Her father was a sculptor as was her maternal grandmother. British-born, she graduated from Pittsburg’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), and Andy Warhol gave her her first exhibition; she is best known for monumental sculptures honed from whole trees; for her upcoming exhibition at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, she is taking her sculpture in a new direction: she is octogenarian Gillian Jagger.
Gillian Jagger may be a formidable artist but she is not a formidable woman. She is passionate about art and its transformative possibilities but she eschews any and all artworld branding, categories, jargon, and overblown egos; to escape this was the primary reason she fled New York City for upstate tranquility in 1978. I visited her recently at her 20 acre farm between Accord and Kerhonkson, and was greeted on arrival by the small figures of the artist and her partner Consuelo (Connie) Mander waving gaily from the hill on which their home is perched. This delightful welcome was a harbinger of the rest of the afternoon. It doesn’t take long to discover that the love and respect for all nature’s creatures, including the bats with which the artist shares a barn/studio, are the code these women live by. Even as Jagger was showing me her enormous sculptures made from mostly fallen or dead trees – rescues – she regretted the need to fumigate them against wood-worm and other wood-munching bugs, but that is also nature’s way – to preserve the wood, the bugs have to go.
Since the mid-eighties Jagger has been bringing trees into her studio and exploring their kinship to other elements in nature including animals and, also, how they may be reflections of us humans. The particular tree will most often suggest the direction of the work. Some pieces have had very little alteration having come to her already shaped by their own development and the forces of nature or, more accurately, the artist sees the expression inherent in the trees, and works to bring that expression to the fore. One such is Te (1992), a sculpture that exudes such pathos that Rodin might well have been happy to be associated with it. In another piece she “undressed” the tree by opening up the bark and in yet another, the tree itself was opened to reveal its age, texture, and color.
Jagger has a deep concern for the mistreatment of animals, the horrors of the factory farm and the cruelty of abattoirs. These concerns come together in many of her tree sculptures; pieces suspended by chains that have become part of their identity; it is hard not to draw an analogy between these trees as captives, or slaves, or meat – some are like cattle hung upside down prepared to be gutted in the abattoir. In another thread, she has pieces that are more installation than single sculptural piece but deal with the same or related themes. In the piece entitled Rift (1999), wooden stanchions designed to control and hold cattle in cow-sheds, barbed wire, bone, a mummified cat, and stone are combined into a fearsome dance or duel.
She often uses dead animals in her work; animals that died of natural causes and are preserved through natural mummification. Another example, the wonderful Matrice (1997 – 98), includes a deer found by the roadside – this deer is also the subject of a number of exquisite drawings. Since it would never occur to her to sacrifice an animal for art, she is appalled by artists such as Damien Hirst who use the corpses of slaughtered animals to illustrate an idea. Hirst claims to have only used animals already condemned to death – animals diverted from the food chain (although not true for the two tiger sharks that were fished to illustrate the title and concept, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”). Jagger’s way would be to take the animal home, feed and shelter it into old age and, eventually, when it died of natural causes, to commemorate its life in art. She is the anti-Damien Hirst.
Jagger studied painting at Carnegie Tech graduating in 1953 into the moment when Abstract Expressionism had become establishment. Inevitable the philosophy and art theory of the time influenced her work, particularly the emphasis on process and improvisation although, interestingly, her mentor at Carnegie Tech, Balcomb Greene (1904 – 1990), had rejected pure abstraction and was part of the New York Figurative Expressionism movement in the 1950s. Perhaps it is Greene’s early influence that has kept her attachment to expressive representational art alive – certainly where drawing is concerned. But soon after graduation Jagger found herself drawn to sculpture. Within a couple of years, to Jagger’s consternation, she found herself claimed by the emerging Pop Art movement, and hailed as a Pop Artist by the media. As she despised Pop Art’s love affair with consumer culture, this was a description at which she balked and, as a result, was accused of “running away from success.” Regardless of her enduring appreciation for her old friend and fellow Carnegie Tech alumnus, Andy Warhol, who enabled her first exhibition, being privy to this heartfelt dilemma of the wood versus the bugs makes unambiguous the extent to which this woman was not and could never be a Pop artist. She was placed among that cadre because of her interest in making plaster casts of manholes and truck tire prints in mud.
As Jagger put it, “The Pop artists were interested in the new bright yellow paint on the truck whereas she was only interested in the impression – the literal impact – the truck made in the earth as it passed by.” Interested in much the same way our paleolithic ancestors were interested in the contours a glacier left behind in a cave and found in those natural shapes likenesses, or symbols, of the creatures with which they shared the forests and plains of their habitat. Her appropriation of manholes was neither based on an interest in the surface of the manhole for its own sake, nor for its ubiquity, nor for its connection to the expansion of our modern consumerist society. She was interested in its actual purpose: that of a portal into a hidden underworld to which few of us are privy.
Her work has much more in common with the late 1960’s generation of “Earth Artists.” It has been said that it is hard to imagine her later sculptures without the investigations of artists like Robert Smithson, but Jagger’s work foreshadowed Smithson by a number of years. Her natural affinity with what were also among the concerns of Feminist Art, emphasis on empathy with the earth and its broader populations, became the heart of her art and her inquiry. She continues to seek the connection between wood, stone, animal, and human. In her artist’s statement, she stresses that her work “tries to speak as part of something already existing, not as a product or something ‘I made up’.”Jagger’s search has brought her far and wide, from Kenya’s volcanic landscape to the Burren region of Ireland hauling a favorite casting material, sodium alginate – usually employed for making dental casts – where she has taken impressions of everything from dead animals to the surface of the earth itself, and even water. Many of these castings have been recreated as enormous installations Jagger calls “land flows,” and thanks to the five barns converted into studios at her disposal on the farm, they are not only housed, but assembled. She has long been devoted to prehistoric art and her travels have brought her into contact with that – on her visit to the Burren in the west of Ireland, she came across two elements that fascinate her: an unusual landscape from which to take casts, and prehistoric structures. The Burren is one the largest Karst (limestone) landscapes in Europe and it is also home to over 90 megalithic tombs. In a recent talk and PowerPoint presentation she gave at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan, she introduced her work with a dolmen (or Portal Tomb) from Ireland.
A dolmen usually consists of between two and four standing stones topped with a capstone – the latter can weigh many tons. Originally they were covered with earth and are in fact the skeletons of cairns. Many of these ancient monuments, between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, align with the sun at key times of the year – two great examples are Brú na Bóinne (the Palace of the Boyne) in Ireland and, of course, Stonehenge in England. The most significant of the 40 cairns in the Brú na Bóinne complex is Newgrange. A small opening over the entrance to Newgrange is aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice at which time light floods the interior chamber – Stonehenge, albeit a good deal younger, is aligned with the rising sun at the summer solstice. There is no agreement as to why the cairn at Newgrange was built, including whether it was or was not for a grave, but it is clear that these early designers had a very precise understanding of astronomy and, most likely, were sun worshippers. In 1993 Jagger created her own monument to the sun at Rockland County Community College, the piece is entitled Gnomon, which means “sundial” in Greek, and consists of four Paleozoic slabs of limestone which have been cut into two vertical, triangular shapes, 11 feet high by 5 feet wide. The placement of the stones forms an opening in the shape of a “V” and is perfectly aligned with the setting sun at the Winter Solstice.
At the time it was made, the artist said, “It’s like a connection through time, like touching one’s own mortality.” In this and other works she is trying to commune not just with nature but with those forebears of ours who first thought to harness the sun’s light to create art and, in more recent work, those even earlier art-makers who traced the shapes of bison and horses and, indeed, their own hands on the walls of caves such as Lascaux and Altamira millennia ago. The place that has had the deepest impact on Jagger is L’Abri de Cap Blanc in the Dordogne region of France, not far from Lascaux.
L’Abri de Cap Blanc is a limestone rock shelter —“abri” translates as shelter — and the site of one of the finest sculptured friezes to survive the last Ice Age, first unearthed in 1909, and currently the best that remains open to the public. The friezes, which are sculpted in both low and high relief, are of deer, bison, and horses. Also discovered in the rock shelter were the skeleton remains of a young woman thought to have been the creator, or one of the creators, of the sculptures. The bones are of the period of the artwork, between 15 and 17,000 thousand years ago, and were found purposely buried close to the central figure of a horse, so her connection to the work is undisputed. Coincidentally, the period in question is known as the Magdalenian — it refers to one of the later cultures of the Upper Paleolithic in Western Europe, so the skeleton is known as Magdalenian Woman. Incidentally, the skeleton in the shelter at Le Cap Blanc is a facsimile of the original; that is in the care of the Field Museum of Chicago.
So entranced was Jagger by what she found there, the power and the sensitivity with which these animals had been carved, that she remained in the Cap Blanc rock shelter for two days. For Jagger, Magdalenian Woman is a kind of spiritual forebear and, in fact, she may be the first female artist in history that we can identify; how interesting that, if so, she was a sculptor. Furthermore, she was a sculptor of horses, also a great love of Gillian Jagger’s. When she and Connie Mander relocated from New York City to their farm in the Hudson Valley, they also made it a refuge for a various beleaguered cows and horses, three of the latter are still there. One favorite horse was Faith, loved so much that when Faith died in 2000, Jagger made plaster casts of her that resulted in a wonderfully haunting installation piece entitled Absence of Faith.
The Magdalenian sculptures at Cap Blanc, which Jagger visited last year, are the inspiration behind the new show of work, And Then, And Now: New Work From The Cave, that is about to open at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson (details below). The work includes enormous drawings of animals in the same yellow color that had been used at the shelter. She also wanted to make a sculpture but felt that her usual materials were not right – to make something from wood or lead (another material she has explored in her work) felt too heavy and corporeal, and neither did she feel that it was appropriate to emulate the technique used in the shelter. As her primary motivation was to commune, “to reach back 17,000 years in time and space,” to this prehistoric artist, she felt she needed to use a very light material. Her solution is the titular piece of the exhibition And Then, And Now – it is an extraordinary installation made from wires. Loosely working from one of the initial drawings she created on her return from France, a drawing of a fallen bull, she made some rudimentary frame works of various sections of the body from chicken wire. These she joined together and filled out using electrical wire in various colors: red, blue and green. The result is of a figure stripped of all flesh and bone, but held together by blood vessels, veins, and nerves – a drawing in air. She has kept the horns, indicating them with curves of copper pipe. Why copper? With its remarkable capacity for conducting electricity, was she thinking antennae? In the studio, where I saw it, the installation casts a wonderful shadow on the walls. The shadow fills out the form like the ghost of what was there. The whole piece contains enormous energy and gives a sense of joyous dance – the fallen beast arisen.
We live in an age where youth is worshipped and age often, at best, dismissed. Recently, due to cut-backs in education budgets, older school teachers were scapegoated as “dead wood” to be brushed aside to make way for their younger (and cheaper) counterparts; little or no quarter being given for the accumulation of experience or the deeper knowledge of subjects. The artworld is no less susceptible to the seduction — the urgency — of youth; it is no longer uncommon for particular art students to be hurled onto the main stage before the paint is dry on their thesis canvases. With her eighty-third birthday approaching, I could not but broach the subject of age. On the ride back from the “Big Barn” which houses some of the largest installations, I asked Jagger if she felt a waning of energy and inspiration. “The opposite,” was her response. If anything, she said, she felt more driven than ever. Possibly, she conceded, because she was conscious that time was limited — age has its own urgency. Yes, she does rely more on assistants but, she said, she lives by her winches and pulleys and so can still manage a lot of heavy lifting by herself. And in case anyone thinks that this most recent work — light and airy as it is — is a concession to age, the last thing Gillian Jagger confided to me that day as we careened along the twisty country road in her truck, was a plan she has for a large tree near the Saugerties light house. I left her musing over the logistics of getting it from there to here because, thirty years her junior or not, I needed a nap.
Unless otherwise noted, photographs are courtesy of the artist.
Featured image; And Then, And Now, Gillian Jagger. Photo by Donna Calcavecchio
For more on Gillian Jagger, see her website: gillianjagger.com
Gillian Jagger: And Then, And Now: New Work From The Cave
October 12 — November 3, 2013 at John Davis Gallery
362½ Warren St., Hudson, NY 12534
Opening Reception — October 12, 6 — 8 pm.
For more information: 518 – 832-5907 or johndavisgallery.com
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.