For the last several months, I have shared studio space with Jenalee Harmon. In her work, objects morph and twist amongst whips of smoke, warped frames, and perspiring fruits, creating an alternate to the reality we inhabit. Being alongside Harmon for the last few months, I couldn't help but notice the immense process that it take for her to create one photograph. From woodcraft, to staging special effects, to different painting and sculpture techniques, Harmon’s work employs all different mediums to create the end result. We dug in over a few questions into what it really takes for Harmon to make an image, and what they come to mean once realized in physical form.
Sebastian Gladstone: Your process involves multiple stages and mediums to create the final product. Can you take me through your general practice of how these images are made?
Jenalee Harmon: My studio can go through varying stages of chaos and calm, and I've found that when starting on a new work I need to write down the elements and materials on a list that I'm interested in working with, rather than sketching a scene that I then attempt to replicate. I can easily fixate on micro information when in the process, like how to properly contain smoke, so it's important for me to frequently review my list. My list acts as an anchor, it signals me back to the material I was first interested in when I get lost, and to remind me you have to just go for it and hope you don't smoke out your studio mate. As a general rule, I try to provide less detail and more context with the lists, and in this way they transform into a script. If I treat my process as an initial draft, I permit myself to respond and alter the information as it unfolds in real time.
After material research and preparation, I'll gather all the materials I want to focus on with a new image and then stage my strobes. Because I'm interested in over-saturation of color and obliterating space, I set up a general a few lights that minimize shadows, and create a 'floating' effect with the objects. I lose track of time when shooting the images, it could take minutes or hours to place everything in a way that makes sense in the lens. I usually make the frames in tandem with the images, though typically the frames are the final thing to be finished as it's a longer process of painting, taping off, varnishing, etc.
SG: Using casting, woodworking, painting, and photography among other things makes this process seem very complicated. How did you learn how to do all of these different crafts?
JH: I'm a huge advocate of youtube tutorials, and most of my subscriptions are to 60 year-old woodworkers. I always ended up in the theory or comp lit classes throughout school, and in some sense I never learned these skills through professors. Instead I've had to throw myself into the deep end with discovering these processes. I don't think I was too concerned about acquiring these skills from professors, as I grew up in a hands-on environment. My parents were constantly doing odd DIY improvements and putting me to work growing up, and my dad invents weird contraptions all the time. I think that environment democratized objects for me as there wasn't a 'right' or 'wrong' process to perform, there was just getting the job done. I'm fearless when I learn a new skill, I figure I'll eventually figure out the process it's just a matter of time.
SG: Within the photographs, why are you so drawn to the blank slate of an open studio? Do you feel that you have full control over the outcome of the works?
JH: When I see vacant, open spaces in the world, I become aware of time and the potential for transformation. Blank, open spaces feel empowering and liberating to me, they have the potential to materialize into something completely different. I don't think of the (presumably) traumatic history of these sites that once housed people or material, but instead think of vacant spaces as a site of an unknown, a site of transformation. Because of this, I find myself infusing that aesthetic of vacant space throughout my work, which I think is the blank slate you're referring to. I should also note that when I think of vacant spaces, I can't help but think of black holes. I think about how matter and light become fragmented in black holes, but (potentially) emerge distilled and pieced together anew. Before clicking the shutter, I think about the space, the objects, the light, the color and the vast three-dimensional information that will pass through the tiny black hole of the lens, refract it's information on the sensor and become an entirely new thing in itself. I get to transform one reality into images that become a distilled, flattened version of reality. The only bit of control I feel in the works is in the framing, which requires focus and precision than control.
SG: What are images that you look to for inspiration?
JH: When it comes to image based works, I look at other artists that see the photograph as an object of flattened time and space, Barbara Kasten, Katie Steciw, Lucas Blalock, Marlo Pascual are a few I obsess over. Although, when I'm actually looking for stimulation I focus more on surfaces, like how an object absorbs or reflects light, does it's texture cast it's own shadow, is it layered or fragmented? I think there are a lot of painters working in this vein, so I frequent painters constantly. I can get lost in paintings, I don't even pay attention to the image at times I just escape in the alchemy.
SG: How does living and working in the landscape of Los Angeles affect your practice?
JH: The visuals of LA vibrate my optics, the light is over-exposed, colors are over-saturated, landscapes shift from infinite freeway to contained spaces -- it causes visual agitation that really excites me. The light and landscape become too difficult to consume it's entirety, so you instead just focus on one point in a scene. I find myself attracted to this, and reflect that sense of shifting focus, or astigmatism, in my photographs.
SG: Do you feel that the individual works operate as autonomous pictures, or are they made to be in a conversation with each other?
JH: I think the works exist in their own, but that isn't to say I don't see them in conversation with each other.
SG: The frames of your pieces can get very complex and be an integral part of the work itself, can you expand on this decision?
JL: For me, I see frames as the device that transform the image into an object. You asked me about control earlier, and the framing is the only point in the process I feel a sense of control over. Without the frames, the images are like wind passing through a screen door. The frames join the image and materialize refreshed, they aren't subtle or invisible components to the image. Beyond complimentary, they depend on each other. They've gone through the same worm hole and emerged together.
SG: Can you tell me about the piece "Slippery When Wet".
JH: Sure, the piece was produced in conjunction with an essay by the same name which can be found on Haunt Journal of Art. The text is a meditation on states of awareness and the art making process through the visual of clasping a bar of soap with two wet hands--a juggling of catching, grasping, performing, and contextualizing. In the piece "Slippery when wet", I saw a bar of soap as a visual metaphor of the relationship between an artist and their material. Using a bar of soap can be an extremely private act that is cleansing and ritualistic, but also is a cumulative process that eventually alters the material into tiny fragmented parts. There is a delicate negotiation between artists and their materials, and that conversation of handwork, or 'mastery' of matter, comes through a lot in my work. Although I think "Slippery when wet", and much of my other work, focuses less on actual mastery and more on the suggestive nature of performing mastery.
With all my work, it's important that everything is shot in camera, and I try to provide signs of that, from leaving fishing line holding objects to leaving dust spots from the lens. Though "Slippery when wet" is the only collage I've made, in a sense, it's really just the repeated image. I thought of a few different ways to mimic the collage effect, shoot and print out different sizes, re-photograph print again, etc. But, my work isn't about actually achieving these grand masterful effects, it's more about the illusion of something that appears to be fully realized.
SG: Lastly, are there any new projects you are currently working on that you would like to share?
JH: Yes, I have a new series I've been working on in the studio, and I also have a few projects in the works. I recently finished a residency at Ox-Bow where I worked on a series of photographs and writings that I'm currently working through to produce a book and I'm hoping to have that completed by the end of this year. Additionally, I'm in the process of initiating an experimental lecture series that focuses on the format of a lecture as a site to examine performance and collective memory. I anticipate the launching of the series in early 2017.
To see more of Jenalee Harmon’s work visit her site here.