Elizabeth Jaeger has found quite a few fans within a short period of time. This is partly because she shows in an impressively diverse group of galleries, but mostly it’s about the overwhelming immediacy of her work. Even in group shows, her pieces seem to call out for attention, luring the viewer into a fascinating narrative as soon as they catch the eye. Her sculptures are beautiful and her craftsmanship is undeniable, but it isn’t until one takes the time to unpack the work’s themes that the great depths of each piece reveal themselves. Catching up with the artist at her Brooklyn studio, we found ourselves pulled beneath the surface and into a new world.
Figure sculpture has been a hallmark of your career since the beginning, with bodily deconstruction offering an evolving signature over the years — we've seen bodies (like that of ‘Richard,’ a recurring subject) first smashed into pieces, then shown as nearly unrecognizable lumps, then sectioned off into parts and mounted on metal fixtures. Is this the sign of natural movement into a more abstract practice or something else entirely?
It’s about digesting the work. My work is made on impulse, and it’s important to deconstruct and understand those impulses. What parts are important? How much can you take away and have the feeling remain? Breaking Richard over the years has offered me insight into the limits of the figure and the uncanniness of a body that is treated as the material that constitutes it rather than the fiction of which it represents. The vases were also part of this search — how one can construct the feeling of a presence (of a person or otherwise), without recognizable parts. It’s not so much a movement into an abstract practice, but a perpetual questioning of embodiment.
With the human body — and especially the female body — positioned at the centre of your oeuvre, how you think gender politics manifest in your work?
I feel very lucky to have grown up in a community where gender fluidity was taught and represented. However, being young and being a woman, my life was unfortunately not devoid of slut-shaming, desire-shaming, sexism, and intimate abuses. (Not much has changed with age). Gender politics manifest in my work in the way they manifest in my life: tortured, conflicted, complicated. It feels very unfair to be embodied, but also a gift to be sentient and seen. The body is a root system for the mind, but a burden for identity.
There is a strong sense of designed spaces in your work. Does this meticulous approach to environment carry over to your actual living space?
Yes, but maybe not meticulously. Everything I bring into my space is considered and/or from a loved one. My friend Jashin said my apartment felt like a cloud in the sky, and I couldn’t have been happier. It’s important to me that my living space feels peaceful.
Your material palette often focuses on metal, ceramic, and hair in unison. What attracts you to these components?
Clay can be molded into just about anything, and once fired is both rigid and fragile. It’s inherently tied to the history of the vessel and of art. It has a memory and a record of touch; the way and how it’s been touched. (To touch is to be touched.) It’s emotional.
Metal is malleable and strong, supportive. Industrial, utilitarian, cold, unforgiving. It bends when heated, but can become brittle with wear.
Hair has the presence of a person, with a history of capitalist violence. A woman can buy the hair off another woman’s head. Wear their DNA.
Just this summer you had pieces in five galleries here in New York: JTT, Deli Gallery, Fisher Parish, Deitch Projects, and Tonya Bonakdar. They are each very different shows, and your work is presented alongside very different groups of artists. How do you select which place is best for each particular piece?
I go by the conversation I’m having with the curator. If they consider the work in an interesting way, I’m curious to see and experience how they contextualize it. An object’s meaning is up for grabs, and it’s more interesting to me to see how that meaning grows and shifts through others’ intentions rather than try to control what I personally would like it to reference. That being said, sometimes it’s painful to watch the shift, especially when others’ intentions are revealed to be suspiciously capital or motivated by personal gain.
You've said in the past that you'd like to see the hand sculptures of Louise Bourgeois installed in more public parks. Having recently completed a residency at outdoor sculpture park Storm King with Shandaken, do you envision your future work being viewed in more natural spaces?
I hope that my works sparks something intimate in a viewer. Beyond that consideration, the location is project by project — what makes the most sense for the work. This October, I’m installing some sculptures of birds in a horse stable in Burgundy. Inside the castle felt overly precious, too much like art.
As co-founder of publishing house Peradam, you have released a stunning variety of artists and work, from Linda Simpson’s electrifying photo tribute to the transgender community of 1990s New York to Nicholas Planck’s visceral collage. Can you tell us a bit about how you approach curating these editions?
It’s intuitive and unique to each person we work with. I try not to categorize or label our approach or the actual people we work with. When people and their work interest Sam and me, we’re excited to work with them on their vision, and take their book wherever feels right to them. We’re supporting and facilitating their project, and are open to their approach. It’s not about us.