Janine Polak received a BA in Studio Art (with concentrations in Sculpture and Photography) and Economics from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art, Department of Sculpture. She has exhibited throughout the US including Scott Charmin, Houston, TX; TSA, Brooklyn; Brennan & Griffin, NYC; Essex Flowers, NYC; and has held two solo exhibitions at Sardine, Brooklyn. She has also exhibited internationally in Beijing, China, and Australia.
She currently lives and works in Queens, New York.
The way things meet, touch, interact, gesture, fold, drape, crease, press, and lean – these are the things that my work concerns itself with. Much like Richard Serra’s famous list of verbs, these actions or inactions, movements or non-movements are often the starting out point for my studio practice.
I think like a sculptor, or I think best when formally working through an engineering issue or making a material choice, but I also make prints, collages, photographs, drawings, paintings, and textual work. My recent work has primarily been intimately scaled wall-mounted sculpture, bridging a divide between the two and three-dimensional, exploring the image/object relationship. Sometimes my practice takes a lot of planning and foresight (if I’m making something like a shaped canvas), but other times it is a more immediate intuitive act and reveals itself almost instantly. My materials include plaster, fabric, ceramics, found objects, clothing and jewelry I’ve worn, and the color palette is black, graphite, white, gray, blush, gold, silver, and other bleached out or soaked-dark and de-saturated hues, suggesting age and usage.
I make things that are often at the scale of body parts or reference garments or other items people wear, like socks, wristbands, or pockets. Shaped organically, or including suggestive gestures, the pieces clearly reference the body or parts of the body. This allows for the viewer to literally and figuratively relate. The process is the opposite of personification (making the nonhuman more human) – I am taking very human emotions, gestures, or relationships and distilling them into an object, a sculpture, a frozen moment. Much like the body casts at Pompeii, preserved in a gesture, the work appears simultaneously fragile and permanent.
The work suggests the corporeal, leaving only a trace that it was once there, like handprints or wrinkled fabric. The work is intentionally quiet – I believe a gentle, stern voice is just as effective as a loud and boisterous one. By incorporating items that collect human residue, like worn clothing, shoes, or jewelry in subtle ways, I begin to hint towards a personal narrative. Formal decisions within abstracted sculptures begin to signify personalities or suggest relationships. They are quasi-portraits depicting power struggles. Do I want part A to “win” in the battle over part B? Do I want the struggle to be gentle? How bloody is the battle? Or is this one just an interplay of materials or proportions?
Abstracted hints or glimpses, or things like a wrinkle, a fold, a smudge, a rip, a tear, point to our own vulnerability as people, our own failures and shortcomings – or more intensely, our own humanity. They remind us of and quietly poke fun at our own vulnerability, embarrassment, and fear. The objects or images I make tend to look clean and austere upon first glance, yet there lies beneath more grit, something a little more stained, a little less perfect, pretty, and pristine. I employ a subtle humor, maintaining the formal rigor without becoming cold and perfect, ghostly without spook. Quiet, still, but exposed and sensitive, I see each piece as a word or phrase, part of an ongoing visual poetry.
Q&A with Janine Polak
Questions by Jo Megas
Is drawing part of your preparatory work? Could we see some sketches if so?
I make drawings, but not preparatory ones. I have notebooks full of photographs and images, both found images and ones taken by myself, of things I find formally or conceptually compelling, and I work from there.
You engaged a restricted color palette most made of whites, grays, and blacks. What do these colors signify to you? How do these relate to your interest in creating works that are intentionally quiet?
I think of my color palette as faded or somewhat de-saturated from wear and tear – from usage or from some other casualty of age. I’m interested in things that look like they were worn, sat on, or otherwise used. The colors are beautiful, soft, and seductive, and intentionally not jarring, but still intense.
Your works carry great names – “Enough to Make the Angles Weep,” “Burn the Midnight Oil,” and “Don’t Hold Your Breath,” for example. Can you tell us more about your titling process?
I used to be very afraid of titling. It seemed like such an intimidating process and was so full of pressure, but I’ve grown out of that. I often name my pieces with some sort of idiom or phrase that offers a sister interpretation, or a clue into an additional meaning, but not one that is coded or encased in mystery.
For “All Right Let’s Go,” where did you find the object that you began with? What process has it undergone to become the shape we now see today?
“All Right Let’s Go” is made from balled up socks, and through a specific process, is turned into porcelain. First, I take a natural fabric (in this case, cotton socks) and massage porcelain slip into the fabric, really getting the clay deep into the fibers. I then arrange the socks (here, by balling them up) and let them dry, sometimes taking two weeks to fully dry. During the bisque firing in the kiln, the fabric burns away to ash, leaving just a porcelain shell in its place. I then glaze the piece and re-fire in a gas kiln at a very high temperature.
What interests you about socks?
I could talk about socks all day. I love that they are so stupid and silly and genuinely funny. I love that they are gross – they’re on our stinky feet all day, taking abuse, stuffed inside our shoes or getting stained by our dirty floors. I love that they come in pairs, referencing the duality/symmetry in our bodies, but also the expected pairing/coupling off of humans. They get lost in the wash. They Different types of socks can reference a masculine or erotic energy. They are somehow underwear, but not like panties are. They are foundational: bad or stretched out socks, or a hole in the toe, can ruin my day, and a good pair give such comfort. We fit inside them. I think they’re a perfect proxy for us.
When you use found materials, do they tend to come from the same sources?
No, not at all. For example, the socks come from a lot of different places. Some of them are from the lost and found at the laundromat, some are given to me by friends or students, some of them were from my grandfather who passed away last year, lots of them are old socks of mine, and some are purchased. I like the democratic and universal quality of culling my materials from different people and from different lives, and not being specific or precious about where they were before they came to me.
I was struck by your apt description of your work as “ghostly without spook.” Do you feel like the past life of the objects you incorporate into your pieces is mostly eradicated?
Quite the opposite. Although the specifics of who gave them to me or where I found them may be obscured or veiled, these objects or fabrics bring with them their past lives. I’m interested in freezing the gesture or residue of an old shirt cuff or sleeve, or a worn pocket. One of the most resonant images for me is of the “frozen” bodies from Pompeii, locked in each other’s arms, preserved in a gesture. Even though we don’t personally know those people from Pompeii, we have this palpable understanding of an embrace and all that it entails. That’s empathy. I don’t want to eradicate my objects’ past lives; I do want to offer a shared or common vision or experience by making them into something someone might recognize as their own.
Was there a class that really stands out in your memory as a major influence during your time earning your MFA at Yale’s Sculpture Department?
Pretty much everything Jessica Stockholder and Jim Hodges said during my time at Yale remains with me. They were both so very “present” during critiques or during one-on-one meetings. Once, when someone was describing my work as too feminine because it referenced domestic spaces, Jessica responded by asking, “Why is the domestic still feminine?? Don’t men live in houses?!” I thought that was so great. I also took a “drawing materials and techniques” class where we made our own pastels and ink, and experimented with things like silverpoint. It really helped confirm a love for playing with various methods and materials.
What is a typical day in your studio like?
It really varies from day to day. I teach at a college full time, so summer and breaks allow me much more uninterrupted time. I have a live/work situation, so I can be in the studio most days, even if for a very short time. My studio is really clean; I can’t focus with too much clutter or mess, and I spend a lot of time looking and thinking. I also go to a ceramics studio in the West Village at least once a week to work on the porcelain pieces; it’s been nice to work in a group setting, talking while we work, since most of my other studio time is very solitary.
Do you feel like the view out the window from your studio influences decisions you make about your work?
I get a lot of light in my place; that’s very important to me, and my view contains a lot of sky. But I do live in New York, so the “view” also contains lots of people and lots of sounds. I can hear people outside all day. I hear them talking to each other, screaming into their phones, or arguing on the corner. Why do New Yorkers scream on the street so much? The relationships I witness probably do influence decisions I make, in terms of how elements interact within my pieces, or how different parts come together.
Do you wear headphones when you are working on a piece? What kinds of things do you like to hear while in the studio?
I hardly ever wear headphones in the studio; I feel kind of claustrophobic and blocked off when I wear them while working. However, I do listen to a LOT straight out of the phone/speaker or on the radio while I work. My radio switches back and forth between Hot 97 and NPR/WNYC. But the news has been maddening lately, as we all know, and I’m trying to find that balance we’re all searching for between staying informed and being immersed/obsessed. If it’s music, it’s some mix of Motown, early Hip Hop, and old Country. But I’ve also been listening to lots of podcasts… too many to list here, several hours a day, lately in the true crime genre.
What is a work of art that you found compelling that you have seen recently?
Last year, I saw some of the David Hammons’ body prints that I hadn’t seen before at Mnuchin Gallery. I get chills each time I see a different one, and I could nearly cry from the beauty and agony. I’m not sure it gets any better than Hammons.
Do you have any news, shows, or residencies coming up that you would like to share with us?
I have a poster and some work in a zine coming out next weekend at the BABZ book fair with Black Cat Journal. I’ll also be spending a lot of time in a printmaking shop this summer working on two different print projects.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Janine and her work, check out her website.