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The art and design of Jacques Jarrige
Portrait of Jacques Jarrige.

By: Claudia Steinberg

NEW YORK, NY.- Q: You grew up with art all around you - what is the most vivid reaction that you recall from your childhood to a specific work of art?

Having great art on the wall seemed just natural to me. Art was vital to my father and his first wife had an art gallery - she discovered in Paris the Japanese artist Tsugouharu Foujita, among others. My father became very involved in every aspect of her work: the acquisitions as well as building relationships with the artists. Having great art on the wall seemed just natural to me.

My first emotions were triggered by sculpture. When I was a teenager, there were a lot of galleries showing African art in my neighborhood of St Germain des Près and I found the sculptures striking: how could such seemingly simple objects emanate so much power? The immediacy of their depiction had something unsettling.

But my most vivid reaction to art - an emotional shock, really - came from the sculptures of Henry Moore. The pieces I did for my second exhibition at Les Barbares - Leda and the Toro coffee table - echoed the work of Moore, but also that of Arp, Noll, and Nakashima. These artists first guided me but then I realized that I had actually developed my own vocabulary. It had taken me a while to mature artistically.

Q: Alexandre Noll has been mentioned as one of your influences - what has inspired you in his work, and where do you feel related?

I saw the work of Noll at antique dealers in my neighborhood and - as with Moore, Calder, Nakashima, and Arp - in his work I found the same power in his work as in that of the African sculptures which had such an impact on me earlier: there is no apparent virtuosity, it all seems done with such simplicity but at the same time his work has perfect balance - it breathes. And Noll's issue - like Calder's - was less to invent new objects than to investigate their relationship to space.

Q: Can you elaborate on the artistic milieu of "En Attendant les Barbares", and how it influenced your work?

The artists at Les Barbares were all sculptors, and we made our discoveries by going directly into production. I felt particularly close to the work of Eric Schmitt. We had the same approach: the work was our means of expressing our deeper self - what mattered to us was the gesture, its immediacy. Garouste and Bonnetti , on the other hand, were more concerned with developing collections around concepts based either on color or on certain materials, such as straw.

Q: Your works show that they are made by hand, and they distinguish themselves through a slightly tremulous line far from the industrial hard edge - how do materials and tools define your esthetic?

I work with simple materials and small hand tools. Originally this approach came of necessity because I couldn't afford anything else. At the same time I chose neutral and versatile materials like MDF (medium-density fiberboard) and brass - and even bronze, which acquires its value mainly through the work in the foundry. These poor materials have allowed me a kind of freedom in expressing my personal gesture. And the simplicity and directness of my work is what keeps it true.

Working with people at the psychiatric hospital has given you an appreciation for an inexact, tentative contour - what attracted you to such subtle awkwardness, especially in light of the dominance of the industrially manufactured world?

A friend of mine had exhibited at the hospital and she introduced me to the director who suggested that I should start this workshop.

The most striking thing about these patients is that they are not in control of things. As for myself, I have always welcomed things just coming to me. The patients find themselves in a permanent position of non-mastery, unfortunately. But in a way I could relate that to my own approach - I don’t make plans and I don't try to master things. If you insist on a position of control, I believe, you end up wearing blinders.

The industrially manufactured world, on the other hand, is all about control, and if you engage in it, you have to deal with fashion, with external specifications.

Q: What has the work meant to these patients? Do they also bring in their own special gifts?

Since we started this latest series - beginning with small mobiles and progressing to bigger ones - and then the Meander cabinet and now the new secretary, I have had 100 sessions with more or less the same group, so I really know them well. Everyone has blossomed, and that in turn gives me energy. The sense of accomplishment is key. I'm thinking of one woman in particular who had once worked in the fashion industry - she had such freedom and audacity. Equally memorable was this guy from the Antilles - when he saw the big mobile put together and on exhibit he couldn’t get over the fact that he had participated in the creation of this piece: it was both his work and, very importantly, the work of the group - a unique object that we had made together. The shared effort is very grounding. It relates to a socialization process that I experience when others see and appreciate my work, when it touches them.

Q: Can you talk about your sense of balance in your work - not just in regard to the kinetic pieces but also in your static ones?

The balance - in the mobiles as well as in the static pieces - results from the presence of a gesture. I seek to give movement and energy to a piece so one won't tire of looking at it. I want to achieve something that is not “arrested” or limited by its form but something that breathes. That's what retains the viewer's attention in Le Secrétaire or the Meander cabinet something retains the viewer's attention.

Q: You have called your pieces functional sculptures - what is the function of the screen, for example? Rather than serving as a portable wall, it seems to divide a space more symbolically.

When I said that function doesn’t interest me - that's only half true: I make a chair I, want to be able to sit on it, of course: it will be stable but that's not the goal I'm thinking about when I make it. The screen is part of the evolution of my work, it came out of the Meanders which began with the mobiles. I was not thinking about the function of a screen the way an architect or designer would conceptualize it. Instead the piece developed into an architectural performance of structuring the space. It was not planned.

Q: What did your background as an artist give you that a designer couldn't have?

For a brief time I had studied at a decorative art school in Paris and learned to channel my interest in sculpture into furniture making. I learned through discovery. All my brothers are scientists, so going to a decorative art school probably seemed more in keeping with their serious pursuits than attending a fine art school like Le Beaux Arts.

I believe that the lack of traditional training made me more open minded - I found answers to many design questions just by working with the material. I'm not limited by the vocabulary learned at a specific school. Neither am I motivated to produce “collections,” or something that is simply beautiful, elegant, chic, and seductive: I want the gesture to be the soul of the piece. However, design almost erases the gesture, and it generally doesn’t create emotion beyond its functionality. But that's been my desire from the very beginning: to express and create emotion. Furniture has proven a surprisingly useful vehicle to fulfill that desire. La Secretaire is a desk but it also points to an experience one can have with space, something more mysterious.

Q: Where do you find the emotion?

I am interested in movement. When I'm on the beach, I am always building sculptures with drift wood, and I have often incorporated found wood in my work. Eventually the sculptures evolved and I discovered my original vocabulary for the big mobiles. Those gestures entered into various pieces of furniture, and I keep exploring the possibilities of that vocabulary. The Meanders are all about a gesture that is controlled and turned loose at the same time.

Can you talk about the tension between simple wood and perfect lacquer, about these two esthetic worlds colliding and creating an unusual hybrid?

Lacquer is very tactile, and that makes it interesting to me. It integrates well with my work because its application is not mechanical. I use a patina on the MDF to give that modest material a certain nobility, and the combination of these two elements results in a more charged identity. I also started hammering the Fiori chandelier by hand because the markings emphasize the gesture and make it more vivid.

I once hand-silvered a Fiori chandelier for a client, and I have produced work in expensive woods but generally that's not my focus. To me, plain plywood is as valuable as a lacquered piece or solid oak. It is not the material what gives a piece its power.

I prefer La Secrétaire in plain plywood because the simple material has its own noblesse. Because of its flexibility plywood is also technically more appropriate than solid wood in this case. Oak would have constrained the gesture. It could be lacquered but that would be nothing more than an anecdote, not essential.

Plywood was also the preferred material of post-war modernism, inexpensive, versatile - the opposite of the precious woods someone like Noll would use - its modesty lends naked plywood the aura of arte povera, but at the same time it represents a sort of compromised nature.

Its low cost and versatility make it very attractive. I also use a lot of medium density fiberboard, which was popular with many designers in the 80s when it was considered new and modern. I have kind of hijacked the material to suit my own needs by layering pieces of MDF and then shaping them into a sculpture. I started out with iron but it was never quite right for me, and then I discovered MDF. It brought me a mix between Moore and Noll. My first cabinets involved a lot of sculpting.

Artists use materials that capture what they want to express: Nakashima made furniture atypical for Japanese culture but he captured its traditional essence by using an exalted material that almost came before the form.

We all engage in a dialogue with the materials we use; that is true for Noll as well as Nakashima. One uses exotic woods, the other uses massive pieces, but in each case there is a struggle between the material and the artist. They find what is inherent in the material. And all of us approach our materials intuitively first, and only then begin exploring. With Nakashima there is this tension between the raw wood and what he does to it - the balance between the two is the most important aspect of his work. It’s amusing to me that some people call it the work of a lumberjack when in reality it’s incredibly refined, everything but the work of a lumberjack. There is something shared between the material and him. He didn’t try to create a refined work - he is refined and it shows in his work.

Allowing for so much negative space in your work could almost be considered a form of luxury, since you only use a very small part of your material.

The passage from drawing to cutout is interesting because there is no emptiness in the two-dimensional drawing. Only when cutting the holes do the lines become legible as positive spaces.

I remember the teacher for life drawing at architecture school explaining to us that we shouldn’t try to draw the contours of the body but the negative spaces between the legs or the arms when the hands rest on the hip, for example. You always have to negotiate the connection with the negative space in order to succeed. The same with sculpture: you look for the vibration that inevitably exists between positive and negative. The line can be tense but you need the negative to be as present as the positive.

When you take the screens, it is striking to discover the balance by just focusing on the negative spaces. I wanted the positive line to be equally present. In the drawing with the farandoles you can guess the body shapes but my challenge was to make the negative and positive perform together.

For the suspension pieces I had to find that balance while I was making them.
The same is true for the Meander cabinet - it was important to make the empty planes as interesting as the meandering lines. It sounds as if I had planned it all out but in reality I figured it out while making it.

Q: Your metal chandeliers, on the other hand, create no waste whatsoever, since you use up the entire sheet.

I didn’t begin Fiori with the decision that I should use the entire sheet but when I made the first one I noticed that I hadn't eliminated anything. As a matter of fact, I spontaneously discovered the plant's logic by intuitively working my way from the large branches to the smaller ones.

Q: Many of your recent designs have rather explicitly zoomorphic references - can you talk about your relationship to animals in the context of your work? Do you use them as an emotional touchstone?

Like Moore, I actually feel closest to the human body - Arp and Brancusi departed from it. Animals possess the same basic logic that I seek for my objects: just a body on the ground. I am interested in movement that pushes off the ground. Maybe in the future I will move closer to the clouds.

Q: There are also anthropomorphic forms: one can easily read the screen like a drawing of a group of three voluptuous women standing closely together.

It was hard not to think of body shapes, of hips.

You have looked at plants through the lens of Karl Blossfeldt - the inspiration there doesn't come from nature directly, but it is filtered through someone's very formalized vision of nature.

Blossfeldt's images originally triggered my focus on plants. Now I always see the tension between negative and positive in a tree, for example. Something else could have pointed me in that direction or I could have missed it altogether, just like I could have missed African art or Moore. But instead I found what I was looking for.

My work has a lot to do with my own body - not that I could have been a dancer but I was always nimble and had a sense of balance. I believe that one naturally reproduces one's physical or mental attributes. If you take Calder - simultaneously colossal and childlike. You recognize Moore just as you recognize Arp, who was rather severe. It’s bizarre when the work doesn’t resemble the artist. Giacometti was the first Giacometti.

Q: To what degree is movement and rhythm, real and suggested, frozen in the work itself?

Even in a static piece I don't see the movement as frozen: the energy continues to interact with the environment and the eye of the viewer.

Your screens also represent a layering of lines, in a way they are actually multiple sculptures in one, depending on how you unfold them.

After a quick sketch I made a small model and folded it - that’s when I noticed that it could be read in different ways. It was a welcome surprise. I'm working on a larger one right now, which will consist of seven panels that can actually enclose a bed or a table, and it could also function as an exterior element. At first I hesitated to close the form, thinking that it should remain opened ended or maybe attached to a wall.

At one point I had imagined a room divider where the voids were filled with mirrors because they so effectively disrupt space. For yet another version I even considered shelves - like étagères - but in the end I decided against that idea.

Q: You wanted to be an architect - what has remained of that original interest, and how has it translated into your work?

I really always felt like a sculptor but I went to architectural school because spatial work interested me. However, I needed to make things. My latest body of work, the Meanders series, is more architectural than any of my previous pieces. By enclosing and dividing, it reveals a greater interest in the apprehension of space.

Generally I like to create families of objects that support each other like architectural elements, or plants in a forest: they echo one another, like shadows.

Q: Like all your fine-boned furniture, the Meander paravent leads a second life in the graphic shadows it casts on the walls and the floor - these lines give your pieces an architectural dimension by allowing them to visually occupy more space.

It is true that shadows inscribe the Meanders more deeply into the space, and they also give more reality to the piece. An object is successful if its shadows are as beautiful as itself. If the shadows don't project a convincing shape it means that something about the object is slightly poor. Shadows may reveal that it looks better from one side than another. When light passes through the object it has to extend its curves, its lines harmoniously.

Q: You began working with metal rods in the 80s, later you switched to wood - would you describe your evolution as a progression towards a more delicate, organic, even fragile esthetic?

My first body of work when I used metal rods and mirrors now reminds me more of Dali or Miro. I recognize my gesture but it is not yet accomplished. Only when I started using wood, especially MDF in my layered fashion, did I find my way so I could say to myself: I have come up with something original and meaningful.

Most often my work evolved through commissions: I consider them gifts because they propel me to make new discoveries.

In my more recent work I have become more sensitive to the interaction of line and space. I focus on creating pieces that envelop an area.

Q: How would you describe the ratio - maybe tension - between intuition and conceptualization?

I don't really create through conceptualization. Having gained more of a perspective I could now explore the Meanders series further intellectually but most likely I'll rather discover new directions in the process. What amuses me is that my work always finds its way on its own. Something completely unpredictable may influence my future work - it could be an accident or an unexpected commission, for example.

Q: Could you talk about the aging of the material with use? The naked plywood has a vulnerable feel to it, it seems a bit like a semi-industrial, semi-natural material looking for a second skin that you intentionally refuse.

Some pieces, like the mobiles or La Secrétaire are perfectly right in naked plywood, while others I'll provide with a second skin of paint, patina, or a hand-hammered texture - choices that don’t take away from the gesture but rather reinforce it.

Q: Can you say something about tenderness towards materials, mental as well as tactile?

You develop an attachment when you layer pieces of wood, when you polish it.
You feel that the sculpture was already there, as Moore put it. There is something moving about applying patina or using plywood in a new way. When I add another layer in order to join pieces it’s like creating instead a new material - a very pleasant notion. A woodworker would rather cut and create an invisible joint but I prefer to place the pieces on top of each other to extend them.

I'm drawn to the work of artists who create vibration through collages, who create a new material. I did this with MDF.

There's often a mix of tactile and mental pleasure in polishing or assembling pieces. We experience creativity on so many levels. Something happens at every stage of production, everything has the potential of becoming a major aspect of the work.
And it’s endearing to find tricks to manipulate the material.

There is a real dialogue with the material, and when you start polishing or hammering, it never fails to respond.

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The art and design of Jacques Jarrige

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