Antiques of the Future: A conversation with artist Jesse Small of Torrance, California who also works in a studio in southern China. February, 2011.
Q - You’ve done quite a bit of public art so I imagine a lot of folks in Des Moines might have seen your work without realizing it. Where in Central Iowa have you completed projects?
A - In Clive I have a project in front of the Wellness Center that was completed in 2009. That’s a series of nine large steel pieces, kind of hard to miss because it’s right on the road and pretty high up too. Because a lot of pedestrian traffic was predicted for that area, they were designed to be walked amongst.
The other project I have around here is in Marshalltown. Marshalltown built a new library and it has a beautiful large atrium. They had seen my hanging sculptures and thought it would be really cool if I came up with some hanging pieces designed specifically for that atrium. I am really happy with that project - a dozen or so chandelier-like pieces floating around. The best thing is that so many kids notice it there and really respond to it. Whenever I see kids relating to my art I know I did something right cause kids are the harshest critics. I have shown here at Moberg Gallery and I was in a group show at the Des Moines Art Center in 2008. I think that’s it for public displays here of my work. There have also been some private collectors here who commissioned major pieces but I don’t know if I should mention names.
Q - Your art has long been influenced by weaponry. What about weapons fascinates you?
A - For a long time, I’m 36 so maybe I don’t really know what a long time is, but for as long I have been making art I have been interested in the idea of ornamentation - the idea of taking a normal everyday object and beautifying it, which is what we have been doing since the dawn of civilization. You may need a simple bag to carry your stuff but you also need to embellish it. Today it’s gone crazy. New cars have so much ornamentation that that is all you see sometimes. When have you ever really seen a minimalist house? No one does that. Contemporary architecture is covered in ornamentation. So I have been interested for a while now in how ornamentation affects the object it embellishes.
Taking something so purely functional, like army helmets and Jeep tires, and converting them by covering them in porcelain and glazes and filigree, I think I have converted something brutal and essentially functional into something decorative. Some place in there is the essential relationship between ornamentation and function. A functional object can be something quite brutal but ornamentation can convert that brutality into something beautiful.
Q - Lately you have implemented this same process on less militaristic objects. How did that develop?
A - In that same vein now I am interested in more mundane things. A lot of that has had to do with traveling and working outside the US which I started doing a lot in 2006. Getting away from American culture, I realized that objects that are readily recognized in America, such as Jeeps and army helmets, have obscure meaning elsewhere. In China, people thought army helmets were bicycle helmets and just thought it weird that anyone would make a bicycle helmet out of porcelain. So while working in China I got interested in more internationally recognized symbols and found that video games were pan cultural and pan generational. Pac Man was invented in Japan but spread everywhere in the world. Other games are just as international. Icons such as airport signage and talk bubbles are something you might see anywhere too. They are designed to be understood internationally.
Now I think I am going more for the throat of ornamentation. I am now actually making the items themselves - actual folding screens and chandeliers. They might be stylistically quite different but they are still functioning in their traditional fashion. The folding screen works basically like a 17th century French Chinoise folding screen but it’s also quite different. My new chandeliers, unlike the ones in Marshalltown, are actual functioning chandeliers - with lights and wiring.
Q - How does that change the dynamic between art and audience?
A - The chandelier is in an art gallery and I am an artist so how do you want to label the object now? Is it design? Is it a product? It is a one of a kind product made by an artist. It’s a lot of fun to play with such assumptions. To have a conversation with the audience where the audience can approach the work and have a dialogue about what’s going on. Is this a chandelier, or is this a sculpture about a chandelier? And if it really is a chandelier then what’s it doing in an art gallery? It’s not really mass marketable because the style is too wild in its ornamentation. It’s actually mocking ornamentation and hopefully taking ornamentation to the next level.
It’s something that puts one person’s ornamentation style forth and people are not comfortable with that. For centuries, the same ornamental styles have been regurgitated into every thing. The molding in the kitchen cabinets of a brand new suburban tract home is the same as the molding profile as was used inside the Roman Coliseum and that style went back to ancient Egypt. Their decorative standards from 4000 years ago have been regurgitated ever since, by the Roman Empire, the Neo-Classicism of the Renaissance, modern architecture and art. We have the same ornamental standards. All that changes is that context they are used in. Look at a typical suburban house and you see Neo Classical stuff going on and French Colonial stuff and Baroque stuff all going on and most people aren’t aware of that at all. They just look at all that ornamentation and all those different styles and they just call it “fancy.” What they see is a mish mash of many decorative styles that originally had no relationship to each other.
So within that chaos, I see things like this: If everything around us is smashed together from 4000 years of ornamental history, then where is the rule book? Every ornamental style had a birth point at some place by a particular creator. Well, I can do that too. Here’s my chandelier. Here’s my folding screen.
Q- What are some of styles that clash in your own personal creative dialectic then?
A - I am interested in the idea of antiques of the future. So if we have been using chandeliers for the last 4000 years I think we might be using them for the next 4000 years. What will an antique chandelier look like then? So I am interested in futuristic stuff but I am also interested in the classics that came out of the 1980’s - when video games were not yet played at home but when you had to go to these places where video games stood in their unique big boxes and had their own decorations in neon and grids and light bulbs. At the time I think it may have been too campy and cheap looking for anyone to see how it could become a classic of ornamentation. But thousands of years in the future, someone might look back at it as a golden age of design.