Featured Artist: Jeanne Silverthorne

An Interview by Amy Wilson

Jeanne Silverthorne, Hanging Light, 2008, platinum silicone rubber, phosphorescent pigment, dimensions variable.

Jeanne Silverthorne was born in Philadelphia and received a BA and an MA from Temple University. For over two decades she showed at the respected McKee Gallery. Her one-person museum exhibits include PS1, New York, the ICA Philadelphia, Phillips Collection, Washington D.C and Whitney Museum, New York. In 2017, she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work is included in many major museum collections, including MoMA, New York; MFA Houston, SFMOMA, and the Whitney Museum in New York. She currently teaches at School of Visual Arts, New York and is represented by Marc Straus. Silverthorne spoke with Majuscule board member Amy Wilson in late August.

Q. Thinking about your work and researching you a bit, I see the artists that are often cited as connecting to your practice include Eva Hesse, Robert Gober, and even late Philip Guston. But to me, when I look at your work, the artist that comes to mind most of all is Meret Oppenheim—her references to humble objects coupled with her sense of humor and a strange sense of eroticism and touch. Does this resonate at all or am I way off?

The Meret Oppenheim connection is quite interesting. A friend recently characterized my work as “contemporary surrealism” and at first I was discomfited—having a lot of reservations about that historical movement. But, truth to tell, the juxtaposition of paradoxical images is certainly key for me. (It took me a long time to accept the term “gothic” and “morbid” also, but now I’m fine with all that). Anyway, your suggestion has made me think and re-visit Oppenheim’s work. All that you mention—the humble objects, the humor, the eroticism and sense of touch—are crucial.  And one of the earliest encountered icons of modern art—the fur teacup—is so much a part of my aesthetic landscape that it has been easy to take it for granted, to overlook it. Then there is the X-ray of Meret’s head with the wonderful earring.  Wish I could have done that! The gloves with wooden fingers, the tied-up high heels . . .  Also, a certain fascination with mortality.  

One artist who was a big influence on me but never gets mentioned is Ree Morton, especially the first half of her work. I remember as a student walking into her installation at the ICA in Philadelphia, Sister Perpetua’s Lie, and thinking, “Wow! If art can be this mysterious, intellectual as well as materially primitive, sculptural, then I do indeed want to be an artist.” Interestingly, the title refers to a passage in a Raymond Roussel novel which happened to be a favorite of the Surrealists and was itself an impenetrable work of surrealist fiction.

Question 2: I was very nervous about asking you about Meret Oppenheim because you started showing your work in the 1990s. I remember that time, and how a lot of the discourse was very much anti-Surrealist and also anti-Feminist Art (speaking of the backlash against 1970s Womanhouse, etc., work) so I was worried about just sort of offending you right off the bat! But the world has changed and shifted, and those are no longer—at least among young artists—dirty words anymore. I wondered if you could speak a bit about making your work during that time and how it’s changed, and how the reception and perception of your work has changed?

Yes, the ’90s—the late ’80s—did indeed see a major backlash against the feminist art of the ’70s.  Somehow, women artists of that decade, particularly the Pattern and Decoration painters, seemed to get blamed for the collapse of the art market in the ’80s.  What a joke!  So I was very upset by that development and my work in that period was quite overtly “feminist.” 

Out in the world, I found myself, like so many other women, constantly on the defensive in the backlash that saw the dominance of male neo-expressionist painting, etc. I was writing for Artforum at the time and much of that writing was an attempt to deal with these problems. The Guerrilla Girls were pointing out the irrefutable evidence of the pathetic number of women with gallery representation—naming names. All you had to do was count. There was a lot of anger around—arguments at bars and dinner parties, arguments on panels. In teaching, persistent confrontations with a minority of male students making work hostile to women. Attempts to explain to women students that “feminism” was not a dirty word, to explain, in fact, that since they all believed in their own equality with men they were already feminists. Trying to clarify that feminists did not hate men but opposed the institutionalization of sexism, that men and women were both oppressed by gender expectations.

Then, as you say, gradually over the next few decades the climate toward feminism changed and now, far from being noxious, it is a label many young women wear with pride. In addition, the number of students of color rose from virtually nothing to a healthier, if not perfect, balance. These students began to organize them themselves as well. In other words, big changes, with, hopefully, more to come. All that is great, of course.

As an artist, however, I have always embraced the inherent ambiguity and multiple valences of art. I have always been opposed to a gender binary and at times that meant I encountered the occasional, very occasional, “feminist” objection. For instance, I once gave a lecture on my work to a group of graduate students in art history and was informed by one woman student that she could never consider my work feminist because it was funny, humorous.  Needless to say, I pointed out the inherent sexism of that point of view, and certainly times have changed in regard to humor in art as well.  Now there are a lot of “funny” women artists.

Because a portion of my work has been involved with the infrastructure of the studio—plumbing, electricity, etc.—and some of it has referenced machines, a few old-school feminists found that to be problematic, too “masculine.” In other words, from time to time a certain rigidity of outlook collided with my sense of the diverse and associative. These were not representative of the more informed feminist but a kind of knee-jerk reaction to complexity. These fixed expectations of male and female have also largely subsided to make way for the reality of a multiplicity of genders.

But one thing that has always and will always dominate my work is an allegiance to vulnerability. That is not necessarily of interest only to women, but I do think that the marginalized in general have an easier access to our shared mortal plight. So, although for me the studio is both my mother’s house and my father’s house, I still consider my work “feminist.”  If Wile E. Coyote has become an alter ego, thanks to his dimwitted insistence on defeat, it is also the case that I have given him breasts any time I use that cartoon image. A she-coyote.

Vulnerability is a hard sell.  

Wile E. Coyote (with Breasts), Studio Floor, Overgrowth, 2020, platinum silicone rubber, phosphorescent pigment, wire, 15 x 28 x 58 inches.  Photo credit/ Paul Kennedy

To loop back to your earlier question about Meret Oppenheim, I gather she had the same problems with feeling “typecast” by surrealism. That she had such a long hiatus in her production—apparently as part of this straightjacketed feeling—is also of interest. Could any career today survive on so protracted an absence, survive on a handful of known objects? This is another way in which the art world has changed. The speed and scale of production, powered by a small percentage of the art population, has ironically made most artists, critics, gallerists and curators—whatever their gender orientation—endangered, marginalized species. For most, this is, as you say, not the art world we signed up for. Perhaps in the end this will be a good thing—forcing us to re-evaluate why we make or care about art. Seeing freshmen with little or no art training come up year after year with the most amazing constructions is convincing evidence that this kind of creative impulse is irrepressible.

 Venus Flytrap, Xeres Blue (Extinct), with Two Crates, 2009-2019, platinum silicone rubber, 53 x 25 1/4 x 48″ overall. Photo: Paul Kennedy 

Question 3: For my last question—I wanted to talk a bit about some of the specific works that we’re reproducing here. These pieces—which I think are pretty representative of your most recent work overall—present functional, usable objects like crates or lights, in such a way as all functionality is removed. The lights don’t light; I assume the crates don’t open, or if they do, it’s probably not safe to ship work in them alone. In the case of Venus Flytrap with Xerxes Blue (Extinct), Two Crates, you have a cast of a plant and an extinct butterfly in the mix as well. Everything in this work is rendered as sort of frozen in time—not alive, not quite dead; not quite functional, not quite “beautiful” art object. A snapshot, but a laborious and complicated one.

I think this is why I was so struck by thinking about both feminism and Surrealism in your work—the way these movements, to me, really capture a time when artists’ attention was tuned in to things that had been forgotten or overlooked by the larger society. The crate that saves your life by safely shipping your work across the country, only to become a huge pain in the ass that needs to be carted to the sidewalk and put in the trash; the butterfly that only seems special once you realize it’s extinct. These are objects that essentially vanish in front of us. And I guess I’m wondering—why do you choose these objects out of all the things in an artist’s studio (when you could pick brushes or pencils or other, more easily, fetishizable supplies)? 

Well, you hit the nail on the head when you mention “vanishing.” Loss is a central motif. The extinct butterfly. The implied threat of a Venus flytrap. The rubber light bulbs that don’t work. The series of texts about invisibility hand-written in invisible ink and stored, further hidden from sight, in faux rubber cardboard boxes (see the red-taped box reproduced here, Rubber “Cardboard” Box containing Robert Tyas’s 1869 The Language of Flowers). A general dysfunctionality rules, as in the collapsing crate next to the Venus flytrap. Many studio objects are rendered unusable just by being cast in rubber and also sometimes wrapped in rubber bubble wrap. On the other hand, the storage itself is actually functional. The rubber boxes do actually hold the paper with the invisible texts. The rubber crates do in fact open. Works are shipped to venues in these rubber crates which, once emptied, become part of the exhibition. They have been shipped across country—rather alarming the transport workers. The rubber light bulbs don’t illuminate but, like much of the work, glow in the dark with borrowed light. This is another kind of invisibility since the phosphorescence is never apparent except in the dark—not usually publicly apparent.

Rubber “Cardboard” Box containing Robert Tyas’s 1869 The Language of Flowers, 2017, platinum silicone rubber, archival paper, archival invisible ink. Box 9″ x 13″ x 17”

So I like your characterization “not alive, not quite dead.” Maybe the rubber contributes to this quality also. It feels both organic—like skin—and industrial: a liminal state. And laborious, yes. Most sculptures are modeled in clay before being cast in rubber and for one work, like the Venus flytrap, for instance, there can be a clay form and mold for each “thorn,” another for the leaves, another for the flower, another for the stamens and each of these elements is attached separately, pigmented differently. Wile E. Coyote (with Breasts), Studio Floor, Overgrowth, involved casting my studio floor, then modeling the negative space of the splat of the coyote, then attaching each of the weeds and insects which are themselves composed of individual rubber casts of petals, leaves, wings, etc. I identify with earlier feminist valorizations of repetitive labor and the humble items are chosen for reasons that often have to do with demystifying the studio as the place of the isolated genius. Worn-out chairs, crates, the bare bulb (a classic icon of studio representations), defunct wiring, pathetic occupants—all pointing to what is not usually seen, the threadbare, behind-the-scenes, quotidian reality. All of this is part of an archaeology of the studio which has now such a long and mythologized history that it is itself time-worn, a kind of memento mori.