Whether We Dance or Not

Liz Jaff is a Bushwick based artist who has rigorously explored the structural and aesthetic possibilities in ephemeral materials, specifically paper. AIB interviewed Jaff about her work process, her development as an artist, and the genesis of her current show at Robert Henry Contemporary.

Liz Jaff , Plugs and Fuses, 3rd Iteration at Montserrat College of Art, Photo Courtesy Liz Jaff
Liz Jaff , Plugs and Fuses, 3rd Iteration at Montserrat College of Art, Photo Courtesy Liz Jaff

AIB: Tell me about your affiliation to Bushwick.

Liz Jaff: I moved my studio to Bushwick early in 2014.  I had been splitting my time between New York City and Southampton, NY and was beginning to prepare for a show with Robert Henry Contemporary.  The gallery and I agreed it would work well to be close by. My studio is part of Brooklyn Brush studios, a supportive environment- clean and quiet- with the most exceptional people who run and maintain it.

AIB: “Wallflower”, your current show at Robert Henry Contemporary features a recent body of work. Altogether I see your drawings and installation in the gallery as a meditative space with dark undertones, as if the emotional undercurrents that have always existed in your work are gushing into the surface. This brings to my mind Freudian terms and some political context—are you thinking along these lines? Tell me about the relationship between this body of work and your previous work.

Liz Jaff: When I close the studio door, and am by myself, the freshest, most authentic place to go is inward.  I would be happy if some of that feeling of contemplation carries over into how the work exists in the gallery.  Most of what I do starts from a deeply personal place. I then set up a physical structure within which my thoughts and ideas can live in a physical one.  With the Wallflower works, I have let some of the formality drop away.  It was necessary here partially because of the less controlled process of making the Black Magic drawings.  In my previous installations, I took my experience from one place and distilled it down to a simple unit or form which can then be repeated, installed, and used to create a new space.  It is left to the viewer to interpret; to find their own experience. Having the opportunity to watch people interact with past works, I recognize that the objects or installations find their own unique relationship with the world.  With “Wallflower”, I wanted the works to be performers of sorts, and I step away no longer a part of the party, so to speak.  Showing the work is an opportunity to be generous and I hope it can offer a moment of reprieve from some of the anxiety and stress of recent events.

Liz Jaff , Plugs and Fuses (detail), 3rd Iteration at Montserrat College of Art, Photo Courtesy Liz Jaff
Liz Jaff , Plugs and Fuses (detail), 3rd Iteration at Montserrat College of Art, Photo Courtesy Liz Jaff
Liz Jaff , Wallflower, detail of Heartbreaker, ink, plastic bottles and tubing, Aquasol, dimensions variable, 2017, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi
Liz Jaff , Wallflower, detail of Heartbreaker, ink, plastic bottles and tubing, Aquasol, dimensions variable, 2017, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi
Liz Jaff , Wallflower Installation view with Black Magic drawings, ink on paper, 84” x 45” each, 2017, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi
Liz Jaff , Wallflower Installation view with Black Magic drawings, ink on paper, 84” x 45” each, 2017, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi

AIB: Tell me more about “Wallflower”. I am curious to know more about the dripping ink installation and how it relates to the drawings on the wall.

Liz Jaff: “Wallflower” includes a group of ink drawings called “Black Magic”, and an apparatus/sculptural object called “Heartbreaker”.  The Black Magics are an evolution of a practice I have had in my studio for more than fifteen years.  A lot of my work is slow and repetitive to make, but the ink on paper is fast and less predictable.  The drawings have become larger and more high contrast than in the past and are influenced, among other things, by Flamenco and Butoh performance, which I enjoy quite a bit.  The drawings feel as if something is recorded in motion and we do not know at what stage.  Time is captured for an instance.  Together the group references film strips or photographic contact sheets, and suggests documenting a larger motion or action.  I wanted to combine these with something that could happen very slowly in the gallery, bringing together a record of something fast with that of something unraveling in front of you.  These two notions of time suggest longing and a desire to remember and sustain certain moments.

AIB: You reference in your work ideas of love and sacrifice, commitment, time and space. Can you elaborate on that?

Liz Jaff: Love is so good.  I think we all want to sustain it.  Sacrifice and commitment are longer, slower ideas, which require a different kind of patience and time.  I think it is important to find visual ways to talk about all of them, give a feeling of their own character and how we experience it.  I think I could find a lot of ways to talk about this for a long time.

Liz Jaff , Snitch, (exhibited at Volta NY), hand cut paper, 19 ½” x 12 ½”, 2016, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi
Liz Jaff , Snitch, (exhibited at Volta NY), hand cut paper, 19 ½” x 12 ½”, 2016, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi
Liz Jaff , Big Black Venus, (exhibited at Volta NY), ink on hand cut paper, 87” x 46”, 2016, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi
Liz Jaff: artwork photographed at her studio in Bushwick.

AIB: You are coming from painting (RISD). How do you see your work in relationship to painting?

Liz Jaff: I liked painting but I do not think I communicated well in paint.  When I reached a place where I began to know what was important for me to talk about, I realized the language I was using was not working.  So I changed it. When I speak with friends who are painters, there seems to be a relationship to how we talk about space and ideas, but not specifically to medium.

AIB: Where do you see your work in context of minimalists like Sol Lewitt and Agnes Martin?

Liz Jaff: Well, they both have simultaneously underlying and visible structures.  For them it may often be a geometric grid. For me it is the circle used in repetition. I see Lewitt as being grounded to the floor and architecture, while Martin found all the spaces in between.  I think I am looking for a balance of both.  I am acutely aware of many of the lessons from other artists, and often like to reference these quietly in the work.

AIB: It seems that your preferred medium is paper. Tell me about the genesis of that fascination and how do you see it in relation to traditional origami?

Liz Jaff: Using paper came from necessity and realizing that the how and the what of the work needed to be the same.  I wanted something that could exist as a two dimensional plane and also be manipulated to define three dimensional spaces.  It needed to suggest something ephemeral and basic, or fundamental.   Paper has a great range of structural and aesthetic possibilities.  My first large scale installations were conceived first in a hotel room and then on a folding table in a small studio apartment. Paper was light weight and the forms could be folded and stored away easily. When some other material speaks more effectively, then I will use it. Origami has its own particular rules and complexities very different from my own.  I purposely avoid it as to find my own way into using the materials.

AIB: Tell me about your process. (how do you come up with compositions, are you drawing on narrative-emotion-event, etc. your technique)

Liz Jaff: I often start with a basic feeling or sensation of something – an experience, a place, a person. I think about where it came from.  It is pretty simple.  This takes me on a daydream of storytelling, creating a kind of personal narrative.  I then envision formally what I think would resonate with the viewer physically and visually.  There is usually research at this point. The idea takes form and goes on a journey.  I like to use fast and slow processes depending on my mindset balancing activities which require more quiet focus with those that are executed more immediately.

Liz Jaff , Wallflower Installation view, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi
Liz Jaff , Wallflower Installation view, Photo Courtesy Paul Takeuchi

AIB: You have the most intriguing titles. I am curious to know if you see the title as a poetic counterpoint to your visual syntax; are they meant to be a challenging clue; or maybe both?

Liz Jaff: Language is a remarkable thing both visually and verbally.  I like to play with the interaction of the two and titles are a great way to do this.  Poets are so good at this.  I like words with multiple meanings, which suggest an action or motion.  Some titles are quite literal to my experience, while some are more encoded and less obvious.  It is important to me to leave space for the viewer’s own interpretation.  Titles are often a great opportunity for humor.

AIB: What are you working on now? Would you like to share upcoming projects?

Liz Jaff: I am in the planning phase of an outdoor project to be done in Boston in the early Fall of this year and will have a solo project in Maine after that.  I am thinking about video….and sewing something for my mom.

AIB: Anything else art-related you would like me to ask?

Liz Jaff: You have asked quite a bit.   I wish there were space and time for more conversation.

Liz Jaff: Wallflower, through April 9, 2017

Robert Henry Contemporary
56 Bogart St
Brooklyn, NY 11206