Penny Stamps Recap: Janine Antoni


On November 28th the UICA Penny Stamps Speaker Series presented contemporary artist Janine Antoni. The lecture was a survey of her career, highlighting some of her work. Antoni spoke very eloquently and intelligently, but without any pretention. She carefully considered and thoughtfully answered audience questions. Some of what she said was purely descriptive, helpful to someone who is not very familiar with Antoni’s art. She also went beyond what I’ve heard in Art:21 and read in textbooks, as the audience was walked through her entire process, sharing her own intimate thoughts and personal motivations for many of her pieces.

“Nobody quite got the Joke”
Gnaw 1992 was the first solo exhibit Antoni had after completing her MFA at Rhode Island School of Design in 1989. Everything Antoni had learned into this piece, it is more complicated than her other work. Critics at the time assumed this work was an angry commentary on patriarchal authority in art/form. Although she was intentionally referencing Judd’s cubes, Antoni said she was trying to be playful using the serious forms.

“I’m interested in whether I can put the viewer in a position of empathy”
Antoni uses the absence/presence of her own body to draw the viewer in (Eureka 1993, Saddle 2000). During the Q+A portion, Antoni was asked about her “driving force/how she makes money/is her art valued [just] for its shock value?” Her response was, people do want to buy her work, people who “must be weirder” than herself. Shock value is certainly not Antoni’s primary motivation nor is capitalizing on that particular response. On the contrary Antoni found it to be “a chore to let things out into the world and not lose integrity”. Her motive instead is communicating a genuine and often personal message through process and influencing the viewer to feel empathy.

“The way we live our lives is how people choose to age ourselves”
There are two reasons we make self portraits. 1 to immortalize ourselves. 2 to create a public image. Antoni has done multiple self portraits including, Lick and Lather 1993, Mom and Dad 1994, and Conduit 2009. The combining of two parts is a recurring theme in her self portraits, especially evident in Mom and Dad, this piece visualizes herself as a biological composite of her parents.

“I didn’t want to be objectified with the piece”
While performing Slumber 1993, rather than performing as a silent part of the art-object, Antoni was open to interactions with viewers. She learned the most from this piece, especially an improved understanding of her audience. Moving from city to city Antoni observed slight differences of cultures in how they approached her. As she wove her dreams, Brits quoted Shakespeare, Spaniards affectionately sat next to Antoni on the loom bench, and Americans were quite preoccupied with the scientific technology.
“Everyone comes to a piece from a different porthole”

“Why is the measure of love, loss?”
Antoni considers Mom and Dad, And 1999, and Mortar and Pestle 1999 the same work; they are each two forms brought together. She described her motive behind Mortar and Pestle as wanting “to know the taste of his vision… When I look at someone who loves me, what could they be seeing… It was an act of trust”.

“Maturity is measured on our ability to hold ourselves”
In Antoni’s discussion of And Antoni took the audience through the entire process. Often beginning with a personal story, taken from childhood or related to her family, Antoni shared her moments of inspiration. She described her original concept and desired outcome- even when what she had intended didn’t work out. Antoni’s persistent personality prevented her from dropping failed projects, instead, she re-conceptualized; new meaning was created, the work was not lost. This is seen in And and 2038 2000.

“Wow, I could be architecture”
This was Antoni’s childhood interpretation of something I daresay, we’ve all heard – your body is a temple. Her piece Conduit was influenced by this childhood experience and a gift from a friend of a plastic portable device which allows women to pee standing up – which she later accomplished, from the top of the Chicago skyline. Conduit was modeled to look like a gargoyle, although rather different from her other projects, directly addresses a few of Antoni’s key/underlying themes identity- an individual as a marriage of two parts (father+mother/lion+eagle).

“I felt as if I was made for you. I was completed by your presence”
This is an excerpt from a letter Antoni wrote for the show Move: Choreographing You. The theme of the show was an exploration of how an object choreographs a viewer. The love letters (from art-object to viewer) were slipped into the pockets of gallery guests at coat-check. This project caused someone of a stir at the gallery. The love letter exemplifies Antoni’s value of audience participation and their relationship with art objects; this sentiment was also evident in Slumber.

Antoni ended with her current projects, a retrospective. Instead of exhibiting previous work as-is; she has chosen to reinterpret/revisit her work through dance (and raw clay and artificial hip-bones). She will be collaborating with five different choreographers to create multiple performances, the first of which has already been completed. Unfamiliar with collaboration, even though much of her previous work has involved people: her husband’s eye in Mortar and Pestle, dressing/costuming her parents in Mom and Dad, friends pulling her out of a tub of lard in Eureka, or even the curious cows which approached her in 2038. Antoni commented on the frustrations of giving up total creative power, but hopes her experiences with different choreographers will be more positive as she further develops the performance. Antoni has previously worked on the opposite side of the spectrum from collaboration, in Loving Care 1992 Antoni became both the model and the master when she used her body to paint/perform.

Antoni’s visit was hosted by the UICA’s new Penny Stamps Talks series. The UICA is committed to educating and diversifying the Grand Rapids art-community. Programs like Penny Stamps provide Grand Rapids with the kind of quality opportunities available to our neighbours Chicago + Detroit.

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