Studio Visit

Liz Jaff

February 2020
Liz Jaff

Liz Jaff in her Brooklyn studio discussing new directions in her work.

In January 2020 we visited New York City artist Liz Jaff in her Brooklyn studio and discussed her biography, the origins of her work and where new ideas might be taking her studio practice.

Part One:

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1989, Plaster, wax, pigment, roofing tile, wood and ink, Dimensions variable, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: When were you born and where did you grow up and where did you attend college? 

Jaff: I was born and grew up in New York City and I graduated from to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1989 with a BFA in painting.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1989, Plaster, wax, pigment, roofing tile, wood and ink, Dimensions variable, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Are there specific experiences you can remember from your childhood that have a direct bearing on your work today?  

Jaff: My Father and uncle owned a woodworking factory. Their father and uncle before them owned it. Each carpenter had a bench and focused a good deal of their time on handwork. The floors were covered with piles of sawdust and wood curls. I remember admiring their work but was fixated by the material that was left behind. Looking back now, it was my first experience seeing the transformation of materials and beginning to understand the versatility and possibilities within them.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Roofing tiles, wax pigment, oil paint, sand shells and seaweed, 48" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Roofing tiles, wax pigment, oil paint, sand shells and seaweed, 48" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m), DETAIL, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: What aspects, ideas or compositionally, of your work, if any, can you identify in your earliest work that are still evident in your current work?

Jaff: The physicality and structural possibilities of materials and the consideration of different formats to define space and construct objects have interested me for a long time. I started as a painter but never felt I communicated well within the format of the canvas. I did love paint and all the ways it can be manipulated. Sometime during college I began to experiment with using multiple panels to create works and integrate less traditional materials into the paint. The panels were then split apart, hung separate from one another to suggest intervals of a larger landscape. Much later on I think this thought process lead to some of the work I do now using components to engage space. Understanding materials has always been at the core of the work realizing that the how (the medium and method) and why (the concept and idea) has to be in balance in order for a work to be effective for the viewer.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Oil paint, wax, wood, tar and burnt wood, 78" x 72" (2m x 1.8m), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: At what point or…was there a specific event in your life when you discovered the desire to study and make art professionally?

Jaff: Growing up in New York, I had access to different ways of viewing art. As a teen, I would sit in the classical galleries of the Metropolitan Museum and daydream with Athena and Aphrodite wondering about their draped and fragmented bodies. By the afternoon, I would walk around the Lower East Side with art in the streets and artist organized shows in the storefronts. Art meant infinite possibilities. It still does. So, I went to art school without really questioning if there was anything else I wanted to do. I was hooked right away and went with it. Recognizing a professional path came later. I am still learning.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Oil paint, tar, leaves, twigs and wood, 66" x 24" (1.7m x 61cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Part Two:

RHC: Your early paintings as you describe them sound more like installations than just paintings alone…so, your evolution towards interventions and installations seems like a logical progression. You mentioned feeling uncommunicative in the traditional painting format…do you remember the first piece or a moment in your studio perhaps, where you felt you were communicating in a manner that felt right for you?

Jaff: I do not think I would say that the early paintings were “uncommunicative” but rather that the format of painting within the traditional canvas felt restrictive for me. I could not find a language within it that felt fluid. I cannot recall a piece or a moment when I spoke more freely. It was more of a journey of discovery over many years learning about and experimenting with materials and formats and structures that lead to a clearer voice. It is still ongoing.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Oil paint, tar, leaves and wood, 48" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: You early work involved the use of multiple…if not numerous…materials mixed, layered or juxtaposed. Over time you seem to be using fewer and fewer materials in one piece. What sparked this move towards minimalism?

Jaff: Part of the experimentation early on was in understanding how materials interacted with one another, experimenting with the chemistry and compatibility of different medium. Perhaps as I have developed more clarity of ideas and vision for the work, I have been able to pare down the materials to achieve greater simplicity and hopefully a more direct experience for the viewer. A goal is not to overcomplicate things unnecessarily. Anything that is not essential should be eliminated.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 2001, Rubber and metal snaps, 22" x 18" x 3" (55.9cm x 45.7cm x 7.6cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: In the late 90s moving away from pure abstraction you began incorporating found objects like chairs, cages and plaster or rubber birds, etc. What did the metaphors that these objects suggest bring to your work that abstraction didn’t fulfill and what sparked this progression?

Jaff: I have always been interested in the distinction between what is recognizable and what is obscured. Objects have specific meanings and associations for the observer. Surrealism is interesting for just that reason in that it plays with how the viewer recognizes and their expectations of objects. There are lessons in poetry and how writers understand the multi functions of words. I am working towards a better understanding of representation forms and more abstract ones and how the two in different incarnations can affect the experience of the viewer. I am looking for my visual poetry.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 2001, Plaster, fabric and wire, 48" x 96" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m x 2.4m) , ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: By the early 2000s these representational objects had gone again…along with all color except white…again even more minimal than previous work. These shaped, draped and sometime stacked plaster forms reference natural structures or figures. However, it seems for the first time the subtleties of light begin to play a role in your work. Was this an accident of process or was it more intentional inclusion? 

Liz Jaff, Untitled, Plaster, fabric, wire, 60" x 36" x 36" (1.2m x 91.4cm x 91.4cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: When I was a kid I was fascinated by classical sculpture and tried to recreate the histories and stories represented by them within the fragments that time and elements allowed to remain. On a formal level I am interested in how light and shadow can be used to reveal and conceal form. The portions of drapery left in the worn and damaged sculptures suggest volumes in an abstract way that I find fascinating. In essence the original subject is stripped away and we are asked to understand the forms of the body with what is left behind. This has been a great lesson in abstraction for me. One challenge I like to give myself is to consider how much can I remove in terms of actual form and in collaboration with light shadow recreate as a new experience for the viewer.

Liz Jaff, Untitled, 2001, Plaster, fabric and wood, 60" x 24" x 24" (1.5m x 61cm x 61cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: When did you begin to cut and fold paper and how did those pieces manifest themselves?

Liz Jaff, Plugs and Fuses, 2011, Hand-cut and folded paper, 108" x 96" x 6" (2.7m x 2.4m x 15.2cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: Paper started as a practicality. I did not have a studio and was traveling frequently. Paper was easily portable and could be folded to fit in a suitcase. And I could find it anywhere. It was a great solution for transforming large spaces with multiple transportable components wherever I went. It quickly became a way to create visual metaphors for taking one experience of a place and recreating it somewhere else. This is the genesis of what I now call nomadic installations.

Liz Jaff, Plugs and Fuses, 2011, Hand-cut and folded paper, 108" x 96" x 6" (2.7m x 2.4m x 15.2cm), DETAIL, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Part Three:

Liz Jaff, Hedge (Installation View), 2016, included in the group exhibition Bits and Pieces, Robert Henry Contemporary, Hand-cut paper, Dimensions variable approximately 12' x 13' (3.7m x 4m) (Over 1,700 individual paper folds), Photo: Paul Takeuchi, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: What are nomadic installations?

Jaff: The installations I create are transitory and portable. They exist for a defined duration and are constructed with multiple transportable components. I sometimes envision myself as roaming about with everything necessary to react to an existing physical situation and prepared to disassemble it all and move on. Nomadic is a word which seems fitting to describe the process.

Liz Jaff, Hedge (Installation view), 2017, included in the Subtle Formations exhibition, James Howe Gallery, Kean University Art Galleries, Union, NJ, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Where did your street interventions come from…how did you conceive of this idea and how do they relate to your nomadic installations? 

Liz Jaff, street intervention, New York City, 2018, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: The street interventions were somewhat impulsive at first using remaining parts of indoor installations. They are still improvisational and unplanned. Watching the components interact with outdoor environments is an opportunity to expand the perceptions of the forms and materials while discovering what new relationships can exist. They are moments to collaborate with the existing elements and the unknown and in some ways a democratization of the art viewing experience, removing the work from the traditional gallery environment. Most of them are done throughout New York City where I grew up. They have an unexpected sentimentality for me and make up a love letter of sorts to the city.

Liz Jaff, A street intervention at the Boston City Hall building as part of HUBWeek 2017, Founded by Harvard University, MIT, The Boston Globe and Massachusetts General Hospital, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: The large intervention you did as part of HUBWeek in Boston seems sort of a cross-over piece, to borrow a term from the music world…meaning it is a large-scale public (street) intervention but is also a bit of an installation and seems less about memory and more about juxtaposing unexpected materials in unusual space. How did you conceive that intervention? 

Liz Jaff, A street intervention at the Boston City Hall building as part of HUBWeek 2017, Founded by Harvard University, MIT, The Boston Globe and Massachusetts General Hospital, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: I think the HubWeek work uses elements of many of the existing ways I like to work. A commissioned project like this is a wonderful opportunity to use ones interests and visual language and expand on them. It is problem solving opportunity and a moment to tell another part of my creative story. I was asked to make a site specific non permanent work in Boston City Hall Plaza. During a research visit, I was mostly interested in the Brutalist City Hall Building constructed 1963–1968 and designed by architects Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles. I was told many Bostonians do not like the Brutalist architecture. I knew I wanted to react to the form and materials of the building while also making something that people who work there would see when they enter the building. It was an opportunity to collaborate with the architecture and individuals who pass by. It was about creating something unexpected and the limited exhibition time makes it transitory.

Experiments with new materials hanging in Liz Jaff's studio. ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: It is interesting and a bit ironic that in spite of all your exploration of materials your choice of paper as a primary material came from necessity as much as anything else. Have you tried using other materials to make similar to your paper pieces? 

Materials tests on Liz Jaff's studio table. ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: I do experiment with many materials but do not always share this with the viewer. The material needs to be whatever is best at conveying the idea and structurally and aesthetically contribute to this end. When a situation requires specific physical qualifications which paper cannot provide, I research what is appropriate. In the case of HubWeek, I knew it was likely to rain during the run of the project and it would be exceptionally windy. I needed to use something which resembled paper convincingly but would resist water and a removable adhesive that would hold up to the wind.

Liz Jaff, Medium Fold 1, 2009, Ink and pencil on paper, 16 1/8" x 15" (41cm x 38cm), Private collection, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: We haven’t discussed your two-dimensional ink on paper drawings. How did these come about and how do they relate to your three-dimensional work?

Jaff: The ink drawings are a two dimensional interpretation of the three dimensional work.  All the work starts with a circle cut and folded and in the case of the ink work, I use circles of fabric as a drawing tool. They are saturated in ink and pressed into the paper as if making a monotype. The remaining impressions serve as a guide to define a floating shape moving through space. These images visually defy the constraints of gravity in ways the sculptural ones cannot.

Liz Jaff, Big Black Venus, 2016, Ink on black hand-cut and folded paper, 43" x 78" x 1 7/8" (1m x 2m x 4.8cm), Private Collection, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: The titles you choose are most often one word or maybe two. How do these words relate to the forms they are paired with? In other words how do the words become associated with these forms and the memories they represent?

Jaff: I choose words as titles which relate to what I see is the subject but are somewhat ambiguous. I like words which have multiple meanings. This leaves space for the viewer, with a bit of guidance, to define the subject for themselves.

Liz Jaff, Sniper 2, 2015, Hand-cut and folded paper, 27 9/16" x 27 1/4" x 2 7/16" (70cm x 69.2cm x 6.2cm), Private collection, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Although the term “concrete poetry” is a modern one, the idea of letterforms arranged in a visual way to communicate meaning is very old with examples appearing as far back as ancient Greece.  Your work uses shape and form, although not text does a similar thing. Are there any poets in particular that have influenced your work?  

Liz Jaff, Overboard exhibition (2014) installation view, Mark Twain (Forwground), The Good Boy (Background), Hand-cut and folded paper, cotton thread and lead, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: I am interested in how poets use specificity and economy of language. I look at the work of Elizabeth Bishop often and like the humor and wit of Charles Simic. Most recently I have been spending time with the writing of the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni and am making some pieces for her.

RHC: In your last show at RHC, Wallflower, you challenged yourself a bit and the work went in a sort of a new direction. The show featured a new drawing series and a different kind of installation piece…this one with dissolving paper! How did this come about and what took you in that direction? 

Liz Jaff, Wallflower exhibition (2017) installation view, Heartbreaker (Foreground), Black Magic drawing series (Background), Ink, plastic bottles, tubing, Aquasol and paper, ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: I see the Wallflower show as an extension of an ongoing practice of drawing. Throughout my time making things, I have been using many of the same ideas and allowing them to evolve and expand. Each show is another opportunity to tell another part of what I see as a larger narrative. With Wallflower I saw this as the time to speak about my interest in performance through objects and expand my conversation with how we perceive and document time. I wanted to have something going on in real time. This is where the sculptural piece Heartbreaker originated. The slow kinetic quality of the work was new for me but the ideas a part of a continuing conversation with myself and the viewer.

A new work in progress on Liz Jaff's studio table January 2020. ©2020 Liz Jaff/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Is the connection between your childhood fascination with sculptures from antiquity, poetry and the exploration of light and shadow through shape and form and the ability of this mash up to connote meaning the essence of your work?

Jaff: I think that is the beginning of a continuing interest in these things. It is likely the first and most pure moment of acknowledgement and reaction. Perhaps it is one part of the origin story?

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