At the outset, Jessi Reaves’ sculptures appear to be neglected furniture awaiting reupholstery: disorderly, inner parts exposed.
Upon closer inspection, though, one notices a painstakingly arranged selection of materials that have been united through quilting, tying, and glueing, ultimately forming objects that are both strange and recognisable.
Reaves’ sculptures transcend the traditionally distinguished boundaries between art, design, and craft. She incorporates typical items like chairs, auto parts, fans, and lighting into her creations, which can work as practical objects and also as depictions of them.
She pays homage to iconic modern furniture designs by renowned designers such as Isamu Noguchi, Philip Johnson, and Marcel Breuer. Her constructions are arranged in a fluid, almost artistic way, and appear to let loose a decorative unconscious that had formerly been confined within the shapes.
Reaves’ sculptures, without overtly referencing the body, somehow evoke an oddly human ambience, which accounts for their particular allure. Utilizing upholstery, slipcovers, and drapery methods, the works possess a tangible presence. (Reaves, a 2009 RISD graduate, had prior experience in upholstery.)
Hence, it is unsurprising that her pieces have been affiliated with art-inclined fashionistas. Reaves has worked with her RISD peers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta of Eckhaus Latta, as well as John Galliano; she delivered a centerpiece setup for Maison Margiela’s 2018 Spring Couture Show in Paris.
I paid a visit to Reaves’ studio in Chelsea, Manhattan, which was previously a stable of an old carriage house, so that we could talk about her process and the artwork Crust Bucket Comes to Town (Slipper Chair) (2016).
–Eliza Barry is the one who said this–
Did the idea for Crust Bucket Comes to Town come from a specific shape or form being envisioned and then finding materials that fit that construct? Or was the project based on the materials you had available?
JESSI REAVES: Every piece is unique, but this one had a particular starting point – the frame of a collapsible camping chair. This had come about due to a collaboration with the artist Robert Bittenbender. He had decided to repair the seat of the chair by piercing it with wooden skewers and then weaving the holes together with duct tape.
This creative upholstery was then incorporated into the table they made together. Afterwards, Jessi was offered the chair frame and she accepted it. She was drawn to the geometric similarity between this and other modern and postmodern chairs, as well as the idea of making something heavy and static from something that was designed to be mobile and transient.
BLVR: The work appears to be expressionistic and rapid, yet I am aware that the actual construction takes much more time than one who has not observed the process would think. How many decisions that you make while constructing the work are predetermined, and how many of them are impulsive and unplanned?
JR mentioned that, despite having limited experience in building, the most thought-out part of the process for them is finding the structure and stability for the pieces of furniture. The mixture of sawdust and wood glue needs to be built up slowly since it starts out in a liquid state. Forming it is quite a gestural process, with its changes only being visible in the long run and requiring sanding.
BLVR: The eclectic blending of materials gives off the impression that the components of the chair were scavenged. Do you take journeys to locate the pre-existing materials for this piece? Where did you search for them?
I used to travel upstate, but in more recent times I have been taking trips to Jersey and utilizing the internet to find what I’m looking for. It’s so convenient to just lounge in bed and search for whatever I need. I find it really fun to dive down the online rabbit holes looking for whatever I need.
The frame was an existing piece that I acquired from Robert. These wooden curves used to be components of auditorium seating but have been altered to the point that their former identity is unrecognizable.
I found the cushion on eBay, where I often look for materials. To finish it off, I covered it with a different fabric to give it a faux upholstery look. The foam bolster was a stock shape that I sourced. I find gathering materials immensely enjoyable since it takes me out of the studio and away from the city.
Additionally, I usually don’t find what I set out to look for, which is a pleasant surprise. To complete my search, I then search for specific elements either on the internet or at auctions.
The chair in BLVR appears to act as a placeholder for a human body. It has shifted from its position as an inanimate object to one with a certain subjecthood. The title reinforces this idea of a character being formed. When constructing the piece, did you have the intent of creating a persona?
JR suggested that the expression “crust bucket” or “oogle” is a term used to refer to musicians in a joking way.
He additionally added that the chair in the piece is intended to be a travel chair and the title of the work is meant to represent the transient nature of a ready-made object. He believes that the artwork relates to the body through the notion of blemish, and may cause people to personify the work as it embraces the blemished surface. Furthermore, he stated that this specific piece has a “crusty skin.”
BLVR: It’s peculiar, but one can easily find a connection to the work.
JR commented on the concept of fear of blemish, noting that it can relate to many areas. The idea of perfect and clean surfaces is contrasted with the language used to refer to a body’s parts, like the leg and arms of a chair. While JR appreciates this type of artwork in others, they are hesitant to replicate it themselves. They admire Sarah Lucas’s and Paul Thek’s work in this regard.
BLVR: During your discussion with Gaetano Pesce, you stated that when designing something you take out all of the practicality and then try to add it back in, even if functionality is limited. Could you explain more on what you mean by “something else”?
JR suggested that the element of art or the feeling of the piece is the most basic answer. By making something less practical than it needs to be, it begins to be considered art. By breaking down a piece, it gains individual gestures and ties it to the production process. This process of deconstruction serves to bring awareness to the manufacturing.
This camping chair has been heavily altered in a way that has removed its lightweight and portable qualities. It is now much heavier due to a substantial amount of solid wood underneath the seat, making it very sturdy. This is only visible if someone gets under the chair or lifts the cushion.
Do you ever have to give up on certain creative aspects of a work because of its functional requirements?
Fortunately, I haven’t had much need for added structure in my work. I suppose it’s something that I just yearn for. Still, it was a point of emphasis while I was employed at the Whitney.
BLVR: I remember visiting the Biennial shortly after it began, and seeing one of your creations there. However, when I returned before the exhibition ended, I noticed some damage. This got me thinking that the life of your artwork does not stop at the studio door, and instead, is changed with every use.
JR commented that having a crash course in the realities of a large museum and the huge quantities of people visiting was beneficial. He would be okay with displaying the objects and not allowing people to sit in them in the future, as he doesn’t feel that sitting in them is an essential part of understanding them or exploring them. According to him, what’s important is the fact that they are meant to be used. He also noted that functional items have a variety of uses, and not all of them are intended for the same purpose.
I attempted to view showing in the museum as a sort of experiment in aging at an increased rate, similar to sandblasting. It was an effort-demanding task to go in and repair the pieces. It was also rather irritating because visitors were quite rough with the items, which was not the goal.
BLVR: Museum-goers have been taught to observe art from a respectful distance, but when they learn that it’s permissible to interact with it in a physical way, it can lead to an influx of people touching the artwork and possibly causing damage to it.
JR was still grappling with the dilemma of how to get people to sit without telling them to do so. He had discovered that their natural curiosity was the key to a more mindful experience of the artwork. When asked about making creative compromises, he stated that he would use different fabrics and materials if he had known about the context beforehand. He then mentioned the idea of covering a piece in a vinyl slipcover, similar to what bars do after closing down for the night.
BLVR: Utilizing a bit of Clorox…
JR agreed precisely.
BLVR: Cover it up! My great aunt’s home was literally filled with slipcovers, which she had put in place in the 1970s and they remained untouched since then.
JR commented that they appreciate the idea of the protective covering, however, they don’t like how it’s immediately associated with the elderly. They continued noting that the younger generation does not use slipcovers for their possessions, since nothing they have is considered worth preserving.
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