Jesse Small creates art work that is a unique combination of bright, fresh, contemporary ideas that hold a rich history in both form and in media. Some of his work encroaches on realms of design that he has vowed to take back for contemporary art, while some merge craft and utilitarian objects with technology and modern concepts in ways that challenge preconceived notions of these items. But no matter what the concept behind any particular piece, Jesse’s work is always a masterful display of manufacturing and laborious craftsmanship that goes unrivaled. —Ronnie Wrest / The Citrus Report
Ronnie Wrest: You recently set up a studio in Los Angeles. Is it nice to be back in southern California?
Jessie Small: I am constantly responding to messages the world sends me via mundane, daily life. For example, I created a series of figurines in Jingdezhen, China, inspired by the public-bus-muse. In France, I got an idea for an infinite porcelain chandelier from a hall of mirrors in the Nice city hall. Putting myself in foreign environments creates a lot more messages each day than I get now in LA, probably because of the shift in the flavor of the mundane. Is the function of my studio in LA to collect all these experiences and give myself a base to produce them? I never looked at working that way before. I’d rather collaborate with my circumstances than control them. My work delves into both antiquity and anti-antiquity, into the past and the future. LA is sort of crushed into a very bright singularity in the Now. If I get embraced here, it will be through mutual misunderstanding. There was recently a fire in my studio which trashed a lot of new work, so I am feeling very un-here at the moment. Fire can be very cleansing too, just as the ancients assure us, possibly meta-regenerative.
You lived and worked in China for a few years. Can you talk about this experience and how it impacted your work and your life?
Well, it helped me digest and purge western culture somewhat. Last month I visited the Royal College of Art in London and they killed me with that research-then-modify tactic. It reminded me of when I was coming out of Grad School, on the verge of China. I was just another product of western art school curricula. Referring to art historical figures living or dead in order to put ones own work into context never felt right to me… isnt the world at large where art is happening? Could art just be a thing first, then become art later?
Audience is everything to me, the final stage of meaning, and when I operated within Chinese society, I and audience were free from assumption and understanding. This new found freedom from cultural start-points (which usually become endpoints in a nanosecond) was poisonous because it stemmed from ignorance, though it only slayed the dull and dying theories I had dragged in from the west. I lived for 6 months in Jingdezhen, and then 6 months in Shenzhen. I made many trips by bus and train to the toy-manufacturing capital of the known universe, Shantou, on a goose chase for god’s toy maker, who I joined and worked with.
Living in China, I found my people, who made things and sold them, like me. I designed an egg-shaped mobile phone, cut a chinese army jeep into lace using an ancient plasma cutter, shared quarters with semi wild dogs, and gleefully used 300 year old public toilets. I walked through and in many cases spent days, weeks, or months working in dozens of workshops and factories. The strangest thing was coming back. My sense of value was completely obliterated, mainly because I had seen the squalid conditions from which our merchandise is born. I am a terrible consumer now. The Chinese thrifty DIY techniques are what I do instead (within reason of course, after all, I’m a Diva.)
In the past few years you have been working with metals and plastics. What brought about your interest in these mediums?
Steel probably comes closest to the unreal, fabulous notion of drawing-in-space. n 1998 I found a stash of old metal army helmets at a family run scrapyard in KC. These were the genesis of what would become a library of sculptures, using a torch and then a plasma cutter to treat steel like paper. To find the lace in the steel. The helmets became unique, beautiful, and useless. I saw the flow of vandalism and decoration going both ways, like a tide, depending on what direction I ran the film.
I continue to work with steel, sometimes in a state of overwhelmed rapture. It is the nectar of Mars, my home planet and muse to which I always return. Being made of water, it is transcendental to hold a fire torch and, with the slow motion balet happening in my fingers, hand, and arms, feeling big chunks of iron fall clanking to the Earth, liberating an image or a mess. I can taste the electricity and the rust, my body is stained and scarred, but I am ever so grateful to be at the feet of Mars.
It’s funny you ask about plastics, because I am now running, screaming. Audience is everything (to me) and when they speak I listen. I know well some great theories about working in the void, putting oneself in a fiction that doesn’t script or completely disguises the Audience (like a teaching gig, for example.) We go into exile to concoct new concepts out of dust and tattered ends… and that isolation is sacred. Everything returns to my Audience, and I am deeply curious about their response to the gifts I create for them, for that is their rich gift to me. Their response is the mirror, the mirror is the gateway to truth and the secrets. If a mirror is made of plastic, you can twist and bend it until it is not a reflection anymore, but a distortion. A real glass mirror will break when a single lie is thrown at it. So, yeah, folks hated it. All the stuff I made of plastic, cant sell any of it. Plastic does not fit the deeply nostalgic vein of my work, nor does it fit the pantheon of antiquitous fine art materials. Plastic is to retro to smack of the future. Who am I to argue with this, having failed every test of a pure heart? Though I implore endlessly at times with the material gods to break loose of their chains, to be not killed by culture but free from it, they have no power over their captor. It is not I who will free them, I’ve not the power, and so I say, be gone with you plastic, be gone from this place!!
Some of the sculptures you create are constantly reoccurring in new ways. One of my favorites is the porcelain pac-man ghost. Is there a particular concept that has kept your interest in this object?
Initially the Ghosts were an effort to confront various demonic porcelain figurines in Jingdezhen, China that needed checking. Traditionally in China, ghosts are considered troublemakers, so there are several common shields against them. One is that each home should have a porcelain figurine to scare ghosts away. So I created a cute porcelain ghost figurine as a contemporary alternative. Few people were insulted by my slight to traditional superstition, most people understood the work as conversation between an ancient culture and a young, pop oriented culture. For me, the insight was not that my work was insulting or humorous, but both, independently communicative globally.
I had broken through the East-West culture barrier with something as generic and mundane as a Pac-Man ghost. No way I am putting that down. They are extremely versatile. When I show them in China, the audience focuses on the western aspects (pop, trend, technology,) and when I show them in the West, the audience focuses on the eastern aspects (porcelain, tradition, craft.) Very few things can mirror-play like this, so I am still learning from it. I just finished a series of Terra-Cotta ghosts that are sporting ribbon clusters and sheets for my show in NYC coming up.
Who are 2 or 3 artists or authors that have inspired you recently?
Lanark by Alasdair Grey. This is a dark diptych about a young artist, unable to finish anything.
Neuromancer by William Gibson.
“You think that’s air your breathing now?” -Morpheus.
Dina No. Dina is an artist living and working in Portland, Oregon. She created my favorite sculpture in the world, which is a mechanical typewriter with the letter blocks replaced by various teeth. Using carbon copy paper, one can compose sentences of little teeth marks, or ASCII art.
You have some graffiti in your past. Was this one of your early art influences?
I think of myself as having attended, thus far, three schools of aesthetic training. Fine art BFA and MFA, but as an essential prequel, a graffiti habit. The rules and regulations that are present in graffiti law are volumous. I learned much more about colors and composition from graffiti than art school. One time some cops were hassling me and a friend at the Venice Breakwater over some cans of paint, and we got into a debate with them. They couldn’t see that we were not territorial, that we wanted to be everywhere. Everywhere is not a street-corner. All-city was the phrase.
Manifestations of Graffiti in modern civilization may be human’s last great gift to the universe, so its fitting that bureaucrats would classify it as an offense. I got hauled in as a skinny, greasy 17 year old by a cop named Randolf. Amazing LAPD Officer Randolf. Came down off a fire escape after bombing some billboards in downtown LA. 4 am. Guy cuffs me, throws me in the car, and lectures me all the way to the station about Picasso, Matise, Renoir, all the French greats. Hard to believe right? It’s true. He said if I was a few months older I would be going strait to Juvenile hall. He kept telling me that I had talent, and that I should apply it in a “legal” way. So, I should say that Graffiti propelled me to art school, from getting arrested by LAPD Officer Randolf, but also by addicting me to the power of visual art, and I am grateful for that. Most contemporary art doesn’t hold a candle to the extremism and theories that really good Graffiti gushes into the world, everyday, for absolutely free.
Can you touch on how some of your current work still holds on to some of the early graffiti ideals?
Graffiti artists are examining the world quite differently than most pedestrians. We’re looking for perfect surfaces to write and paint on. The city is the canvass, but upon closer inspection there are millions of surfaces. A few of the surfaces are excellent for Graffiti, and become classics. When Santa Monica put in new bus stops, we would tag the 18″ metal poles that held up the benches. Great little spots that never got buffed. We were analyzing and getting excited by much more mundane environmental information than most locals would in their entire lifetime, looking for “spots.” This method of scanning existent reality is why I am working with forms I find in the world rather than invent new forms. It’s about showing people something that is obvious, using a different light, that they never noticed before. My favorite artwork is that which jumps out of the mundane, like a trap or a trick.
Much of your work overlaps into realms of design and utilitarian products. Do you enjoy pushing these boundaries of what “art” is defined as?
There is a group of contemporary sculptors, my seniors, working within the vein of design and public spaces. It has been a much needed “craft-check” for the fine art bracket. Andrea Zittel and Jorge Pardo are some of the bigger fish here. For me, this movement has been very inspiring, but I consider it excessively cerebral. We can call it a movement, or an ism, because it has a broad reaching cultural agenda that includes questioning and fomenting class struggle. Society desperately needs this right now. In contrast, my use of utilitarian forms is much weaker and less thought out. I’m unable to imagine a “sculpture” or what we might loath to call a “cool shape” or a “super shape.” The first thing people reflect back at my work is their pre-existing label for “it,” which turns out to be incorrect, because representation collapses into art. We label something as art when we think it is art, mainly because none of the pre-existing labels will stick. Believe me, if we could call it a “door” or a “cup” we would. And when we call something a door, we do so because we KNOW it is a door. As such, the art bracket widens as we claim to know less for certain. Eventually, you reach an infinite library, beautiful and useless.
I’ll be working at a residency in Vallauris, France in November-December. I’ve recently started working with a gallery in Paris, and I’d prefer to make my show for them in France. Now that I have divested myself of machines and a studio, I’m lighter than I have been in a while. It’s nice to have gone through a few cycles of studio-residency-studio-school-etc. Studio always keeps popping in, wanting to ground me and water me. As part of my counter-insurgency against the influx of Design and Architecture, I will need to acquire their skills. So, more school might be coming up soon. I have a few interviews for Public Art projects on the horizon, winning a project could dictate the next location. Right now, the next stop is NYC at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, September 8th, 6pm. September 8th, 6:01pm is a mystery to me.
More about Jesse Small at http://www.jessesmall.com/
From The Citrus Report