Urban Flora: An Interview with Alison Jardine

Alison Jardine,  Urban Flora XVI (Real Earth) , Cement, 18 x 18 x 6 inches

Alison Jardine, Urban Flora XVI (Real Earth), Cement, 18 x 18 x 6 inches

by Georgia Erger

Alison Jardine’s concrete sculptures are simultaneously (and perplexingly) playful and somber. Cast into pieces of found plastic debris, these relief sculptures from the artist’s Urban Flora series monumentalize the careless, yet distinct folds of trash bags. Although initially deceptive, the swiftest of second glances reveals that what looks to be a stretched plastic bag is actually concrete. This paradoxical preservation of the insignificant remnants of our consumer culture is only one of many tantalizing dichotomies in Jardine’s work. The sculptures meld geometric and organic forms, are at once seemingly indestructible and fragile, and explore themes of permanence and temporality. In drawing upon minimalist aesthetics, feminist theory, and the dark humor of British pop art, Jardine seeks to create “objects from a future past” that give voice to the achievements and pitfalls of our Anthropocene era. Born in Britain, and now working and living in Dallas, Jardine is an MFA Painting and Drawing candidate at the University of North Texas. She teaches Drawing at UNT and is the author of Make Great Art on the iPad, forthcoming in the summer of 2017. In the following interview, Jardine discusses her experimental (and now finely honed) artistic process and the diverse influences and impetuses of her practice.

Can you describe your process for creating the concrete sculptures in your Urban Flora series? The wooden structure of each sculpture is extremely precise, yet the final form is wholly determined by the texture of the found plastic materials in which the concrete is cast. Does the element of chance therefore play a central role in your process?

Developing the artworks for Urban Flora was an iterative, experimental process. I knew what I wanted them to look like, and yet for several months I couldn’t make them work. I learned a lot about engineering in the process of finding a solution: the chemistry of cement and the physics of how it adheres to a substrate.

The nature of the casting process means that I am working blind - I can only imagine what the final form will actually look like. After my assistant and I have routed the wooden support and attached the found pieces of plastic, I use my hands to apply and smooth in the concrete. There are things I can control, such as the plastics I use, the way I mix the concrete, and the shape of the wooden support. I can also control the colouration of the cement and the kinds of cracks or lines that appear on the surface. However, the ‘blind’ nature of the casting process does fight back against my desire for complete control. The final unwrapping is always an exciting moment, because I never really know what it is going to look like.

Thus, my works are a balance between control and chance, and constantly threaten the potential for loss of control. There is always the possibility that the material will revert to its natural state, collapsing inwards, seeping through. It often feels geological, like when silt preserves footprints through the ages. There is a lot of potential energy in the materials and my process, and I think this energy can be felt in the completed work. I like the way that Agnes Martin uses lines as compressed landscapes to express energy. I work towards forms that will contain the energy of the materials in a certain way, and within my exploration of the contemporary experience of landscape.

What is your relationship to the found materials that you incorporate into your work and how has your practice evolved to accommodate and explore these various mediums?

My use of plastic for casting originated, as do all of my works, with an encounter with nature. During one of my walks along a concrete path by a creek in suburban Dallas, I noticed what I thought were brightly coloured flowers. Upon approaching them, I realised that these “flowers” were actually plastic bags snagged all over the plants and tree roots along the banks. I began to collect them, and eventually I found a way to use them in my work.

I am curious and inquisitive by nature and I collect various objects and materials, particularly fossils and artefacts that can be found in rivers and silt deposits. I often wonder how the geological layer for our era—the Anthropocene—will look, wedged between the natural clays and limestone of previous eras and yet-to-be-determined layers of future eras. I propose that our strata will be one of cement, steel, glass, and plastic. My work is both conceptually and materially of this layer, and so reflects the human intervention that has shaped it. For example, I sometimes add charcoal to the cement, and when mixed, it appears visually akin to the marble historically used in art. However, in reality, my process is a subversion of this rarefied tradition.  

Perhaps in 10,000 years, my works will be dug up by archaeologists and provoke the same kind of speculation that artefacts, such as the Venus of Willendorf, warrant. Thus in, my larger conceptual narrative, my works are “Objects from a Future Past.” 

Alison Jardine,  Urban Flora XV (Bewitched) , Cement, charcoal, conte crayon, 23 x 23 x 4 inches

Alison Jardine, Urban Flora XV (Bewitched), Cement, charcoal, conte crayon, 23 x 23 x 4 inches

You have discussed the future insight your relief sculptures will provide about the Anthropocene era and our capitalist, consumerist culture. In the spirit of continuing these forward projections: what part of your identity as an artist do you think they will reveal?

Most works by any artist can be considered self-portraits. My aesthetic choices evolve from the mechanics of process and my own emotions. I draw upon my physical and visual memories and experiences, which relate to my life in both serious and more incidental ways. For example, I chose a very particular dark green for Urban Flora XXI (Field), as it evoked a distinct memory of sitting in a field of grass. Suddenly, the clouds passed over and the green field was momentarily darkened. It became a little bit chilly. I love these moments when one is subsumed in nature. There is a hint of danger and a risk of sudden change. It is also slightly humorous that Field, the manifestation of an experience of nature, is made of cracked concrete. Other works from the Urban Flora series draw upon more profound experiences, such as the loss of a loved one.

Although not presented didactically, there is so much of my life and thoughts immersed in my works. There is a mystery and ambiguity that allows the viewer to develop their own thoughts and responses. The emotional and critical content in minimalist works is often overlooked, but it is as present in my sculptures as it would be in an expressive, narrative painting. It is perhaps more subtle. It involves all of the senses and is something that is felt rather than seen.

You deliberately utilize and integrate traditionally gendered materials. Concrete has long been considered a masculine material, while the embroidery hoops that you used in your earlier works have historically been used (almost) exclusively by women. Can you discuss the significance of subverting such gender norms in your practice?

The materials and their associations are central to my work. Although one can undoubtedly engage with the works on a purely visual, aesthetic level, a whole new world of meaning and association emerges when one considers the implications of cement as material. Cement is masculine. We see it being poured all over, every day, by teams of men. I originally poured cement into embroidery hoops to express a ridiculous, yet inevitable juxtaposition. The assumption that gender be a determining factor in what work you do, or what activities you enjoy, is a societal construction that seems as absurd as pouring cement into embroidery hoops. The lives of both men and women are built around the needs of our economic system, and for women this has meant that much of the work they have done has been invisible and unrewarded. I remember consciously rejecting this limiting dichotomy from a young age; not just in terms of the work I chose to do, but also by challenging how I was allowed to behave and interact, how aggressively or confidently I was able to speak. The work of Louise Bourgeois has been hugely influential to me, not only because of how openly she worked with ideas of sexuality and her inner world, but also because very little of her work conforms to ideas of a feminine aesthetic. She used iron, steel, and grey cloth, and unapologetically occupied space with her seminal structural sculpture series, Cells. She was also a truculent and ‘difficult’ woman – clever, irrepressible, independent, and flawed.

This is where the practice of art becomes transcendent. I can layer all of these thoughts, ideas, emotions, experiences, and skills into an object, and yet the object itself transcends all of them; it coalesces into an artwork that has ambiguity and beauty, filled with my questions, not answers. I have realized that, as an artist, I only have questions. I think this same transcendent experience happens in the person who views or experiences an artwork, although it is perhaps a reversal of the process the artist went through, as the viewer is working backwards from the artwork, and touching on a whole new set of personal associations and responses.

Alison Jardine,  Urban Flora XXI (Field),  Cement

Alison Jardine, Urban Flora XXI (Field), Cement

Your sculptures maintain a minimalist aesthetic, yet also make a humorous nod to traditional landscape painting and environmental art. Can you discuss these far-ranging influences upon your work?

I am attracted to both minimalist and post-minimalist practices: minimalism in my concentration upon form, line, and space, and post-minimalism in my consideration of viewer association by painting and drawing with materials. I seek to eliminate that which is unnecessary – to reduce and distill a work to achieve a deeper truth or essence. This process of editing is long and often difficult. I can work with something for years before I am able to uncover what it is trying to say. I am utilizing simple forms in my current body of work to provide a structure for the cement form that can contain its energy. This energy is both inherent in the cement material and created by the movement of the viewer’s gaze around the form. Cement is widely acknowledged as a solid, durable material, yet in its wet, yet-to-be-cast form there is an expectation of movement, like the slow slump of wet clay. Ultimately, the final product—the dried, cast form—prohibits any movement and thus creates the sensation of an unexpected lightness, akin to breath.

My aesthetic definitely developed within the traditions of landscape painting. I am originally from Yorkshire (the birthplace and long-time home of David Hockney and many other great artists) where the dramatic, wide-open moorlands truly embody the old notion of nature as sublime. However, those interpretations of nature don’t work for me in our present world where the landscape is vastly changing as a result of human activity. I am excited by the possibilities of an emerging movement of landscape art, influenced by artists such as Olafur Eliasson, that incorporates new ideas and materials.

The British have a very particular sense of humor—exemplified by the British Pop Art and YBA movements—which is conspicuously present in my work. Artists such as Rachel Whiteread were able to create works that were equally humorous and serious. Whiteread’s public sculpture, House, a to-scale cement cast of the interior of a house, made a huge impression on me. Its genius lies in its unadorned simplicity and the literal reversal of our impression of ‘home.’ British humor is not the most subtle; it is often bitingly truthful. I am evoking an obvious humor in creating landscape paintings out of cement; yet, I am also seeking to get at something serious. Central to my art practice is my assertion (following Schopenhauer’s incongruity theory) that humour is best comprised of two opposing concepts.

The fissures in many of the concrete sculptures suggest a destructive impulse that we have seen in the work of artists such as Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, and Kazuo Shiraga. How much do you intervene on the surface or form of the sculpture after the concrete has been cast? 

The way in which I allow the concrete to crack, or push holes in it after casting, is done both in the pursuit of an idea--an expression of the destruction of landscape and entropy--and as an aesthetic balancing of the implacable solidity of the concrete. I like the dichotomy of fragility and immutability. The balance it strikes is like that of a contrapposto pose. And in a very real way, my works embody my own physicality; it’s a labour-intensive, manual process. After I have made the mould and gathered my materials, I start mixing the cement. I particularly enjoy this part, as it’s a very immersive experience. I watch the cement change from powder to its final fluid form, and as I add various materials, I observe the changes in viscosity, texture, and colour. This stage of the process feels very central to my creativity.

The impulse for destruction and creation are so very close together, and the urge to deface a pure surface is very strong. However, the only intervention I make upon the works after they are cast is the selective creation of holes and cracks. That the form emerges just as it is, is vitally important to me. This is largely because I conceive of the process as a geological one, but also due to the ethical parameters that I have imposed: when the process ends, it ends. There is no need for decoration to hide what it is. There is no gilding the lily.

There are many thematic juxtapositions in your work – in fact, the title of your most recent series, Urban Flora perfectly exemplifies this. Can you describe the relationships you explore between intent and chance, solidity and fragility, and permanence and temporality?

Dichotomies and contradictions appeal to me, as I believe that there is an opportunity for real understanding at the perimeters and intersections of opposing ideas. There are thematic and aesthetic contradictions in Urban Flora. Firstly, cement is a heavy, earth-bound material, and I make it float lightly on a wall. It is a solid, strong material and I make it crack and crumble and I even cut holes in it. It’s also quite ironic that I am using concrete to create a permanent cast of something—plastic—that would otherwise biodegrade. My cement urban flowers will not biodegrade, so I really do envision them being dug up in 10,000 years by a future archaeologist who is investigating the Anthropocene strata, and wondering what these objects are, and why they were made.