Jo Shane by Craig Gholson

BOMB 33 Fall 1990
033 Fall 1990

Jo Shane’s sculptures traverse kitsch and biomorphism, “high art” and decoration, found-object assemblages, and AIDS issue-oriented memorials. The early formica pieces dealt with biomorphism translated through American pop culture. Recent pieces incorporate previous concerns while adding lyrical and elegiac elements to create sculptures as moving as they are knowing.

Craig Gholson Your earlier work included pieces that resembled the pole lamps of the ’50s. In recalling them, I couldn’t remember if they were internally illuminated as lamps are.

Jo Shane No. I did not want to make functional objects. Although my work has always been architecturally engendered, I also use the art historical spectrum. I was very specific about maintaining that boundary. R.M. Fischer was able to make functional things—they were lamps and they were art and this and that—but I had my own idiosyncratic values. For whatever reason, I did not want to make that crossover. If anything, if they were functional I wanted them to allude to room dividers or the kind of restaurant dividers they had during that time period. I don’t know, what was my objection to it? It just didn’t interest me.

CG But in remembering the pieces, I thought they had lights in them. And in relation to your more recent work I thought, “I wonder why she backed away from the utilitarian aspect.”

JS I think that art is about treading those lines and walking that edge. That tension is what interests me. The fact that you remember them as having lights is a sign to me of the success of the pieces because they evoked a certain response. I’m much more interested in the evocation than in going all the way. That would simply become a logical conclusion. I wanted “aspects” of function.

CG So it’s my memory of it that makes it utilitarian. Nostalgia created function.

Your work often addresses the notion of nostalgia. In your statement for the catalogue for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, you say that “memorialization transposed into nostalgia can create an imprisoning void of non-interaction.” Could you elaborate on how that relates to your current work?

JS Specifically I wanted to use the idea of the photographic grouping that one would see on someone’s desk evoking the past, evoking good times. It struck a chord in terms of people who’ve died unnecessarily young as a result of AIDS, because there’s this record of them before they were sick. I was very involved in a critique of the complacency of the bourgeoisie in not wanting to confront the real crisis we have at hand.

CG This was a series of works where picture frames were grouped on what appeared to be a night table but was in reality a hospital bed table. The photographs also had vertical bars.

JS Usually you see these little five-inch photographs in contained little frames. I use one or two photographs dramatically in the same way: they’re leaning and I use this generic shape that connotes a tombstone and a phallus. I enlarge them to be 12-inch pieces where the image just floats on a field of galvanized metal and under-paint them with a geometric motif that brings out certain elements and causes other elements to recede. The bars underline the dramatic content of the tragedy of people’s lives being snuffed out. They are imprisoned by the status quo’s inability to accept sexual difference, racial diversity, and poverty.

I wanted to critique the idea that “these photographs are so safe I don’t have to pay attention to what is really going on in the world.” Basically, I was trying to say that if people—particularly people whose sons and daughters are dying of AIDS—stay in their secure little worlds, it isn’t going to do any good. We all have to become activated on some level and come up with a solution.

And everyone doesn’t have to agree, there is no one solution. One might think ACT UP is the only example of a politically active solution, but there are holistic approaches, which I also believe in. I don’t just believe in the drugs. I subscribe to the conspiracy theory. I try to cram a lot into it without hitting people over the head.

I present symbols they’re comfortable with to draw them in. They’re comfortable with the night table, with the photographs. Draw them into that and then hit them over the head with what the information’s really about instead of confronting people and alienating them right away. That’s the best way to communicate to the audience who would be the most distant from understanding what I’m trying to say.

CG Do you consider these pieces ongoing, or have you finished that body of work?

JS How could they not be ongoing? People are still dying. These pieces come out of the need to deal with my sadness and anger, and the need to memorialize. And it does affect my other work. In the piece made of stacked shingles, the shingles have a pyre-like quality which relates to the double meaning of shingles, which is often a skin affliction indicative of an immune-suppressive condition.

CG That’s a perfect illustration of an element very germane to your work—irony. Gore Vidal calls irony “the weapon of the powerless.” Do you feel powerless?

JS I certainly relate to the notion of powerlessness in how I approach being a functioning artist within the system. I’ve always felt very powerless in that realm. In my life, my personal development has been one of going from feelings of powerlessness to trying to cultivate a feeling more powerful within my myself.

CG How do you think irony functions in your work?

JS Can you be a little more specific?

CG As an example, the irony of pieces fabricated from irony that are, to a large extent, about irony.

JS I never thought of that. In a sense, being ironic is partially a defense mechanism to obscure the feelings of extreme emotional cliches. But it’s necessary to understand those extremes in order to apply the irony. In terms of my whole artistic development, even when I was a child, I was very involved in the idea of making objects or pictures that delivered me from this world into some utopian space of perfection where all the things that bothered me just went away. I could create my own universe.

It’s only in the last four years or so that I’ve let go of that. There was a very corny, sentimental aspect to believing in a utopian ideal. And one becomes cynical when you have high expectations of the way you want things to be in the world and yet they aren’t. Cynicism and irony are inter-related. What I’m doing is operating on the utopian cliche. That’s why I started using famous personality icons and perfect filmic moments.

The perfect cinematic moment encapsulates that utopian yearning. But you can’t help but be ironic about it; you know it’s not real. Being able to deconstruct the mythologies around us has played a great role in my being ironic. If one’s tuned into popular culture, one has an acute sense of irony, and certainly that sense of humor is what keeps us going.

CG Irony is a quality that essentially gets a bad rap as being negative, but I’ve always thought of irony as being one of the more life-affirming things around. All it ever meant to me was a sense of playing with the world and its meanings. Playing with them as opposed to accepting the negative as being the absolute truth or the positive as the absolute truth. Inherent in anything is both those truths.

JS I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s also that you don’t take it all too seriously.

CG Do you think there could ever be a movement called “Post-Irony,” where you’d be able to have your innocence as well as all the implications?

JS I think that’s what’s going on now. I think historians will characterize the latter years of the ’80s as being all about irony and issue-oriented work.

CG But as many times as we’ve been burned over issues, how could one possibly not be ironic over that? It’s like believing in a politician.

JS It’s “New Age.” It’s in perfect sync. You know those ultra-violet full-spectrum lights which are good for helping people with depression? I plan to do some full-spectrum Dan Flavin’s. You can’t get much more ironic than that. Not only am I being ironic about the whole New Age thing, but at the same time I believe in it all. I’m at the point, personally and artistically, where I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in this positive stuff, but that doesn’t keep me from still being ironic about it. Life always throws those curve balls.

—Craig Gholson is a playwright and Associate Editor of BOMB.

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Originally published in

BOMB 33, Fall 1990

Featuring interviews with Al Pacino, Ian McEwan, Dr. John, Harvey Keitel, Vikram Seth, Dorothea Phillips, Thulani Davis, Victoria Williams, Bella Freud, Jo Shane, Campbell Scott, and Dorothea Tanning.

Read the issue
033 Fall 1990