About Evidence: A Conversation between Deborah Jack & Patricia Ortega-Miranda
we know the edges of this land
woven to the water
by sand, rock & mangrove roots
the ebb and flow of tides
keeping time with our breath
From the poem “The Edges Sing Our Songs” by Deborah Jack
Contemporary international visual artist DEBORAH Jack grew up in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. She earned her MFA from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY in 2002. She has developed an impressive body of work in various media that includes painting, photography, video art, and large-scale installations. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Art at New Jersey City University and continues to show her work internationally. In this interview with PATRICIA Ortega-Miranda, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland and curatorial intern at Now Be Here, they discuss Jack’s exploration of color and photographic techniques in the series Evidence 2009-11.
PATRICIA Deborah, in your practice you work with various media. You have created pieces that involve multiple-channel video, large-scale installations, even incorporating some performative elements, but I was interested in your approach to photography with this particular series Evidence. I would like to start by asking you what place does this particular work occupy within your artistic trajectory?
DEBORAH It’s a work that I would locate in the middle of my career. When I started working on this series I had been making work about the sea, hurricanes, and the mythologies around them. I had been thinking about the sea a lot, and I had done a large-scale installation called Shore (2004). In that piece, I shot the view of the coastline from the sea, and I didn’t go further inland. So even the tree that I show in that video, is the Sea Grape, which is a tree that has little grape-like fruit and grows right on the beach, in the sand. People use it for the shade at beach gatherings and sometimes eat the fruit. It is a protective plant. After working on the installation I started thinking, you have been at sea, conceptually, for a while, thinking about the history of the Black Atlantic and the resonance that resides at the edge of the island. The shore as a site of encounters, arrivals, and farewells. What about the land? I needed to go inward. I stepped away from working with the sea and the theme of hurricanes. Evidence came at that time when my work was shifting. I looked at the land and thought about how memory was embedded in it. I had some negatives that I had shot while playing around with a camera that was manual. I modified it so that I could control when and how much I wanted to advance the film. The modification also removed the internal border that frames the image. This results in a borderless photo… it creates double exposure, however, you can choose to advance a frame or half a frame so that’s how I began shooting The Flamboyant.
PATRICIA Tell me about your interest in this peculiar tree- I remember seeing it everywhere in Cuba.
DEBORAH The Flamboyant is not indigenous to this area. They brought it over from Madagascar I think however it’s present in almost every continent. For St. Maarten, there are a lot of cultural significance. It’s our national tree. I went into some of the more interior landscapes on the island and I began to layer different images in the landscape. This layering was something I was also exploring with my videos. Initially, I shot it in black and white film, which I would print with a color processor, and a color enlarger, which allowed me to make these monochromatic images that I could dial in the specific color that I wanted. So I started to play with this layering of images and make a continuous longer image using bigger portions of the reel. When I saw what I could do with that I decided to take color film with me and that is how the series came about.
PATRICIA It is interesting that you started working with black and white film and then switched to color. But it makes sense because the colors in the landscape are so vibrant. Color has a kind of plasticity in your work, which takes me to the next question. Does this particular work bring out the painter in you?
DEBORAH Yeah, I started as a painter.
PATRICIA I would love to hear more about that because I got the feeling that you have a special eye for color, not only in its application but in the way that you think about color conceptually. I have heard you say that your choice of using black and white versus color has to do with an intention to intervene and disrupt the image of the tropical or Caribbean landscape as a tourist commodity. But in Evidence, especially in the video, I see you getting close to the petals of The Flamboyant, and that extreme closeness makes me think of the myth of the painter that cannot get enough of looking at color and feeling its intensity.
DEBORAH Well, my arrival at painting was when I was very young. The ideas I had about art were of course the art I saw on the island, so the only kind of art I had ever seen or artists I knew were painters. So I thought if you are going to be an artist you will definitely have to use these materials. When I started with this interest in art, painting was the thing that captivated me and what I had been most exposed to. The other source for that interest came from being a nerd and spending a lot of time at the library looking at art books. I saw books about Van Gogh, the impressionists, and fauvism. But then I found this really big book about Latin American Art, a huge coffee table book with fuchsia colors, and I picked it up and all of a sudden, I was seeing not only abstraction but also the work of Diego Rivero, Tamayo, Siqueiros, the Mexican Muralists, which made a huge impression on me. To this day I am a huge admirer of their work. Also, I saw the work of a Puerto Rican painter, Arnaldo Roche Rabell and he was an artist who used this technique of edging the canvas and I thought wow you can do this? So my painting was very textured at the beginning.
But you asked about color, and I would like to tell you a story about that. When I was an undergraduate student for the first painting class I took we had to use grays, white, and black. That is how we learn the basics you know, shades and tones. The assignment was to create a still life where you could only use black, white, and raw umber. I asked if I could use burnt sienna, which is orange. I was very persistent until the teacher said ok yes. And I noticed how different it was from other students. I wasn’t sure if mine was ok but the teacher encouraged me. At the end of the assignment, we evaluated all of the student’s work together and mine was this orange painting. And the teacher goes over each one of them and when he gets to mine, he says ok this is an opportunity to teach you all something. Deborah is not going to get an F, because even though the painting is very different, we have a very European sensibility in the way that we approach color when we are learning to paint. Gray is a very European palette, here Deborah who comes from a different place, it’s OK because that is her base palette- based in color- enlivened by full and bright sunshine rather than overcast grays.
PATRICIA That must have felt so reassuring.
DEBORAH Right. That was one of those moments when even though I did not know I was going to become an artist I felt validated, in the way I saw things. I was confused- not understanding how, if the teacher said it was ok, why nobody else had run to use burn sienna. Then as we started learning how to mix colors the teacher came to me and said I have total confidence that this is your strength and that you know how to get the colors and what you are looking for. So I have always been highly aware of color. But when I made Evidence it was after having done all of this work that used this monochromatic palette and at this mid-point after having been working with black and white, I felt that I had established enough in my mind that this was not going to be this fetishized tropical aesthetic.
PATRICIA This is great because I did get a sense that with this series you got into this deep exploration of color. So it is a unique episode in your photographic work. I thought you did accomplish a counter-aesthetic to this tropical fetishistic image of the Caribbean by using color. Through the various effects you convey a sense of extreme closeness, which brings me to another question about the place of memory in your work. I know that memory is a central theme in your work, not only in the sense of personal, collective, and historical memory of a particular place or events but as a sensory memory. What you just shared makes me think about how color, even at a very early age, was part of this sensory memory in you, and that comes across in this series very strongly.
DEBORAH When I started with color photography I learned about reciprocity failure. This happens when exposures are too long. The dyes in the emulsion of color film breakdown. They fail. But in that failure, you get these different color casts and shifts that do not happen if you shoot at the correct exposure. You can bracket and go over a bit or under in terms of exposure. But with the layering, through multiple exposures’ I pushed the film to break it down so I would get these other colors that would pop up and that were not found in that natural landscape. That is why you see that richness in some of the images.
The originals were printed as small prints. I later scanned the negatives and printed them larger digitally. When you print in the color darkroom and processor, the color paper itself has a quality in terms of the coating or emulsion, which again adds something unexpected to the original print. So yes, when I committed to working in color I went in all the way in terms of both exploring the material itself and the colors in the landscape. My proximity to the flowers and the tree itself and the angles present in the video as well reveal the hidden performative aspect of this process, which is something I was not aware of until a friend of mine, who is a dancer and choreographer, pointed out that I dance when I film. I simply wanted to capture a sense of movement of flowing in and out without using the zoom. How I encounter and experience these sites determines how I shoot and eventually how I approach the materials.
PATRICIA This is something I find especially relevant in the photograph of an inland path. I am familiar with those places. It is the path that leads to the beach. But the beach you can only sense, hear, or smell perhaps. There is a sense of wanderlust in that journey because you have not yet arrived but you are also already there. I find it fascinating and incredibly powerful that you explore closeness but also these passages in a way that is able to puncture the flat poster-like familiar image of a Caribbean paradise touristic advertisement. Your work makes me think about distance and closeness as a metaphor for the Caribbean landscape, as an image of a distant place where nature is experienced in extreme closeness.
Thinking about metaphors, I know you write poetry and have published books of poems, what is the place of poetry in your visual work?
DEBORAH For so long I thought of my poetry as separate from my visual work. I used to think that if I was going to be an artist those things needed to be kept somewhat separately. So I stayed away from mixing them. When I think about the work, I realize that some thoughts or stories work better visually and others work better as text. Threads come to me in the way of language, of words, and end up forming a poem. I keep the notion of the poetic when I am working visually, because I am not really interested in constructing long narrative structures, even though there might be the sense of a story unfolding. The way poetry conveys and captures that richness of experience with an economy of language is what I keep in mind when I am working.
“For so long I thought of my poetry as separate from my visual work…I am very interested in the economy of language that poetry has to give us.”
PATRICIA That is something I am interested in. The interconnections between aesthetic practices. These kinds of interdisciplinary aspects of your work called my attention, and the intermedial dynamics operating in it. For example, in this series the economy of language is reflected in the special attention you grant to the fragment, which I see in the close-ups, the juxtapositions but especially in that fixation on color. In other series of works, I see that this economy creates space for intimacy, but intimacy as a passage.
DEBORAH Yes, I work with that because I think that there is something to be gained, a reward, by going closer. Within the Caribbean landscape, there is, of course, that layering of experience you get when you look and listen closely and deeper because the notion of space shifts as well.
PATRICIA One last question Deborah. Do you have a project in mind you would like to see realized? Something that is perhaps ambitious or large scale?
DEBORAH When I did Shore, which was early in my career, I was able to do the large-scale piece I always had in mind, which was to make a version of coastline inside a building. I filled one side with water, a reflecting pool, and the other with 3-4 tons of rock salt. Right now, I would be interested in creating a multi-channel piece installation that had maybe ten screens going at the same time and with sound. I am also interested in the scientific language of weather research and imaging. I would like to continue to work with imagery of the hurricane. The eye of the hurricane interests me. Ideally, I would like to work with a hurricane simulation center. The University of Miami has a hurricane simulator that goes up to category five. Perhaps a piece in collaboration with that.
PATRICIA That would be such a great project. To think about a kind of poetics of the hurricane’s eye. I remember being in Cuba in 2002 and waiting in the dark for several hours for hurricane Lili to pass. There was always this thing about knowing or sensing when the eye is right above, because there is dead calmness. And that feeling of knowing that that is its very center is quite powerful.
DEBORAH Right, it is usually the calm before the worst part of the storm. And so yes the calm doesn’t really bring peace because you know there is more to come, you are only at the halfway point. I have been looking at satellite images of the eye. If you look down to it there is a void, there is nothing there, all you see is this column of clouds and a bit of green. I am interested in that satellite visual in relation to the experience at ground level.
This is a transcript from a phone interview between Deborah Jack & Patricia Ortega-Miranda that took place on January 14, 2021, at 11:00 am ET.
This project is supported in part by The University of Maryland Art Gallery.
Thank you to Deborah Jack, Patricia Ortega-Miranda, and Kim Schoenstadt for the interview and the editing.