Other Investigations: Jessica Labatte

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Jessica Labatte is a Chicago-based artist who works primarily in large format photography. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009 and has recently had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and NADA Art Fair in Miami.

How does your practice relate to the spaces you work in, from the studio to the exhibition spaces?

My work is always created within the parameters of the studio.  I collect things from  the constrictions of the space that I have.  I really don’t let an amount of space go to waste.  In The Brightness, I created an installation from papers that were used to cover my studio floor when I painted objects for another project. These papers were later hung from the ceiling and walls of the studio. In between I layered paper and fabric. After I had photographed The Brightness I began to work on another project. But I didn’t want to de-install The Brightness until the film was back from the lab. As I was working on the new assemblage, I discovered that the parts of the new assemblage were reflecting the colors of The Brightness. These beautiful abstractions of color and texture on the surface of a simple gift bag became the Surface Effects 1-10.  This whole project really dealt with the space of the studio and how one project could fluidly lead into the next.

When I installed these works at the MCA, I hung the works in the gallery in a similar arrangement to how the works were created in the studio. This attention to the physical exhibition space is something that I am interested in working with again.

How do you decide what objects you collect and what ultimately becomes photographed?

The choice of objects is fairly individualized and intuitive, and develops organically out of my experiences with the world. I always have my eyes open for next subjects. Many times I will encounter an object and be so caught off guard that I need to posses it. This means that I am constantly collecting, and always on the look out for new subjects. From these larger collections of objects I combine and compose them into images, editing out things that don’t seem right or adding elements when something feel lacking. I have become sensitive to how things will look when they are in front of the camera lens, so this helps me decide what to collect. But, sometimes I think that a shape or object will be perfect, but when I see it on the ground glass (Of the 4×5 camera), I see that it just doesn’t work within the composition.  It’s definitely not a definite process, and there are no concrete parameters for choosing, it all just happens in the moment.

What is your process when setting up your still-lifes (do you tend to plan every detail out and then set it up, or do you work intuitively, or a mix of both)?

Haha!  It’s definitely a little bit of both. I am working on a series now where I am collecting fragments from the street — little bits broken off cars, bottles, and packaging. Most are unrecognizable at best difficult to identify. With this collection I compose table-top assemblages placing the pieces in an intuitive fashion. In that way it is kind of like drawing or maybe doing an aesthetic performance. So for that body of work, the whole process is intuitive.

For other bodies of work, I will have an idea that I know I want to execute, but not really know how it is going to work out. For instance, I found several mirrors in an alley near my house. I knew that I wanted to arrange them so that they reflected things from outside the frame back to the camera, as in The Alignment. However, even when I have an idea to begin with, I don’t really know how the execution of that idea is going to manifest. With The Alignment,  there was a lot of trial and error and a lot of intuitive decision making along the way.  As I am going through the process of physically constructing the image things tend to change a lot.

I want to embrace chance and let invention guide me as much as possible. This is where I really get to be creative. I like being flexible and open to potential of things that I can not anticipate. Creative problem solving is really important to me.  As I am constructing sets, inevitably things will go wrong. I could be out of background paper or not have enough black duct tape or cinderblocks or turquoise foam. In a moment I have to be able to figure out a way to make what I want to make happen a reality with whatever I have on hand.

Your pieces usually start by arranging objects, in a more sculptural manner, and then eventually become photographs. How is that relationship important to your work?

I have always built things for the camera, so the relationship between objects and images has always been of interest to me. I have the camera out as I am composing, and although there is a physical aspect to the construction of photographs, they are always meant to be seen as photographs. The assemblages may seem like they could make nice sculptures, but they tend to be extremely precarious. They wouldn’t last long in a public or gallery setting. That is one reason the photograph is a necessity.

Beyond that, there are perspectival things that happen in the camera where forms overlap and dimension becomes slippery. These are the moments I am after, and they don’t happen in our multi-dimensional space. Normal human vision allows you to distinguish spatial relationships and identify forms. However, if this normal perception is destabilized, it is a perfect moment for new information to sneak its way in. Since we are constantly editing and disregarding “unnecessary” information, abnormalities in our sight or things that we can’t explain are thrown out. These sights don’t seem useful.  However it is in the unknown that there is the most potential for discovery, and I want my photographs to draw attention to these special perceptual occurrences in our everyday environments.

A lot of your photographs look digitally altered but in reality they are not, is that important to you, if so, why?

Philosophically, it is extremely important to me that my photographs document real potentialities and are not digitally altered or collaged. But I do like the fact that they may look like they are! I want to draw attention to over-looked, yet amazing phenomena.

Of course, the possibilities of digital technologies influence the aesthetics in my work, and the way the work is viewed. In this day and age, it would be much easier to create these images in Photoshop than to labor for months positioning mirrors and lights. However, I think that there is something really special to be said about the fact that the simplest materials can be used to such high-end effect. I think its kind of like alchemy, or magic, or another sort of metaphysical transformation. It’s the potential in art for real transformation.

What have you been working on most recently?

My studio is a little bonkers right now because I have been working on a crazily complex installation of mirrors. The installation occupies three walls of my studio and in the end will result in three pictures. The images will be beautiful compositions of colored light and will be shown in my upcoming solo exhibition with Golden Gallery New York.

I have been very interested in how our technological innovations influence our consciousness and worldview. As I am learning more about theories regarding out universe, I have been realizing that things may not actually be what we perceive. We may live in a world that is radically different than what we currently understand in terms of the actualities of space and time. Yet, until we have the technology to prove these theoretical potentialities of this world, they remain theories. I think that this has influenced the real/digital dichotomy in my work. There is an importance to the craft and labor that goes into making these works, but there is a finesse that alludes to digital creation. This balance is important to me because I believe that if we are able to see our world with fresh eyes, we may see fantastic potential right in front of us.