Art as Art: A Conversation with Jac Leirner

Art as Art: A Conversation with Jac Leirner

Alexandra Reyes

Photos: Courtesy of Sandra Burns.

Jac Leirner (born Brazil, 1961) is a contemporary artist who lives and works in São Paulo. She was one of the country’s first contemporary artists to rise to international prominence during the 1990s. Leirnerʼs work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, Walker Art Centre, Tate, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. She has been a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University as a guest of the British Council, as well as Artist in Residence at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and the Walker Art Centre. The artist has also exhibited her work at the Venice Biennale (1990 and 1997) and in Documenta IX (1992), and she was awarded a fine arts fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2001. OOO spoke to Jac Leirner about her current exhibition at the Yale School of Art, her artistic influences, methods and career, and her thoughts on the state of contemporary art.

OOO: I’ve heard great things about your exhibition at the Yale School of Art. Is there a new theme or concept you explored here?

Leirner: Maybe reversion—we have a value and we turn it around, for instance the hardware used to install exhibitions and so on…now they became the stars of the show. This was new for me and also the shopping experience—I usually don’t go shopping to do new work, and also working so fast—in 2 months, I had the whole exhibition ready, and I usually take 5 or 10 or 15 years.

OOO: Usually, you use found objects…

Leirner: Yes, or somehow they come to me like cigarette packs I smoked or plastic bags from museums that I visit or business cards of people I meet—all these materials have a different way of becoming the main material of a piece, but this time I really went shopping.

OOO: Do you see your work as making a political or economic statement?

Leirner: Not necessarily—I think these are really big issues that need to be very well treated, and my issue really is art, so of course my works touch on these issues and are polluted by them, but it’s not my main concern.

OOO: Your main concern is commenting on art itself?

Leirner: Yes, by being a direct result of many references in art…for instance, in this exhibition, you can see a piece where Donald Judd is very much present and other pieces where Agnes Martin is present or the watercolors have many things in common with Paul Klee or even with Duchamp. In this sense, art is my main concern. I am always making very explicit that all these masters in the history of art are my main thoughts and my muses.

“I prefer not to attach another word…
just art as art.”

OOO: How has Dada influenced you?

Leirner: It is very much what I’ve been studying and seeing all these years, but you can also say Arte Povera and Minimalism and Pop Art and Conceptual Art, art of the 1960s and 70s, these are all very much present in my work.

OOO: Do you see yourself as part of one of these specific movements like Conceptual Art?

Leirner: I don’t know because all these movements are so present in my work, so I cannot say that I am 100% Conceptual. Of course I am, but my work is at the same time very formal in the sense that I give a lot of attention to its final body, you know, the way colors are there, the way measurements and weights and all these formal qualities are very important too, so I can say I am a Conceptual artist, but at the same time I am a very formal artist.

OOO: Your family had a very important art collection. Did that shape your development as an artist?

Leirner: Oh, for sure it did, it was sold to the Houston Museum of Art, a very small collection of a hundred pieces more or less, all of them constructive pieces. I have to say that growing up with this presence at home, for sure my visual education and style was very much, as you said, shaped by it. And it was more an experience really than a teaching situation—I really experienced all these presences without really knowing about them, as a child or teenager—I really got to know them before university and everything. My parents didn’t teach us about it, but searching for them and finding them, me and my brother and sister experienced all this way of collecting.

OOO: Do you think that’s something that’s missing nowadays, with art historians perhaps reading too much about things beforehand or overanalyzing things or with museumgoers first reading wall text—maybe they should just take in the art by themselves first?

Leirner: Oh, for sure, that’s a great question. Art students should go to museums to see art much more than reading. I feel that lack in universities. In open studios, I sometimes feel that they do not see much art, I can feel it, students do not see enough or else they would be doing something else, they would learn more.

“Ninety percent of the work is
thinking in the end.”

OOO: The work would be more authentic?

Leirner: It would be better, at least.

OOO: Do you have a favorite piece from this show?

Leirner: Maybe the hardware with a steel cable.

OOO: Why? Or is it very difficult to explain?

Leirner: It’s difficult to explain—maybe the presence of so many different things in one place… All the others are, you know, just levels or laminated pieces of paper together with some hardware, but this one…whatever had a hole would fit, and it has this size that it can go forever in a way—or it can be small, I don’t know. I also like the cigarette paper piece. I am a little suspicious to answer this question because I like all of them in the end, even the watercolors.

OOO: Do you see your art as distinctly Latin American or Brazilian?

Leirner: No, It has nothing to do with Latin America… It’s art. I prefer not to attach another word like Latin American art or female art or art related to crime or religion or gender… just art as art.

OOO: You’ve mentioned to me that you have always loved different kinds of music, from classical to hard-core, underground and hip-hop. Have you incorporated music into your art?

Leirner: In a sense, you can say it’s musical because it’s always full of rhythm and color, but no… well, sometimes it enters in a more literal way like I have a piece called Hip Hop and I just did one where some portraits of musicians are part of it, and also portraits of artists and filmmakers.

OOO: Do you have a daily routine?

Leirner: It varies a lot… sometimes, I am in the computer in archives, sometimes at my studio, sometimes doing watercolors at home or in the studio, and sometimes I travel and just think about it. Ninety percent of the work is thinking in the end. I experiment a lot, but more than that, I think about the work. When I came to New Haven, I didn’t have a studio for the first week, so I was doing watercolors in the hotel and thinking what I could do to have all this work ready in two months in that space that had Malcolm Morley’s show, and I was just thinking about these six watercolors. On the second week, I went shopping for what I thought about as materials, but even when shopping, I was thinking and finding new materials. In the third week, I finally had a studio where I could work and think and deal with the materials and experiment.

OOO: I noticed that you once created sculptures and installations for the French store Colette. What was that like?

Leirner: In ’89, I did the first pieces with plastic bags and then again 20 years later but without the center of it, but I didn’t like the idea—it was my gallery that decided to have them shown there.

OOO: What do you think of the relatively recent rise of art fairs, biennales, etc.? What was it like exhibiting at Venice Biennale and Documenta? Is it something you would want to do again?

Leirner: As a young artist, it’s so great to experience it and meet artists and fill the air that is around all these huge events, but today I try to run away from them [laughs] and from this massive presence of art people in the same place. I become so anxious about, you know, all the conversations and everything, but it’s great to see that the public is growing and people are working and dealing with art, but at the same time I feel that people always take a piece of art, you know? It’s so easy to work in art, not that it’s not difficult to become a curator or a dealer but… in Portuguese, let me see how I say…. It’s as if they took a list, you know? Hitchhike… it’s like people are hitchhiking on art.

“It’s hard for me to understand
what’s really good in contemporary art…”

You know, if they’re not sure what to do in their lives like be a teacher or mathematician, art is becoming more and more the solution. And there are more and more artists too, and each time, it is easier to make art in a way, you know, with all the computers to make movies and so on.

It’s hard for me to understand what’s really good in contemporary art… I feel sometimes things are so efficient in a way, but they lack depth too. I don’t feel I can go deeper, you see, they are very much in the surface although very efficient in terms of technique and presence; they can be very beautiful, but I don’t know what to think, like I am in a place where sometimes I cannot understand things very well or tell if they’re good or bad.

OOO: Is there an accomplishment you’re most proud of in your artistic career?

Leirner: This situation at Yale is for sure one of them.

OOO: What about Oxford?

Leirner: Yes, these are the two most special situations I have experienced.

OOO: Why, compared to, say, a museum or gallery?

Leirner: These are people who are really serious about my subject, which is art, you know, thinking and bringing new ideas, and these are two of the most important universities in the world. And it was wonderful, the way they treated me.

OOO: When did you first meet Robert Storr [Curator of the Exhibition and Dean of the Yale School of Art]?

Leirner: We met in ’91 when he first came to Sao Paolo, where I live. He came to my studio, and from then on we kept meeting. This time, in ’91, he brought a piece to the Museum of Modern Art, where he was a curator.

OOO: Was that the first time one of your pieces went to a major museum?

Leirner: Yes. Well, I also had pieces at the Walker Art Center… I don’t remember which was first.

OOO: Are you working on a new project now?

Leirner: I have two new projects I’m working on, but in terms of exhibitions, there will be one in Museo Tamayo that is not for sure yet, but I have lots of works waiting for their time. There’s a whole line of work waiting to be done.

Jac Leirner is on view until September 30, 2012, at 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery, New Haven, CT.

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