Chicago, Jan. 2013: “If you’re not a part of the culture, the culture doesn’t know how to talk about you,” said Mierle Laderman Ukeles in a 2010 lecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ukeles' statement was intended as an explanation for why her maintenance works from the 1970s (in particular Touch Sanitation, Washing Piece, and her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art) have been virtually ignored in discussions about relational art until recently, but it's also a statement about how histories of art are shaped, from the outset, by the kinds of narratives that are already culturally legible. Ukeles' words resonate with the work of Chicago fibers artist Jesse Harrod, whose work explores, and transgresses, the limit points of received notions of value, asking us what we value and how we value it. As with contemporaries like LJ Roberts, Allyson Mitchell, and Josh Faught, Harrod utilizes explicit feminist and queer references as a method for connecting to previous political art movements, while participating in the present. One of Harrod's most recent wall sculptures, titled Bush, is as one might imagine a double entendre. It's quite literally a bush – to be exact, a gaudy floral bush created out of chintzy fabric decals – while at the same time evoking women's pubic hair. It's reminiscent of so much 1970s feminist art, not only because Harrod's Bush (2012), as vagina, is unshaven, but because it draws upon a legacy of performance art and cunt art and harkens back to some of the political values of the U.S. feminist art movement. It is a work that is as much about which artistic legacies are deemed as relevant reference points, as it is about the gender queerness of its ornamental, labial surface masking an equally ornamental phallic support. It's work that interrogates why so many of us flinch when we see the hokier sides of 1970s feminist art and why it is so easy to dismiss much of that work as of its time and, consequently, not of our own. I sat down with Harrod to talk artistic legacies, the impact of colonialism on material culture, gay pride parade floats and the feminist movement.
Jesse Harrod, Floats – Markie Mark, Insulation foam, acrylic paint, sequins, 2012, 10” x 5”; Courtesy of the artist.
Beth Capper: How did you come to work with textiles?
Jesse Harrod: As a kid I had heart problems and my dad would buy needlework fabric and he would draw pictures on it and I would stitch in the pictures. My father's style of drawing was very 1970s so the end result was very much this collaborative thing. They are kind of lovely. That was the first thing I did so many years ago with textiles. I think from then on I was interested in that labor. The sitting with the work and holding the work and watching it unfold, but in this really slow way as opposed to drawing or painting or something that is more immediate. Also, my parents are from South Africa, so I grew up with a lot of African textiles and artwork in my house. My mother was a major 1970s feminist so she took me to see Judy Chicago's work and talked a lot about that group of women [from the feminist art movement in Los Angeles]. She encouraged us to look at that work and think about that work. All of these things were really informative.
BC: What role does research play in your work?
JH: That's the thing that is most interesting to me about textiles. I think it started with looking at fabrics and having a memory connected to them. Liberty Fabrics in London is a very old textile company that would take cotton from India. They referenced a lot of the block print fabrics and they would re-do them for an English audience. My mother brought a lot of those fabrics from England and South Africa so they resonated with me. I think that idea of cloth having a familial resonance and a history within one's own life spurred on my interest in finding out what the larger context was for different prints. My practice is entirely focused on research initially and every time I use a cloth or a print I am always curious about where it came from. Almost always it's linked to colonization in one way or another. We have so many misconceptions about where different kinds of patterns come from because of that. I am also really interested in the idea of imitation cloths and the way that a chintz fabric, which was historically the higher-end fabric, is now remade in synthetics.
BC: Can you talk us through one history of a cloth that has emerged through your research?
JH: I did a piece in graduate school that was based on research I was doing on chintz fabric and its history. I thought it was from Southern France originally and then upon research I realized that no, actually, it was from India and it had been imported to France and England. Because it was so popular it was putting the English and French mills out of work so they put a ban on the print. I find it fascinating that a piece of cloth can have such an incredible influence on an economy and that at a time you could ban a print. I think there's something really poetic and lovely about that. I started doing that research when I made that piece and then I was able to go to India on a research trip to look more into block printing and the kinds of fabrics that were made there. I'm also interested in this idea that something is “chintzy” and how we use that in everyday language today. For this piece in particular I used the worst kinds of chintz that were available, so really crappy synthetic polyesters that were imitating these higher end cloths and failing at doing that. I guess what was most interesting to me was that failure. That this failure was perfection. That then to me became linked to my ideas around gender and identity and trying to be something that you're not and not quite accomplishing that but then what you end up being is so much better. I have these very romantic notions about cloth and pattern history.
Jesse Harrod, Ways of Being Done and Doing, acrylic paint, fabric, masonite, embellishments, Sculpey, Metal Plumbing Pipes, 2012, 10’x4’ x 1’; Courtesy of the artist.
BC: It seems like a lot of your work is about the trivial or the non-serious and questions of how we value things – all these ideas which right now a lot of people in performance studies are really engaged with. Do you see these ideas as central to your work?
JH: That's a huge part of it. I am really interested in working with materials that you're not supposed to work with and that are considered hobby craft materials. Essentially, when you say something is a hobby material, it's kind of an anti-woman statement because it tends to be women who participate in that kind of making. So when art students speak negatively about Michaels or Hobby Lobby or scrapbooking they are essentially talking about working-class women, rural women, suburban women and trashing them. It's really pretentious and really problematic. I'm interested in taking the materials from that world and putting them into the world that I exist in and hopefully in some way challenging notions of hierarchy in material history and value. In a recent piece I did I used sculpey, which is a molding material which you bake in your oven to harden. I have used it to make it look like ceramics but it's not a material which you're "supposed" to use. I've had a couple of shows with that piece recently and you can see that some people embrace the idea that it's sculpey and other people are just appalled. I guess a lot of it also comes back to a punk ethos. I'm interested in the idea of taking something and flipping it up on its head and messing with our ideas. I think feminism, punk, post-colonial theory, queer theory – all that stuff is very embedded in my work.
Jesse Harrod, Bush, acrylic paint, fabric, masonite, embellishments, Sculpey, 2012, 2 ’x 2’ x .5’; Courtesy of the artist.
BC: Can you talk about your engagement with the U.S. feminist art movement and the role it plays in your work?
JH: The feminist art movement (and U.S. 1970s feminism in general) and then the riot grrrl movement were both so much a part of my coming out and my politics as a younger woman. My mom was a feminist to the core. I think what we call the U.S. "third wave" is the era that I am supposed to be connected to and I think I embraced that as a young woman but now I look back to the 1970s more. Because you have to rebel against what your mother did right? Now I look back at that stuff and I can embrace so much of what was happening then but I can tag onto it queer theory and make it more inclusive and make it less about separatism. In terms of the women's fiber movement – I mean, nothing has gotten better. We haven't resolved any of those problems. We also haven't resolved the problems within the feminist movement, let alone outside of it. Things are still a mess. When I think of Faith Wilding and all those women and what they were doing and when I think about modes of survival – I mean, there is something about the separatism of the second wave that, though I understand why it's problematic, I love. There is something really important about women's-only spaces and things that are done by women for women, and then the relationship between feminism and the civil rights movement, and the analysis of class and Marxism and conversations about capitalism. Reading back on it, it seems those conversations were linked in a way I don't think they are now. Issues of class seem to have left the room. Right now I'm working on building a pleasure garden, which is very much about looking at the lesbian separatist movement on the West Coast in the 1960s and 1970s, which I think is amazing. Those women were not privileged. The idea of back to the land had a whole different connotation then. The idea of defining your own notions of success and being able to eschew the institution and to create your own institutions and economies – I think there are pockets of that happening now but nothing like it was. Certainly, I am romanticizing that a little, but I am fine with that. You need heroes.
BC: What can we draw from histories of feminism to help us interrogate the current state of feminism?
JH: I find that, at least in the U.S., there is a lack of a willingness to identify as feminist and to see that as a powerful thing to do. So much feminist work has been pushed to the wayside and is forgotten and there are all these stereotypes about who those women were and what they made. There is an inability to look at the artwork from that period within the context that it was made, in a way that we'll look at Goya and understand it in the context that it was made. There's a refusal to question why we undervalue what those stereotypes are – these ideas of ridiculousness, light-heartedness, humor, fun, gaudiness…there is this idea that, oh that was this weird hokey 1970s thing and thank god we're not there anymore, without questioning why we value certain things and not other things. So much of what I'm interested in is questioning those things, and it's hard…it makes things lonely.
BC: Many of your works have a performative aspect to them, particularly your recent series based on Gay Pride parade floats. Can you talk a little about the role performance plays in your work – both in terms of the outcome and in terms of your process and research?
JH: I am terrified of the idea of performance where I am cast in the role of the performer. Because the work is very labor intensive I spend a lot of time with it and so they take on a personality and they have behaviours and certainly when they are in the room with me, they become my friends. They have attitudes and they take up a lot of space, not just visually and physically, but just their presence is overwhelming for me sometimes while working on them. They are definitely performative. I am very interested in this idea of the stage and performance but more so in reference to drag and theater as opposed to performance art "proper." I'm interested in the faux and obfuscating and covering up. The pride floats I make are not ironic. It's another platform. Another work, Frosty Pink Lipstick Smeared all Over His Face (2010), was a stage set, and you could intentionally see the pipes and the butch support for the faux surface. It really was about this surface being supported by this butch phallic system. There's a lot of fiber work that functions kind of like a whisper – you don't even notice it's there. I want my work to be screaming at you in the way that a 1970s feminist is screaming at you.
BC: How did you conceive of the Pride Float works?
JH: I was riding my bike last year and it was Pride and I was near Lakeview and I saw the floats on their way to the parade at 6am and no one was on them and no one was around. There was something about it that kinda made me wanna cry a little bit. I am relating that my heightened awareness about being gay in America and how scary it is it. It feels much more intense than in Canada, where I'm from. I feel way more vulnerable in a way I have never felt before. Seeing those Pride floats and thinking about the kind of courage it takes to participate and to be out in a country that is so hostile towards the queer community. It's a big deal to get up on those floats. So as much as the work is absurd and funny, there is also to me something really sad and tragic about it. Another part of that work is that I lived in Halifax in Nova Scotia in Canada for a long time and one of the big differences about a queer community in a small town is that you only have maybe two or three bars and so everyone goes to the same bar…so you have all the drag queens, the lesbians, the older gay men, all the young queer kids – participating in the same space. We had a very active drag community and I had some friends that were very involved in that and a good friend of mine did these incredible photos of older drag queens in that community. They were in a way really tragic, because you could see that pulling this off at fifty and sixty is way different than pulling it off at twenty-five and the things that happen to your body. I was so in love with them and that courage. I just think they were heroes. They are always with me in my mind.
ArtSlant would like to thank Jesse Harrod for her assistance in making this interview possible.