ET: To lay some ground, could you start by telling me how you would characterise your art practice?
JL: In terms of style, a lot of it is drawn from commercial photography. The use of lights, with a backdrop, creating a space that could be anywhere… it becomes a non-space like that. It’s the same way I would shoot for a commercial client, or a product - like stock photography. It’s this sort of vernacular photography that’s trying to imitate commercial photography.
ET: Do you think there is a discernible aesthetic that can be identified with commercial photography?
JL: Think of the images you see in catalogues with products for sale. They’re always trying to communicate the best view of the object. So, if you liken that to art documentation of a sculpture - I would be responsible for choosing a view that best describes that sculpture. I photograph ceramics I make. Often they aren’t perfect objects, but it’s easy enough to turn the imperfection of glaze away from the camera or Photoshop it later.
ET: Do you feel that digital pushes an expected perfection of the image? You can do and re-do an image a million times over.
JL: Yeah. With digital you can push things as far as they go… until they look so… hyperreal.
ET: That’s why your choice of using handmade ceramics in ‘Surplus’ (Limit’s recent solo exhibition at Clint Roenisch Gallery) is interesting. They’re objects that you’ve touched and have a physical relationship to, somewhat unlike the framed photographs.
JL: There’s a big disconnection between my taking the photograph and then it becoming an object. It’s this immaterial thing that flies through space.
ET: An alienated labour of sorts…
JL: Between my job as a commercial photographer and the nature of my art practice, I felt I was spending a lot of time on the computer clicking. Ceramics was this tactile process I could take on. I think of myself as a photo-based artist; even though my work is very interdisciplinary, my thinking about all these mediums always returns to photo-theory in some way. So with the ceramics, I use moulds - slip-casting. The mould acts similarly to the photo negative, in that it’s an original, from which you make multiple copies.
ET: Copies can exist in multiple places at the same time - in place of the fixity of the original, we have the flux of circulating copies. This alters our concept of the art object, as Walter Benjamin reflects on in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936). I feel you use the photographic process performatively, or as a performative space. For example, your approach to making ceramics. ‘Surplus’ looks like a mise-en-scène… maybe like a recreated set from your studio, it articulates an ideal circumstance of viewing. When you make an exhibition do you have its digital afterlife in mind?
JL: When I’m planning and making work towards an exhibition, I imagine it as a series of documentation photos. I think of what angles I’ll be using. Even the sculptural elements I see as photo-props for the documentation, to be seen as artworks too of course, but I know they will function as props within the photographs. It goes back to the knowledge that most of these shows are going to be seen online rather than in real life. In the documentation images from ‘Surplus’ you’ll see on the painted walls that there’s a grey element, which acts as a photographer’s grey card. Even if you come in with an iPhone, you can neutralise the colour, line everything up and take the intended photograph.
ET: I think that interaction with viewers engages a closer reading. Even though the absurdity in the photographs prompts me to reassess ordinary objects, I feel your work is really about interrogating everyday politics of image production and consumption. Is there an ethical-political commentary underlying your work about the aestheticizing of images?
JL: It’s a statement on how things are, in terms of the distribution of goods, products and images – whether immaterial or material - about how they travel, and how they communicate ideas. There are newer realms of distribution like the internet. Art is increasingly being sold through images - in that sense, art has to become photogenic almost. And there is art pushing back against that as well, art that purposefully cannot be documented. It’s also interesting to note though, that if some of these works have been in private collections from the thirties and forties there might not be any documentation of it. You rarely have a chance to see the physical object. It de-emphasizes the object and puts a lot more importance on the image. And even if the artwork is documented, it may go back into the hands of the artist where it can be re-configured or destroyed. Does the photography then become the art, if the object no longer exists? (laughs) … Or is it just documentation.
ET: What do you think about the immortality of the image in that case?
JL: A printed image has a life of maybe a hundred years before it starts degrading, fading. Digital photography has a much longer life, but a digital dark-age would be our losing the means of accessing the information… I think of the loss, and potential rediscovery. Like the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphics - this language existed and was still there, but there was no way of deciphering it until the code was cracked, right?
ET: Right. People do have the tendency to think of the digital as immortal, yet there’s a panic in archiving for instance - especially in how to cope with changing technologies. Preservation and conservation seem to revolve around the urgent negotiation about the death of the object.
JL: The tendency now is to eliminate all physical objects to live in this clean, minimal world. But if you looked at someone’s hard-drives, it’s basically hoarding. It’s the equivalent of someone that’s got newspapers stacked to the ceiling in their house. And if you run out of space, you can just buy a larger storage drive.
ET: It’s a means to greater excess, isn’t it? One that still results from a fear of loss. We treat digital objects somewhat like actual ones. File, save, store. And it is still expressing our tendency towards excess.
JL: I just thought of that Douglas Huebler quote “the world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more”. It’s so easy to have so much stuff, the endless consumption of things keeps our society running. And easy credit is also a part of that. The quote is from a conceptual artist who worked in the seventies. This is exactly what we are discussing, except now we live in the world of digital and limitless space. When are we going to start being conscious about what we are producing?
ET: That’s why I thought the billboard was an interesting site of intervention for actualising work like yours.
JL: The image looked like it could very much be an ad. You could easily walk right by it without noticing, or it could catch your eye and the lack of any clear meaning could cause pause or contemplation. Art is never the initial impulse though, especially because a billboard produces income for a company.
ET: I think encountering the image as a billboard, in a frame, or through an illuminated screen fundamentally changes the image itself, in how it is read. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggested that black of an executioner’s hood and the black ink of a pen could be the same objective hue, but that its qualities are attached or owed to the object. In your practice you’ve occupied all these various mediums and spaces, yet still manage to refer to a coherent body of ideas.
JL: Thank you.
ET: Is this why you like William Wegman’s art practice? I just watched his ‘12 Days of Christmas’ series on YouTube.
JL: My first encounter with him was through a calendar you buy at the mall… only to find out later he’s actually a playful but serious artist who is respected in a lot of ways. He has a very strong connection to West Coast Conceptualism, and his old studio has been taken over by John Baldessari. That crossover to popular culture to me is just so interesting; he can exist in contemporary art circles, but at the same time your grandma knows who he is. I talked to a high school art class and showed them a William Wegman video with dog-headed people. I think in this video they were sitting around a dinner table eating, like for Thanksgiving. [The class] immediately compared it to another YouTube video made in 2015. The context of everything is lost… like in Google image search, everything is mixed together - and I like that a lot. If you talk about a high and a low, those things don’t exist - just a flatness. So a William Wegman video which might have been in an art gallery is now seen as this kind of funny, cute YouTube video someone made on the weekend.
ET: A whole slew of things with the same tagging can get raised in searches. That’s an interesting trait of internet culture…
JL: When you realise the connections that are being made, the trail you’re leaving… it can be a little scary sometimes! Digital archaeology will be sifting through mounds of data - going through your great-great-grandfather’s e-mails when he was a teenager, or his browsing history… It’s hard to know what will be thought of us as a generation, or culture. When I photograph objects I think about that as well. The commercial aesthetic that I use also relates to how museums shoot artefacts. What if these things were future archaeological objects, future relics? The people disconnected from this society, how are they making sense of it?
ET: I guess it’s important to think about because it’s going to be somewhere online - outliving us - for who knows how long? Forever? (laughs) Associated to your name.
JL: Yes… Just a Google search away.
Jimmy is currently working on an artist’s book to be published by Rodman Hall later this year.