Studio Visit

Liz Jaff

February 2020
Liz Jaff

Liz Jaff in her Brooklyn studio discussing new directions in her work.

In January 2020 we visited New York City artist Liz Jaff in her Brooklyn studio and discussed her biography, the origins of her work and where new ideas might be taking her studio practice.

Part One:


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1989, Plaster, wax, pigment, roofing tile, wood and ink, Dimensions variable, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: When were you born and where did you grow up and where did you attend college? 

Jaff: I was born and grew up in New York City and I graduated from to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1989 with a BFA in painting.


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1989, Plaster, wax, pigment, roofing tile, wood and ink, Dimensions variable, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Are there specific experiences you can remember from your childhood that have a direct bearing on your work today?  

Jaff: My Father and uncle owned a woodworking factory. Their father and uncle before them owned it. Each carpenter had a bench and focused a good deal of their time on handwork. The floors were covered with piles of sawdust and wood curls. I remember admiring their work but was fixated by the material that was left behind. Looking back now, it was my first experience seeing the transformation of materials and beginning to understand the versatility and possibilities within them.


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Roofing tiles, wax pigment, oil paint, sand shells and seaweed, 48" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Roofing tiles, wax pigment, oil paint, sand shells and seaweed, 48" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m), DETAIL, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: What aspects, ideas or compositionally, of your work, if any, can you identify in your earliest work that are still evident in your current work?

Jaff: The physicality and structural possibilities of materials and the consideration of different formats to define space and construct objects have interested me for a long time. I started as a painter but never felt I communicated well within the format of the canvas. I did love paint and all the ways it can be manipulated. Sometime during college I began to experiment with using multiple panels to create works and integrate less traditional materials into the paint. The panels were then split apart, hung separate from one another to suggest intervals of a larger landscape. Much later on I think this thought process lead to some of the work I do now using components to engage space. Understanding materials has always been at the core of the work realizing that the how (the medium and method) and why (the concept and idea) has to be in balance in order for a work to be effective for the viewer.


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Oil paint, wax, wood, tar and burnt wood, 78" x 72" (2m x 1.8m), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: At what point or…was there a specific event in your life when you discovered the desire to study and make art professionally?

Jaff: Growing up in New York, I had access to different ways of viewing art. As a teen, I would sit in the classical galleries of the Metropolitan Museum and daydream with Athena and Aphrodite wondering about their draped and fragmented bodies. By the afternoon, I would walk around the Lower East Side with art in the streets and artist organized shows in the storefronts. Art meant infinite possibilities. It still does. So, I went to art school without really questioning if there was anything else I wanted to do. I was hooked right away and went with it. Recognizing a professional path came later. I am still learning.

 
Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Oil paint, tar, leaves, twigs and wood, 66" x 24" (1.7m x 61cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Part Two:

RHC: Your early paintings as you describe them sound more like installations than just paintings alone…so, your evolution towards interventions and installations seems like a logical progression. You mentioned feeling uncommunicative in the traditional painting format…do you remember the first piece or a moment in your studio perhaps, where you felt you were communicating in a manner that felt right for you?

Jaff: I do not think I would say that the early paintings were “uncommunicative” but rather that the format of painting within the traditional canvas felt restrictive for me. I could not find a language within it that felt fluid. I cannot recall a piece or a moment when I spoke more freely. It was more of a journey of discovery over many years learning about and experimenting with materials and formats and structures that lead to a clearer voice. It is still ongoing.


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 1992, Oil paint, tar, leaves and wood, 48" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: You early work involved the use of multiple…if not numerous…materials mixed, layered or juxtaposed. Over time you seem to be using fewer and fewer materials in one piece. What sparked this move towards minimalism?

Jaff: Part of the experimentation early on was in understanding how materials interacted with one another, experimenting with the chemistry and compatibility of different medium. Perhaps as I have developed more clarity of ideas and vision for the work, I have been able to pare down the materials to achieve greater simplicity and hopefully a more direct experience for the viewer. A goal is not to overcomplicate things unnecessarily. Anything that is not essential should be eliminated.


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 2001, Rubber and metal snaps, 22" x 18" x 3" (55.9cm x 45.7cm x 7.6cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: In the late 90s moving away from pure abstraction you began incorporating found objects like chairs, cages and plaster or rubber birds, etc. What did the metaphors that these objects suggest bring to your work that abstraction didn’t fulfill and what sparked this progression?

Jaff: I have always been interested in the distinction between what is recognizable and what is obscured. Objects have specific meanings and associations for the observer. Surrealism is interesting for just that reason in that it plays with how the viewer recognizes and their expectations of objects. There are lessons in poetry and how writers understand the multi functions of words. I am working towards a better understanding of representation forms and more abstract ones and how the two in different incarnations can affect the experience of the viewer. I am looking for my visual poetry.


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 2001, Plaster, fabric and wire, 48" x 96" x 96" (1.2m x 2.4m x 2.4m) , ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: By the early 2000s these representational objects had gone again…along with all color except white…again even more minimal than previous work. These shaped, draped and sometime stacked plaster forms reference natural structures or figures. However, it seems for the first time the subtleties of light begin to play a role in your work. Was this an accident of process or was it more intentional inclusion? 


Liz Jaff, Untitled, Plaster, fabric, wire, 60" x 36" x 36" (1.2m x 91.4cm x 91.4cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: When I was a kid I was fascinated by classical sculpture and tried to recreate the histories and stories represented by them within the fragments that time and elements allowed to remain. On a formal level I am interested in how light and shadow can be used to reveal and conceal form. The portions of drapery left in the worn and damaged sculptures suggest volumes in an abstract way that I find fascinating. In essence the original subject is stripped away and we are asked to understand the forms of the body with what is left behind. This has been a great lesson in abstraction for me. One challenge I like to give myself is to consider how much can I remove in terms of actual form and in collaboration with light shadow recreate as a new experience for the viewer.


Liz Jaff, Untitled, 2001, Plaster, fabric and wood, 60" x 24" x 24" (1.5m x 61cm x 61cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: When did you begin to cut and fold paper and how did those pieces manifest themselves?


Liz Jaff, Plugs and Fuses, 2011, Hand-cut and folded paper, 108" x 96" x 6" (2.7m x 2.4m x 15.2cm), ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Jaff: Paper started as a practicality. I did not have a studio and was traveling frequently. Paper was easily portable and could be folded to fit in a suitcase. And I could find it anywhere. It was a great solution for transforming large spaces with multiple transportable components wherever I went. It quickly became a way to create visual metaphors for taking one experience of a place and recreating it somewhere else. This is the genesis of what I now call nomadic installations.


Liz Jaff, Plugs and Fuses, 2011, Hand-cut and folded paper, 108" x 96" x 6" (2.7m x 2.4m x 15.2cm), DETAIL, ©2020 Liz Jaff, Robert Henry Contemporary

Check back often...Part Three is coming soon!

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