny in the past, but the suggestive nature of almost everything I make is totally unavoidable, and I want to embrace that.  It's not that I don't want to own up to the fact that something looks like an ejaculating penis or a lactating nipple, but I don't want people to get stuck on that. I want them to see it as more than something that can make you giggle and blush.  The thing I really admire about nature, is how we can find similarities everywhere.  Our insides, outsides, and surroundings all look the same--shapes are repeated in varying colors and textures in animal, plant, and geographic anatomy.  A popping zit or an ejaculation can be like a volcano exploding; I am really interested in transformation and I look for it in all the places that drip and gush and evaporate.  Self-similarity is a term used to talk about fractals in math, but i think it is a great way to see our relationship to the world.  A lot of people responded to the hanging forms in the Forest room at the show, they thought for sure it was a room full of testicles.  I have never seen a testicle that was green or bright pink and hung down four feet long and when you squeezed it was full of sand, but people at the show were very excited by them and were very sure they were sexual.  If I had to say what they were or why I made them, I would just say I like them very much--how they look and how they feel in my hand.  So, the sensualist in me comes out in my work, but it is usually not intentionally suggestive; I just see the voluptuous qualities in a lot of things.

JT: Do you enjoy playing with people’s perceptions like that? Do you try to attract and repel the viewer at the same time?

Eliza Fernand, billow / ripple,  2009,  Fort Gallery, installation view, Forest, mixed media; Courtesy of the artist.

"It's not that I don't want to own up to the fact that something looks like an ejaculating penis or a lactating nipple, but I don't want people to get stuck on that."

EF: Yes, I do want just that.  Attraction and disgust is another dichotomy I like to play with.  I am actually afraid of my work being too cute--I can't help myself with the cute stuff, but I don't want it to lose all sense of danger or filth. I think that what comes out of me is something really raw, something I don't want to clean up very much, but I want to roll it around in fuzzy blankets and flowers and ruffles. I don't try too hard to make jokes in my artwork, but I just like things that are kind of gross.

JT: What initially makes you want to work with certain materials, and what are the symbolic meanings?

EF: I don't think that the meanings I find in materials are symbolic, they are more straighforward and based on the function and history of a material.  I have always been very interested in the properites inherent in materials- working in wood you have to follow the grain, but coming to clay I found I can really do anything I want.  My main mediums now are fabric and clay, and different combinations of the two.  They are both very forgiving and pliable, and they both have a very direct relationship to our bodies. We are intimately acquainted with fabric and ceramics and know what it is like to touch them with our skin and mouths because we do everyday with clothing, toilets, and dishes. This relates to my work being palpable and familiar.  Paper is familiar too, and it is cheap.  Paper mache is another medium with very little constriction.  I remember being very affected by some large paper mache forms Franz West made, and since then I have appreciated the material in a lot of new ways.  Recycled materials are a really big thing for me, not only because I hate to use new things when there are so many things leftover, but also because of the great ability an old blanket or tablecloth has to conjure memories. Upon seeing a sculpture that involves fabric from old clothing and bedding, each viewer will have an individual set of associations, I like putting out something that can take people to very different places and letting them own that place.  The symbolic meanings are really up to each person and the feelings they assign to the materials.

JT: What is your process when you begin a new piece? Do you have any rituals? Like tea-drinking, music or any other mood-altering habits?

EF: I think shopping is part of the process, whether I am really out at a store or just looking through my collections of materials and rediscovering things, I am getting excited about the possibilities of the new project.  I dig though my purse to find notes and sketches I made for myself at random times.  I like to clean and organize first too, and drink tea and Caffix (a really cool non-caffeinated hot brown beverage that imitates coffee but is made of barley and chicory).  I listen to flowery folk music when I am embroidering, Stereolab or Air when I want to get into a work trance, and French pop mixes to give me energy.  I like working alone and concentrating, if my boyfriend is home I am cheerfully ignoring him.

Eliza Fernand, billow / ripple, 2009; Fort Gallery, installation view, Ripple (detail), mixed media; Courtesy of the artist

"My mother is a crafter and packrat. She was very proactive about getting me into projects that I could try and sell, like puffy-painting and bejeweling plastic visors or stitching up simple purses in neon pink and purple suede."

JT: What are you influenced by?  Why have you chosen the combo of craft and sculpture as well as performance as your media?

EF: Transformation is really what inspires me, that can be an explanation for the subjects I work with and the way that i work.  Craft is a word with a lot of different meanings for me.  I grew up going to craft fairs- my father was a cobbler and sold shoes on the fair circuit and he would set me up with a little table where I would try to sell bracelets and little things I had made.  My mother is a crafter and packrat. She was very proactive about getting me into projects that I could try and sell, like puffy-painting and bejeweling plastic visors or stitching up simple purses in neon pink and purple suede.  So I grew up decorating things, and I am sure my aesthetic now is influenced by the palette that was hot when I was crafting in the early 90's.  Craft supplies from Hobby Lobby are very comfortable for me, but craftsmanship and the finer side of craft, is something that intimidated me for a long time.  In school I was allowed to do whatever I wanted in the sculpture department--the idea was the important thing, but there were not people teaching me how to properly do what I was into, so I was just going for it.  But, I had a pervading sense that "real fiber artists" were very exacting and uptight and clean about what they did, and I was very scrappy and have had to teach myself a lot.  So, I don't really come from a background where I learned skills with strict craftsmanship, but I am definitely using materials with a history of functional crafts and borrowing from that vocabulary.  I do consider my mission to make abstract and conceptual art with traditional handicrafts as feminist.  I like to look at the history of what was considered women's craft, and celebrate those mediums and show them off to a male dominated art world.  I hope that I can really enliven ceramics and textiles and take them out of a space where they are deemed to be functional and perfecting and stuffy and pedestrian.

JT: And where does the performance come from? What are you acting on?

EF: My performance work is really close to my sculptural work. It is an extension of the same things.  I like working in performance because it is more ephemeral; my whole thesis in college was about documenting performances with people's stories--I like the volatility of it.  I started doing more performance when I felt weighted down by sculpture.  I didn't want to accumulate things--I wanted something more temporary and fleeting, but I still get to make costumes and objects to perform with.  I also think performance is close to interactive sculpture, because the viewers are experiencing the performance vicariously--they can feel it on the inside and be outside of it.

Artslant would like to thank Eliza Fernand for her assistance in making this interview possible.

--Jolene Torr 

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