Bill Jenkins by Joe Fyfe

Constructed from humble materials, the artist’s improvisational interventions are meditations on space and light.

BOMB 147 Spring 2019
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Installation view of Wet Light (Substation 1), 2014, at Laurel Gitlen, New York. Photo by Charles Benton. All images courtesy of the artist.

I am getting to know Bill Jenkins slowly. I was intrigued by his second solo show, Wet Light (2014), at Laurel Gitlen, where most of the gallery was subjected to an imposition of cheap plastic partitions. There was no real point of focus or indication of exactly what was happening. His intention to channel light from the street into the windowless main space was both a grand gesture and self-effacing. Robert Smithson once commented, “A great artist can make art by simply casting a glance,” which I take to mean, among other things, that an artistic signature or presence isn’t necessary.

I saw Bill around. We were in a group show together organized by Matthew Higgs entitled Abstract Everyday–Everyday Abstract. Although I don’t think sculpturally, I have long been drawn to sculpture and sculptural issues, particularly challenges to what is considered sculpture. I see, from the half dozen or more of Jenkins’ temporary installations I’ve witnessed and my visits to various temporary studios he has had, a new way of working with sculptural mass: very, very lightly, or tangentially. He prefers to work with the givens of materials and to improvise. Roland Barthes wrote something to the effect that there is always a little slyness in the way intelligence reveals itself. With Jenkins, things get indicated indirectly. For example, there are his Walk videos displayed face-up on the floor, showing footage captured from a cart rolling over a sidewalk for a considerable distance. I understand the noise of the casters moving over these surfaces, and the video itself, as a way of reconfiguring concrete sculpture (and architecture for that matter) into an immense topographical tactility that can only be comprehended in fragments. 

We recorded this interview in my graduate art criticism class at Pratt. Bill transmitted some images of his projects on a screen while we spoke. 

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Detail of Wet Light (Substation 1), 2014. Photo by Charles Benton.

Joe FyfeYou work with a range of media, but I want to ask specifically about these recent installations that use light. How did they come about?

Bill JenkinsIn a broad sense, I’ve always combined found and made objects, and the light installations are a continuation of that. For my show Wet Light in 2014, I decided to approach the space itself like a found object—looking for qualities that were already present and figuring out how I could augment them, weighing potentials against what I had the ability to actually do. 

JF So how did you go from “found” space to channeled light?

BJ This was Laurel Gitlen’s second gallery on the Lower East Side, and I got to take a look at it by myself before the renovation started. There was no power yet and only dim light filtered in through a window shaft. I stood around in what was to become the main gallery space, taking in the proportions of the room and imagining the eventual white cube. There was a smaller adjacent room that had a large skylight with a lot of exposure, no nearby buildings crowding it. I started thinking about how, in my ideal scenario, the gallery plans could be redesigned to incorporate the skylight into the main space. It wasn’t structurally possible, and I wasn’t involved in the planning anyway. But I fixated on this problem, so when my show came around, I decided to move as much daylight as possible into the main space. I didn’t have the resources or time to make major architectural changes, so I decided the project, the artwork, was to try to reorganize the light with an ad hoc approach. I adopted an intentionally hasty, kind of exaggerated “get it done fast and cheap” work ethic. With some help, I built ducts out of cardboard and sheets of opaque and reflective landscaping plastics that, to my surprise, effectively piped light from its source to an endpoint. 

JF So after you figured out moving light around, how did you decide where to place it, or how to arrange it?

BJ I started considering the whole of the gallery’s illumination, electrical and natural, as a raw material available for use. I went from figuring out a specific problem to devising a system, like plumbing essentially. It was easy for me to conceive of moving light around when I pretended it flowed and pooled like water. And then it seemed natural to collect light in reservoirs or cisterns as an end goal, at least in that first installation, which I ended up titling Wet Light. I made a trough area against one side of the gallery, where all the light from each source in the exhibition would be consolidated. 

Thinking on a larger scale came to me after seeing a Nancy Holt film retrospective at Electronic Arts Intermix. It was a memorial showing; she had just died. I was thinking a lot about her The Making of Amarillo Ramp (1973–2013) construction documentation. Right after Robert Smithson died, Holt, Richard Serra, and Tony Shafrazi went to Amarillo and finished the project as Smithson had laid it out. In a smallish lake, the ramp is a hook-shape extending from the shore out into the middle and it gradually gets higher. It’s similar to but simpler than his Spiral Jetty (1970). I’ve always found the symbolism of the spiral very distracting. Amarillo Ramp feels more structural, more about its own form in that place. After seeing Holt’s film, I could imagine using a hypothetical bulldozer to move or contain light, instead of getting narrowly absorbed in details of measurements, plastic, tape, staples, etcetera.

JF Amarillo Ramp is not as literary as Spiral Jetty, maybe?

BJ I haven’t been out to see either in person, so I can’t actually say, but my own interests are with the presence of things. Spiral Jetty seems like a tattoo on top of a desert landscape rather than an extension of the landscape itself. 

JF But it’s exactly an extension of a ruined landscape, of abandoned oil wells and other industrial “ruins” leading up to, or rather back to, a spiral in a dead lake, which paradoxically also symbolizes birth in saline, telescoping life on earth. Smithson, from the time he was a child, frequented the American Museum of Natural History, where its comprehensive narrative starts with this spiral-shaped shell from around 200 million years ago. Do you have a touchstone like that? It’s plain to see that your object-based, discrete sculptures come from your eye scouring the street; you source items ubiquitously available but not inherently valuable. Base materialism, the street, a reference point that defines so much of modernity, remains an active inheritance, I think. The installations force a different kind of encounter. Do they also come from observing the city in some way?

BJ An initial sense for creating installations came from doing construction work when I first got to New York in 2007—just interior remodeling, no hardhat stuff, cranes, or concrete pouring. While the sites were in some state between partially demolished and partially completed, there was a real sense that the crew were the occupants, displacing the landlords, clients, and tenants. It wasn’t just the role of construction worker or even a spatial zone difference, it was that everything was in flux from day to day, moment to moment, and the workers on the crew were the only ones that knew the plan and how to fit into it. All right of way in the space under construction, by necessity, belonged to the workers. While it was still work, I enjoyed the feeling of being part of these autonomous pockets of time and space. I wanted to adapt these experiences for an art audience.

Construction also helped me become familiar with rapid reconfiguration. It gave me another way of working that wasn’t precious or deliberative, like I was used to treating artwork. And I got a sense of alternative scenarios for interior light. Spaces under construction often have the windows boarded up and spotlights dragged around to active areas, so I became aware of faint amounts of light coming through HVAC ducts or holes in walls and floors. 

JFAs I was reading through Brian O’Doherty’s book Inside the White Cube—which you’ve said is foundational for your work—his description of Monet stuck out: “Monet’s landscapes often seem to have been noticed on his way to or from the real subject. There is an impression that he is settling for a provisional solution: the very featurelessness relaxes your eye to look elsewhere.”

It seems to me that your work has the white cube act as a place to collect perceptual fragments. When someone walks into a situation where you’ve worked, they have no idea what they’re supposed to look at. The viewer is deliberately left without any direction, without a point of focus. You’re misdirecting the frame. 

BJ I basically want to de-emphasize singular frames—discrete images with fixed perspectives—in favor of an active view determined by the audience. These installations are meant to function somewhat like a garden, where every direction of view is part of it. There are small illuminated areas to look at, but they don’t necessarily have much information. The primary experience is moving around the dim space and ductwork, and hopefully becoming aware that there’s some basic mechanical function in progress. 

JF From the viewers’ point of view, it’s like they took a wrong turn and walked into a basement. It references spaces that aren’t supposed to be looked at—kind of like what theorist Mark Wigley talks about in his lecture “Pipeless Dreams,” where architecture can become about providing a seamless envelope of partitions that hide all the infrastructural functions of a building, as if they would be humiliating to expose. 

BJ Yeah, a lot of my interest in making these installations comes from being in constant proximity to infrastructure in New York City. In addition to construction, I did some rooftop and terrace landscaping around Manhattan—decorative stuff. Workers enter these buildings through side entrances and separate elevators. We’d go in through machine rooms and basements, sometimes mingling with other maintenance people. The boilers and apparatus that keep a building functioning are in these spaces too. This was all interesting to me—for example, how connecting a hose to a spigot extends a larger circulation system. Same with collecting and discarding bags of plant or construction waste. The buildings, streets, subways, and my apartment seemed more and more like interdependent organisms or ecosystems, and I began to see myself as a part of their functioning rather than strictly as an “employee” or “tenant.” In the installations I’m creating a situation where audiences walk into a functioning system and are not simply viewers.

JF I assign this Rebecca Solnit essay in my art criticism class, “Check Out the Parking Lot.” It’s ostensibly a book review of Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders’s contemporary version of Dante’s Inferno, which is situated in Los Angeles. She spends most of it discussing what it’s like to drive down into the parking lot at the Getty Museum and how it’s like the nine levels of hell. Then she extrapolates how so much of the landscape that we inhabit is made up of things we’re not supposed to look at, like highways and parking lots. 

This parallels some of your interests. I remember seeing a booth at Frieze New York in 2015, where you installed a repetitive structure that seemed vaguely architectural depending on how you looked at it. It didn’t draw attention to itself. It’s almost like everything you do deliberately disclaims anything visual because the temporary aspect of the materials remains. The general views are de-aestheticized. 

BJ Well, I’m not working against aesthetics. I’m trying to build into the design of preexisting space in a way that’s not directly about displaying the built form itself. The piece at Frieze was meant to work like a dam for light. The other artist being shown that time around, Ryan McLaughlin, graciously agreed to let me display his paintings under the light spillways built into the back of my structure. I thought of the bright white tent over the whole fair as a reservoir of light whose flow into the booth I would regulate. Hydroelectric infrastructures have been particularly useful for me to look at and learn about. I started referring to each of these projects as substations and numbering them sequentially. This references electrical substations that handle the distribution of power from its source to individual areas of consumers. Since building these installations, my attentiveness to aesthetics has shifted from image or surface qualities to how things are built, as I need examples of how problems are solved with engineering.

JF And then there’s the whole issue of the indexical in your work. It’s affected by a phenomenon that happens outside of itself, like how wind changes the direction of a weather vane. One of the properties of photography is the indexical: light comes in and molds reality according to the exposure. What you do with light or surfaces seems similar. You’re inter-constructing in partnership with utilization. 

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(i) Installation view of Substation 3, 2015, at Frieze New York, with paintings by Ryan McLaughlin. Photo by Charles Benton. (ii) Installation view of Portland Apertures (Substation 4), 2015, in Time Based Art 15: Pictures of the Moon with Teeth, curated by Kristan Kennedy, at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. Photo by Evan La Londe. 

BJ These installations are somewhat like large, improvised camera obscuras, but I’m more interested in the enclosed box with light moving through it than the end goal of a spatially transferred, representational image. I want an in-person experience of light where the mechanism for conducting it from one place to another is obvious. 

JF The Brooklyn piece, Substation 9 (2018), looks quite deliberately like a camera obscura, but there’s no resulting image. The light moves from an opening facing the street through a large funnel shape that faintly diffuses against the back wall.

But the earlier video pieces where you run the camera along the sidewalks, even though you’re recording those surfaces, and even though there’s an image to be looked at, they also seem to have a base indexical quality because the motion of the camera rig is creating sound. 

BJ Yes, the audio is of cart wheels conducting vibrations from the sidewalk’s texture as they roll over it. I wasn’t thinking specifically of indexicality, but those issues are present. 

JF Lots of artists now depend on some usage of the indexical, more so than in previous generations. Maybe it has to do with problematizing authorship.

BJ I think it’s a reaction to constantly having to sort through what is actually physically close and what is simulated to be physically or emotionally close by technology. Indexical qualities seem like a handrail to naturally reach for. 

JF Do these sidewalk scanning videos relate to reaching for a stable position?

BJ Formally, yes. They use a fixed-image frame directed close up at a familiar subject, but, while the videos present a constant flow of the sidewalk, it’s not possible to glean the exact location and movement around this terrain. They show copious amounts of detail but no general maplike view.

JF How did this develop?

BJ I like to walk and just pay attention to whatever I’m passing by. That’s how many of my ideas get started. For a long time I was picking things up off the sidewalk to bring home and consider aesthetically, but the scanning mode I developed for finding things and the sidewalk itself became more interesting than any specific thing I could take with me.

Around that time, these miniature sports cameras became available. They’re small enough that I could put one on the bottom of a shopping cart, and I decided to use it to make my whole walk the work, as opposed to singling out a specific feature or space. I was selecting different blocks based on the sidewalk, how weathered it was and what kind of rock aggregate was used in the concrete mix. Going down a whole city block, several different decades of sidewalk can pass by. I became interested in the sidewalk as a kind of large-scale collective composition with no clear authors, just participants. I used the camera like a vacuum, just taking it all in rather than trying to find the most interesting feature. In particular, I discovered that a really compelling thing happens with the frame rate of the camera paired with the speed of that rock aggregate passing by. Some other motion is introduced that’s an optical illusion—it looks like the sidewalk is boiling. 

JF So, you’re more interested in the act of viewing and don’t have any particular attachment to light? Light is just a property of architecture?

BJ Yeah, I’m not trying to be a light artist specifically. I’m trying to ground light, or the lack of it, in issues of real estate ownership and stewardship. I’m interested in basic problems of architecture, and the Substations are a way to explore my agency in adapting differently to those problems. But if we shifted the frame of our discussion from art to architecture or engineering, it would be clear that I’m creating way more problems than I’m solving. The art context lets me tamper at somewhat large scales, de-skilling engineering and then recuperating the practical failures as aesthetic experiences or critiques. For instance, the darkness inside my installations is a byproduct of using unspecialized materials and of my lack of expertise in physics. But instead of this just being wrong, it’s a space to consider one’s experiences within. 

JF We could trace a foregrounding of “unspecialized materials”—or rather, let’s say, the exposure of the raw means of production—back to the Impressionists. They wanted to emphasize the material of the paint on the surface of the canvas, and so on, then Picasso’s early Cubism, where he seems to depict a painting as a literal construction site, and then on to the readymades. Are you speaking of this art historical narrative when you refer to “de-skilled engineering”?

BJ Yes and no. I think de-skilling is perhaps a tactic to let indexical qualities be featured or messed with, but in my work, I’m thinking of a basic relationship to sculptural scale via personal agency. I’m not an architect or developer. I don’t have the knowledge or budget to build proper and permanent structures. I have to create my own exceptional mode of operation, or else I can’t do anything. I have to adopt cheap and temporary means that are suited to my own design and funding. The closest my way of working comes to anything practical is small-scale disaster response. Like, if the window breaks and it’s going to rain hard in half an hour, what do you do? The only option is to make something up as you scramble around in all-out haste.

JF At the same time, everything you do is quite deliberate. David Lynch’s movie Inland Empire is full of jump cuts and weird, harsh light. It looks really loose and sloppy until you get acclimated to it, then you come to understand it’s rather rigorously composed. He knows exactly what he’s doing. That operates in what you’re doing as well. 

BJ Just building what I need to accomplish a task yields sculptural forms as byproducts. I don’t patch every light leak, smooth out every wrinkle, or straighten edges because I want to foreground the utility of the installation. I mostly just let the aesthetic grow out of functional decisions, and further preening is unnecessary.

JF Composing would be closer to how I see it. 

BJ It’s definitely about a balance between accepting and controlling the properties of a given material. I relate to how garden designers talk about incorporating views of the surrounding landscape, embracing what they can’t control.

JF A lot of times, in the process of writing, you can discover what you actually think about something. This summer I wrote an essay about Italian Brutalism, talking about how this one building in Naples was never connected to any public services. Within five or ten years, it turned into this notorious slum surrounded by rats and syringes with the worst heroin trafficking in all of Europe. If you have any respect for Brutalist architecture at all, you begin to understand that adaptation is in its genes. A pristine white concrete building built during the ’60s in Cambodia was almost unrecognizable by the time I became familiar with it. Before being torn down, it still functioned beautifully for the residents, even though it looked like hell. The essay led me to understanding that what I really like about Brutalism is its social function, not its aesthetic. 

All of your work, especially the installations, introduces functions into a space that point to functional areas of other spaces that haven’t been attended to. It’s saying: Here is another way to adapt this architecture. On that level, I think it’s very social. 

BJ Building temporary structures allows me to experiment without causing harm. I think developers and landlords should be held to the same criteria as medical doctors in terms of providing the best possible care and not doing harm. In the niche I’ve worked out for myself I can operate mostly outside of building codes or any standardized professional practice. I can experiment with alternative scenarios where “success” or “failure” are beside the point; both yield information and experience. 

JF I was at MoMA PS1 yesterday looking at Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture video (1987) and thought: Somebody had to do this, or he had to do this to get past it. I’m surprised at how often people bring the piece up. It seems that its power is as much a product of its banality as anything else. You’ve come up against an extreme way of doing something too. It’s almost like this is the wall you want to hit. Did you see the Nauman show yet?

BJ No, but when I was a graduate student at Berkeley in 2007 there was a show of his earlier work at the university museum. I appreciate the economy of means and especially the early studio movement experiments where he’s stomping around—or the one where he has the fluorescent light and he’s sitting on the floor with his legs apart, changing positions occasionally, configuring his body in relation to it.

JF When I was in art school, Avalanche had a Nauman issue, and I remember him saying he went off to Europe and didn’t look at any art. He looked at cities and the way highways intersected each other. That left an enormous impression on me. How do you go to Europe for the first time and not look at art? Many years later, I took my first trip to Mexico and did just that. It changed everything for me. Life, how things are actually put together out in the world, became really interesting. But you’ve been looking at the world all along, outside of an art context, the de-aestheticized world—or really the yet-to-be-aestheticized-and-then-exploited-for-profit world.

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(i and ii) Detail views of Substation 9, 2018, at 9 Herkimer Place, Brooklyn. Photo by Genevieve Hanson.

BJ The artworld, the shows and conversations around it, change every six weeks. My life, the structures I use and live in, and what I want to observe don’t share that duration. There’s a different time scale, a different daily and cumulative effect to the built environment. For example, the building I live in was finished in 1925, so architectural history since then hasn’t happened yet in my apartment, just some updates to manufactured surfaces, appliances, and utilities. I’m fascinated and impressed by how everything is put together and kept running in New York, but also endlessly disappointed in (and fascinated by) the carelessness and missed opportunities in how buildings and public spaces are maintained or neglected. An ongoing conflict between what’s profitable and easiest to do in the moment and what’s ideally best for occupants and citizens is observable everywhere at every scale from a painted over light-switch to neighborhood redevelopment.

JF I used to read Paul Theroux, who wrote a particular kind of travel book—for example, for The Old Patagonian Express, he got on the subway in Boston and just continued moving, changing trains as much as possible, all the way to the southern tip of Argentina. There’s an element of land art in that way of covering topography, except he’s a writer. 

BJ That’s one way to deal with the scale of landscape. I really enjoy traveling by rail; I happily sign up for hours or even days of looking out a train car window. When I was a kid, I would sit sideways in the car or school bus, so I could watch the landscape go by. It was a regular thing to be driven around winding roads, through hills and canyons. When I got my driver’s license, it wasn’t the ticket to freedom people made it out to be because I could only look straight forward, devoting my whole attention to staying in between the lines painted on the road. 

JF Let’s return to Inside the White Cube. Was it a eureka moment?

BJ It was. I was already making structures that grew out of their physical context, but I thought I was falling short of something. I didn’t know how to value structure or space without an accompanying image, or something that was clearly an artwork. It was greatly encouraging to read about artists working that way. I got it right away.

JF The French painter and theorist Christian Bonnefoi calls the eureka moment an encounter: “hurdles that interrupt the fluidity of progress, and then become part of the journey.” Did you find Daniel Buren’s essay, “The Function of the Studio,” around the same time?

BJ Maybe a year later. What I was trying to describe earlier about working with resources on site relates to Buren’s idea that it’s impossible to export a work of art from the studio context it was made in over to an exhibition context without losing some crucial quality of the artwork. I take that to be saying that objects, artwork or otherwise, are not self-contained; they exist in a kind of inanimate ecosystem. Observing and trying to interact with this ecosystem of things has become my constant starting point. 

O’Doherty and Buren showed me where I could go to dig into my own interests. But a little earlier before reading them, an artwork I saw at SFMoMA (while an undergrad at the San Francisco Art Institute) really affected me—Mary Lucier’s Dawn Burn. She set up a video camera directed at the rising sun over the East River for seven days in a row and displayed the resulting videos where the sun had burned a dark mark along its path. She used this inherent fragility of mid-’70s video technology, where sunlight would burn the light-sensing mechanism, to create her piece. For me, it was a strong example of taking advantage of what would otherwise be a problem.

JF For me, it was encountering Blinky Palermo; that’s when I began to understand that in painting, the structure is the narrative. How the painting is made tells a story. 

Now your modus operandi is working without a regular studio space, which, more and more, is the realpolitik of being an artist in New York. 

BJ There are several vexing narratives to studio space in NYC right now. It’s a topic of instant nausea for everyone I know. Studio space is too expensive, precarious, and ultimately benefits developers more than artists, but it’s also a romantic ideal that artists and the art market can’t seem to shake. It’s putting a burden on everyone. Private space to work and think is definitely potent, and ideas that come from there would have a hard time emerging otherwise, but it’s also a form, a practice incongruent with the direction of the city and economy. There’s no clear means to resist or will to divest and go elsewhere, so we adapt. For me, studio space isn’t necessary or feasible. My projects are on paper before I go build them on site; otherwise, I make small objects and go for walks.

I’m not even tempted to push for a studio because I would end up as a disposable steppingstone for landlords developing working-class spaces into luxury living or office space. In trying to wring a working philosophy out of this situation, I think about how business is more about realigning relationships between products and consumers than producing new products. I also repackage resources meant for display, rather than produce new or novel artistic content. This mode has been a lot more generative for me, opened up more ideas than anything grounded in a studio, as much as I feel comfortable in and miss that space.

Joe Fyfe is a painter and art critic based in New York City. His most recent solo exhibition was But a flag has flown away at Nathalie Karg Gallery (2019).

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Originally published in

BOMB 147, Spring 2019

Featuring interviews with Young Joon Kwak, Kazuo Hara, Bill Jenkins, Ligia Lewis, William Basinski, Titus Kaphar, José Roberto Cea, and Barry Lopez.

Read the issue
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