Michael Jenkins emerged as an artist in New York during the last years of the 1980s. His work helped point a way out of the dismal cycle of self-referential criticality and ironic distance then in place. His sculptures and drawings repeat a small collection of images: skeletons, life rafts, shower stalls, white picket fences; often painted in Jenkins’s trademark yellow and white. Through his lens as a gay man, Jenkins is able to both see each image from a distance and know how deeply the visions of childhood and adolescence are imbedded in the psyche. While never didactic, Michael Jenkins presents these overlooked images with an emotionally honest ambiguity, a complex mixture of desire, distance, and denial.
Bill Arning What was the origin of your earlier pieces, which used actual artifacts of naval life?
Michael Jenkins I had a lot of trouble dealing with abstraction as a way to communicate content. I was interested in sexuality and related social issues. Abstraction was predominantly what I was doing when I left graduate school. So I started using these sailor hats. They were my “found” object.
BA But also sailor shoes and naval issue blankets.
MJ Well, it was wool fabric that mimicked naval blankets. The sailor hat was the beginning. I felt comfortable, arranging them based on their graphic nature. I used them turned flat, against the wall, so they made a circle. I had used the circle in earlier drawings and other work. Shopping for the sailor hats actually led to finding the shoes. Once you do that you have both ends of the body.
BA The sailor image, from Popeye to Jean Genet to Paul Cadmus is a broad, caricature-like, cultural image that is resonant but overdetermined. The way you used them seemed personal, as a trigger of romantic fantasy. Could you talk about your personal use of the image, in contrast with the cultural values of the icon?
MJ Well, when something is clichéd, sometimes it becomes a blank page again. You can manipulate it because it’s so known. The sailor image has been heavily used in pornography. What interests me is the way it bridges this highly charged sexual existence and this violent, military existence.
BA Representative of the state?
MJ Right. Authority, power.
BA Sailors give up their individuality to conform to controlled behavior.
MJ It’s all of those things. Then add to that, the romantic notion of the sea. The whole World War II thing, waiting for the guy to come home, the candle in the window . . .
BA With the hat and shoe and blanket pieces, there was the sense that these were relics of a sailor/saint figure, as in Hartleys’s lost German soldier paintings. The tortured artist, again and again, doing this homage to the lost sailor, soldier, love of their life. There was the mass, dominant World War II image of the housewife at home waiting for the husband who may or may not have been lost. As well as the sort of gay cultural image of the lost virile lover, Noel Coward singing the song to the matelot. He goes off to sea and never returns.
BA All the contradictions inherent in the sailor image come to a head in “JOIN,” the piece done in collaboration with Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Felix’s stack of paper with your image, a half-naked sailor and the word “join.” Here, sailor costume as drag comes into play.
MJ Is he really a sailor or is he just some guy dressed up like a sailor to turn someone on? It’s very seductive, this come-and-get-it kind of thing. It’s very much a recruitment poster inviting you to join in. I found the piece ironic because real recruitment is done by the military and the myth is that homosexuals recruit.
BA The sailor costume as play leads into your toy boats: fantasy role playing. Particularly, a young person’s adoption of these roles, without necessarily understanding all the contradictions involved in them, which raises issues of inculturation, what the prescribed play is supposed to indoctrinate you into and what it actually prepares you for. The intentions of your parents by encouraging you to play this game are quite different than the results.
MJ Initiation begins really early, in whatever we do, whether it’s dressing your kid up like a little colonel or building a little toy boat. Your parents might not mind if you grow up and kill and maim people in the name of your country, but they certainly don’t want you to dress up like that because somebody enjoys fucking you that way.
BA As your boats and rafts got more real-life size, there was the sense that a sailor might come along with them.
MJ That’s a nice idea, you’d need a crew.
BA The idea of play and things a child would make as a crafts project run through your earliest to the recent work. What is your attraction to low craft?
MJ It has to do with making something out of nothing and the economics that implies. It goes back to Captain Kangaroo, have a box—make a train, a car, a house . . . that multiplicity that some found objects can have. To me, it’s most prevalent in the buildings I make because they have an architectural reference and yet they’re made out of incredibly cheap, flimsy material . . . cardboard.
BA Your most innocent images are the ones that are the most sexually charged. I’m referring specifically to the shower stalls, like the ones on the beach when we were kids.
MJ Depending on one’s position in society, especially, for lesbians and gay men, there is a real rude awakening from innocence, via sexuality. Fear of being caught or your own discovery that your interests are not exactly socially favorable. For gay men, it’s not uncommon to have an early sexual experience in a bathroom. I think that that is one of many references that showers have.
BA There’s a Proustian sense to your images of the boat, or the shower, or the fence, do you see them as memory triggers?
MJ Oh, I think so. I hope that they resonate. I think though, that their memory-like effect is fuzzy and often very general. Something like the fence has this open domestic reference . . . the dog, the house with the picket fence. I was recently watching Night of the Hunter with my boyfriend Matthew and realized it has all these sets that look like my recent work. There’s these scenes with Robert Mitchum standing by the picket fence with this lantern post. And Matthew is nudging me throughout, going, “What is this?” I first saw this movie years ago and besides loving the sets, I was fascinated by its contrast of good and evil, fantasy and reality. But I’ve always been interested in movies that have that edge, like Wizard of Oz was an incredibly influential movie in my life. That and window dressing, are major influences.
BA How, what, where . . .?
MJ Display windows, the way they create this fantasy in this little twelve-foot-by-ten-foot-space.
BA You’ve allowed a lot more emotional, and potentially sentimental images in your work than most artists of this generation have. How do you avoid the potential pitfalls of sentiment?
MJ First I’d say that I feel there’s a great deal of content in my use of romance. On some level I think it’s political for a gay person to deal honestly with the issue of romance. I often refer to those things I’ve felt I’ve been denied. But sentiment in objects is a dangerous thing because it’s an easy response that could wear away an edge I hope to maintain. I’m also attracted to the accessibility that some of these very romantic and sentimental images have.
BA Your picket fence with the daisies could be an image from a Doris Day movie. It’s an emotional trigger that immediately contradicts what life has taught you, which is not to believe in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson dream. There’s always that double edge to your work, inviting you in, making you want to believe in it, and then reminding you that you really can’t swallow it whole. For instance, your use of the color yellow, it seems cheery, but it’s a forced cheeriness that has nothing to do with happiness. It’s manipulating one’s emotional mood.
MJ Oh, absolutely, it has a duality. Historically, it’s a sick color.
BA How so?
MJ Yellow fever, jaundice, yellow was used to mark houses in times of sickness. For me, it began in 1988, while working with the sailor objects, the artist Steven Evans told me that the solid yellow flag was the nautical quarantine flag. It is a very old nautical reference. You’d raise a yellow flag when you saw a pirate ship approaching, hoping that they’d think you had scurvy or plague, that way they might be afraid of raiding your boat. I used yellow, first, in a show at White Columns in December of ’88. It continued to work with many of the objects I wanted to make. I think red is next, I’ve been interested in it before. I’m also very interested in pink, but that’s a real difficult one.
BA The suite of drawings with the skeleton as the central motif are paired with various cheery images to give them that double edge reading.
MJ One of the ways those came about was looking at Halloween decorations, where this death or horror image is often animated in some way, images that are often in opposition to each other. The skeletons I’ve done are always doing something like juggling balls or wearing party hats.
BA There is a use of female-associated crafts in your work: sewing, appliques, felts. You use sissy craft things, contradicting the heroic notion of art making. Tell me about the use of the female-associated craft in a fine art context?
MJ I think there’s a general reading of work, especially that made by men, working in modes not traditionally related to their gender. I think it generally is seen as questioning gender roles. For me it’s mostly about being honest about what I can do best. All through art school I tried to paint and never really did it. I always tended to make things in non-art school ways. I kind of wrestled with that and just let myself do it and I actually felt my work got better. When I started upholstering and tucking and sewing little things on here and there, and cutting things out of cardboard . . . that’s what I always did as a kid. I always did the bulletin boards at school, made weird things with my mother or with my best friend next door, who was another sissy. You go through the art school and it tells you that there’s this hierarchy of materials and everything about growing up wants to suppress the sissy in you. I feel like I’m connecting back with my roots, in a weird way.
BA There’s a desire for fantasy when life is sad, when you’re experiencing loss and hurt, there’s a desire to make fantasy real. You’re recreating the all-American place, the perfect suburban home surrounded by lush green grass, as a conspicuously artificial stage set.
MJ That is true of the fences and the gates, as well. They certainly refer to domestic America gone wrong, but they still refer to what some of us may want.
BA The picket fence surrounds the ideal home, is it keeping you out? Is it saying that that’s never going to be for you, that you’re never going to get domestic happiness and the social stroking that goes with it?
MJ Well, the barrier reference is interesting because that depends on what side of the fence you’re on.
BA There is a sense of narrative in the work. Each piece is a clue to a narrative that you think you can reconstruct if you get enough additional parts, but . . .
MJ There are clues but never a complete scenario.
BA Your earliest work was playing off things that looked like minimalist archetypes. That seems to be less of an issue in the work today. I read The Abacus as a dismal count off, one by one, who’s gone and days left. Was that the main text in the abacus piece?
MJ It was a relationship of life to statistics. Whether it be AIDS or a relationship to any sort of decision, any sort of legislation. Counting marks. Of course any art made right now has to be seen in the context of its historical circumstance.
—Bill Arning is the director of White Columns Exhibition Space and a Contributing Editor of BOMB.