In Conversation with Rachel Nackman
New York, March 2012
Rachel Nackman: Seriality has been a very important part of your work for many years. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of that part of your practice?
Jill O’Bryan: I started out as a painter. First, out in the landscape, learning how to see, and then later the paintings became an immersion in the process and the pigments—pushing paint, as it were. This was an intuitive, sensual process, and I was really in love with it. My relationship to art making changed when I began studying philosophy and contemporary art theory. I became intrigued with the notion of truth as a variable—for example, linguistically, that there exists a slippage of meaning between the signifier and the signified, which makes it impossible to accurately represent the self. I experienced these ideas as beautiful and powerful poetries of complexity, and I used them as a schematic to write a book about the artist Orlan as my doctoral dissertation, hypothesizing that her continuously shifting identity was a radical political means to undermine fixed perceptions of identity.
During this time I started doing writing exercises with pencils, to experience language, viscerally and visually, and to feel its relationship to the body. These exercises led me to understand writing as a performed geometry, and I began a series of paintings that mimicked this movement. They were made with painted paper, ripped into small pieces and then sewn together, left to right and top to bottom.
When I finally finished the PhD, I went into my studio, put up a big piece of white paper, and stared at it for weeks. I thought: “Okay, the thing that’s weighed the most heavily on me for so long has been this book. So I’ll erase my book; I’ll just go backwards.” I started making marks on that large sheet of paper—one mark on top of each imagined letter, left to right and top to bottom. I took great pleasure in approaching the book’s text letter by letter instead of word by word. It broke the text into its most minimal way of being—and nonbeing.
Every day in my studio I made a few marks—for several hours or maybe just five minutes. I never thought 40,000 Breaths (2000-5; fig. 1) would become a finished drawing. It was a process, a way to be in my studio. While making it, I felt an enormous freedom that had to do with presence, with just being there with minimal materials—a pencil and a piece of paper. I discovered that this activity also had a rhythm that correlated with breathing. So I started counting my breaths as I was drawing—archiving breaths.
RN: And this was the first of the Breaths drawings?
JO: This was the first. Wynn spotted it before it was finished and told me he liked it. I worked on it constantly after that, and (as he tells the story) nine months later I brought it to him. [Laughter.]
RN: Yes, he likes that story. Can you tell us about the precursors to 40,000 Breaths?
JO: They were large monochromatic paintings made by dyeing, painting, or pounding pigment into wax paper that I then ripped into small rectangles so that I could rearrange them and sew them back together again. I used glue and other types of medium. Some areas are translucent, and in other areas powdered pigment sits on the surface. I discovered an obsession with putting together lots of little things to make a large finished piece.
RN: So they’re really worked objects.
RN: You were working on those pieces during graduate school. Was that a sort of physical escape for you, a separate task from the theoretical work that you were also doing on a daily basis?
JO: It absolutely was. The visceral activity of making paintings offset the theoretical research—it created a balance. These paintings were about seriality but also pigment and translucency.
RN: Do you feel that the connection between art theory and your work as an artist really began with 40,000 Breaths?
JO: Yes. I’d been having a bit of a rebellion within myself, a struggle to conceptually bring together the artwork and the writing. 40,000 Breaths was initially an imitation of the act of writing, or rather a negation of it. I was blacking it out. But I was also clearing my mind.
RN: The writing exercises, which you mentioned starting while working on your dissertation, before you began 40,000 Breaths—were those notes? Words?
JO: Both. With a pencil I copied passages from the texts that I was reading. A close reading, if you will, with a physical quality. This helped me understand the complex ideas that I was taking in. I guess that’s the difference between an intellectual’s approach to thinking about what they’re reading and a visual artist’s approach to it.
RN: It seems almost like another form of linguistic exercise, taking what you’ve learned outside of the language in which you’ve learned it—a way to turn it around and make it something that you own.
JO: I like the way you put that. It’s a quest to own the knowledge.
RN: It’s so easy to think you understand something because you can repeat it in the language in which it’s written, but you may not be able to conceptualize it in your own language.
JO: You’re right about that. You’ve obviously experienced this firsthand.
RN: It’s interesting that those exercises preceded 40,000 Breaths, because we know that we breathe, but we don’t really know what that’s like.
JO: Making it visual, archiving it, may reveal our mortality, but it’s when you can’t breathe that you understand what it is.
RN: One of the things that I’ve noticed about the serial quality of your work is that each of the components you assemble does retain its own individual character. Is there a certain level of variability that is acceptable to you within one work?
JO: In spite of the fact that each mark has its own character, there’s an overall sameness in the marks that has to be there in order for these drawings to work. I choose a small shape and repeat it until the paper is filled up. Within the drawing there’s variability in value and texture, depending on how I hold the pencil and how hard I press. I incorporate a bit of randomness by using different pencils yielding different values, but I don’t predetermine which ones I will use . . . just whichever one I pick up out of a pile. There’s a transition that happens because of the materials used.
RN: The materials and your body.
JO: Yes. Once I centered the work within the body, I knew I would access qualities of universal experience and interconnectivity.
RN: And that universality locates itself, in part, in everyone’s being able to recognize the body-driven differentiations between the marks.
JO: At first glance the most recognizable quality might be the large amount of repetition, the amount of work invested in making the drawing. Its title links it to the body and then lodges the body in time. I’ve calculated that one breathes about 630 million breaths over one hundred years. That means that most of us will never even breathe a billion breaths.
RN: 40,000 Breaths took you five years to make—from 2000 to 2005. How much of a part of your day was this drawing? And when did it fit into your practice—as an artist but also as a person?
JO: I worked on it for a couple of months and then didn’t touch it for a couple of years, although it was always hanging in my studio. I would go to it when I was blocked, while in between pieces, when I felt lost or upset. I discovered that working on this drawing was very calming, and the process became a meditation. It became a part of my life.
I hope that I have this kind of connection to all the art I make—that it will evolve from a clear concept but also that it will be organic—from an intention that’s not necessarily to “make art.” For me, the point of departure with the most integrity is: “I’m not going to make art. I’m just doing this activity.”
RN: It’s a constant activity, and it’s a touchstone.
RN: Did you begin other Breaths drawings while you were working on 40,000?
JO: I started several. A few were successful, but I threw some away.
RN: What made those drawings unsuccessful?
JO: They felt contrived. I realized that I had to finish the first one in order to move on to the next. I can have only one going at a time.
RN: Because you have a relationship with the drawing?
JO: That’s right.
RN: It sounds like a demanding relationship but also a really supportive one.
JO: Well I can’t have an affair on the side. [Laughter.] I can make only one Breaths drawing at a time. I did have a relationship with 40,000. It wasn’t like I could’ve just finished it tomorrow. We had a thing going on.
RN: It’s such an involved and intimate process that if you don’t enjoy it I can’t imagine that you’d want to keep working on a particular drawing.
JO: Sometimes they’re problem children. Sometimes I have to force myself to work on them.
RN: When you start to make a Breaths drawing, what goals do you set? Are you looking to fill a certain sheet of paper, or are you looking to do this for a certain period of time? Or do you want to record a certain number of breaths? What’s the limiting factor?
JO: It’s a process that requires a commitment to filling a large piece of paper with tiny marks. It is sometimes difficult to begin, but once I have, I enjoy watching it evolve. There are no time constraints.
RN: What sorts of material preparations do you have to make? Do you go out and buy a load of pencils? Do you work on the floor or on the wall?
JO: I have hundreds of pencils, as you can imagine. I always work on the wall, and I adjust the position of the paper so that the marks I’m making are at eye level.
RN: That’s really interesting. So you’re not experiencing drastically different body positions while you’re working on the drawing?
JO: I focus on my breathing, and to do that I’ve found that my body has to be in a somewhat meditative mode.
RN: Does the process ever become exhausting, or do you always feel that it’s calming?
JO: I’ve always been drawn to repetition as an indicator of commitment and endurance. The Breaths drawings are as much about endurance as they are about meditation. Sometimes they are almost impossible to finish because they require such focus. I’m adamant about not just sitting there, making marks. Each mark really has to correlate to one breath, or the drawings don’t work.
RN: So they’re very honest drawings.
JO: Yes, they’re honest. That’s what gives the drawings their integrity.
Play to hear Jill O’Bryan discussing presence, rhythm, and archiving.
Play to hear Jill O’Bryan discussing the meditative process of her work.
Play to hear Jill O’Bryan discussing breath.