The beasts of Jessica Joslins menagerie are equally haunting and compelling.
From the column Handmade
First off, is there anything you could share about your background and education? I understand you began your undergraduate work in New York at Parsons, went abroad to study at Oxford and then finished at the Art Institute of Chicago?
Yes, although regarding my work, I consider myself primarily self-taught. I have made this type of sculpture since 1992, so I have refined my techniques over many years. Also, during much of that time I worked as a professional model maker, building architectural models, prototypes, and custom props. That training brought a level of expertise in machining, casting and precision fabrication, which I have subsequently brought to my own work. My sculptures are constructed using a wide range of techniques, each appropriate for the specific qualities of that material.
Youve now been working on the beasts for about sixteen years. Needless to say, inspiration is a difficult thing to trace, but if there's anything you could say about the circumstances in which they originated or your intentions, if shifting, in creating them?
I definitely think that my interests were defined early on. When I was little, I wanted to be a zoologist. My father is a commercial sculptor, but he started off in the sciences. He always encouraged our curiosity and answered our questions thoroughly - even beyond what one would expect a child to understand.
When we went on hikes in the woods or along the beach, we collected seedpods, wild flowers, egg cases, bones and whatever else we came upon in our travels and would bring them home and look them up in Audubon reference books, to learn more about our new treasures and their origin. I didnt have any pre-conceived notions that bones were considered macabre; I simply saw them as a beautiful clue to some mysterious animal that had once been there, the same as a seashell. From an objective standpoint, both are skeletons, yet they have very different associations in our culture.
I also grew up wandering the halls of the Harvard Natural History Museums. There were articulated skeletons of giraffes, whales and shrews. There were beautiful, exotic animals and tropical birds of every hue, all taxidermied. The exhibits were in beautiful old wooden vitrines, with tiny engraved brass plaques and hardware. The creatures in the exhibits felt like inhabitants of another mysterious world. I was enchanted by the strange beauty of it all.
When I later began making artwork, it was a gradual evolution, though clearly in keeping with these early fascinations. In school I studied photography and began making constructions for my images. They were primarily mixed-media sculptures that incorporated natural objects with man-made found objects, especially parts from old cash registers, adding machines and medical equipment. In 1992, when I began building the first beasts of my menagerie, it was using objects sent in a care package from my father; the same pieces that I had collected as a child.
Could you tell us a bit about your choice of materials? For instance, I thought that the use of things like velvet and leather lent a very luxurious feel, which seemed heightened in contrast to the starkness of the bone and metal. Im also curious about the importance of found vs. planned materials?
They all seem to follow their own path. Sometimes Ill discover a wonderful object and build a piece around it. Sometimes the piece is planned intricately from the beginning. I may need to solve a certain riddle. The riddle might be solved by a new technique that Ive learned, or a part that I find. Sometimes, with a new piece, Ill start off with one particular object and a general sense of scale and species. I often begin with the pelvis, since thats the center of gravity, or with the feet, since they often have the most components and set the scale of the piece. If I come up with a toe configuration that I love, for an entirely different species than Id planned on, sometimes Ill just shift direction. I usually work on several pieces simultaneously, that way I can keep things moving along when I have to set one aside to find a particular part.
Another juxtaposition that I found striking was in the highly mechanistic feel to the structure of these recognizably biological creatures. In viewing these works, one can find a skull joined with a somewhat abstracted, yet sparse, metal frame in sometimes typical, sometimes atypical poses, for what are sometimes wild and sometimes domestic looking animals.
I am fascinated by osteology, from an aesthetic standpoint, as well as from an engineering perspective. Bodies are stunningly perfect machines and the structural variety between species is endlessly intriguing to me. In some regards, the body forms have been affected by my secondary medium, photography. Rendering an intricate, dimensional form in a flat image is inherently problematic, but photographs of my work are what the majority of people see, so I feel that they must stand on their own. To facilitate the translation, I usually build each piece with a particular angle in mind for the still images. That sometimes influences the overall structure, if there are too many overlapping forms, it wont read well. For this reason, I sometimes choose to render certain shapes in shorthand, indicating where the ribs are, or suggesting the curve of the spine, rather than approaching it as a literal translation, as if I were building an articulated skeleton. The shape of each piece is a distillation of forms from the internal and external structures of the animal, reinterpreted through the materials that I find beautiful.
What is the importance of the props? The creatures are sometimes on platforms, sometimes on or adjacent to relatively large and carnivalesque balls, sometimes pulling wagons, etc.
I am strongly drawn to the whimsical, decadent aesthetic of the fin de siècle circus. There is a wonderful quality about the spectacle of performing animals; they are at once grotesque and playful. Certain characteristics of the animal assert themselves and are augmented by decorative conventions, some are constrained.
On your website you also have a considerable list of influences. Is there anything you would share about how these figures have been vital to your work?
I think that in a broad sense, I look at art that is very different from mine for inspiration. I take bits of things from all over the place. Im just as likely to use a detail from a couture gown as a bondage harness. I often look at the images of Albertus Seba, Jaap Best and Eadweard Muybridge when deciding what to make
and my old Funk & Wagnalls wildlife encyclopedias are always at my fingertips. I have appropriated some bits from works by Helmut Newton (Helmut, 2005 was named after the late great man. The missing foot, replaced by a wheel, is a secret nod to one of my favorite series by him, of a woman wearing fetish heels in a wheelchair.) I also love the lush, stylized look of photographers like Eugenio Recuenco, Erwin Olaf, and Pierre et Gilles. Images and anecdotes of Barnums American Museum (1841 to 1865) have always set off many and varied sparks. Last but certainly not least, are the other Joslin artists! My husband Jared is a jaw-droppingly brilliant painter and his brother Russell, an incredible photographer. They are both a constant inspiration.
Would you say that there is a statement being communicated in these works?
One advantage of the visual arts is that there is the potential to communicate ideas and to make layered associations that language cannot tidily convey. My work encompasses a broad range of my interests, spanning the many years that I've been making these sculptures. Those layers are there to be excavated, but not strictly necessary for appreciation of my work. In other words, Im not pursuing a didactic agenda. I make my beasts because they are what I dreamed of discovering, but they didn't exist anywhere, so I had to make them myself.
Anyone interested in viewing more of Joslins works can visit her website, at www.jessicajoslin.com. Her recently released book, Strange Nature, which contains images of her creatures spanning the last seven years, is also now available through the Lisa Sette Gallery at lisasettegallery.com.
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