Irena Jurek’s exhibition at Jeff Bailey Gallery, entitled Smooth Jazz, captures a recent collection of drawings, paintings, and sculptures from the artist’s practice. The exhibition is on view until August 2, 2015. In this interview, SATW contributor Johannes DeYoung dialogues with Irena to explore what’s driving her work in Smooth Jazz.
Installation View, Smooth Jazz, Jeff Bailey Gallery, 2015
Johannes DeYoung: The work in your current exhibition at Jeff Bailey Gallery is widely varied, including painting, drawing, and sculpture; the references in your work appear equally varied and I wonder if you can speak about that.
Irena Jurek: The references are varied, however there are overlaps between all of my work. I tend to make things that are funny, sexy, complicated, and maximalist. My art fuses the real with the imagined, the autobiographical with pop-cultural, and the hand-made with the ready-made. These binary oppositions reflect my world view. To me, life is this beautiful, convoluted mess, it’s a jigsaw puzzle in which each of us is missing the crucial pieces which prevent us from truly grasping our own reality, as well as the larger reality outside our own realm of experience. In order to achieve this sense of things not adding up, I add elements that confuse or complicate the narrative. This is achieved in my assemblages by combining unexpected objects or symbols together. In the drawings, I use familiar clichéd characters such as the sex kittens, the playboy bunnies, hungry wolves, and teddy bears, and I cast them in unexpected roles, which not only toys with our sense of order, but also paints perception in a new light. My goal is not only to encourage the viewer to dig deeper and to abandon their assumptions when spending time with the work, but also to realize how restrictive and influential these cliches are in forming our beliefs and how they seep into daily life and ideology.
Three’s A Company, 2015, colored pencil, ink, glitter glue, acrylic and watercolor on paper, 14 x 17 inches
JD: The drawings in particular seem inspirationally situated somewhere between Ivan Albright and Tex Avery. I’m thinking specifically about your drawings Three’s a Company and Catch Me If You Can, which have obvious pop-culture references on the one hand, paired with a kind of grotesque material handling and vernacular content that feels ripped from the bedazzled notebook of a youthful romantic. Your piece Birds of Paradise feels strangely reminiscent of Albright’s Picture of Dorian Gray, yet I find myself waiting for the eyes to bug out, or a tongue to roll across the floor.
IJ: That’s a very astute observation, many of the drawings are definitely situated somewhere between Ivan Albright and Tex Avery. At aged 14, I saw the Albright retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it definitely left an indelible impression on me. I’m Polish and the whole intricate attention to detail and vanitas thing is definitely something I lapped up with mother’s milk, so Ivan Albright with his weird maximalism and dark humor was something I naturally gravitated towards. Although I was born in Krakow, which is this spectacular medieval city, I grew up in the peaceful Chicago suburbs near forest preserves. The reason I mention this is because when you look at my work there are elements of that old world aesthetic mixed in with pop-culture and nature. I’ve never felt particularly Polish or American, which is a common phenomenon among people who have grown up immersed in two cultures. I realized after watching the Basquiat documentary that as a bilingual speaker, I also tend to translate visual ideas from one language to another. In that documentary, an art historian was talking about multilingual artists, and how they tend to perform this visual translation in their work, and I had this bizarre eureka moment, where I I had an epiphany that I do that, too. Whenever I reference pop-culture, there is this element of something being lost in translation. In “Three’s a company,” there are four main characters. There are three sexy lady bunnies and one highly erect Tex Avery wolf character. Two of the bunnies are pleasuring one another, and another bunny is about to crawl between the legs of the wolf. So the title doesn’t elucidate or clarify the situation, if anything it contributes to the confusion. Who are the three in the company? Is anyone actually left out, if so, who?
Spaniel I, 2015, glazed ceramic, 10.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
JD: What’s behind the Spaniel? Please don’t say another Spaniel; I realize there are two of them in the show.
IJ: Haha There are actually a plethora of spaniels behind the Spaniel! At aged 7, I begged my parents to buy me the most gorgeous red and white English Cocker Spaniel I have ever laid eyes upon. I christened her “Peggy,” because she was covered in freckles, and “Peggy” sounds a lot like the word for freckles in Polish, “piegi” (pye-ghee). About five years later, I begged my parents to buy me the craziest acting and looking dog I had ever laid eyes upon. Amazingly they obliged me once again. My father named him “Rex,” because of his majestic air. He was an American Cocker Spaniel mixed with an Australian Shepherd, who used to jump over couches, sky scrapers, you name it, and who also ended up impregnating Peggy twice. We kept one of their puppies from the second litter. I was essentially living out every child’s dream. I recently became aware of the fact that I’ve been drawing spaniels for over a quarter of a century. When I asked my mother whether she had foreseen Peggy becoming my lifetime muse, she somehow hadn’t seen it coming.
Installation View, Smooth Jazz, Jeff Bailey Gallery, 2015
JD: Can you talk about the assemblage relief sculptures that adorn the walls?
IJ: I liken my process with the assemblages to jazz improvisation, one move leads to the next, and I never really have any idea what any of the assemblages will end up looking like from start to finish. The drawings are more mapped out and concrete, and although the drawings end up evolving and changing, I generally have an idea of what they will end up looking like at the end. It’s this sense of discovery and element of continual surprise that I love experiencing while making the assemblages. I scrounge craft stores, thrift stores, dollar stores, as well as my own closet for the most unusual baubles I can find. In addition, I also look for more generic and easily identifiable objects, and I throw those into the mix, too. Once I am pleased with my overall composition, I start pouring, squeezing, sculpting, and smearing paint on top of these objects. It really is like conducting a band, only instead of spicing things up by including more trumpets, I throw in more hot-pink granny hair rollers. This undertaking continues until these toxic discombobulated stews transform into objects of beauty. The notion of beauty was something I fought for a long time, deeming it to be stupid and inconsequential. That’s how beauty is often taught in art schools, and the more I started thinking about it the more I realized what a dogmatic and puritanical perspective that is. When I started embracing the highly subjective idea of beauty, the assemblages not only became more interesting to look at and make, but also more personal.
Femme Fatale, 2015, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 21 x 11 x 6.5 inches
JD: Your show at Jeff Bailey Gallery is titled Smooth Jazz. When you mention improvisational jazz analogues in your process, the field of references and possibilities feels infinite; however, smooth jazz focuses that field within the framework of a specific subset of jazz fusion that has distinct pop-culture overtones. I’m thinking of Bob James’ Angela for instance, the theme song for the 1970s television show Taxi, which became an iconic part of that show’s title sequence. It’s often the case in television and film that the relationship between sound and moving-image comes to define a greater cultural experience; I wonder how you think about smooth jazz in the context of this exhibition.
IJ: I definitely think a great deal about television and film, as well as how I can translate those ideas into visual art. It would be fantastic to have someone write a theme song as good as Bob James’ Angela for the show. Ideally I would imagine a cross between the Benny Hill Show’s theme song meets Bizet’s Habanera! Essentially, I would want Klaus Nomi to write it if he were alive today.
As for the title, I wanted something more elusive, that would hint and allude to certain ideas, but not explain too much. I also wanted a title that was memorable and would make people laugh, and that would tie in all of my various ideas and bodies of work. Smooth Jazz isn’t exactly the first genre that jazz aficionados reach for. I think the title elicits a vision of Kenny G playing into the dead of the city night, his Fabioesque mane fluttering about seductively from a light wind coming in from an open window, in an empty darkened room with rose petals scattered throughout.
JD: How romantic!
Catch Me If You Can, 2011, colored pencil, ink, glitter glue, acrylic and watercolor on paper, 14 x 11 inches
Birds of Paradise, 2015, colored pencil, ink, glitter glue, acrylic and watercolor on paper, 14 x 11 inches
All images courtesy of the artist and Jeff Bailey Gallery, Hudson, New York.