Makin Whoopee: A Conversation with J. Fiber, James Esber and Jane Fine with Jim Supanick
James Esber and Jane Fine have shared a life together since 1986, and in the last several months, their partnership has entered a new phase with the birth of a new entity by the name of J. Fiber. On the occasion of the first exhibition of their collaborative work, which will be on view at Pierogi/Brooklyn until April 14, the videomaker and writer Jim Supanick paid a visit to the artists’ studios.
Jim Supanick (Rail) : If we were to consider the old truism that couples who have been together a long time begin to resemble one another, how might that apply to your life together as artists?
Jane Fine: I think our story is almost the opposite. James and I met 22 years ago, at my studio. I got a crush on him pretty quickly. He’d already seen my paintings, but I was really worried that I wouldn’t like his work. On our second or third date I went to his studio. It was ridiculous–our paintings were so similar! We were both doing this knockoff, Gustonesque abstraction, so there was no real issue of liking or disliking. Our first collaboration was around 1987, but it was terrible. We passed this oil painting back and forth, but we just kept painting out each other’s work and we had to drop it. At this point, we’ve evolved so much in different directions that we haven’t even had to talk about how we make sure that this part looks like his, and this part looks like mine…
James Esber: Yeah, at that time we were still trying to develop our own directions in making work, but now we’re at a point where we’re comfortably working in certain idioms, and there are these areas of overlap that make the two different styles work together. One of the things is that I’m working from figuration towards abstraction while Jane is working in the opposite direction—she starts out basically working abstractly, and then adds bits of figuration, so we kind of meet in the middle with this cartoony, rubbery, mutant, abstract…
Fine: …sex and violence…
Esber: …kind of style.
Rail: I had thought this current series was your first attempt at collaboration.
Fine: There were a few earlier attempts, but I think we were afraid, as married people, of absorbing each other’s identities. At one point, James was really interested in a clearly imposed rule to keep our contributions distinct. We made some drawings where I worked only in red, and James worked in blue.
Rail: How did this new round of collaboration get started?
Fine: Well, we had been talking about trying to do a show for a long time, but it was always on the back burner; then, in the summer of 2007, my mother passed away, and I had just a terrible time getting back to work and James said, “Why don’t you go ahead and start the J. Fibers?” And it was, for me, the perfect way to get back into the studio. Losing my mother was so extreme for me. This project allowed me to get back to work without this huge expectation that, “I must do the best painting ever! I must create the grand catharsis of all my pain!”
Esber: It was the right timing for both of us.
Fine: James and I talked a lot about how these drawings couldn’t be done if we didn’t know each other well, because there’s a level of trust in them. I was thinking about other people I might collaborate with, but I would be so nervous about insulting them I would be so careful with the edge of everything…
Rail: You would hold back…
Fine: Yeah, I would really hold back, whereas, when I’m making a drawing with someone I’ve been through a lot with, I’m past worrying about offending them—it’s just not an issue anymore.
Rail: And there’s that type of collaboration in other art forms—I’m thinking particularly of music—where two people in different places might e-mail files back and forth, and build a piece of music that way. There, they have the “undo” command, which is like a set of water wings—if adventure becomes misadventure, they can always go back to square one. With this, there’s this old-school possibility of complete ruin.
Esber: But there are a few drawings in this bunch that have changed directions several times. Take the one showing the Statue of Liberty (“Wretched Refuse”), for instance—I think that I have a certain idea of how I see it spatially, but Jane probably sees it differently. Even then, it’s interesting that we can both work on a drawing while seeing it in different ways, and still come up with something that’s coherent at the end.
Rail: The Statue of Liberty, buttressed by those sandbaggy forms, inevitably has a certain resonance to it.
Fine: “Planet of the Apes.”
Esber: There’s something really nice about being able to work on something and not feel the full responsibility for making it work out. I think it was really appealing to both of us, this idea that you could just throw whatever you want to on a page and let the next person deal with it. In most cases it turned out much better than anything I could’ve thought of doing at the beginning. I absolutely hated “Salvage” when I started it.
Fine: Did you really?
Esber: Oh yeah! I really hate what I did at the bottom. We had a basic idea for what that drawing was going to be—it was going to be layer built upon layer—but when I did the bottom part, I really felt like I could not have continued on that drawing because I just didn’t see anywhere to go. Then Jane just made it into something completely different, and now it’s probably my favorite drawing in the whole bunch. There’s a kind of softness and hardness to the line that I don’t get in my own work. You could go into any of these drawings and really analyze them- they’re all pretty different.
Rail: When you refer to that as a pile, it does seem that it was conceived to be a certain thing, whereas others seem built off of some preexisting structure.
Fine: The pile-like configuration (“Salvage”) is one of the only ones that we actually talked about in advance. We’d gotten a certain number finished, and in an effort to make some of them look a little bit different, it seemed interesting to talk about the intention of them at the start. Maybe you could say it was a marital moment—to do something and then say to the other person, “Here, take this, fix it.”
Esber: There is a certain element of marital therapy in this. The first person puts something on the page as almost a confrontation, or a problem, and the second person has to apply some TLC, and actually make it work, make sense of what’s there. These drawings, a lot of them are in a continuous state of repair, of trying to save them from absolute…
Esber: They kind of look like that—implosion, or divorce, to use that metaphor…
Fine: I’d say the most confrontational for me is when I painted those green, orange, and hot pink stripes with the lime yellow pour, handed it to James and said “Here!” I had no idea what in the world he would do with that. It was really meant to be kind of aggressive.
Rail: Then it was a kind of a provocation…
Fine: Yeah, it definitely was…
Esber: And in that particular case, I looked at it for awhile, and realized I only had one idea of what could possibly be done with it [laughter]—and that was it… so that was my attempt to save that drawing.
Rail: To rescue it…
Fine: …in his manly way.
Rail: What kind of conversations did you have, both when you were starting out, and later, when you’re passing these back and forth? Was there a lot of discussion, aside from …“don’t screw it up!”?
Fine: You know, really, there was surprisingly little of that. There are two pencil drawings which I had started ten years ago, and were meant to be collaborative drawings, but I was more gung-ho about the project at that point than James was. I dragged them out a couple of months ago, and I still liked what I had started, so I decided to just keep going with it.
Esber: If you want to carry on the metaphor of the old married couple, thinking of the idea of finishing the other person’s sentences, I’m wondering if you can tell the subject from the predicate? In many cases it’s unclear.
Rail: With these discussions you were having, did you suggest things to one another, or was it an unspoken rule that you’re not going to prompt the other, “I set this beautiful opportunity up for you, I hope you’re alert enough to see it.”
Esber: Well, if you were doing the drawings, you wouldn’t do that, would you? The interesting thing about collaboration is having your best-made plans completely foiled. I think it’s a mistake to start something with a definite idea of what it’s going to become, because invariably it’s going to be screwed up by the other person—better to just throw something out as a problem and have the other person deal with it. But if Jane were to have an idea in mind about how that is going to happen, in reality and spatially…if I can’t visualize it in such a way as to make it happen, then it’s not going to happen. Ultimately you have to make some kind of space in the drawing.
Fine: James had some very strong ideas about what the illusionistic space was, or how he wanted the open space to be.
Esber: No, you’re mischaracterizing what I said. For me, finishing the drawing is about resolving the space—that doesn’t mean that I have a definite idea of what the illusionistic space should be. It’s just that that’s what I focus on, and I think she tends to focus more on making beautiful passages of drawing, or on the subject matter.
Fine: So you’re a forest guy and I’m a trees girl.
Esber: For me, the subject matter is almost matter of fact, and it’s usually determined relatively early on in the drawing, and then the rest is about making the drawing work spatially.
Fine: All I was trying to say was that I think the only guidelines James has ever tried to impose on what I was doing had to do with areas that he felt should remain as open space. I think we’ve gotten more into the swing of it now, but in the beginning we had these funny conversations, you know, two married people who just can’t understand each other. I think the first time that we had those clashes it was a little frustrating, then it became funny, and then we started to appreciate that that’s what was making it all interesting. Even though we have a similar aesthetic, we prioritize formal issues in different ways. James will say the drawing will only work if it’s interesting spatially. While I wouldn’t disagree with it, I would never have said that, it’s just not the way I would ever phrase—
Esber: Please don’t paraphrase me…
Fine: Say it in your own way, then.
Esber: Well, for me the resolution of the drawing is mostly a spatial problem.
Rail: The differences aren’t readily apparent, but as I see and hear more, it’s all a bit clearer. Initially, I was struck by how your different sensibilities as form-builders and as mark-makers could coexist in the same…do you call them “pictures”?
Esber: I wouldn’t call them pictures, but I don’t take offense to that—they are pictorial. I’ve shown this drawing to my son Abe, he’s five years old now, and he has no problem saying who drew which part, which I think is kind of interesting, because if we asked some of our relatives, particularly in my family, they really wouldn’t be able to say. Somehow he has an intuitive or visceral understanding of which parts are mine and which are Jane’s.
Rail: In some of the background marking here, it’s unclear, but I see maybe that’s an instance where you’re doing a bit of shape-shifting.
Esber: A little chameleon. This part is mine.
Rail: That’s yours?
Rail: I remember reading a book by Bernard Rudofsky a long time ago called Architecture Without Architects, which contained a passage concerning the building of a stone structure, describing that process as not simply building the wall higher, but also of making a seat for where the next stone would be placed; I wonder—were you ever consciously thinking in those terms?
Esber: Well, my father was a bricklayer.
Rail: And wasn’t he also a fireman?
Esber: That’s right…and I used to work with him, and I often thought about certain lessons about building a wall, maybe different ones than the ones you mean, but I think it has had some influence on how I make art.
Rail: What kind of lessons?
Esber: I think what I took from it was this idea of intentionally avoiding contrived composition. Often, he would be working brick of different colors, and you have to be very careful, both not to create pattern, and not to take even amounts of each color of brick. You have to more or less forget about the idea of design and just pick up whatever brick is closest; you have to mimic nature as much as you can by having things happen without any kind of design.
Rail: That’s interesting, because I would think that you’d want to follow a system that isn’t an obvious one, that didn’t look like linoleum, or some fabric design.
Fine: I think that’s also been a kind of principle of the whole project, this un-intentionality.
Esber: Well, what I thought about this collaboration is…
Fine: Shhhhhhh! James, you’ve been talking way too much. Hush yourself.
Esber: What? You’re the one [laughter]. Actually, when we were sitting here before you came, I was thinking that Jane talks a lot more than I do, and I wondered if the drawings have proportionally more of hers than mine, and I notice that they do, actually—I would say overall it’s about a 60/40 thing.
Esber: Well, I don’t know. Most have more of you in them, don’t you think?
Fine: This one [“Double Your Pleasure”], there’s like fifty million blowjobs, and I have to fit myself in between there. [Laughter]
Esber: You can start the interview this way.
Rail: Yeah, this will make a good pull quote… and the way search engines work, you may get some traffic here that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Esber: Well, finish what you were saying.
Fine: Well, God, if I can remember. Oh yeah. We were just talking about using the other person to generate some ideas, and I was thinking that we used to have this joke, to try and get the other person to do housework that neither of us wanted to do: “Oh dear, you’re sooooo good at doing the dishes.”
Esber: So what do you think the parallel to that in the drawings is?
Fine: Not that I don’t like to do it. But I certainly learned a lot from James with this whole bunch of drawings about how to make a deeper space and specifically, to work from front to back—I so rarely do that. I usually work in an additive way, moving forward, and James does a lot of ducking behind things, and I started to really enjoy that.
Esber: I like having a part of the drawing that can’t be deciphered—basically, abstraction that’s alluding to forms in the real world, but isn’t something that derives from a representational image.
Rail: This question may be better suited to discussing your work individually, but maybe the issue comes to the foreground when the two of you are working together: Do you ever think of your work and your mark-making as adapting a persona or identity that’s not necessarily you?
Esber: The persona as it relates to style? I think that I’ve adapted at different times the styles of the cartoonists that I’ve been interested in since I was a kid, and once in a while, I see some aspect of Don Martin in my work, or R. Crumb. There’s a lot of MAD magazine references and, I don’t like to admit it, but I was an admirer of Norman Rockwell when I was young. So, I’m not exactly imitating his style, but I am working through his view of reality. The style of my drawing looks different from how people think I am, based on what they perceive as my personality, the way I act in the world. Maybe it’s similar to what happens with actors or comedians, where someone who’s really depressed and introverted will go on the stage and be really funny, or extremely theatrical. In a way, your work can be an alter ego, reflecting a part of your persona.
Fine: The first thing that comes to mind is how people used to say to me: “Oh, your work is so happy, the colors are so cheerful, you must be such a happy person!” That went on from age 20 until about 40, and I found that so strange. Originally, I took it as an insult, and then as I got older, I could accept it as a compliment, but it still made me feel generally uncomfortable. That wasn’t really who I was. I come out of a tradition where the ultimate compliment is for someone to say that the work is exactly you, and though I don’t think that needs to be true, that’s something that makes me feel really fulfilled as an artist—to have people see this range of emotion in the work that reminds them of how I actually am. I guess that’s the opposite of taking on a different persona.
Esber: There’s this impulse that’s very deep-seated in me since childhood. I come from a really rigid up bringing in terms of keeping order and discipline, and I think that a lot of my artwork has to do with trying to upend notions of what’s proper, and what can be said in public. When I was a kid I had a tendency to put water glasses at the edge of a table, and I did it over and over again, and it absolutely drove my parents crazy, but it was my way of annoying them. I think I have that tendency in my work to scratch the blackboard a little bit with my fingernails, and to make myself and whoever is looking at my work feel a little uncomfortable.
Fine: Recently we were at a birthday party for a six-year-old, a friend of our son, talking to his dad, whom we’d just gotten to know. He introduced us to another father, and this guy was joking about how it’s just the best life to be an artist, and we said, “Well, it can seem that way, but we’re so completely full of self-loathing.” It went into this funny riff that, “the problem with two artists married to each other is that there’s so much self-loathing in the relationship, you basically convince each other of how worthy you are of being loathed. But at least your failure is something you can agree on!”
Rail: I understand that, though it’s a little distressing to hear, being in a new relationship, each of us wrestling with big projects.
Esber: It’s interesting though, how little each of us are bothered by the other person’s mood swings in terms of the work. I think that we’ve just come to accept the fact that it’s a natural state to loathe oneself.
Fine: But you know what? This has been an incredibly nice thing for us to do together. We both have the capacity to be full of so much self-doubt in the studio. When I teach I say to students that an artist needs to have the perfect balance of self-confidence and self-doubt, but in doing this project, we have been so positive about what the other one has done.
Esber: One of the nice things about collaborating is that you don’t have to take complete responsibility for how awkward and ugly and embarrassing something is. It’s almost like gratitude, or relief, that the other person can make sense of what you did, or can veil the aspects of your work that make you most uncomfortable. If you do something, there are parts of it that are really kind of embarrassing, and you know they’re insufficient in some way, but the other person has a way of making that into something.
Fine: We were saying before that the drawings start out as a provocation: “I set this up, and what the hell is James going to do with it?” But really, ultimately, it’s a way to change your own work, to say “Here, I’m doing something I’ve never done before, what would be a way out of it? I’m going to use him to find a way out, so in the future I have this new arsenal of possibilities.”
Esber: I had an idea that we should take one of the drawings and basically recreate it, and Jane should redraw my part of the drawing and I redraw her part.
Rail: That’s a great idea.
Esber: But Jane doesn’t want to do it, and I’m curious why she didn’t want to do it.
Fine: I was open to it, I just wasn’t really…
Esber: …because I would love to redraw what you did, kind of be you, and be what I would consider a better version of you. [laughter]
Fine: Yeah, yeah, I know.
Esber: It would allow me to add a lot of Jane’s vocabulary to mine.
Rail: Have you looked at how other artists’ attempt at collaboration?
Fine: Not so much, other than looking at some exquisite corpses. Are there any Leon Golub and Nancy Spero collaborative drawings anywhere?
Rail: I was wondering about that too. I know they had shown together quite a bit, and I suspect that they tried it at some point, but I don’t know if anything ever got out into the world. At any rate, you have distinctive personas as artists and as people; that would be something very powerful if those separate identities ever collapsed.
Fine: I was really interested in part of the subject matter of the whole project being the edge between one person’s touch and the other. While James was probably thinking about how to make pictorial spaces interesting, I was thinking more about how to create excitement on the borders. With the striped muscle man drawing, there is a weaving together at the intersection; and this one [“Mishap”], when I gave it to him, had a zig-zag, almost like the edge of a building…and this edge [“Double Feature”] was made by James painting out part of one of his old drawings. Essentially, a relationship just has so many parts to it, and sometimes it’s really combative, and other times really romantic, and sometimes calm. I wanted to make as many kinds of edges as there are aspects of our relationship.
Rail: One thing you both share in your separate artmaking is an attraction to, and poking fun at, monuments, as both forms and as ideas—more specifically, the pomposity and drummed-up sense of ceremony that often goes with them. The Statue of Liberty in “Wretched Refuse,” again, would be the most obvious example of that, but I think even the muscle man in “Guys Walk into a Bar” is made into something of a monument as well.
Fine: [Pointing to a new work of her own dominated by a thrusting obelisk form] With the start of this painting that I haven’t been able to get back to for months, that to me is the big monument.
Rail: Yeah, that one has a bit of Ratner to it, downtown Brooklyn. So you’re both working on your own separate paintings throughout this collaborative process?
Esber: When you have a kid, you learn how to pick up things and put them down again, work for shorter periods of time. We don’t have the luxury of being obsessed, with working on one thing over a long period.
Rail: That reminds me of what Raymond Carver once wrote—that having kids was a major determinant to how his work and career took shape. He could never seriously think about writing a novel, but instead stuck to the short story form.
Esber: When you look at this project overall, this idea of picking things up and putting them down again has allowed each of us the luxury of distance—we’re not having to work on something continuously. You put it down for a couple weeks and suddenly look at it, and see what you need to do. It’s expedited some of the problem-solving process.
Fine: That’s actually very true. I know so many painters who say, “I know the best thing to do is to put something aside for a month and then I’ll see it more clearly, but I just can’t force myself to do it!” The collaborative process creates a forced separation from the drawings.
Rail: Well, this conversation makes me feel a bit like Bob Eubanks, except that I’m not necessarily dealing with newlyweds—no, not by a long shot!
Esber: When are you going to ask about making whoopee? These drawings are like making whoopee, you know.
Rail: Hmmm, we may have a title here…